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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
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Carol Shields Interview

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Carol Shields

When did you have an idea that you wanted to write fiction?

Carol Shields: 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. It didn't feel achievable. And so, for many years, like all of the girls of my generation, I married young and had a family and didn't do any writing at all, until the last child entered school, and then I began to think about, well, maybe I could. I was a poet first. It seems like another life to have been a poet, but I did have two books of poetry published in my 30s, which is pretty late for a poet, actually. They're supposed to be dead at 29.

I wanted to write a novel because I loved to read novels, and 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. So I wanted to write the book that I couldn't find, as it were. So I sat down, when the kids were at school -- I was a stay-at-home mother, and I wrote while they were at school -- and put this novel together over a period of nine months. I always thought that was a sort of interesting length of time. Because at the end of nine months I had a novel. It was a short novel, and it seems to me today, when I look at that novel, a little bit on the spare side. But it was published. It was accepted on my 40th birthday, which made that birthday a much happier one than it might have been, and it won a prize in Canada, and I was sort of on my way. After that, I thought, well, this is something I love to do and maybe it's something I can do. So that's how my writing life evolved.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Didn't you say once that you were almost embarrassed by the idea of wanting to be a writer, like wanting to be president, because it seemed that far off a dream?

Carol Shields: Yes. Well, being a writer, when you think about it, is a very presumptuous thing to be. I meet people every day who are better educated, better traveled, wiser, older, whatever. Why would anyone care about anything I had to put on the page? So I did, yes, I felt -- I felt uncomfortable, and that had to do, I suppose, with growing up as a girl in America and thinking that these things could not be allowed; that you couldn't have a voice.

Let's go back to your childhood a little bit. Where did you grow up, and what did your parents do?

Carol Shields: 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.

It seemed, you know, that childhood, when I look back on it, was far more complex than I realized at the time. Not everything fit into the pattern. It's something that I want to go back to one day and look at it again. There were puzzling pieces to that whole childhood that I either refused to look at or didn't quite manage to articulate to myself.

Were you in a big family?

Carol Shields: 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 school teacher. She went back to school teaching. They needed teachers after the war. So 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. It was funny, I grew up with a funny idea about work.

People in those days had -- in the '40s, '50s -- had two weeks vacation a year. That was it. And it seemed to me that work was something to dread. It was an oppressive obligation that weighted all of us when we got through the charmed childhood. People spoke about work as something that was a burden that they had to bear. But I had a teacher in Grade 4 -- and, by the way, all of the schools in my town were named after writers, so this was Ralph Waldo Emerson Public School -- I could tell she loved her job. She loved it. She got there early, started each day with sort of a joyous burst, was devoted to us. I could tell she loved her job, and that was a very important thing for me to understand and to understand it early, that work could be a good thing.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

You said you're the youngest of three. Do you think that being the youngest affected your personality?

Carol Shields: It probably did. Looking back, it did probably affect. I was certainly a very cherished child in the family. My parents -- my terrible little poems I wrote as a child, they were very encouraging about these. I remember my mother sitting at the kitchen table and writing down, "Spring is here. Hooray. Hooray. Boys and girls come out to play." All of this terrible drivel, but she would actually commit it to paper.

Were you close to your siblings?

Carol Shields Interview Photo
Carol Shields: I had a brother and sister who were twins, and they were a year and a half older than I was. Very close to them, no. But maybe not, you know, we tend to have friends our own age and in our own grade at that time. It was sort of a contented family without being a particularly happy family, and that's something, you know, I'm still thinking about how all that worked.

What about your brother and sister now?

Carol Shields: My brother is a retired engineer. He was a mechanical engineer. My sister was a school teacher, and she is retired now.

Were they kind of a close duo because of being twins?

Carol Shields: No, not at all, and they are not particularly today even. That twinship thing didn't seem to produce any particular waves of great affection or -- that is curious. Their interests were very different, and their lives have gone in very different ways.

Last year we interviewed Frank Sulloway, who wrote the book Born to Rebel about birth order. It's his contention that the youngest is often the revolutionary, the daredevil. Was that at all true?

Carol Shields: I've read that book, and with enormous interest because I have five children myself and, of course, I was interested in how all of that worked out. One of the things he says, of course, is that the youngest is the creative one. I think, in the case of our family, that may have been so, that I was allowed a kind of, a set of freedoms that maybe my brother and sister were not, though we were, of course, quite close in age. As far as being a revolutionary, it seemed to me that I was in a revolt against nothing that I could name. But of course, just being a writer is a form of rebellion.


Carol Shields: I've led a creative life. It doesn't fit into the standard sets of professions that, perhaps, our parents saw for us. 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.

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