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carol shields:
the stone diaries


For The Edmonton Sun
4 December 1994

Carol Shields
The Stone Diaries

Carol Shields took a sabbatical from her University of Manitoba teaching job last year, but it was hardly a time of quiet reflection.

Instead, Shields was the centre of international literary attention when her 1993 novel, The Stone Diaries, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The story of a Canadian everywoman whose life spans the history of the 20th century, The Stone Diaries eventually spent 40 weeks on the bestseller list and garnered Shields the Governor General’s Award for fiction.

Shields also spent part of her sabbatical writing a screenplay based on her 1992 novel The Republic of Love, which is a Guardian Fiction Prize winner.

“I’d much rather write novels, I’d just rather!” Shields said during a recent Edmonton visit. “I’m not very film-literate. I don’t go to many movies, and I’m always disappointed in them.”

Ironically, Shields’ novels seem to lend themselves to film projects. Cynthia Scott (A Company of Strangers) is slated to direct The Stone Diaries for the National Film Board while a British-Canadian consortium is working on Swann: A Literary Novel.

Shields focuses on telling the stories of ordinary people. Her fascination with the biographical style of fiction writing arose from her university masters thesis work on Ontario pioneer Susanna Moodie.

“I had just finished my masters on Susanna Moodie and I ended up with far too much material, and the most interesting material was conjectural and I couldn’t use it,” Shields said. “Being the daughter of a thrifty mother, I wondered what I could do with all this stuff. So I decided I would write a novel about a woman who was writing a biography of Susanna Moodie. That was my first novel, about a woman who was a biographer and who was trying to deal with the material, so I was able to use some wonderful stuff.”

Much of The Stone Diaries is set in rural Manitoba at the beginning of the 20th century, but Shields concentrated on portraying Daisy Goodwill as an individual and not as a metaphor for historical movements.

“You’re not constructing someone who epitomizes the whole period. You’re just taking one woman. I suppose I just go with the notion that people’s needs were very much the same then as they are now: the need for basic security, the need for someone to love,” Shields said. “The human personality hasn’t changed that much.”

Certainly, people’s opportunities have changed. Shields did research real-life pioneer biographies to help construct Daisy Goodwill.

“Now these aren’t great books. These are amateurs who wanted to write their lives, and the public library has a little shelf of these good/bad books, as it were. I have to say I love them. They’re like primitive biographies. Actually most people don’t know how to tell their own story. But they’re full of revelations between the lines, so I didn’t use half or a quarter of what I came across.”

Shields’ fascination with the interconnectedness of strangers is probably best illustrated by the intersecting streets and winding rivers of Winnipeg in The Republic of Love. Shields, who grew up in Chicago and has lived in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, says she likes the sense of community she had found in Winnipeg.

“I found that right away, as soon as I got there (in 1980) and started going to gatherings of any sort. People were always knowing each other’s great-uncles, or making connections, like having gone to varsity, as they called it, together,” Shields says. “I was always fascinated by that kind of network because I’d always lived in larger cities, and cities where people were more transient, although where I grew up it was a very, very stable population.

“Whenever I go downtown in Winnipeg, I always meet someone I know. When I go to the airport I always do. And I love it. I know there are people who don’t life it, and find it intrusive, but I adore it.”

Shields and her husband recently returned to Winnipeg after her 15-month sabbatical.

Shields is teaching at the University of Manitoba and has just begun a new novel.

While her work has been recognized with honours, awards and much media attention in the past year, Shields says the great reward of the writing process is the process itself.

“It is the process. It’s not the finished book in publication. I always think of Jean Renoir, the filmmaker, not the artist, saying, ‘art is making’. That’s exactly how I think of it.

“I think I am making something when I’m writing a book, sort of pushing it into shape and moving it around a little bit. That’s where the pleasure is, because when you’re closed in, you’re really like you’re living in a different place. And it’s a nice place to live, you know, to walk around with this big construct in your head all the time. I can’t wait to get back into it again.”

External Link:
Random House of Canada Ltd.



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