COVER

CAROL SHIELDS

‘I felt bolder because this is my last novel, probably’

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON December 24 2001
COVER

CAROL SHIELDS

‘I felt bolder because this is my last novel, probably’

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON December 24 2001

CAROL SHIELDS

‘I felt bolder because this is my last novel, probably’

CHRISTOPHER MORRIS

On a radiant day in November, the elegant lunch-hour crowd is out in full force at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, basking in the pleasure of seeing and being seen. But what few seem to notice in the noontime bustle is a diminutive woman nestled at a corner table. Carol Shields, on the other hand, misses nothing. Backlit by the sun, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist is savouring each detail, from the crab cakes to the crackle in the air, and the memory of the night before. Pale and tired, she is nonetheless glowing as she describes the Giller Prize gala. “Cancer makes you more hungry for life than you’ve ever been,” confides Shields, who was diagnosed with the disease three years ago. “Of course, writers love the company of other writers.” Still, she has one regret: forgetting to take note of what others wore, as she had promised a friend. “When it comes to jewelry and clothes,” says Shields, “I’m afraid I’m not very observant.” Unobservant? Hardly. Here is a writer with an extraordinary gift for capturing both the surface of things, and more importantly, what lies beneath; a woman of shimmering intelligence whose powers of observation have won her a devoted international following and a slew of literature’s most coveted prizes, including the Pulitzer, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Orange Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Whether tracing the arc of a fictional woman’s life through the past century in The Stone Diaries, or a 20-year span in a man’s life in Larry’s Party, Shields is both astringent and generous in her understanding of human experience. And this year, at 66, she has ridden high on the best-seller

lists once again with both her biography of Jane Austen and Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told, an anthology of women’s essays, edited with her friend Marjorie Anderson.

Born in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Shields remembers learning to read as “one of the few spiritual experiences” in her many-chaptered life. Her early years followed a traditional script: marriage at 22 to Don Shields, a Canadian engineering grad student whom she met while she was studying at Exeter University in England-a union she calls “my great good luck.”There was the busy work of mothering a son and four daughters, and a series of moves: Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg. But early on, she began stealing moments to write, poetry then fiction, publishing her first novel at 40. Over the years, an acute feminist voice emerged. “People say, ‘Oh, women have come so far!’ ” says Shields. “But no, they haven’t. Women are casually disregarded. I see it every day. The question is: how do you accommodate feminist rage if you love men and have men you love?”

Last week, Shields was home in Victoria, putting the finishing touches on her 10th novel, Unless, a book she calls her “great companion” and her most overtly feminist to date. “I felt bolder because this is my last novel, probably,” says Shields. “I never got into this warrior spirit of fighting cancer.

I knew from the beginning that this was bad news. If I were 46 instead of 66,1 would feel ambushed. But I’ve seen my children grow up. I’ve had a wonderful middle age. I’ve done everything that I wanted to do, and I’m grateful.”

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON