Biography

Family

Carol Ann Warner (Shields) was born on June 2, 1935 in Oak Park, Illinois. Her mother, Inez, would say to friends — to Carol's mortification — "Carol slipped out like a pound of butter". Carol joined sister and brother twins, Barbara (Babs) and Robert (Bob), who had been born a year-and-a-half earlier. Carol and Bob loved to shoot baskets in their back lane as children.

There were three children. I was the youngest of three. My mother was unusual in that after we were launched in school she had a job. She was a schoolteacher. She went back to school teaching. They needed teachers after the (second world) war. Most of the mothers were stay-at-home mothers. My father worked in an office. That's all I knew. It was an office downtown, and the fathers disappeared, went off to work."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]
I have to say I didn't know my father very well. He was a very remote figure. I don't think -- and this is a very sad thing -- I don't think I ever had a real conversation with him in my life, and I'm not quite sure why that happened. Was it I who didn't initiate that or make him feel at ease? I don't know. But certainly he was a gentleman."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]
I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. It's a suburb, the first suburb on the west side of Chicago. We didn't know Chicago. I grew up next to this wonderful city and didn't know it. We stayed in our suburb, a very conservative, very white, completely white suburb in those days -- completely changed now -- tremendously conservative, everybody went to church. I never met anyone who didn't go to church. And of course, it had wonderful schools, small classes, extraordinary teachers. We were a privileged lot in some ways. Where we weren't privileged was in the breadth of our experience. It was a pretty narrow place to grow up, very parochial. So you come out with a set of attitudes, go away to university, and then you're surprised that the world is so big, that there's so much more there."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]

Carol learned to read when she was four, and never stopped reading. In grade one she loved Dick and Jane. To her, Dick, Jane, Spot the dog, and Puff the cat were real. Carol knew they were real because they filled her imagination, and she could picture them going about their daily routines — just as she did.

I loved Dick and Jane, especially Jane with her nice, clean white socks. I thought she was such a nice little girl. I didn't quite believe, perhaps, in the perfection of her life, but it wasn't that far from my own life. And Dick, what a wonderful big brother he was. I read a lot into them I think."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]

School Days

Carol Shields would look back at her primary school days and comment:

I attended Nathaniel Hawthorn School and Ralph Waldo Emerson School. I knew the schools were named after writers — both were male writers, both were dead. I wondered if there were any female writers, live female writers. Perhaps it was then that I started to question the dominance of males in our lives.

"I wrote as a child. I was a schoolgirl writer. Every school has one of these girls, you know, who writes the class play, and writes the class poem, and everyone says, "Oh, you're going to be a writer when you grow up." I didn't, in fact, think I would. It felt like wanting to be a movie star."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]

Carol blossomed as a student at Oak Park High School, where she could concentrate on history and English, and not have to be concerned about science and math.

I was one of those good students. I was not good in certain things, mathematics for example, and I took the bare minimum that I could. I would have done very badly if I had gone ahead in physics, I suppose. But I chose things that I excelled in — history, English, of course."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]


There were seven hundred and fifty students in my high school graduating class, and we were all white, every one. I always knew something was wrong with it, but I never knew what it was until I went away."

   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

It was at Oak Park High that she wrote poetry in earnest — most of it, she later confessed, "amateurish and corny, often an ode to a national holiday or to autumn or spring".

College

After high school in Oak Park, Carol Shields went off to college in 1953.

Before I went away to college, I had never spoken to a black or Asian person, never tasted garlic, and never heard the work 'shit' uttered aloud. On the other hand, I knew how to write a thank you note, which occasions demanded hat and gloves, and how to conduct polite introductions."
  [Interview with Sandra Martin, Quill and Quire, February, 1998]

Carol chose Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana. Since its founding in 1827, Hanover College's purpose has been to provide a liberal arts education. The setting is idyllic — 650 acres overlooking the Ohio River. The College's Board of Trustees is independent of ecclesiastical control, but has formally adopted the standards for Presbyterian colleges. Carol was swept up by Alpha Delta Pi to be a sorority member. She was Freshie Queen. Once again, Carol found herself in a privileged white community. However, she had a glimpse of the lives that were led by poor, rural people while practice-teaching across the Ohio River in Kentucky.


My parents very much wanted my brother to be an engineer. I'm not quite sure how much he had to say about that. They wanted my sister to get her teaching license. It was all right for me to do a degree in English literature, as long as I did my education credits as well. They were, of course, from the Depression, and they wanted us to prepare for something that would be negotiable in terms of employment, should we ever need it. My parents put it this way: 'Something to fall back on,' and I knew what that meant. It meant if we failed to find a spouse, if we were, God help us, divorced or widowed, that we would have some way to earn a living."

   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]

In 1955, after two years at Hanover, Carol Shields received a United Nations Scholarship to study abroad. She chose Exeter University in Exeter, England in order to pursue English literature. She once again found herself in an all-girls residence, Lopes Hall. The University assigned her a male tutor who would be her mentor for the year. When Carol presented her tutor with the package of Hanover progress-report-sheets that the tutor was to complete weekly, he tore them up and threw the pieces into a wastebasket. Carol was in shock. She worried all year about what Hanover would say on her return. Would she receive credit for her year? Carol Shields received another shock when it was explained to her that residence rules in Lopes Hall were much less demanding than what she had been used to at Hanover. When receiving a male visitor in the residence parlour, it would not be necessary to have a chaperone present. All that was asked of the girls in Lopes Hall was to keep one foot on the floor at all times.


One lucky thing happened. I went, during my third year, to Exeter University. It was a totally different environment where we were not spoon-fed. We were on our own in England. To go to lectures or not. People took their subjects seriously. This was all a revelation to me, that people would sit in the dining hall and talk about Christopher Marlowe. It was wonderful."
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

Carol Shields returned to Hanover College in the fall of 1956 for her final year. She graduated in June 1957 magna cum laude in History and Education.


My sister and I each had a degree, but we knew we would get married and have children. The lives of middle class girls of my era were highly predictable. No way did anyone ever think of having a career."

   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

Love and Marriage

Over the Christmas break while at Exeter University, Carol decided to join a study group in Scotland. The opportunity was made available to foreign students studying in Great Britain to learn more about regional life in one part or other of the British Isles. About 30 students from a spectrum of nationalities - Indian, African, European, and Asian - turned up in a remote inn outside Glasgow for a seven day period. Among the others were three Canadian engineering students who were studying in London. One was Donald Shields, who would become Carol's husband a year-and-a-half later.

Carol Warner and Don Shields were married in Carol's parents' home in Oak Park on July 20, 1957. Don was working in Vancouver, Canada. Carol and Don's honeymoon consisted of driving from Chicago to Vancouver, where a week after their marriage, Carol became a landed immigrant in Canada. Her Canadian life had begun. Carol Shields became a Canadian citizen in March 1971.

Married Years

During their 46 years of married life, Carol and Donald Shields lived in five Canadian cities, and one English city: Vancouver, British Columbia (1957), Toronto, Ontario (1958-1960, 1964-1968), Manchester, England (1960-1963), Ottawa, Ontario (1968-1978), Vancouver (1978-1980), Winnipeg, Manitoba (1980-2000), and Victoria, British Columbia (2000-2003). Year-long sabbatical leaves were taken in Saint Brieuc, on the north coast of Brittany, France (1976-77), Paris (1986-87), Berkeley, California (1993-94), and London, England (1999-2000).

Son, John Douglas Shields, was born in Toronto in April 1958. Daughters Anne Elizabeth Shields (Toronto, October 1959), Catherine Mary Shields (Manchester, February 1962), Margaret (Meg) Lorin Shields (Toronto, April 1964) and Sara Ellisyn Shields (Ottawa, January 1968) followed.


I loved having children. Physically it was hard work, and I remember being tired a lot, but I can't remember having the kind of frustration I've read that women with young children can have. I was young and I had a lot of energy. I hadn't started writing so I never felt, at that time, that the kids were keeping me from writing."
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]


I couldn't have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of a personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. My children gave this other window on the world."
   [A Reader's Guide to The Stone Diaries by BookClubs Canada, 2008]

Early Writing Years

At this time (1960), I gave up any idea of becoming a writer, except for one thing. When she first met him, my mother mentioned to my husband Don, 'I hope you're going to encourage Carol to keep on writing'. Don remembered this, and after I had my second child, he said, 'Why don't you do something. There's a course at the University of Toronto in magazine writing'. So, I went to that class. Towards the end of the year, the woman lecturer actually wanted us to write something, so I wrote a short story. Then I forgot about it. In the middle of that summer, she phoned and said, 'I've sold your story to the CBC'."
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

From September 1960 until November 1963, the Shields lived in Manchester, England. In 1962, Carol sold a short story to a British magazine, The Storyteller. This was the first publication for which Carol was paid. The Storyteller was a monthly magazine which was sold mainly in train stations to travelers. The British Broadcasting Corporation also bought a short story from Carol Shields in 1962. The story "For Business Reasons" was broadcast in March of that year.

The Poet

Carol and her family returned to Canada from Britain at the end of 1963 to live in Toronto for five years before moving to Ottawa in 1968.

In 1964, the CBC had a competition for young writers. I was twenty-nine; thirty was the cutoff. All spring, I had this baby crawling around, and I wrote seven poems. I hadn't written poetry since sonnets in high school. I worked and worked on those poems. It was the first time in my life that I took my writing seriously. In fact, I mailed them off the day before the deadline. I won the competition. That led me into a period of about five years when I wrote poetry."
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

Carol Shields wrote a number of poems during this period, many of which were published in literary magazines such as The Canadian Forum, Books in Canada, and SALT.

I loved being a poet. I think partly because a poem is such a small thing. I always think of it as a kind of toy. You can get it almost right, and you can never get a novel almost right because a novel is just too big. There are just too many little parts to it, too many twigs and leaflets. But a poem you can get just about right. And it was a very happy writing time in my life, so that I never think of it now as apprenticeship for novel writing."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]


[By 1972] I'd had my fifth child, and she was going half-days to school. I just had a little bit of time, and I was writing poetry in those days. I was very interested in poetry for about five years, in reading it and writing it. And eventually - these were just published in small magazines in Canada. Eventually, one of the professors at the University of Ottawa said, "Well, look, we're in the publishing business. If you have 50 poems, we will publish a book". So that, in fact, is what they did, and they published another book two years later. So I had the two books of poetry before I sat down to write a novel.
"
   [Interview with Terry Gross on Public Radio May 1, 2002]

The poems were collected together and published in two books: Others in 1972, and Intersect in 1974.

Carol Shields was an itinerant poet-in-the-schools for the Ottawa region in 1975.

The Master of Arts Degree Years

The Shields lived in Ottawa from October 1968 until June 1978.

I love Ottawa. Our children grew up there, and they think of it as home. My husband was teaching at the University [of Ottawa]; I went back as a graduate student while we were there. We have a lot of good friends there. We did feel very much at the centre of things living in the capital. Actually I can not think of one bad thing to say about Ottawa. I think it's a beautiful city."
   [Interview with Tom Ashmore on CBC Winnipeg, 1981]


I discovered feminism late. I knew there was something wrong, I just didn't know what it was. But, of course, like many American women, I read Betty Friedan's
The Feminine Mystique and it was like a thunderbolt. I was astonished. I had no idea women thought like that or women could be anything other than what they were. That was in the early '60s I read that book. It did change the way that I thought about myself. I did begin to do a graduate degree part-time, thought about doing some writing. It gave me courage
." (The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963.)
   [Interview with Terry Gross on Public Radio May 1, 2002]

I signed up for an M.A. in Canadian literature. I started in 1969, and there were hardly any mature students in the system. One of our essays was about Susanna Moodie, and I decided to do my term essay on her. When it came to the thesis ……. I remembered the essay on Susanna Moodie, and I decided I would look at the work we never look at in Canada — all those terrible novels she wrote.
"
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

Carol received her M.A. degree in 1975. Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision, a literary essay based on Carol's M.A. thesis, was published in 1976.

While working on her M.A., Carol had a part-time job.

I was offered the first job of my life. I became the editorial assistant on a scholarly quarterly for two years [1973-1975], Canadian Slavonic Papers. With small children, I did this work at home in my own little workroom. The journal was edited at Carleton (University) so I'd go in occasionally, but most of my work was done at home."
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

Becoming a Novelist

After receiving her M.A., Carol decided to write a novel based on the material she had left over from her thesis on Susannah Moodie. The novel eventually became Small Ceremonies.

I wanted to write a novel because I loved to read novels. I wasn't finding in the '70s the kind of novels that had anything to do with my life or the sort of women that I knew. I wanted to write a book that I couldn't find, as it were."
   [Interview for the Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]

This was not the first attempt to write a novel, for Shields had written a literary whodunit when taking a break one year from her M.A. studies. She sent the manuscript of the whodunit to a number of publishers. They all returned it with encouraging comments, but none were willing to publish the book.

The first manuscript that went out came back. It was never published. It was a novel that I think of now as my apprenticeship novel. I sent it to three publishers - totally unsuitable publishers by the way. I knew nothing about where to send things. But they all sent me lovely rejection letters, and they all gave me some advice, and they each had the same advice for me. So, I was encouraged by this."
   [Interview with Diane Rheme, US Public Radio, March 31, 1994]

I thought I would try again. Small Ceremonies went very easily. And it was published just as I wrote it. It was so easy to do, and it was wonderful, it was a very happy time. I sent (the manuscript) to McGraw-Hill and they eventually accepted it. It was wonderful. The week I turned forty, they phoned to say they were going to take the novel, my two professors said they were going to publish my thesis, and we were on our way to France - all in one week
."
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

Small Ceremonies was published in 1976. Carol was thrilled when Small Ceremonies won the Canadian Authors Association Award.

When asked: How did you find the time to write Small Ceremonies, Carol replied:

Everyone asks me this, including my own children. What my children forget is that I did not have a job; they are all raising children and having jobs. But I didn't have a job. I didn't write until they went to school, and I didn't write on weekends and I didn't write in the evening. None of this was possible. But I used to try to get that hour just before they came home for lunch, 11 to 12. You know, got all those socks picked up, etc. and then I tried to write a couple of pages. That was all I ever asked myself to do. Then sometimes, in the afternoon, before they came home from school, I would get back to those two pages, and maybe have a chance to do them over again. But I really only had about an hour or an hour and a half a day. This was how I organized my time, that I would give myself one or two pages a day, and if I didn't get to my two pages, I would get into bed at night with one of those thick yellow tablets of lined paper, and I would do two quick pages and then turn off the light. I did this for nine months, and at the end of nine months, I had a novel. I could see how it could be done in little units. I thought of it like boxcars. I had nine boxcars, and each chapter had a title starting with September, and then October, November, December, so it was a very easy structure for someone writing a first novel to follow."
   [Interview with Terry Gross on Public Radio May 1, 2002]

Carol Shields wrote The Box Garden during the sabbatical year 1975-76 living in St. Quay Portrieux in Brittany. The novel was completed in nine months. It was published in 1977.


I develop a novel as I go. I have a structure in mind, though. I always see the structure before I know what's going to be in the structure, and it's a very physical image that I can call up. For each novel I've had rather a different structure, but it's been important for me to have that. But I don't know where it's going. I don't fully know the character of my main character when I start out. So that character opens for me exactly as it opens for the reader, piece by piece, layer by layer. I don't know the whole plot. Sometimes I know where I want to get to; I just don't know how I'm going to get there. This can be frightening for a writer. After a point, you develop a certain faith in your process.
"
   [Interview for The Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]

The Start of the Teaching Years

Carol returned to Ottawa after the sabbatical year in France, and started writing Happenstance while simultaneously teaching creative writing at the University of Ottawa. Shields and her family moved to Vancouver in mid-1978, where she continued to work on Happenstance. During the 1978-79 and 1979-80 academic years, Carol taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Happenstance was published in 1980.

In the summer of 1980, the Shields family moved to Winnipeg, where they would be based for the next twenty years. Immediately on arrival in Winnipeg, Carol Shields signed up to teach a course in writing at the Winnipeg Education Centre in downtown Winnipeg. This was a rewarding experience; the students were mature adults, many were Aboriginal, and they were mainly women with limited formal education.

The following year, Carol was asked to teach a course in communications to first-year engineering students that fall. This was neither a happy nor fulfilling experience. The last thing first-year engineering students wanted to be lectured on at 8:30 in the morning were rules of English grammar. Carol had a difficult time keeping the students interest and attention. At the end of the academic year, Carol Shields decided never to repeat that experience.

From the fall of 1982 onward, Carol Shields taught in the English Department at the University of Manitoba, first as an Assistant Professor (1982-1992), then as an Associate Professor (1992 - 1995). Shields was made Full Professor of English in 1995, and, on retirement in 2000, she became Professor Emerita at the University of Manitoba.

I've come to feel very fond of Winnipeg. The fact is — and this is a very unfashionable admission — I came to Winnipeg because I was married to someone who took a job at the University of Manitoba. I came with a great deal of fear, partly I was afraid of the cold. I was sure it must hurt to be as cold as that. I was afraid of the cultural isolation, and that has not proven to be a fact. I am happy to say that. I suppose I feel isolated when I look at a map, and that is the only time."
   [Interview by Terry Campbell for the CBC "Talking with Artists Across the Country"]

The Early Publishing Years


I was a stay-at-home mother, and I did my writing at home. The first novel I wrote on a portable typewriter - a non-electric portable typewriter. It seems incredible now. Then I acquired a second-hand electric typewriter, and then I acquired one of those IBM ballistic affairs which I thought was the last word in technology. I thought that I had gone about as far as I could. I was rather late as a writer coming into the computer world. When I did I, of course like everyone else, fell in love with this little machine that smiled at me every morning and wished me good morning.

"When I was a young mother writing at home, I sometimes had the feeling that I was stealing time in order to write my books - stealing time from my family. You know, I could have been baking cookies for the kids or something instead of up there with my little typewriter. This is why I think it is so important for women writers to get that first publication or that first grant, something that tells them what you're doing is valuable, you can go on doing this. I suppose having a successful career in writing does allow you to say: I am a writer, and this is what I do. I need a little place where I can do this, but I don't need much more. So most of the time I think that being successful or not - what you're doing is you're going into a little room and you're shutting the door, and you're sitting there, and that's where you really live.

"I didn't start writing until [my children] were all in school. And I might say to writers with young children, eventually children really do go to school. I found, very gradually, that I had a little more time every year to devote to writing. The first novel I wrote entirely between 11:00 and 12:00 every day just before the kids came home for lunch, and I very seldom got any more time during the day to get back to that. I set myself a little task which was to write two pages a day. Now it takes me all day to write two pages. Then I could squeeze it into one hour."
   [Interview with Diane Rhem for US Public Radio, March 31, 1984]

During the years of transition, moving from Ottawa to Vancouver and finally to Winnipeg, Shields was working on her fourth novel, a companion piece to Happenstance called A Fairly Conventional Woman. This novel was published in 1982.

In 1982, Carol Shields started her fifth novel that would eventually be published as Swann: A Mystery in 1987. She had difficulty finding the correct 'tone' for the novel in its early days, and so she decided to set it aside. Instead of continuing with the novel, Shields wrote short stories. Many of these stories were experimental in nature, allowing Shields the opportunity to test a number of narrative forms from among which she would choose the form to use to complete Swann. The short stories were published as Various Miracles in 1985. In 1984, a Shields short story, Fitting Behaviour, won second prize in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation annual Literary Awards. Another short story, Mrs.Turner Cutting Grass, won a Canadian National Magazine Award in 1985.

I felt more playful writing stories. I can do all sorts of things with them, whereas with a novel I'm committing myself to a particular tone or voice or direction - a certain architecture anyway. With stories you can have an idea and spin it around for as long as it will stay aloft. I feel that I am tap-dancing when I write stories. I can get both feet off the ground."
   [Interview with Ruth Thomas for The Scottish Book Collector in 2000]

A chance encounter during the Ottawa years with a published Canadian Novelist, Blanche Howard, blossomed into a long-lasting friendship during the two years Carol spent in Vancouver, where Blanche lived. In 1983, Blanche and Carol decided to write an epistolary novel together. The gestation of the novel was seven years; A Celibate Season was published in 1990.

Carol was successful in using short stories to help her arrive at the voice for the novel Swann: A Mystery. The novel was completed in 1986, and published in 1987. It won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Mystery in 1988.

When it came to writing her sixth novel, The Republic of Love, Carol Shields decided to follow the same procedure she had employed with Swann to help her discover the way forward. The result was a second collection of short stories: The Orange Fish published in 1989.

For her body of work up until 1990, Carol Shields was honoured with the Writer's Development Trust's Marion Engel Award that year.

1990 was the year that Carol was discovered by the English publisher, Fourth Estate. In that year, her novel Swann: A Mystery, re-titled Mary Swann, appeared in bookshops throughout the United Kingdom. Fourth Estate came up with the idea of publishing Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman back to back in one volume called Happenstance: Her Story and His Story. This was in 1991. Fourth Estate aggressively promoted Carol and her books by making certain that the novels were reviewed by the national newspapers in the UK. Fourth Estate also entered her novels in competitions, where from time to time they would be short listed for the award.

Carol's sixth novel, The Republic of Love, was published simultaneously in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom in 1992. The setting for The Republic of Love was the City of Winnipeg.

I have lived in Winnipeg eleven years. It somehow seems right to write about it. [In writing The Republic of Love] the time had come to talk about Winnipeg in the spring, summer and fall, and not just in the winter because that is, of course, the stereotypical picture that we have of it. I also wanted to talk about it as a cosmopolitan centre. It does have more than a half million people, and I think that always surprises people that it does function in this big city way. It is an exotic city - the coldest city in the world - the coldest large city I am told."
   [Radio interview on publishing The Republic of Love]

In 1992, Carol's third book of poetry — Coming to Canada — was published.


Playwright

In the winter of 1982-83, Carol Shields decided to enter the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation annual contest for an original radio play. She won first prize for Women Waiting.

This success encouraged Carol to write her first stage play, Departures and Arrivals. Departures and Arrivals is a series of dramatic/comic scenes taking place in an airport. It was first produced at the Black Hole Theatre, University of Manitoba in 1984 and has since been adopted by countless amateur theatre groups around the world, including many schools and colleges.

The wonderful thing about writing plays is you have a lot of people standing on the sidelines helping you out. I was scared to death of that. I was afraid I would be too protective of my play and not let anyone touch it. I have to say that my fears were groundless. I have loved it and I have been grateful for suggestions that have come from actors if they have found a line, for example, difficult to say. Or if I hear it out loud and suddenly it doesn't sound nearly as profound as it did when it came out of my typewriter. In fact it sounds rather silly. It's been a wonderful chance for me to simply take it out and think about something else going in there. It can be frustrating simply spending your creative time with a bunch of other people. It's also exhilarating though, extraordinarily stimulating. In fact Jacqui, the only real worry I have about this experience is how I am ever going to be able to go back into the little room and write books again. The wonderful thing, too, about working with actors is they not only came amazingly close to that voice that I had in my own head as I wrote the play, but they went beyond that voice and did amazing things that I would never have thought of. Now I suppose this is why the collaborative experience has been so rewarding for me."
   [Interview by Jacqui Goode, CBC Radio re Departures and Arrivals]

Carol's second stage play, Thirteen Hands, was first produced at Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg in 1993. Set around a bridge table through different generations of players, the women in the play discover family histories, the tricks of getting old and a companionship that gets passed on, like an exquisite heirloom, to a next generation of bridge players. The play went on to other professional theatres in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver to considerable financial success.

With her daughter Catherine Shields, Carol co-wrote a play for The Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1995. The play was titled Fashion, Power, Guilt, and the Charity of Families. And, with her colleague Dave Williamson, Carol co-wrote Anniversary which was first performed in Toronto in 1994.

While in England researching her biography of Jane Austen and working on the novel Unless [see the following section - The Cancer Years], Carol made a special journey to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough to see two plays. While there she accepted Alan Ayckbourn's invitation to write a play for the Stephen Joseph Theatre. After returning to Canada and moving to Victoria in 2000, she subsequently asked her daughter Sara Cassidy to help her write a stage play based on her novel Unless. In an article in the Scarborough Evening News, April 6, 2005, Sara said: "Those weeks went by too quickly, I saw how my mother worked and realised how expertly she put words together for her readers. The work thoroughly occupied her; every morning, she was radiant with new ideas." Unfortunately Carol died in 2003 before they could finish but Sara carried on and Unless: The Play was produced in Scarborough as well as in Toronto and Vancouver in 2005 and Victoria in 2006.

Fame

1991 and 1992 in Winnipeg saw Carol Shields researching the customs and daily happenings of the years 1905 to 1990 in Manitoba and Indiana. Carol consulted mail-order-catalogues and newspapers in order to better place Daisy Goodwill in her times. Daisy Goodwill is the subject of a fictitious biography that was to become Carol Shields' best known book: The Stone Diaries. Daisy was born in 1905. As the title of the book implies, stone carving and stone quarrying figured prominently in The Stone Diaries. This meant that Carol traveled to the sources of limestone building stone in quarries north of Winnipeg, quarries in the heartland of Indiana, and quarries on the Island of Orkney.

A human life, and this is the only plot I think that I am interested in, is this primordial plot of birth, love, work, decline and death. This is just life working away toward the end of life. What is the story of that life? Can we tell our own life story with any sort of truth at all? Of course, we know we can't. I mean, our life stories, whether we write them or not, are a tissue of evasions, or, perhaps, enhancements. So, that story that we carry around in our head, the story we call our life, we can't know our birth and death, but we create them somehow, imaginatively. There are other parts of our lives in which we're quite happy to erase. There are other parts that we want to touch up just a little bit. So what we end with is a fiction. Our autobiography is a form of fiction."
   [Interview for The Academy of Achievement, May 23, 1998]

The Stone Diaries was published in Canada and the United Kingdom in 1993. It won Canada's Governor General Award for fiction that year. The book was published in the United States in 1994, and won US National Book Critics Award that year. Also in 1994, the book won the McNally Robinson Award for Manitoba Book of the Year, and the Canadian Booksellers Association Prize. In 1995, The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize. More than a million copies of The Stone Diaries have been sold. Fifteenth Anniversary issues of The Stone Diaries were launched in Canada and the United States in 2008.



The Maze and Labyrinth Years

While promoting a book in England in 1994, Carol came across a turf maze in the town of Saffron Walden. Saffron Walden in Essex has the largest public turf maze in England. It is 35m in diameter and the path to the centre is 1,500m long! Of uncertain origin (the earliest record is from 1699), the chalk path has been re-cut several times, and is now laid with brick. This beautiful and complete labyrinth has a raised bank surrounding it, and a central mound with a socket-like depression which may have held a maypole or similar focus.

Carol's imagination was immediately piqued by this serendipitous happening. She bought a number of books on mazes and labyrinths, and started to visit them wherever she could - including probably the most famous labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France. The labyrinth at Chartres was built around 1200, and is laid into the floor in a style sometimes referred to as a pavement labyrinth.

For about a year after finishing The Stone Diaries, I didn't know what to write next. 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."
   [Interview with Sandra Martin for Quill and Quire, February 1998]

Larry Weller, the man who gave his name to Carol's next book Larry's Party, was a maze and labyrinth designer. Larry's Party was published in 1997. It won the Orange Prize and Le Prix de Lire. In 2001 Richard Ouzounian and his composer collaborator, Marek Norman, opened their musical adaptation of Larry's Party at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, starring Tony Award winner Brent Carver, staged by acclaimed Canadian director, Robin Phillips, and produced by the Canadian Stage Company. Larry's Party was also performed at the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the National Arts Centre. The play's script and four original songs were published by McArthur and Co.

Honours

It was while researching and writing Larry's Party that Carol received a number of honours. Principal among these was her four-year appointment as Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg in 1996.

In 1998, the Governor General of Canada made Carol an Officer of the Order of Canada. She subsequently (2002) was made a Companion of the Order of Canada - Canada's highest honour.

Also in 1998, Carol was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Carol Shields received honourary degrees from the University of Ottawa (1995), Hanover College (1996), Queen's University (1996), University of Winnipeg (1996), University of British Columbia (1996), and the University of Western Ontario (1997). Later, while working on other books, Carol Shields received honourary degrees from the University of Toronto (1998), Concordia University (1998), Carleton University (2000), Wilfred Laurier University (2000), Lakehead University (2001), University of Victoria (2001), University of Calgary (2001), University of Manitoba (2003) and Malaspina University and College (2003).

The Cancer Years

In December of 1998, Carol was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. She was told that if she submitted to both surgery and radiation, she would live, probably, for three years, provided that she undertook chemotherapy as well.

In early 1999, Carol was approached by James Lipper. Lipper explained that he would be the editor of a new series of short biographies called Penguin Lives. The biographies would be published by Lipper-Penguin. Carol was asked if she would agree to write the biography of Jane Austen for the series. Carol agreed.

A Guggenheim Fellowship was awarded to Carol Shields in 1999. The Fellowship was intended to sponsor a sabbatical leave in England while Carol started work on a new novel, Unless. England was chosen as the locale for the sabbatical year because staying in England would facilitate Carol's research on a biography of Jane Austen.

It so happened that Carol had spent the summer of 1975 reading Jane Austen:

I've been reading Jane Austen all summer, partly as a cushion against cultural shock [living in France], but partly out of curiosity. In the introduction to one of her books the editor admits that she writes about extraordinarily dull affairs but nevertheless the reader feels compelled to keep turning the page. I am on the sixth and last book now and I still haven't quite managed to figure out what magic she has."
   [A Memoir of Friendship: Letters between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard]

In an interview about writing Jane Austen, Carol remarked:

I've written quite a bit about other people writing biographies, but I've written one myself, about Jane Austen. It's part of a series, mainly by novelists rather than professional biographers. When editors offered me Jane Austen, I couldn't resist. But I don't think biography is my thing. I found it a little bit tedious, even though I am very interested in Jane Austen's life. It was a bit of a chore, putting facts together and not having room to embellish. With my own writing, I'm interested in the idea of the arc of a human life, as a plot in itself. It's the only plot I'm really interested in. Plots seem quite contrived things, and I don't think writers can get away with them in the way they once did. I think books have changed in that sense. People aren't willing to be so manipulated any more."
   [Interview with Ruth Thomas for The Scottish Book Collector in 2000]

Carol's Jane Austen was published in 2001. It won the Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction in 2002.

Before accepting the request from Penguin Publishers that she write a biography of Jane Austen, Carol had been mulling over the idea of ‘goodness’. As she explained to Eleanor Wachtel:

I have been interested in the idea of goodness for a number of years. I certainly believe in it. I’m like those people who talk about modern art, and they say, “I don’t understand it but I know it when I see it.” I feel I know goodness when I see it, But have a hard time defining what it is.”
   [Random Illuminations, Eleanor Wachtel]

In the novel Unless, nineteen-year-old Nora leaves home and sits mute on a street corner begging for money. Around her neck is hung a sign “Goodness”. Nora’s family is devastated, as they search for reasons why Norah would abandon her university studies, her boyfriend and her family. And, they ask themselves, Why goodness? Unless is Carol Shields’ most overtly feminist book. It was published in 2002 to great critical acclaim, being shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize, the ScotiaBank-Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2002. In 2003 Unless was nominated for the Orange Prize for fiction and won the Ethel Wilson Prize for fiction. Unless was ranked in the top 10 of a list of Britain’s all-time best loved books by women.

Carol was notified by France's Minister of Culture and Communications in 2000 that she had been made a Chevalier dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

In 2001, Carol received The Order Of Manitoba, and she was made Winnipeg's Citizen Of The Year.

2002 saw Carol Shields awarded the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Medal. Also in 2002, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada - Canada's highest honour.

On July 16, 2003, Carol Shields died of breast cancer.


I've had a lucky life. I've been lucky in friendship and lucky in love. And, having a lot of the big pieces of life: having children, having consuming passions, intellectual passions. That has enormously enriched my life. There are all kinds of things that I know nothing about, but I always had something that consumed me. So I think I've been lucky, and that has given me a sense of happiness."
 

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