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If you like Carol Shields's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Nora Ephron,
Ernest Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
John Irving,
W.S. Merwin,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Amy Tan and
John Updike

Related Links:
Carol Shields Trust
Guardian Interview 1
Guardian Interview 2
Canadian Writers

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Carol Shields
Carol Shields
Profile of Carol Shields Biography of Carol Shields Interview with Carol Shields Carol Shields Photo Gallery

Carol Shields Biography

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Carol Shields Date of birth: June 2, 1935
Date of death: July 16, 2003

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  Carol Shields

The writer known as Carol Shields was born Carol Ann Warner, in Oak Park, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago. The youngest of three children, her father managed a candy factory, her mother taught school. She was drawn to writing from an early age, but gave little thought to pursuing a career as a writer. Girls growing up in her world in the 1950s were expected to go to school and work for a few years, at most, before marrying and raising a family. After marriage, it was assumed, they would subordinate their interests to the needs of their husbands and children.

Young Carol earned a B.A. at Hanover College, Indiana, enjoying a year of study abroad at the University of Exeter in England. She was traveling in Scotland when she met Donald Shields, an engineering student from Canada. The two fell in love, and married shortly after Carol's graduation. The newlyweds moved to Ottawa, Canada, where Donald Shields continued his engineering studies. Carol settled into the domestic life she had always imagined for herself, looking after the house and raising five children.

Carol Shields Biography Photo
Donald's graduate studies took the family to England for three years, and it was on the boat back that Carol first read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Friedan's 1963 book gave voice to the silent frustration of millions of women, and was a major inspiration for the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s. For the first time, Carol Shields began to see herself as something other than a wife and mother. When her youngest children started school, she began to schedule a few hours of writing time each day, meticulously crafting poems inspired by the joys and pains of everyday life. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sponsored a competition for writers under 30, and Carol Shields, at age 29, submitted a set of poems. To her astonishment, she won the competition and heard her poems read on the air. The experience emboldened her, and she persevered with her writing. Her first volume of verse, Others, was published in 1972, and was followed two years later by a second collection, Intersect. At this time, she also took her first job outside the home, as an editorial assistant for the academic journal Canadian Slavonic Papers.

Her readings in feminism drew her attention to the absence of women's voices and experience in contemporary literature, and Shields began to write fiction, while pursuing an M.A. in English at the University of Ottawa. She completed her degree in 1975, and within a year, her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published. The book portrayed a year in the life of an aspiring novelist, like -- and unlike -- Shields herself, struggling to find her voice while coping with the demands of her family. It was followed by The Box Garden in 1977, in which some of the same characters recur. It centers on a woman, still recovering from a painful divorce, who travels across Canada to attend her mother's wedding. That same year, Carol Shields became a professor at the University of Ottawa.

In 1980, Carol's husband Donald took a job teaching engineering at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, deep in central Canada. Carol too became a professor at the University. By this time, she had become a Canadian in spirit, and finally became a Canadian citizen. The cities, landscape and cultural atmosphere of her adopted country would play a large role in her work. Her early books attracted a small, loyal following, but for over a decade, her work was published only in Canada, and she remained unknown to readers in the rest of the English-speaking world. Some critics, mostly male, dismissed her works as "women's novels," humdrum tales of domestic life. Many said they were put off by the normality of her characters, by her apparently optimistic view of life, and most of all, by the occasional happy ending, which her detractors believed had no place in literary fiction.

Carol Shields Biography Photo
Undeterred, Shields wrote steadily through the 1980s. In the linked novels Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman she tells the story of one week in the life of a married couple. One volume describes events from the husband's point of view, the other from the wife's. Two collections of her short stories, Various Miracles and The Orange Fish, also appeared in the 1980s. Although her first four novels were more or less traditional in form, Shields began to experiment more openly in her fiction with Swann: A Mystery in 1987. In Swann, a symposium convenes to discuss the work of a murdered poet, whose work has only come to light since her death. The story is at once a murder mystery, a satire of academic life, and a discourse on the greater mystery of human character. A Celibate Season (1991) is a novel-in-letters, written in collaboration with her friend, Blanche Howard.

Swann caught the attention of an editor at the British publishing house Fourth Estate, and in 1990, Shields acquired her first contract for publication outside Canada. The publisher acquired the rights to her earlier books as well, and soon readers in both Britain and the U.S. were discovering her older works and eagerly awaiting her new ones. Shields also began to write plays, beginning with Departures and Arrivals. A third volume of poetry, Coming to Canada, appeared in 1992. A novel, The Republic of Love, was well received, but it was her next book that was to bring her international fame.

In The Stone Diaries, published in 1993, the protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Flett, recounts the events of a long, frustrated life, from 1905 to the 1990s. A child of the century, Daisy awakens in mid-life to a world of missed opportunities before age forces her to contemplate her own mortality. Once again, Carol Shields dealt with the interior life of a woman living through an apparently unremarkable daily routine, but the book's depth of emotional perception, and its exquisite precision of language, captivated readers on both sides of the border and both shores of the Atlantic.

Carol Shields Biography Photo
The Stone Diaries sold well and was nominated for every literary prize in sight. In 1995, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the most prestigious literary award in the United States. It also received the Governor General's Award, the most coveted literary prize in Canada. To date, it is the only book ever to win both of these awards. Carol Shields now found herself in great demand as a lecturer and reviewer. In 1996 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She continued to write plays, including Thirteen Hands (1993), and two collaborations, Fashion Power Guilt and the Charity of Families in 1995 and Anniversary: A Comedy in 1998.

Shields did not neglect the novel, completing Larry's Party in 1997. Unusually, she found herself writing from the point of view of a male character, and she interviewed male friends exhaustively to make his viewpoint complete and convincing. Like a number of her female protagonists, Larry Weller appears at first to be an unremarkable person, but his vocation as a designer of elaborate garden mazes becomes a rich metaphor for the insoluble riddle of human personality. The book oscillates between events taking place 20 years apart, and concludes with an exrtaordinary chapter, the party of the title, presented entirely in dialogue among nine distinct and identifiable voices. Among other prizes, Larry's Party received the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States and Britain's Orange Prize.

Over the years, Carol Shields had become one of her adopted country's most honored citizens, a member of the order of Manitoba, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a Companion to the Order of Canada. In 1998, the year of her interview with the Academy of Achievement, Shields was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. While undergoing treatment, she discussed her condition publicly, while continuing to work as intensely as her health allowed.

Carol Shields Biography Photo
When Donald Shields retired from teaching in 2000, the couple settled in Victoria, British Columbia. Carol Shields published a third volume of short stories, Dressing Up For the Carnival, and the following year she published an acclaimed biography of Jane Austen, one of her literary heroes. She also edited an anthology, Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told, in which Canadian women from many walks of life wrote candidly about emotionally significant experiences that are customarily excluded from public conversation. Her last novel, Unless, appeared in 2002. In this book, a successful author and translator, Reta Winters, struggles with grief over a daughter who has dropped out of college to beg on the street.

The following year, Carol Shields succumbed to cancer at the age of 68. She was survived by her husband, a son, four daughters and 11 grandchildren. A last play, Duet, was published that year, and her Collected Stories were published posthumously. Her passing was felt especially deeply in Canada, where she was a particularly beloved public figure. Her contribution to literature is a lasting one; her work is studied by academics and read for pleasure by ordinary readers. One of her daughters, Anne Giardini, is following in her mother's footsteps as a novelist, carrying the literary venture of the Shields women into another generation.

This page last revised on Apr 07, 2008 15:22 EDT
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