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Canada Reads looks back at Eleanor Wachtel's conversation with Carol Shields

We've been getting to know the authors of the Top 10 by posting their responses to the Canada Reads Questionnaire. Sadly, Carol Shields, author of Unless, died in 2003, so we're taking a different approach to introducing this celebrated, and greatly missed, writer.

Unless by Carol Shields

Carol was close friends with Eleanor Wachtel, host of Writers & Company, and she was interviewed many times on the program over the course of her career. Their last on-air conversation took place on April 7, 2002. You can listen to an excerpt from that memorable interview above, as the two chat about the concept of "goodness," where the title of her final novel, Unless, came from and more.

Unless tells the story of Reta Winters, a middle-aged novelist, mother, and translator who lives in a pastoral town just outside Toronto. Reta is relatively content with her world, until her eldest daughter, Norah, suddenly abandons her family and her studies for a life on the streets — begging in downtown Toronto, wearing a sign that reads only "Goodness."

Unless won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for a number of other major awards, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Man Booker Prize. It was inspired by the concept of "unless" in logic — that is, that there is an alternative to the way events unfold. While we don't always get this choice in real life, Carol felt that "fiction is the other side of reality." Unless also explores the twin ideas of happiness and unhappiness and how Reta, suffering from the "loss" of her daughter, deals with her current state, the events that led up to her daughter's choice and what happens as a result.

Originally published in 2002, Unless is available from Vintage Canada. It can be found at fine independent bookstores across the country.

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