The Stone Diaries sat next to the cash register on the counter of the local women’s bookstore long before there was a buzz surrounding it in the mainstream press.
I loved that little off-sized hardcover and I read it twice through, once and then, immediately, again. She was one of the first authors to make my MRE (Must Read Everything) list and is one of few whose works I have read (in many cases) repeatedly.
Which might explain why I feel I need to have more than single copies of so many of them. (That and the whole compulsive book-collecting streak.)
As a reader I have found great pleasure and value in her works, but as a writer they have been integrally important. I keep a notebook of quotes that I re-read when a rejection particularly niggles and this quote from Carol Shields is at the top of the page: “I don’t think in terms of plot very much, very little in fact, but I think that the arc of the human life is a plot and it is enough of a plot, for me.”
In her essay “About Writing”, Carol Shields writes: “Nevertheless, over a lifetime I have convinced myself – on good days, at least – that we all possess a domestic space, and that it is mainly within this domestic arc that we express the greater part of our consciousness. My faith in this idea comes and goes, rallies and subsides, but I want, above all else, to be allowed to stare at the question seriously.”
There is a lovely picture-soaked biography at the Carol Shields Literary Trust site and the CBC Obituary includes a biography, photographs, interviews with and about Carol Shields, readings from some of her works, and archived articles and materials. I’ve collected these quotes below (from her fiction and other writings), which consider or brush up against the question of identity: they feel quintessentially Shields-ish to me:
“This is, in the end, what matters: the novels themselves, and not the day-to-day life of the author, the cups of tea she sipped with her neighbours, the cream cakes she bought at a bakery.”
Jane Austen: A Penguin Life
All girls like me who were good at school but suffered from miserable girlhoods were sustained for years on end by the resources of the public libraries of this continent.
I very early formed the notion of being a writer, all the while knowing that this was impossible. Writers were like movie stars. Writers were men. […] My real life, as I saw it, was entirely predictable: I would get married, have children and live in a house much like the one I grew up in.
Interview with Joan Thomas (1994)
I am watching. My own life will never be enough for me. It is a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life. I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I’m stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards.
People wake up feeling ugly and lonely and weak and they’d just as soon hide out at home, right? But all they have to do is reconnect. Get their hearts restarted. It’s hard work being a person, you have to do it every single day.
Republic of Love
“Why don’t you ask me about me? Me, me, me. Like maybe why I’m going down to L.A. and what I want out of life and whose sheet I’m washing down at the laundromat every Saturday morning –
“Departures and Arrivals”
I stopped assembling; I discovered that I could bury in my writing the greater part of my pain and humiliation.
The Box Garden
They love the word ‘goodish,’ as in goodish sunsets, goodish travel bargains, goodish men.
Republic of Love
You touch the other so intimately and your care for him/her is so great that you can actually feel what it is like to be that person. I think that is one of our great longings in life – to be that close to another.
Interview with Marjorie Anderson (1993)
Married! It was another state of being, a state that was sealed like an envelope in its inviolability. The state of marriage was secret and safe, a circle of charmed light beyond the horizon of the easily capsized now.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
Sitting upstairs in an old sewing room and making up stories does not always feel like an appropriate occupation for a grown woman.
I always think that the people who read my books and respond to them are people who would be my friends; in fact, I met a woman who said she feels that she is me when she reads my books. It was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me.
Interview with Marjorie Anderson
The importance of place in Carol Shields’ writing is perhaps less immediately evident than that of L.M. Montgomery’s passion for Prince Edward Island or Timothy Findley’s love of Stone Orchard, but it is significant in its own way.
The population of Winnipeg is six hundred thousand, a fairly large city, with people who tend to stay put. Families overlap with families, neighborhoods with neighborhoods. You can’t escape it. Generations interweave so that your mother’s friends (Onion Boyle, Muriel Brewmaster, and dozens more) formed a squadron of secondary aunts. You were always running into someone you’d gone to school with or someone whose uncle worked with someone else’s father. The tentacles of connection were long, complex, and full of the bitter or amusing ironies that characterize blood families.
The Republic of Love
I live in someone else’s whimsy, a Hansel and Gretel house on a seventeen-foot lot on the south side of Chicago. Little paned casement windows, a fairy-tale door, a sweet round chimney and, on the roof, cedar shakes pretending to be thatch. It’s a wonderful roof, a roof that gladdens the eye, peaky and steep and coming down in soft waves over the windows with fake Anne Hathaway fullness.
We live on a steep hill. This is rolling country on the whole, so our rocky perch is a geological anomaly, chosen no doubt because it offered a firm foundation as well as a view. The house is a hundred years old, a simple brick Ontario farmhouse that has been much added on to by its several previous inhabitants, and by us. It has weathered into durable authenticity, withstanding the scorchings and freezings of the Ontario climate.
The towns they pass through are poor, but have seen better days. Sidewalks leading up to lovely old houses have crumbled along their edges, and the houses themselves have started to deteriorate; many are for sale. Dark shaggy cottonwood bend down their branches to meet the graceful pitch of the roofs. Everywhere in these little towns there are boarded-up railway stations, high schools, laundries, cafés, plumbing supply stores, filling stations. And almost everywhere, it seems, the commercial center has shrunk to a single, blinking, all-purpose, twenty-four-hour outlet at the end of town – pathetically, but precisely names: the Mini-Mart, the Superette, the Quik-Stop.
“Milk Bread Beer Ice” The Orange Fish
The house they [the Goodwills] live in faced directly on to the lime kilns of Stonewall. It sat at the end of a dirty road, its porch askew. The windows, flecked with yellow ash from the kilns, went unwashed from one year to the next, and the kitchen roof leaked; it had always leaked. In rainy weather the chimney smoked. Bread baked in this house was heavy, uneven, scarce.
The Stone Diaries
‘You can never tell about the weather here,’ her mother had said, puzzled. This was a point scored against France, a plus for Manitoba, where you at least knew what to expect. “Sailors Lost at Sea”
And that’s when he really knew how cold the wind had got. It puffed his shirt-sleeves up like a couple of balloons, so that all of a sudden he had these huge brand-new muscles. Superman. This it shifted around quick, and there he was with his shirt pressed flat against his arms and chest, puny and shrunk-up. The next minute he was inflated again. Then it all got sucked out. In and out, in and out. The windiest city in the country, in North America. It really was.
The Sloans have even acquired something of the Paris look of indifference and suffering, elbows tucked close to the body, feet sturdily planted, eyes directed inward as though recalling past holidays or rehearsing those to come: Brittany, the Alps, the spicy smell of forests, distances and vistas, here and yet not here, the Gallic knack of being everywhere and nowhere, or possessing everything and nothing.
“Hinterland” The Orange Fish
She was twenty-one when he first saw her, seated rather primly next to him on the Piccadilly Line, heading toward South Kensington. It was midafternoon. Like every other young woman in London, she was dressed from head to toe in a shadowless black, and on her lap sat a leather satchel.
“New Music” Dressing for the Carnival
But it was the hedges of England, even more than the trees, that brought him a sense of wonderment. Such shady density, like an artist’s soft pencil, working its way across the English terrain. Why hadn’t his parents told him about this astonishing thing they’d grown up with?
Turning from the scenery, she observes the human activity around her, and, paragraph by paragraph, she describes the reactions of her fellow tourists. Their multiple presence forms particles through which she can see, as through a prism, the glorious and legendary spectacle of Niagara Falls. Once again she finds her own way out.
Small Ceremonies (1976)
The Box Garden (1977)
A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982)
A Celibate Season (with Blanche Howard) (1991)
The Republic of Love (1992)
The Stone Diaries (1993)
Larry’s Party (1997)
Various Miracles (1985)
The Orange Fish (1989)
Dressing Up for the Carnival (2000)
The Collected Stories (2004)
Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (1977)
Jane Austen: A Penguin Lives Biography (2001)
Coming to Canada (1992)
Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told (Edited with Marjorie Anderson)
Dropped Threads 2: More of What We Aren’t Told (Edited with Marjorie Anderson)
There are gaps, as in every life, accidents of silence and misinterpretation and the frantic scrollwork of artifice, but also a seductive randomness that confers truth.
How can I tell her what it is I’m waiting for; I hardly know myself. But I feel with the force of absolute, brimming certainty that there is something bulky and positive in the future for me, a thing, an event perhaps, which is connected with me in some way…
The Box Garden
[She] is not quite family, not quite friend, but a presence that hovers between the two. Their investment in each other’s lives rests on consideration rather than instinct, on something that has been constructed out of happy accident and allowed to have its way.
The Republic of Love
I want, I want, I want. I don’t actually say these last words; I just bump along on their short, stubbed feet, their little declarative syllables – while buttoning up my coat and making my way home.
Personally, I think marriage can be a form of slavery if you hang in there just because you made a promise in front of a few friends in some frothing adolescent moment –
The fact is, her books bring in about forty bucks a year, that’s all. Even if she decided to sell her soul for some two-bit research job, there’d be four or five others ahead of her. The odd waitress job is open …
A Celibate Season
One thing was certain. These imagined stories never ended as stories in books did, with telling declarations of arrival: ‘- and then she realized – ’ or ‘It came to him suddenly that – ’ Instead they ended somewhere on their own descending curvatures, simply run out of fuel or deprived of interest, or, as frequently happened, interrupted by the exigencies of real life and the return to the true and ongoing story that pressed as tightly as clothing against the skin. The street, the hardness of the pavement, the snow turning blue in the fading light.
A Fairly Conventional Woman
It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories. It’s throwing away, compressing, underlining. Hindsight can give structure to anything, but you have to be able to see it. Breathing, waking and sleeping; our lives are steamed and shaped into stories. Knowing that is what keeps me from going insane, and though I don’t like to admit it, sometimes it’s the only thing.