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Anne and Nicholas Giardini on being part of Carol Shields's family

Carol Shields's daughter and grandson talk about editing Startle and Illuminate, a collection of the beloved novelist's writing on writing.
Anne and Nicholas Giardini went through Carol Shields's unpublished notes, letters and speeches to gather the writing advice shared in Startle and Illuminate. (Meg Shields)
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Over 30 years, Carol Shields published more than 20 books. She won many literary prizes, including the Governor General's Literary Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Orange Prize. She died in 2003, at the age of 68. Now, almost 13 years later, she's got a new book out: Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on WritingThe book features Carol's thoughts on everything to do with writing, from how to write well to the state of Canadian fiction in the early 20th century. The words in this book are all Carol's — they come from previously unpublished notes, papers and speeches.

Anne and Nicholas Giardini are the editors who put this book together — they are also Carol Shields's daughter and grandson. Shelagh Rogers spoke to them in Toronto.

Photos from the Shields family album. (Anne Giardini & Shields family)

ON HAVING A FAMOUS WRITER IN THE FAMILY

Anne Giardini: Often in a family environment, you're not talking about craft. Sometimes you do, and some of the things in this book I learned from her directly. But many things I hadn't. As a writer myself, it was helpful to see what she had to say about the art of mustering your material, how to write conversation, how to move your characters from one place to the other, how to set a scene or get out of a scene. Those are not necessarily full conversations we'd been able to have while she was alive. Nicholas found all this material that I think would help anyone as a writer. And the side gift for us, of course, is that we got a little more of what we miss so much.

ON CAROL SHIELDS' BOUNDLESS CURIOSITY

AG: You had the sense when you spoke with her that she was directing her full attention to you. She was genuinely curious about your experiences, what you had to say. And by asking the right questions and following up in the right way, she brought out the best in people. I think it was innate in her, that she was born that way, endlessly curious. It was something that she thought both readers and writers should have.

Nicholas Giardini: There's a chapter that talks about how one of the most important parts of writing is picking up stories and picking up experiences from listening and just walking around. I think that's incredibly important for writers as well as someone like me who's just starting to write. 

(l-r) Shields with husband Don at the Giller Prize banquet, in Minneapolis after learning she'd won the Pulitzer Prize and accepting an honorary doctorate at the University of Toronto. (Anne Giardini & Shields family)

ON WRITING FROM OTHER PERSPECTIVES

AG: I think she realized the shared humanity of men and women. That really, we're all in this together. She also says in [Startle and Illuminate] that we can't have two literatures. We can't have a male literature and then a great divide and then a female literature. There's something very wrong about that. We have to write in each other's voices, buy each other's books, read each other's books, criticize each other and have the kind of discussion that makes us all a collective rather than solitudes.

Anne Giardini's and Nicholas Giardini's comments have been edited and condensed.