Carol Shields with Elgy Gillespie
In the following interview conducted just before the U.S. publication of The Stone Diaries, Shields discusses her background, her thematic concerns, and her audience.
When her latest work is described by the seemingly innocent phrase "a novel with an appeal to women," Carol Shields seems to shudder delicately. And yet, the appraisal is contained in an overwhelmingly favorable review of Shields's The Stone Diaries in a review written by none other than Anita Brookner in a recent issue of the Spectator. And the phrase arrives knit to the flattering qualifier, "but of an altogether superior kind." Still, a faint distress registers somewhere within the outwardly placid Shields.
"No," she says slowly and carefully, shaking her small round head with its acorn-shaped blonde bob and still wincing at what she appears to view as the "women" put-down. She does not, she believes, write for women first, last or always. The reality of her writing life is instead somewhat more complicated. Shields is willing to consider the possibilities calmly, and from more than one angle. Her voice is light and uninflected; her manner is sweetly conciliatory.
Already thriving in literary Britain and Canada, Shields is poised now to reach new American readers with the March publication by Viking of The Stone Diaries (Fiction Forecasts, Dec. 13, 1993), her fictional life story of heroine Daisy Goodwill, as well as with the first American publication of Happenstance, a pair of linked novellas, in paperback by Penguin. In short, this writer shouldn't worry. The winner of major awards, from the prestigious Governor-General of Canada Prize to a Booker Prize nomination for The Stone Diaries, Shields has drawn a devoted international following.
We are sitting in her kitchen inside a converted warehouse building near Berkeley, Calif., where her husband Don holds a yearlong visiting professorship in techno-engineering at the university. The old cinderblock walls have been artfully renovated; sculptural, vast and white, they leave hardly any room for the kitchen. But in what room there is, PW and Shields hunch over coffee—very strong and black—and wine, decent and drinkable. Clearly, Shields attends to human needs; despite her frequent absences from her home in Winnipeg and her annual travels to France, she knows how to make the most challenging rented space into a cozy ersatz kitchen.
Kitchens come up quite a bit in The Stone Diaries, perhaps partly because in 1905 Daisy Good-will is born in one—in a rural Canadian kitchen, in fact, where her mother has spent a good deal of time concocting a special pudding before Daisy makes her surprise entry into the world. The mother is fat, so much so that the pregnancy has gone unnoticed, and, like Tom in Shields's The Republic of Love (Viking, 1992), she is a changeling. Daisy, motherless, gradually finds a new home and family for herself, and the 20th century seems to flow softly around her slow life in a Canadian border town. Then she moves south to Indiana, back again to Canada and on to motherhood of her own; at length, the novel tails the elderly Daisy to her residence in a Florida rest home. We follow her from astonished first cry to gloomily overripe old age via widowhood and breakdown. She somehow muddles through, a Canadian Candide.
Details of successive eras abound in the novel. Conveniences for keeping food cool, like ice chests, and other kitchen innovations, like Mix-masters, occupy Daisy's homes and her life, which coincides generously with the century. The novel is also replete with unexpected quasi-documentary elements, including the character's own amusing album-style "family photos," although none are provided depicting Daisy herself. Shields embellishes the story with love letters, clips, ads, botanical ramblings and diaries.
To enrich the effect of Daisy's womanly evolution, the author read old newspapers and 1902 Eton mailorder catalogues in the library, adding a "Ladies Rhythm and Movement Club" photo from the South...
(The entire section is 5,693 words.)