A Conversation with Carol Shields
Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I was a word-conscious child. My terrible early efforts -- by terrible, I mean derivative and unreflective -- were encouraged by my teachers and parents. I loved narrative; I knew that very early. And the act of writing was for me probably the most spiritual experience in my life. It seemed only natural to write the kind of books that I wanted to read.
What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
I wanted to write a novel after writing a biography and I found the voice of the novel in a short story I had previously published, "A Scarf," in Dressing Up for the Carnival. I wanted to write in the first person after many years of writing in the third person. A friend, Winnipeg writer Jake MacDonald, convinced me during one of our many long lunches that we novelists would be able to show more "decent" people in fiction if we wrote in the first person. His theory is that the third-person voice makes us nasty and ironic and less in tune with the world. I think he's right. I chose the voice of 44 year-old Reta Winters, a wife and mother, a writer and translator, who has suffered a grievous loss. This was the worst loss that I could conceive of: separation from a child.
What are you exploring in Unless?
I wanted the book to be about four things: men and women; writers and readers; goodness; and mothers and children. While writing it, I learned about the primacy of the mother bond, about the opaque nature of goodness, about the choices observed by a novel-maker, and about the rather vast assumptions of our gendered world. I love a quote from Middlemarch, in which Dorothea talks about "widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower." How heroic it is that men and women meet every day and attempt to work together despite the enormity of the difference in their power.
Who is your favorite character in this book, and why?
I love all of the characters in this book. I always end up in this kind of thralldom to my characters. I like Ret I like her husband. I like her daughters. I like her mother-in-law. I even like the hateful Arthur Springer because I understand him.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
One is (and my own bookclub came on this by chance), it is a very good idea for someone in the group to give a reading from the book. This helps the group to focus on the language of the book. A good question for Unless might be to ask: What has this book done to reinforce my feelings, or, the reverse of that, to ruffle my sense of self-worth? Another one is to ask: Does a reader demand a sense of closure, and what does this mean?
What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
Am I happy in my vocation? Interviewers assume that I am, and in fact this is true. I do feel fortunate to have found work in the world that I love to do -- independent, creative work.
Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
I had a review once of The Stone Diaries that said it was "too ambitious" (a particularly Canadian thing to say). That is when I began to discount reviews as a source of self-knowledge.
Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
All of the authors I have ever read have influenced my writing. Alice Munro has shown us what the written word can do. She has been more than a model. Mavis Gallant has shown us what is possible in a fictional transaction. John Updike has been very important to me. Jane Austen has figured out the strategies of fiction for us and made them plain.
If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I would love to have been trained as a bookbinder. I would love to be a pomologist; I am very interested in apples at the moment.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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