Writers & Company

Of mazes and men: Carol Shields explores both in Larry's Party

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the UK’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company will be revisiting interviews with past winners.
Carol Shields (left) with Eleanor Wachtel in 2000. (Don Shields)

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the UK's Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company will be revisiting interviews with past winners.

Carol Shields had been writing for almost 20 years before her first big success, The Stone Diaries, in 1993. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. Her next novel, Larry's Party, featured a maze designer, Larry Weller, and followed the subtle complexities of a seemingly ordinary life. Larry's Party went on to win the Women's Prize for Fiction and France's Le Prix de lire in 1998.

Carol Shields was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1935. After graduating with a degree in history and education, she married a Canadian and moved to Canada. They had five children, and Carol wrote poetry and occasional short stories in the 1960s. She earned an MA in Canadian literature in 1975 and began to devote more time to writing. The Stone Diaries was her eighth novel. In November 2019, her 10th and final novel, Unless, was named by the BBC as one of the 100 novels that shaped our world.  

Carol Shields died in 2003 at the age of 68.

She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 1997.

Writing from a male perspective

"I spent a couple of years not writing about much of anything. But I was having lunch with some of my women friends one day. We got onto this topic of what must it be like to be a man today. And I thought, 'Well this is interesting and it is something maybe I'd like to write about.' Men have always been, for me, the mystery, the great mystery, the unknown. 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?

Men have always been, for me, the mystery, the great mystery, the unknown.

"I think the way one talks to men is different. It's getting not just to that body, which is always going to remain a mystery to us, but getting to that interior monologue. What does it sound like inside those men's heads? 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. You can get it wrong so easily.

"I asked a few men that I knew what is it like to be a man today. 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 heartfelt answers. I was very touched by this. They seemed to be grateful to be having this conversation, as it was a conversation they had not had before. And I was grateful to be having it too. A little piece of the mystery opened up."

Carol Shields, an emerging writer

39 years ago
Duration 5:14
A young Carol Shields tells the CBC why her fiction revolves around modern, ordinary women. 5:14

A love of parties

"I love parties. And more than the parties, I love the idea of parties. I love the idea of people gathering under a roof, strangers or friends or both, where there is a flow of food, a flow of talk, human movement, where certain possibilities are produced which don't occur in our non-party lives. It goes right back to those early feasts and primitive celebrations. There is a need for people to come together to be other than what they are. 

"I can always remember my parents' parties when I was a child, and how I would listen from upstairs. I could hear them laughing and I could hear my parents sounding younger and happier than I ever imagined them to be. I suppose they were their party selves and maybe they were their real selves. Who knows. I didn't know, but I knew there was something enchanting about this idea. I can remember coming down in the morning and sometimes the bridge tables would still be up and the little dishes would have a few scattered cashews left. This would be so exotic in our family, to find that sort of thing. I had a sense about parties and I always produced a steady run of parties in my writing."

Moments of transcendence

"The idea of transcendence — I like to think that every one of us is allowed a certain number of these moments — where the universe, the planet, becomes clear or where we have an intimate connection with someone after a long silence. These are the moments that poets write about.

"Somehow these moments are the very moments that we don't often speak about to other people because sometimes they sound insane when we try to make clear the importance of them. I think it's important that if we want to hold on to those moments that we somehow articulate them, either to ourselves or to other people so they can serve us. One of these experiences will get us through a lot of uneventful time."

Carol Shields (left) is escorted by B.C. Lt. Governor Iona Campagnolo out of the salon at Government House in Victoria, B.C., after a photo session on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2002. Shields was presented with the Campanion of the Order of Canada Award earlier in the day. (CP PHOTO/Richard Lam) (Richard Lam/The Canadian Press)

Exploring the journey of being human through fiction

"This is the only plot that really interests me, that is this plot which is the arc of the human life. I'm not interested in any other kind of adventure plots or Holy Grail plots or climbing the mountaintop plots. I'm interested in how that arc of aging, growing and then, of course, the shadowy end of life, the illness and eventual death. 

This is the only plot that really interests me, that is this plot which is the arc of the human life.

"I'm always interested in how characters change and how they often act inconsistently. When people teach creative writing courses, one of the first things they teach is to keep your characters consistent. And this is bad advice because human beings are not consistent. The very moments that we're interested in are those moments in which they act inconsistently, out of character. They suddenly leap up. They can become larger than they really are. I'm interested in those moments.

"I think that every novel that I love and I'm interested in is about an individual finding his or her true home. It is that journey. You can go right back to Ulysses to track that. I think this is what fiction is for and what it's about — that journey." 

Carol Shields's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Clips from Carol Shields's 1998 Vancouver Institute talk Making Words — Finding Stories are courtesy of the University of British Columbia Library.

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