DATE May 1, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Carol Shields discusses her career in writing and her
new book "Unless"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Carol Shields, is best known for her novel "The Stone Diaries,"
which won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize as well as a National Book Critics Circle
Award. It was a best-seller in the States and a popular choice for book
clubs. Success came as a surprise to Shields. She's the mother of five,
started writing late, and didn't even publish her first novel until the age of
40. She compensated by writing 10 novels, two collections of short stories,
and a biography of Jane Austen. She spent most of her life in Canada. Her
husband, Don, was dean at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Two years
ago they moved to Victoria, British Columbia.
Now at the age of 66, Carol Shields has stage IV breast cancer. After she was
diagnosed, she started writing her new novel, which she expects will be her
last. It's called "Unless," and it's about a woman whose life is suddenly
changed from relative happiness to despair when her oldest daughter falls off
the track of normal life. The main character, Reta, is a 43-year-old woman in
a comfortable marriage with three teen-age daughters. Reta is a moderately
successful writer about to begin a new novel when her life is turned upside
down. Here's the first paragraph.
Ms. CAROL SHIELDS (Author, "Unless"): `It happens that I'm going through a
period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I've heard people
speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but
I've never understood what they meant--to lose, to have lost. I believed
these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours, and that
these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with
the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought.
Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all
your cunning just to hang on to it. And once it's smashed, you have to move
into a different sort of life.'
GROSS: That's Carol Shields reading the opening of her new novel "Unless."
Was the idea of great unhappiness and loss as foreign to you as it is to your
main character, Reta?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, I would have to say that's true. Someone--an
interviewer--once asked me what was the worst thing that had ever happened to
me. This was somewhere in the States a few years ago. And I said, `It hasn't
happened yet.' I couldn't think of it. But a short while after that, I had a
daughter going to school at Cambridge, and she was hit by a truck. She was
hit so hard, that the windshield shattered on her head and she survived that
accident, in fact came through it very well, but when I think of that and, of
course, the breath leaves my body when I think of it, that would be the great
GROSS: I thought you were gonna say the great unhappiness was your illness.
I didn't realize that that had happened to your daughter.
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, yes, of course, and then this, but otherwise I suppose
I've lived quite a fortunate life. But when I was 63, I was suddenly
diagnosed with breast cancer, and then I did have to--it did change my life
from before this cancer to after the cancer. I did--of course, as everyone
does, I did a lot of grieving about this, and trying to pull myself back
together so that I could become a working writer and a working, functioning
GROSS: Was it hard to write again? To find, like, the focus and the interest
in something outside of your own story and your own symptoms and your own
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, it was very hard to start writing again. Fortunately, I
did have a deadline for a book of short stories that was to delivered March
the 1st, so it--I spent about a month not writing, not thinking--or thinking
that the world does not need another book, particularly a book that I might
write. But what I found was, oddly enough, that it was something to do,
something to do with myself. I had a job of work to do, and it really didn't
matter what it was. I could go to my office and I could work, and so it
turned out to be a distraction and quite a wonderful distraction.
GROSS: In your novel, the main character's teen-age daughter is living on a
street corner under a lamppost wearing a cardboard sign on her chest that says
`goodness.' She's living basically like a homeless person, not bathing, her
hair is all matted. In your book, the characters come up with different
theories, usually different feminist theories...
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: ...about why this daughter has made herself into a homeless person and
sitting with that sign that says `goodness' around her chest. The mother
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: ...well, maybe it's 'cause as a woman, she's capable of thinking of
goodness but not of reaching greatness, 'cause a woman's role is so
circumscribed in the world now. And then another feminist writer thinks that
Norah has simply succumbed to the traditional role of women without power.
She's accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total passivity, a kind of
impotent piety. In doing nothing, she has claimed everything. You know, of
course, I hope I'm not giving too much away here to say that their theories
are really wrong. Do you see this book, in part, as being about the
limitations of using social theory or feminist theory to actually understand
what goes on in a person's mind?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. I think, in fact, all the people who offer advice are both
right and both all wrong. That is what has led to this estrangement and this
behavior is all of those things. I remember when I was a child and my
childhood was in the '40s, early '30s--late '30s and early '40s--I remember my
mother sitting down with the three children at the kitchen table and saying to
us, `You can be anything you want, even president of the United States.' And
I knew--I must have been about eight years old--I knew that wasn't true. And
I knew she knew it wasn't true. It was what people said. And my own
daughter, who has a daughter herself, wonders what she can say to her daughter
about what she will be allowed to be and do, how much actual freedom, how much
of her own life she can take hold of. So those were all the things that I was
GROSS: Reta, the main character in your novel, who's a mother and a writer,
she's very conscious of being a woman writer and she believes that, sadly, men
aren't interested in women's lives and that women's fiction isn't taken as
seriously as men's fiction. Has that been your experience as a writer?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, that has been my experience, that women writers tend not to
be taken as seriously as male writers.
GROSS: How have you felt that in your career?
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, in a sense I haven't objected. When people say, for
example, that I am a woman's writer, I mean, what does that mean really? Does
it mean I write about women? Certainly that is true. I do. Are my readers
women? Well, yes. I think there are more male readers than there used to be,
but I know that the readers of my fiction are mostly women of different ages.
And so if that's what it means to be a women's writer, what I was concerned
about is that women characters are so seldom placed as the moral center of the
novel, and if one puts a male character there instead of a woman, the novel
always seems to be taken more seriously.
Now you can look at Jane Austen's novels, of course, as great exceptions. I
think they are. I think the women are, however, certainly the center of those
novels, and they were the first novels I ever read, by the way, in which they
were intelligent women. But the--of course, these women want to secure
marriages for themselves, advantageous marriages, and one thinks that that
point is where they lose their moral authority that they have built up in the
book. So I think it's very hard writing novels seriously about serious women.
GROSS: As your main character is writing her comic novel about Alicia and
Roman, the couple she's writing about, she says, `I must start thinking
seriously about Alicia and Roman's sex life. I have to be braver about it
this time around. An awful maidenly daintiness runs through the pages of my
previous book, a prudery that has nothing to do with sex in the 21st century.'
What are some of the difficulties you've faced in your books writing about
sex? What are some of the stages you've gone through in trying to figure out
how to do it?
Ms. SHIELDS: How to do it? Well, the problem is the language of sex is so
eroded. There are just so many phrases. This is why they have these
marvelous competitions to find out who writes the worst sex scene of the year.
It's very hard to write about something like this. `And then he pressed his
lips against her. Then he kissed her full on the mouth,' etc., etc. To do it
freshly, to do it again, I found that difficult. I found it difficult because
of my generation, because I am now 66, and I came through the period where I
think Ernest Hemingway was not allowed to say `damn' in his novels. He had to
say `darn.' Those are the books I was reading. Sex was veiled, pretty much,
And then I was always thinking, of course, conscious of the fact that I had
children and I had children who went to school, and I didn't want--I was
concerned about them thinking about their mother writing sex scenes. I
realize this sounds a bit ridiculous, but I did go through that
GROSS: What did you think it would say about you if your children found out
that Mom wrote sex scenes?
Ms. SHIELDS: I think they would have been embarrassed, you know, among their friends, so I wrote sort of around the sex scenes and sort of directly into
GROSS: In your book "The Stone Diaries," the novel that won the Pulitzer
Prize, you're following the life of a woman who's born in 1905 and lives to
the age of 85, so this covers most of the 20th century, but because she's born
in 1905, she's actually very--I shouldn't say because she's born then, but you
were just talking about generations. You know, her generational style was to
be very uncomfortable with sexuality. I think for her, sex was more of a
mysterious duty than anything else. Was it easy for you to find her point of
view about sex and to write about it from her point of view?
Ms. SHIELDS: Oh, I--of course, I had a mother born in 1902, and I remember
some of--and my mother did very well compared to most mothers talking about
such things. I remember that she took us to the Art Institute in Chicago and
she told us before we went in very carefully that we would be seeing unclothed
men and women statues in the Art Institute and that the human body was a
beautiful thing, and so--but at home, she dressed in the closet, and so there
was another side to her. And I never thought of this as hypocrisy. I thought
she was trying to work this out in her own mind and just had a little trouble
getting it all together.
She did very well, I think, in talking to us about sex. I think she did
better than I did with my children, in fact. But there was a lot that she
missed, and I don't know if I should say this, but I can remember when I was
packing for my honeymoon, this would be 1957--and she wanted to--the honeymoon
was a week long. She wanted to make sure I had seven nightgowns because she
said, rather obliquely, `It's actually awfully messy.' So that was the
message that I got about the sexual life that awaited me.
GROSS: So has writing about sexuality become more comfortable over the years
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, I don't do it as well as some people do. I think other
people are able to do it better than I do. But I do realize that it is part
of all our lives and you really can't miss it out altogether.
GROSS: Well, I will say that in your new book, the main character is very
comfortable with sex and really seems to enjoy it with her husband, not that
that's at the center of the book, but it's almost like a sanctuary for them in
this terrible time.
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: It's something that they can still partake in and appreciate.
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. Yes. So perhaps you're saying it has got easier. And,
of course, my children have grown up and...
GROSS: That's right.
Ms. SHIELDS: And we're living in a different era.
GROSS: My guest is writer Carol Shields, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel "The Stone Diaries." Her new novel is called "Unless." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Carol Shields is my guest. She's the author of the Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel "The Stone Diaries." Her new book is a novel called
"The Stone Diaries" is set in the past. It begins in around 1905 and
continues through most of the 20th century. Do you feel like you were able to
use a different voice from your contemporary fiction voice because this novel
is about an older woman, and because so much of it is set in an earlier part
of the 20th century?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. What you're talking about actually gave me enormous
pleasure in the writing of this book, and I don't think I ever wrote with more
happiness than when I wrote "The Stone Diaries." I did feel that sense of a
period phrase. I can remember, for example, my mother saying to us,
`Lickety-split,' and I remember saying it to my children. But my children
don't say it. And so I was just very interested in finding period phrases and
getting them into the right era. And do you know the expression, `I'll see
you in the movies'?
Ms. SHIELDS: Oh, it means just, `I'll see you around.' And I didn't know
when that came into currency, but one of my colleagues at the university was
able to pin that one down for me to 1929. So I was interested in that kind of
thing. And the style of writing. But the book is really about life filtered
through Daisy Goodwill's own brain. Her...
GROSS: She's the main character.
Ms. SHIELDS: She's the main character--through her consciousness. She was a
woman who cared deeply what other people thought about her, and so
everything--all the other voices are really filtered through her
consciousness. So that was a very interesting psychological puzzle, and it
also involved a kind of historical puzzle, because people did speak and wrote
letters very differently in 1910 than they did later on. And I--well, I read
magazines. I read some old newspapers, especially the society columns, to get
a sense of that voice and that period sound.
GROSS: And in addition to phrases that are now archaic, what are some of the
differences you found in conversation and writing style from the early 1900s?
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, people mostly were more formal in their speech. But, of
course, they were more silent. I always think that the greatest tragedy of
our parents' lives, people of my generation, is that so much went unsaid,
unspoken, unshared. So many silences. Such fear of emotion, such fear of
breaking taboos. I don't honestly believe that the consciousness of an early
20th-century person is very much different than the consciousness of today's
society, but I think the language is different, the use of language, the
sparsity of language between people, the number of things that weren't in the
narrative, that were left out of the narrative.
GROSS: A lot of reading groups, book clubs, chose your book as a book to
read. And in fact, at the back of one of the paperback editions of "The Stone
Diaries" there are questions that reading groups can use as discussion points.
How do you feel about that? How do you feel about having a list of...
Ms. SHIELDS: I feel very...
Ms. SHIELDS: I feel very negative about that. I think anyone who picks up a
book should not have to get to a quiz at the end of it. And I never had it
again, and never want to. They do the book club guides now, of course, over
the Internet. But I don't like the idea of this being bound into the book.
It changes the book as we know it, and the shape of the book, the arc of the
book. So I don't think it's a good idea. I belong to a book club. We
wouldn't have used a reader's guide for anything in the world.
GROSS: Why not?
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, we set our own agenda.
Ms. SHIELDS: We had our own questions, our own experiences to bring to the
reading. I think we would have felt put upon. But I also know people who
welcome that kind of direction.
GROSS: Carol Shields is the author of the new novel "Unless." She won a 1995
Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Stone Diaries." She'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; funding credits)
GROSS: Coming up, motherhood, feminism and writing. We continue our
conversation with Carol Shields. Also Ken Tucker reviews Bonnie Raitt's new
CD "Silver Lining," and linguist Geoff Nunberg considers a word that's making
a comeback, chastity.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Carol Shields. Her
best-selling novel "The Stone Diaries" won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize and a
National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new novel, "Unless," was written
after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It's about a 43-year-old wife,
mother and writer who is experiencing profound unhappiness for the first time
in her life. Shields is the author of 10 novels, but she didn't get started
until relatively late. Her first novel was published when she was 40.
You were married when you were 22, and you had five children in 10 years. Did
you fall in love with motherhood?
Ms. SHIELDS: I loved motherhood. People were having large families; this was
through the '60s. I loved children, I was interested in children. Well, I
would say it was a wonderful period of my life. I think I thought it would go
on forever, but of course it doesn't. And, I mean, the children gradually
become more and more independent and gradually, and quite quickly, you know,
leave home. So I've had an empty nest since 1985.
GROSS: Uh-huh. That's when the last child left home?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: And how did you discover feminism?
Ms. SHIELDS: I discovered feminism late. I came to 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
I have to say it did just--it was like a thunder bolt. 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.
GROSS: Is that when you started writing?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, it was about the same time, and that was probably something
of a coincidence of time. I'd had my fifth child, and she was going half days
to school, and 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'll publish a book.' So that, in fact, is what they did, and then
they published another book two years later. So I had the two early books of
poetry before I sat down to write a novel.
GROSS: As much as you loved being a mother...
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes.
GROSS: ...as a mother of five who was just kind of discovering feminism and
discovering that you liked to write and had a gift for writing, did you ever
resent all the responsibilities of motherhood?
Ms. SHIELDS: No. I can't think now why I didn't resent it. You know, the
lives of middle-class women of my generation were rather predictable. The
idea that we would marry--you know, even those of us who had a degree, we
would marry, we would have children, we would--I guess I thought we would have
dinner parties. I didn't know women who did, really, other things, so I
expected that I would do this. It was a very happy period of my life. I have
to say this, I think I had very nice children. It doesn't seem to me that it
was a difficult period. No, there were people all around me doing the same
thing, my women friends, my coffee klatch friends were all doing this, too.
And I sometimes think that the old coffee klatch idea is belittled, but for us
this was the beginning of feminism for many of us. This is where we talked
about these things for the first time.
GROSS: How did you find time to write as the mother of five, particularly
when your children were young?
Ms. SHIELDS: You know, everyone asks me this, including my own children.
What my children forget is that I did not have a job, so they're all raising
children and having jobs, but I didn't have a job. So I tried to--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, but it's funny because now I have the whole
day and my output is no more than it was then.
But this was how I organized that time, that I would give myself one to two
pages a day, and if I didn't get to my two pages, I would get into bed at
night with one of, you know, those thick, yellow tablets of lined paper, and I
would do two quick pages and then turn off the light. And so that I did this
for nine months, and at the end of nine months, I had a novel. And I never
wrote as quickly again, I never wrote in such an organized way again. But it
was--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.
GROSS: And is that the novel that was published, "Small Ceremony"?
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: So you were 40 when that was actually published.
Ms. SHIELDS: Yes, I was.
GROSS: My guest is writer Carol Shields, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel "The Stone Diaries." Her novel is called "Unless." We'll talk more
after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Carol Shields is my guest. She's the author of the Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel "The Stone Diaries." Her new novel is called "Unless."
Npr site – 25:23 – beginning of reel four, of obit brdcst
I know that you have stage IV breast cancer. Can I ask how your health is?
Ms. SHIELDS: Well, I'm not in very good health. I do have--you know, I mean,
I'm under care here in Victoria. My cancer was discovered rather late, and
I've had several recurrences, so I'm not in particularly good health now.
GROSS: Was it an act of faith to start a novel and expect to live at least
until the end of it? Or were you given a kind of good enough prognosis that
that wasn't an issue?
Ms. SHIELDS: I wanted something to do. I wanted work to do. I didn't think
I could finish it. My last few novels have been rather long. This one is a
little shorter. And then I had a surgical procedure which gave me three
excellent months where some of my old energy came back to me. So I had those
months to finish the novel, and I was astonished that at the end of August one
day I looked up and I realized I had finished the novel. And I was so happy,
I wanted to run out in the street and give people money and take in their
mending. I don't remember ever finishing a novel and being so happy about it.
I suppose--I don't know, it was a marvelous blessing.
GROSS: Illness often changes a person's relationship to religion in making
them either more or less inclined to have faith. In "The Stone Diaries," in
talking about the religious impulse, the main character says, `There are
ecstatics like my father who become addicted to the rarified air of spiritual
communion, and there are cooler minds who claim that religion exists in order
to keep us from feeling our own absurdity.' Where did you...
Ms. SHIELDS: Did I write that?
Ms. SHIELDS: I can't remember that.
GROSS: Where do you fit in there, and do you feel like you've been changed by
cancer in terms of your own sense of religion or lack of faith?
Ms. SHIELDS: I was brought up in the Methodist Church in the United States,
and then to the United Church in Canada and then became a Quaker and then
became nothing. I still call myself a Quaker, although I don't go to meeting
any longer, but I feel a certain kinship and nostalgia for my Protestant
background and those that shared it, that whole community. But I haven't been
a believer for a long time, and I think I always knew, in one way or another,
that it was a metaphor, that the Old Testament was this sort of metaphor of
beginning and the New Testament a metaphor for beginning again. And I think I
always knew that. I wasn't able to manage the other beliefs.
GROSS: I WANT TO READ YOU ANOTHER SENTENCE FROM "THE STONE DIARIES," AND THIS IS FROM A CHAPTER THAT TAKES PLACE IN 1985 WHEN THE MAIN CHARACTER IS 80 YEARS OLD, AND SHE SAYS SUDDENLY HER BODY IS ALL THAT MATTERS, HOW IT'S LET HER DOWN
AND `HOW FUNDAMENTALLY LONELY IT IS TO LIVE INSIDE A BODY YEAR AFTER YEAR AND CARRY IT ALWAYS IN A FORWARD DIRECTION AND HOW THERE IS NEVER ANY RELIEF FROM THE WEIGHT OF IT, EVEN WHEN SLEEPING, EVEN WHEN JOINED BRIEFLY TO THE BODY OF
ANOTHER.' HOW DOES THAT READ TO YOU NOW?
Ms. SHIELDS: It reads to me like something I would say today. The body that
we live in, the changing body, the aging body, the ailing body, I think we're
very conscious, we can't really get away from it. I suppose we have to find a
place of protection and think as well of ourselves as we can during this
GROSS: A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE VERY CONCERNED WITH HAVING A LEGACY, AN ARTISTIC OUTPUT THAT WILL OUTLIVE THEM. NOW THAT YOU ARE ILL, DOES IT MATTER ANY MORE OR LESS TO YOU THAT YOU WILL HAVE YOUR BOOKS AS A LEGACY?
Ms. SHIELDS: You know, people think that would make a difference. People say this to me, `At least you've written your books,' the kind of people who say,
`What have I done in my life?' etc. But the fact is, I don't think that. You
know, I'm a realist, and I know the shelf life of a book is about four months.
The day that I got the Pulitzer Prize, I met Margot Jefferson and she said,
`You know what this means, don't you?' And I said, `No, what?' And she said,
`You already know the first line of your obituary.' And, of course, I do.
And I found that rather frightening. But someone sent me a list of all the
Pulitzer Prize winners since something like 1915, I think, and half of them
I'd never heard of, half of them.
So I don't think literary reputations live on, very few of them. Books, you
know, fall out of the public eye. So I don't have a sense of leaving anything
permanent at all. I suppose one thinks of one's children as what you leave
permanently, and their children. Naturally I like to write books that people
enjoy reading, but the literary legacy, no, it's very unimportant to me.
GROSS: I KNOW YOU'RE NOT WELL; I KNOW YOU HAVE CANCER. ARE YOU AFRAID OF DEATH?
Ms. SHIELDS: No, I'm not afraid of death. I've had three years, kind of
bonus years, really, and I think it's just one instant away from being alive.
I don't think it's far away at all, and I'm not afraid of it at all or
anything involved with it.
GROSS: Well, Carol Shields, I really appreciate your talking with us, and I
wish you the best. Thank you so much.
Ms. SHIELDS: Thank you very much.