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Q & A with Carol Shields

As I step into Carol Shields’ open office, I discover that she’s on the phone. With a wave of her arm, she invites me to come in anyway. Awkwardly, I stumble in, almost tripping on my feet.

My nerves are getting the best of me, as I drop my notes on the floor while shuffling pages. Thankfully, Shields was focused on her continuing conversation, and not my antics.

A few minutes pass and she mouths a tiny apology. Almost a minute later, she hangs up and turns to me.

“Sorry about that,” she says.

I couldn’t contain it anymore.

“Let me just say what an honour it is to meet you.” I begin to haphazardly list her literary awards: the Pulitzer Prize, Governor General’s Award and Booker Prize short list. She nods cordially, then changes the subject, moving a lamp to my left.

The lamp is hexagonal in shape, with wood braces, and a transparent lampshade. She explains that the lamp was a gift from her daughter to “cheer her up.”

She turns on the lamp to reveal a colourful mobile of mermaids, glowing through the shade. It is the only revealing object in an otherwise Spartan office.

Shields has written an impressive number of books and plays in her career, although her international reputation grew just years ago when her 1993 book, The Stone Diaries, won the aforementioned Pulitzer Prize and became an international best seller.

Now at the University of Winnipeg, Shields acts as the Chancellor, a honourary position granted to a scholar of her calibre. At once conversational and guarded, Shields discusses her latest work Larry’s Party, as well as her writing process.

In Larry’s Party you explore a narrative from the male perspective, how was that experience?
It was quite frightening, actually. You can’t quite ever know the male body, to get right close to it, you know, to feel what’s inside the male mind. I think men experience emotions and express them quite differently from women. I don’t know quite how the interiors of men tick — I think they’re more compartmental than women. It must have been a challenge to avoid male stereotypes when writing. Well, I suppose [one way] I tried to avoid stereotypes was by reminding myself I was writing about one man, not men – and a particular man, who had a particular way of looking at the world. I hope that I did avoid stereotypes.

How long does it usually take for you to write a novel?
About two years.

Once they’re published, do you read the reviews?
Oh sure.

How do you feel about them?
Well, I like the good ones and I don’t like the bad ones [laughs].

Does it make you dissect your work further?
Not too much. Generally you take reviews as they are — since I do reviews myself — on how the reviewer felt the particular day they were reading my book.

When you are at literary awards ceremonies, like the Booker Prize, do you focus on your food a lot? Are you able to eat?
[Laughs] I didn’t eat at the Booker because they had television cameras on us all the time, so I didn’t want to have broccoli in my teeth. So I remember I didn’t eat that much.

How about your awards?
I just put them in a box. I’ve never go into that frame of mind [where awards become too important].

In the past, did you have any concept that you would be in a position to be where you are today?
Not really. It is a bit like a dream. A fantasy.

What kind of student were you at 17?
I was a kind of literary kid. I worked on the school newspaper; I contributed to the school literary magazine. I was the class poet. In American classrooms [Shields was born in America and has dual citizenship here], they have class poets. I one of those literary girls; I did well in English and poor in Math [laughs]. I probably said at 17 that I would go to college and then I would get married have children — which I did. Because the lives of middle class girls at that time that’s what I thought I would do.

One last question: What is it like to people reading your books?
I see a couple people on the plane with my book, but it doesn’t happen that often. It is kind of surreal.

Content Creator
Robert J. Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star

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