I had the great pleasure of interviewing distinguished Canadian author Carol Shields in 1993 when she was promoting her newly published novel, The Stone Diaries, after receiving word of having been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Here’s a copy of that interview, as it appeared in my books column in Winnipeg’s fabulous indie arts and entertainment monthly, Interchange.
What to Wear to accept The Booker
If you’re Carol Shields, and you’ve just been short-listed for the Booker Prize, and you’re going to an October 26th Awards gala in London, what’s the first thing you think about? What to wear, of course.
“It’s the first thing I thought about,” Shields laughs. “It’s pretty glamorous. They don’t tell you what to wear, but I’ve got the outfit. The pants, they’re kind of long, black, silky and, for the top, I’ve got a pretty kind of red silk tunic thing. I’ve never worn anything like this – I’ll probably feel like a clown.”
It’s the Academy Awards of writing. The prize is worth more than forty grand, with a jury headed by a Lord (Gowrie). It’s a BIG DEAL. And it sells books.
Shields says there isn’t much chance for interference with the jury. “There are no leaks. The decision is made that day. They’re in a locked room,” she says. And how politically motivated their final decision is, if at all, is anybody’s guess. Bookies take bets on it in England. “In the betting shops, the two-to-one favourtie is Roddy Doyle. I’m second. Third is David Malouf, the Australian. I think Roddy is going to get it; he’s been nominated before.”
Shields is not in need of public funding. With fifteen books to her credit, with London and Canadian publishers and a large European readership, she does much of her writing in a summer home in the south of France. She’s an Associate Professor of English at the University of Manitoba where husband Don is a Professor of Engineering. She has what Winnipeg-based writer Armin Wiebe, who shared the October 8th West End Cultural Centre stage with her, calls ‘an enviable position for a writer.’ It’s serious writers like Wiebe who recognize better than most the time, resources, and intense discipline it takes to produce a Shields portfolio.
Permission To Write
And Shields herself credits a half-century of Canada Council support to writers for our increased international profile, and calls this funding a good investment. “These things have put Canada right in the center. When I was in the UK, a lot of people asked me about the sudden promise of Canadian writers, how did I explain it? They’re very aware of it. I don’t for one minute think that throwing money at the arts creates an artistic community, but it does create a kind of permission, and I think it has paid off for this country to fund writers,” she says.
Born on the 2nd of June in 1935, Shields is a Gemini who calls herself a ‘total skeptic’ about astrology. As to what music she listens to, she says there’s always something playing in the background in her home, usually Bach, but she says she’s tone-deaf and pays little attention to music. But she likes Bruce Springsteen. “I like his voice,” she says.
Shields is now public property, and our own public network occupies much of the hectic two days she spends here before leaving for Toronto. Documentary cameras record her every move, even while she’s taping radio interviews. And later, some of her Words On Stage audience gets its turn with the cameras too. Ah, the price of fame.
It’s tough for the two of us to talk with all the attention she’s getting from the who’s-who in the CBC lobby. “It was an honour and privilege to be sitting in the studio while the TV cameras were on you,” quips CBC Arts Encounters host Jacqui Good. “You think with radio you don’t have to bother to put your lipstick on,” Shields retorts.
CANADA’S JANE AUSTEN
This woman has a genteel sort of calm about her; she seems humble. It’s not grating transparently false humility but instead, it’s a lack of pretension; a solid earthbound realism which is reflected in her work. Jacqui Good calls her ‘Canada’s Jane Austen.’ This is someone you’d ‘take tea’ with, someone you’d try hard not to say the f-word to. Not because she’s a prude, or hasn’t heard it before, but because you’d hate to jar her. You have the sense she’d find it off-putting.
Shields rejects the parallels so often drawn between her own writing and that of her favourite author, Alice Munro. “British critics think that, just because we’re both Canadian women,” she says. “If I were American, they wouldn’t make those comparisons.”
Although she says a writer should write a different book each time, she agrees there has to be some familiarity for a reader to return to a particular author time and again, as her readers do. She finds common themes running through her work, even though she doesn’t deliberately choose them.
The UnKnowability of People
Redemption, for one – what she calls “documenting lives otherwise lost. And the ‘unknowability’ of people.” The Stone Diaries, the book responsible for this nomination, is decidedly such a reclamation. “But as far as consistency, other kinds of consistency, it’s interest in language. When I read, that’s what I read for,” says Shields. “If writers can’t do interesting sentences, I just don’t want to read them.”
Shields premiered those silky black Booker pants for her Winnipeg Words on Stage audience at the West End Cultural Centre, but she’s saving the red tunic for London.
Judging from the audience response, Shields has what it takes to hold on to her readers. Waves of laughter wash through the SRO crowd when she reads a list of endless admonitions from a man’s mother to her daughter-in-law-to-be on how to ‘wife’ properly, ending with, “Once Harold was eating a handful of popcorn and began to choke. I always keep a close eye on him when we have a popcorn evening. From the moment the marriage vows are exchanged at the altar, a woman’s husband becomes her sacred trust.”
This jet-setting writer returned briefly from Greece to Winnipeg at the end of September, then travelled to Berkeley California, where husband Don is teaching this year, then back to Winnipeg for a performance and book launch. Then it’s off to Toronto for her daughter’s wedding and a Harbourfront reading before the Booker ceremony in London.
Writers need comfort
So she’s not writing much these days. “You need a certain amount of order in your life to write. People say travel stimulates but writers need the opposite. They need comfort, their books around them, to know where their paper is. That’s what lulls you into the comfort so you can write. It’s what I need.”
Shields won’t be teaching this year. She’s working on some short stories, a first for her, and another play for Prairie Theatre Exhange, this time in collaboration with her daughter Catherine. “We’ve already done the whole set-up together. We just sit and talk about it. My two older daughters always read everything I write before it goes to the editor. They have excellent eyes.”
By the time you read this, the 1993 Booker Prize Award will be history, yesterday’s news, bird-cage liner. But, come what may, Shields will keep on writing books, and her fans are sure to keep reading them.
Shields was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993 for her novel The Stone Diaries, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Her novel Unless was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002. In addition to her novels, she wrote two collections of short stories and a biography of Jane Austen. She won the Orange Prize in 1998 for Larry’s Party. Carol Shields died in 2003 at the age of 68.
To order books by Carol Shields, please visit the Carol Shields Literary Trust.
© L.D’anna 2017
This piece was first published in Interchange in 1993. Photos © L.D’anna: Carol Shields, West End Cultural Centre, Winnipeg Canada, Words On Stage 1993.