Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers -- appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.
Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."
But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.
Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by The New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.
Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book -- it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done -- took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.
Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.
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In the spring of 2003, Carol Shields answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life ?
When I was home sick as a child I used to take several volumes of the Encyclopedia to bed with me. We had a World Book Encyclopedia, which had quite a few pictures in color. I read the volumes randomly, browsing my way through them. I loved the hugeness of the world they confirmed for me, and the notion that that vastness could be organized and identified. You might think I would be humbled by the fact that people -- individual intelligences -- could become familiar with arcane material, but, in fact, I was deeply encouraged.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Emma by Jane Austen. This book was written at the height of Austen's powers, when she felt secure in her footing.
The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul. The subject is so complex and the approach so original, that I didn't think he'd make it to the end, but he did.
The Rabbit novels by John Updike. You might think of this as the four books it is, or you might see it as one long novel of the life of an American male in the middle of the 20th century. It is a great accomplishment, this emotional documentation of a human life and the other lives that accompany him.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner. This novel has an epic range, looking at the world sometimes through a giant telescope, then concentrating with a magnifying lens on the rambling thoughts of one particular child.
I love all the books by Alice Munro, who has given the world new ways of looking at the lives of women. She has, in fact, reinvented the shape of the short story.
Possession by A. S. Byatt captures what many novels leave out: the life of the mind and the excitement of intellectual reflection.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. This book, published in the last year, is about family, about the delicacy and strength that weaves the family into a web.
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond made me believe (for about ten minutes) that I understood how the world was made.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
I see so few films that I don't feel my comments would have any value.
I love music as background; for foreground I prefer words or else silence.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading? Sarah Hrdy's Mother Nature
Anything by Alice Munro. Her most recent books are her best.
Are You Somebody? by Nuala O'Faolain, which is a raw expression of loneliness.
Ignorance by Milan Kundera.
The four Bech books by John Updike.
Anything by Lorrie Moore. She has a rich, dark sense of humor.
Anything by Hilary Mantel, a brilliant woman.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth. He often flies by the seat of his pants, but stays aloft.
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
At the moment I am giving a small book of poetry, The Creature I Am, by the recently deceased Denise Cammiade. Her sixty poems were discovered shortly before her death in her fifties. The production values of the book make it a little gem, and there are several beautiful illustrations by Jenny Monro.
Last year I was given Richard Fortey's Trilobite: Eyewitness to the Evolution, which is science beautifully written by a scientist and humanist.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
My favorite writers, in no particular order, are: Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Bronte, Theodor Drieser, Sara Jeanette Duncan, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, John Updike, Sue Miller, Hilary Mantel, Alice Munro, Nicholson Baker, and Margaret Drabble.
All these writers pay attention to language as well as to the "aboutness" of writing. Each of them expresses that paradox -- humility and a sense of absolute certainty. Each has humor, each has hope. Only the very brave or the very imaginative can be optimists today.
What else do you want your readers to know?
My hobbies -- this is a word I never think of using -- are reading and writing (I long ago gave up the notion of being well-rounded). I also like to walk, which helps me to think better. I have no interest in yoga or meditation or attempts to clear the mind of thoughts. My thoughts are all I have.
When am I happiest? When seated at a beautifully (or simply) set table with a group of people who are smart, funny, and kind.
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|Carol Shields Home
|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Carol Shields|
|Small Ceremonies, 1976|
|The Box Garden, 1977|
|Happenstance: Two Novels in One About a Marriage In Transition, 1980|
|Various Miracles, 1985|
|The Orange Fish, 1989|
|A Celibate Season, 1991|
|Coming to Canada, 1992|
|The Republic of Love, 1992|
|The Stone Diaries, 1993|
|Larry's Party, 1997|
|Dressing Up for the Carnival, 2000|
|Jane Austen, 2000|