By Mary Chan
Carol Shields is a surprisingly petite woman with a surprisingly quiet voice. The winner of numerous international book awards (including a Pulitzer Prize, a Governor General’s award and the Orange Book Award), the revered Canadian author speaks with understated confidence and conviction. And, like many people in the last two months, she offers her own opinion of the Sept. 11 tragedy, which she also touched on in her convocation address.
"My hope is that it will change the direction of society so that we’ll be a more caring society," she says. "I think we’re all assessing the values we hold in life, and everyone is worried about the materialism of the western world. I hope people are encouraged to take your life and take your time seriously."
For Shields, novelists play a certain role in society by creating "true records" of the time they live in.
"Even though we know that fiction is an artifice, the record that gets left is a true record," she says. "I never think of novels as escapism. I always think of them as ways to enlarge your mind. I think what [novelists] do is enter someone’s consciousness. We know how other people think. This is the most important thing that novels offer."
Specializing in Canadian Literature, Shields has taught English at the Universities of Ottawa–also where she earned her Masters in English–as well as British Columbia and Manitoba. Her commitment to academia includes her recent stint as chancellor at the University of Winnipeg. Clearly, Shields believes in the value of a post-secondary education.
"It leads you to a very old fashioned expression, the life of the mind," she explaines. "I think we live most of our lives in our own mind, and I think that we learn with any educational experience to value that life of the mind."
Shields also believes that higher learning encourages critical thinking.
"I grew up with the idea that ‘all men are created equal,’ " she says, quoting Thomas Jefferson. "It took me years to realize that [Jefferson] really did mean men, and he meant men of a certain wealth, and he meant white men. I guess I would say that’s what my education gave me: the ability to look at those kinds of statements, those world myths, and deconstruct them."
Though known mostly for novels such as Larry’s Party and The Stone Diaries, Shields’ most recent publication was a biography of another famous female novelist, Jane Austen. Shields admits that while she loved writing it, she doubts she’ll "commit biography" again.
"The thing that I found difficult was the compulsive consecutiveness of it, you know, ‘and next, and then, and after that, and then,’" Shields says, adding that during the writing process, she felt that she really got to know Austen.
"Someone asked me, ‘do you like her better?’ I don’t know if I like her better, but I understand why she was the person she was," Shields explains. "I think she had a very difficult life, and a lonely one. She never had the chance to talk with people who had the kind of intelligence she had. She never met another writer. I think that’s the saddest thing, because writers love meeting writers."
Growing up in the United States, Shields read Austen, along with a lot of Russian authors. Ironically, she didn’t read Canadian books until after moving to Canada when she was 22–with one classic exception.
"Well, actually, of course I read Anne of Green Gables," Shields laughs. "But I thought it took place somewhere in Wisconsin. I didn’t know it was a Canadian novel!"
Generally, Shields doesn’t read books more than once. "You only get so many books in your lifetime, they say only 5,000, even if you’re a good reader and read regularly," she explains. "It’s not very many, is it? So that’s why I don’t reread."
When she’s writing , Shields never knows exactly how her novels will end, so her favourite part is the moment of revelation.
"It’s that moment when you understand what is the inevitable outcome of the novel," she explains. "You don’t have to be writing for that to come to you. You can be taking a shower, or going for a walk, and you suddenly see the pieces–sometimes when you wake up in the morning it’s there for you. And that is exciting. You know where it’s going, and that feels good."