Carol Shields: On Cancer and Writing (Dying) Words in a (Western) Image Culture / "Living With The Disease, Not Just Dying From It"

I am fascinated by writers. I am intrigued by how they think, how they toy with language and construct meaning, and how they live. But what draws me to writer Carol Shields is a fascination with how she died -- the process of her death, and the perspective that she cultivated while navigating the experience.

Breast cancer was the culprit. The traditional narrative about this insidious disease -- particularly in its late stages -- is that it that avoids striking like a tornado that arrives in one fell swoop and leaves little more than debris in its destructive path. Instead, terminal cancer opts to appear as a powerful storm, gradually increasing in intensity, and slowly but surely carrying away bits and pieces of a beloved’s soul and spirit until only a vacuum exists, and the body -- a defeated shell of its former self -- acquiesces. What’s interesting about Shields , however, is the way in which she interrupted this narrative following her diagnosis in 1998. Shields chose to live with the disease, not just to die from it. I am awed by the aching honesty with which she spoke about her experience, and grace that she demonstrated as she struggled to keep peace with a body that was waging guerrilla warfare against itself.

I am yet to befriend Shields’ literature, given that I feel rather distant from her characters, which appear to be, for the most part, white, middle-aged women. But I realize that this is a superficial barrier that overlooks the universality of certain aspects of the human experience, so I’ve added The Stone Diaries, for which she won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to next summer’s reading list.

The interview below, with fellow writer April Henry, gives us insight into Shields as a writer. The interview here -- “Carol Shields on living with cancer” -- showcases Shields as a fighter. How magnificent to have lived and died as both.

1997 Interview with Carol Shields

Henry: Do you believe that words are dying out?

Shields: Well, I’d think I’d heard—which is quite alarming—that 5,000 words have dropped out of the average vocabulary in the last 10 years—if that’s true, that’s very alarming, isn’t it? If it’s true.

Henry: It doesn’t seem like many people even have 5,000 words.

Shields: One of the words that occurs to me is the word ‘feisty.’ The New Yorker never used to allow that word. And I can see why, because it replaces about 10 other words, gradations of feistiness.

Henry: What other words does it replace?

Shields: Oh, ‘irritability,’ different grades. I think that’s only one example, but I expect this is what’s happened. When we call someone ‘nerd’ or ‘nerdy’ you know there are other words and I think for every single word that comes in it replaces quite a few. That must be one of the reasons.

Henry: Why do you think that’s happening?

Shields: We’re an image culture. I suppose we used to be a word culture, we are still, many people are still very concerned about language and books and words.

Henry: Do you think that the language of images is as rich as the language of words?

Shields: Not for me it’s not. It’s not ever. And you know I’ve had this argument with people, film people, especially, would defend this. I always say I prefer books to films because I want to know how people think. They say oh, well, we just get the actor’s face and that expression tells you what’s he’s thinking. But not for me. It’s not accurate enough. It’s never as nuanced as what that interior voice is saying.

Henry: So what happens if words are lost? Why is that important?

Shields: Words are our life. We are human because we use language. So I think we are less human when we use less language.

Henry: I had been surprised because it seems like what you do in your books is reordering the truth and coming back and re-observing and looking at it, paring it down, always coming back and reexamining things, putting a new framework on it, and that got me thinking about why does fiction exist? Does fiction exist to make the connections and tell the story that is lacking in the real world and that we long for?

Shields: That’s why I read novels. I also read biographies. The thing that’s missing in biography is the interior thought process of people. Some biographers do that but it’s considered very trashy, purple biography. I think this is the great opportunity that fiction offers. To me that’s everything. I think that’s why certain kind of action narratives can be handled perfectly in film. But the kind of novels I’m interested in can’t really be filmed, because of the interior voice.

Henry: Do you spend a lot of time talking to people?

Shields: Novelists are quite sociable people, actually. I think people think we’re not. And there is certainly a lot of time you have to spend by yourself, and writers complain about this, having to live this lonely life. But we choose it, don’t you think?

Henry: Both Larry, your main character in Larry’s Party, and Daisy, of the Stone Diaries, were both ordinary people, although sometimes extraordinary things happened around them. Is it the voice of the ordinary, unremarkable person that is of interest to you? A lot of times it seems as if fiction is built up, especially commercial fiction, around people who are much larger than life, and have—

Shields: Is that really true? I hear this, yet when I ask people to point me to an example, they have a hard time.

Henry: Well, when I think about what’s on the best seller list, especially paperbacks, its things like spy novels, and Steven King, and Judith Kranz.

Shields: Spooky, scary, have extraordinary jobs or—is that what you mean?

Henry: Or very powerful or extraordinarily beautiful. Or there are all those consumer novels, where they mention the brand names of every expensive thing they buy or wear, and they use that as shorthand for what the person is like.

Shields: I guess I am interested in the unrecorded voice. The voice that doesn’t make the public record is much more interesting to me than the one that does.

Henry: I know that work is important to you, and it really shows in Larry’s Party, where everyone has a job and some part of their job is described at some point. Why is work important to you?

Shields: It’s part of the texture of most of our lives. Most of us work. We don’t all work—well, we probably all do, to a certain extent. In some way. It’s just one of the absences that I see in fiction. And I think that’s one thing novelists like to do is to plug those holes where the texture is faulty. It’s a big part of our waking lives, but I don’t see much of it in our fiction. I love the idea of work. I always want to know what people do for a living. It’s considered an impolite question these days to ask what people do. There are a lot of people without jobs at the moment. So I’m always a little careful, so I try to find a way into that conversation.

Henry: In Larry’s Party, you have lists of work-related words. It doesn’t seem that a list of all the kinds of plants that could make up a hedge would be interesting, or a list of all the tools that are used in a certain profession, but they are fascinating. Is that part of what interests you about work is the...?

Shields: The intricacy. The intricacy of the work. The whole vocabulary of particular areas of work. This very precise kind of work that requires its own situation, its own tools, its own vocabulary. It’s really what sets apart.

Henry: Freud said the two most important things are lieben und arbeiten, love and work—would you say that characterizes much of what you write about?

Shields: Yes. In fact, I quote that in another book I’ve written, Republic of Love.

Henry: Do you think that an author can ever really be successful to be a person of another race or another sex?

Shields: It’s pretty hard. I think that no, that moving into that body, the body is what is strongest you. I remember years ago there was a non-fiction book called Black Like Me. He took something to change the color of his skin. But he doesn’t really, he’s never been a black person inside that darker skin.

Henry: When you first conceived the idea for Larry’s Party, was it the maze you began with or was it that you wanted to write about a man?

Shields: I wanted to write about a man. And I was interested in mazes at the same time. And I thought first of all of writing two different books, then I thought, maybe I could bring this together. And I wanted to write about a party, too. I have parties in all my books, but I wanted a bigger party, and I had the title from the beginning, I think it the first time I ever had.

Henry: Why were you interested in mazes? They are so prominent in mythology and literature—what is it that interests you.

Shields: I’m interested in all kinds of mythology. Republic of Love was a book about mermaid, a kind of feminist look at that iconography. These things just interest me impossibly, especially mazes because they exist in every culture. That was the thing about mermaids they are ubiquitous. Every continent has a mermaid myth. They go right back to prehistory. And so do mazes. They’re everywhere. Different forms but definitely a maze.

Henry: Why do you think that is? Is there an Uber maze or Ur-maze?

Shields: I think probably there is. I think it’s a concept of the complexity of life. The spiritual, there’s all kinds of theories about it. Part of it’s pleasure. I think we just think it’s rather almost fun to be involved in a maze. There’s something frightening and at the same time, comforting. The orderly boundaries. And there’s an exit. You’re promised an exit; you’re promised a goal. These things are built into the maze sequence.

Henry: I read you started writing “again” at 40. Had you written before?

Shields: A little bit. I was a kind of high school writer, I did the class poem and the class play. There’s always one of those girls. Worked on the literary magazine. Then I married young and had all these kids, and didn’t do anything for a while. In my 30s I had two books of poetry published. So I was writing in a very small way. And very gradually the children were all at school. And I started to think, maybe I’ll write a novel.

Henry: How do you think being a mother has changed you as a writer?

Shields: Oh, completely. I couldn’t have been a novelist without being a mother. It gives you a unique witness point of the growth of personality. It was a kind of biological component for me that had to come first. And my children give me this other window on the world. I just wouldn’t have, I was a very girlish young mother, I needed to grow up, and those children made me grow up. I had to start paying attention.

Henry: So they made you pay attention to—

Shields: Everything. They made me pay attention to the world. You can’t be a lazy mother. You just can’t let things go or neglect certain parts of their lives. So I had to wake up. and I had to—you, know, I suppose I was very self-centered, and I was just an undeveloped person. (source/full text)

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