Unless (Shields)

Author Bio
Birth—June 2, 1935
Where—Oak Park, Illinois, USA
Death—July 16, 2003
Where—Toronto, Canada
Education—B.A., Hanover College; M.A., Ottawa University
Awards—Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction for Larry’s Party,
  1998; Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, 1995; National
  Book Critics Circle Award for The Stone Diaries, 1994


Carol Shields's characters are often on the road less traveled, and the trip is never boring. She has written about a folklorist, a poet, a maze designer, a translator, even other writers—appropriate professions in novels in which characters struggle to find their own paths in life.

Shields often focused on female characters, most notably in The Stone Diaries, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel documenting the birth, death, and everything in between of Daisy Goodwill. Goodwill's story is told over a century, in various voices, featuring Shields's wry humor and her ability to convey what she has called "the arc of human life."

But don't pigeonhole Shields as a "women's writer." "I have directed a fair amount of energy and rather a lot of rage into that particular corner [of the] problem of men and women, particularly men and women who write and how women's novels are perceived differently from men's," Shields said in a 2001 interview. In 1997's Larry's Party, she swapped genders, writing from the perspective of a male floral designer who discovers a passion for mazes.

Unafraid to experiment with genres, Shields wrote an epistolary novel (A Celibate Season, coauthored with Blanche Howard), a sort of "literary mystery" about the posthumous discovery of a murdered poet's genius (Swann), and short stories (collected in Dressing for the Carnival and other titles). Though she often covered serious topics, she rarely did so without humor. Her novel of mid-life romance, Republic of Love, was called by the New York Times a "touching, elegantly funny, luscious work of fiction," an assessment that could be applied to the bulk of her work.

Shields changed her viewpoint yet again for Unless, but the circumstance was a tragic one. The book, which resurrects the main character from Dressing Up for the Carnival's "A Scarf," was written during the author's battle with breast cancer. "I never want to sound at all mystical about writing,'' she said in a 2002 interview, ''but this book—it just came out." Though not touching on her own illness, Shields did what she had always done—took her own questions and lessons, then used them to produce a story that speaks its own truth.

Shields passed away on July 16, 2003; she was 68.

Extras
From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is what she said:

• When I was home sick as a child I used to take several volumes of the Encyclopedia to bed with me. We had a World Book Encyclopedia, which had quite a few pictures in color. I read the volumes randomly, browsing my way through them. I loved the hugeness of the world they confirmed for me, and the notion that that vastness could be organized and identified. You might think I would be humbled by the fact that people—individual intelligences—could become familiar with arcane material, but, in fact, I was deeply encouraged.

Here is Shields on were her favorite books (a fascinating list):

Emma by Jane Austen. This book was written at the height of Austen's powers, when she felt secure in her footing.

The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul. The subject is so complex and the approach so original, that I didn't think he'd make it to the end, but he did.

• The Rabbit novels by John Updike. You might think of this as the four books it is, or you might see it as one long novel of the life of an American male in the middle of the 20th century. It is a great accomplishment, this emotional documentation of a human life and the other lives that accompany him.

Independent People by Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner. This novel has an epic range, looking at the world sometimes through a giant telescope, then concentrating with a magnifying lens on the rambling thoughts of one particular child.

• I love all the books by Alice Munro, who has given the world new ways of looking at the lives of women. She has, in fact, reinvented the shape of the short story.

Possession by A. S. Byatt captures what many novels leave out: the life of the mind and the excitement of intellectual reflection.

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. This book, published in the last year, is about family, about the delicacy and strength that weaves the family into a web.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond made me believe (for about ten minutes) that I understood how the world was made. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

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