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This week's Writers & Company podcast features Eleanor's 1997 conversation with Carol Shields about her novel Larry's Party
This interview originally aired in September 1997.
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Before Carol Shields' death almost nine years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shared a special friendship with Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel beyond the microphone. When Shields was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, their friendship took on a new dimension and Wachtel became what Shields called her "bibliotherapist" — the provider of the right book for the right mood. Today's interview, however, is from just before that time.
In 1997, Shields published Larry's Party, a novel in which she tells the story of Larry's life in discrete slices over the course of 20 years. At the same time, Larry's talent as a maze-maker impinges on the ultimate structure of the book: the novel as maze, life as maze.
In Larry's Party, Shields addresses the mystery of what it's like to be a man in the modern world. "I was having lunch with some of my women friends one day and we got on to this topic of what must it be like to be a man today," she told Wachtel. "Men have always been for me the great mystery. I don't understand men, I don't know how they think, what their bodies feel like, but why not spend some time considering that mystery."
At this point, Shields had been married for more than 40 years, and had a son (and a father and a brother), but few male friends. Nevertheless, she said, the mystery remained. "Not just the body, which is always going to remain a mystery to [women], but getting to that interior monologue — what does it sound like inside those men's heads?" she asked. "It's a risk, and I understand now why there aren't many women writing about men, nor many men writing about women. Because it is so risky and you can get it wrong so easily."
Shields admitted that her research into how men think was not exactly methodical. "I asked a few men that I knew, 'what is it like to be a man today?'" she explained. "Some of them went straight into their jocularity mode and I knew they weren't ready for this question. But others — three or four in particular — really reflected on this and gave me, I thought, heartfelt answers. And I felt also, and I was very touched by this, that they seemed to be grateful to be having this conversation and it was a conversation we had not had before. And I was grateful to be having it too. A little piece of the mystery opened up — but not much."
Shields' portrayal of Larry was sensitively wrought; some even accused Larry of being a wimp! "I think I got this because I'm a woman writing about a man. If I had been a man writing about this person, they might have said I was very sensitive to that particular side of a man's nature," she said. "But it made me think that probably in our heart of hearts we are all wimps. At least for one minute out of every hour."
Perhaps we are all wimps, but Shields rarely showed her wimpy side. She remained gracious, articulate and a writer of extraordinary insight and talent until, tragically, cancer got the better of her and she passed away in 2003.