Quill and Quire

Carol Shields

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Carol Shields

Most people say Carol Shields has a girlish voice, but ‘ it sounds very grown up and knowing over the telephone J from her office in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. Shields is gracious, reaching across the wires to connect with yet another interviewer, but tactful and discreet, conveying as much through strategic pauses and vague silences as outright statements. Her discretion reminds me of women I know who were born before the war and raised in genteel homes in Ottawa, Victoria, and Montreal. Of her own upbringing in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where she was born in 1935, she has said: “Before I went away to college I had never spoken to a black or Asian person, never tasted garlic, and had never heard the word ‘shit’ uttered aloud. On the other hand, I knew how to write a thank you note, which occasions demanded hats and gloves, and how to conduct polite introductions.” Women like Shields have a public serenity that is deceptive, for underneath they are absorbing the unspoken sounds and shapes of conversation. If you listen carefully, you can decipher their code.

Carol ShieldsGetting under the surface is what Shields does best as a novelist. It comes from the process of writing, a task that she loves. She goes every day to her office at the university and sits in front of her Macintosh and writes from nine until five. If she finishes two pages in a day she is pleased. “It is usually a fairly finished two pages,” she says, “at least I think it is, although the next day I might think otherwise.” It would never occur to her to sit down at the beginning of a novel and write an outline or even to say what the theme is going to be because “I don’t know where it is going. Sometimes I know where it is going, but I don’t know the path.” So she creeps along and thinks about what will flow organically from what she has written that day. “I love making something like an artifact, putting it together and assembling it,” she says. Putting words on paper is her way of figuring out what she really thinks about something. She calls it “an ordering of your mind that you didn’t know was there.”

Shields is a protean and prolific writer whose body of work includes poetry, plays, essays, two collections of short stories, a master’s thesis on Susanna Moodie, a film script or two, and seven novels, including The Stone Diaries -which won the 1993 Governor General’s Award, the Prix de Lire in France, the U.S. National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize -and now the splendid and intricate Larry’s Party.

In her fiction, Shields has staked out a very particular territory: what makes a life? She likes to cover a long period in her novels because it allows her to trace the lives of her characters against a broad swath of social change as they search for goodness and meaning in their existence. It is a difficult feat, one that she does extraordinarily well in the opinion of novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe. He compares her to E.M. Forster and Willa Cather and says not many people can make you believe in goodness, decency, compassion, and feel the joy in small intimate things. “She is one of the few people who can write about these things convincingly and who can carry me along without me digging in my heels,” he says.

Much of her power comes from having lived an intensely domesticated life. Shields has been married for over 40 years to civil engineer Don Shields, now dean of engineering at University of Manitoba. Together they have raised five children, lived in Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg, and gone abroad on sabbatical in England and France.

“I didn’t write when I had children,” she says. “I didn’t store things up because I never thought I would be a writer. I was the biggest baby bore in the world,” she adds with a rueful laugh. “I was always talking about toilet training.”

Her eldest daughter Anne looked back on those years in an essay called “Reading My Mother” in a special issue of the literary journal Prairie Fire that was dedicated to Shields. Anne remembers her mother as the person “who made all the meals, did the laundry, painted the walls, and sanded and refinished old furniture” but who also found time to work or study part-time. “And yet, growing up, I never thought of her as a risk-taker, as a speaker in voices, as a humorist, or even as particularly insightful. She was all of those things, but when I was still young and living at home I failed to note them.”

Shields says she was so passionately involved in the quotidian business of family life that it took her a long time to even think about “doing a lit-de writing.” Even now when she reads the jacket copy on her books she thinks, “what an interesting life that woman has, but who is she?” When she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries she says she thought they were going to phone back and say “we made a mistake, we meant to give it to Joyce Carol Oates.”

For about a year after finishing The Stone Diaries, Shields says she didn’t know what to write next. “And then out of a discussion I was having with some of my women friends about what it means to be a man at this time in our history, I suddenly got this notion that maybe I could write about a male character. At the same time I was interested in mazes and I thought maybe I could bring these two things together.”

Larry Weller is an average guy with a quaint name. He was born smack in the middle of the country – in Winnipeg – midway through the century. He’s been muddling though life in Winnipeg, Chicago, and Toronto for 46 years now. Larry Weller is an average guy with a quaint name. He was born smack in the middle of the country – in Winnipeg – midway through the century. He’s been muddling though life in Winnipeg, Chicago, and Toronto for 46 years now. He has two ex-wives, a son named Ryan, whom he loves but rarely sees, and a live-out companion named Charlotte. “Sometimes he thinks Charlotte loves him,” Shields writes, “though he may just be reading the flickering shadow of shared boredom.” The only extraordinary thing about Larry is his occupation. He builds garden mazes for the rich and famous and has his own company called Amazing Space Inc.

How to get under Larry’s skin was a primary challenge. She didn’t want to become a male character in the way that, say, Brian Moore assumed a female persona in I Am Mary Dunne. “It’s kind of hard to get inside that male body,” Shields says. “I felt I couldn’t quite do it the way you would write about a woman.” Instead she submitted Larry to the literary equivalent of a CAT-scan x-ray. “Before I started this book,” says Shields, “I was in a hospital where I was given a tour and shown CAT-scan photographs.” She thought they were beautiful and every day when she sat down to write she called up the image of the CAT-scan machine as away of structuring her approach and then “sliced in horizontally and vertically with my machine.”

The pictures that emerge are wonderfully detailed evocations of Larry’s life from a variety of perspectives. “My voice – the narrator’s voice – is there,” she says, “and then there is his voice—his interior voice—that seeking voice, which is what I was interested in, and then there is that layer of guy talk in the middle. I thought of it like a sandwich when I was writing it.”

Writing about a man was very tricky. “I’m not at all sure I know how men think,” Shields says, “but I think I discovered a couple of things the way men compartmentalize their lives, for instance.” Work is separate from home, is separate from love. You can see this in the way Larry loves his son Ryan deeply, but from a distance, and is perfectly content to let his former wife Dorrie raise the boy. “I think this ability to throw the on/off switch has to be Darwinian,” she concludes. These distinctions gave shape to the novel and to the separate chapters, which she has described as boxcars to be filled up.

Another boxcar that Shields wanted to write about was work, what people actually do. “It seems to me that work gets left out of novels a lot,” she says. Larry s work — building beautiful formal puzzles with intricate hidden patterns is a metaphor for seeking the pattern in his own life.

“I always worry that this is weighing too heavily,” she says. “Somebody, I forget who, said symbols are the fleas of literature and I often feel when I’m reading novels where the metaphors are laid out too clearly that I’m being imposed upon. So I tried to keep the mazes not just a metaphor but a substantive part of the novel.”

She loves the formalized structures of mazes, a structure she has adapted to Larry’s Party in 15 chapters leading from our initial meeting with him in 1977, as he is about to marry his first wife Dorrie, and ending 20 years later with his first formal dinner party in which the guests provide a conversational maze mat perplexes Larry as he muddles along trying to follow the many dangling threads. The maze theme allows Shields to double back on events, comment on them in different voices and observe Larry following paths that lead to dead ends, before he finally reaches the centre of the maze at book’s end. “Somewhere in this novel,” she says, “somebody says anybody can see the pattern if you look from above. But of course when you are in the thicket of your own life, you can’t understand your own patterns.”

As for Larry so with Carol. At the end of Larry’s Party he has reached a resting point, a pause in the maze that is his life. He will carry on, but what the pattern will be is uncertain. The same is true for Carol Shields. She was 62 in June, midway through her term as Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Her husband Don will retire in a couple of years and they will probably move from Winnipeg to a house they own in Victoria.

“Maybe I won’t go on writing novels -building up whole worlds with the nib of my pen,” she says. “That might get more difficult.” One thing is certain, though: she won’t give up writing.