Anne Giardini of Kamloops, B.C., almost drove into the back of a wood-chip truck when she heard the news on her car radio last week. An announcer had just revealed that her mother, Winnipeg-based novelist Carol Shields, had won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries. Giardini, the second of Shields's five children, a mother of three herself and a lawyer working for a forest products company, was "absolutely floored - the only words I really took in were her name and Pulitzer Prize." Later that day, unable to reach her mother at her hotel, she arranged to have a bottle of champagne sent to The Hungry Mind bookstore in Minneapolis, Minn., where Shields was reading from the new U.S. paperback edition of her novel. It proved to be one of several tributes that were sent to the author soon after the April 18 announcement. "I'm sitting here, elated and basking," Shields, 59, told Maclean's last week. "I thought this was a sad book, and I was surprised that the response was so large. I don't honestly know why it's created a stir."
"A stir" is typical understatement from the soft-spoken author, who was born in Oak Park, Ill., moved to Canada 38 years ago and retains dual citizenship. The Pulitzer win caps a two-year string of international kudos for The Stone Diaries, Shields's 16th book. Written from the viewpoint of several narrators, it chronicles the ordinary life of Daisy Goodwill from her birth in Tyndall, Man., in 1905 through marriage, motherhood, work and old age. And while that life is richly textured and recounted with wry wit, the story also shows a woman not at peace with herself: defined by all the conventional female roles, Daisy is ultimately disappointed by them.
The novel won the 1993 Governor General's Literary Award and was shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize the same year. Last summer she was named author of the year by the Canadian Booksellers Association, and in March the U.S. National Book Critics Circle chose The Stone Diaries as novel of the year. Publisher David Kent, president of Random House of Canada, said the company had sent the author so many bouquets that "We should have just bought out the florist."
The Toronto subsidiary of New York City-based Random House Publishers has sold 35,000 hard-cover copies of The Stone Diaries, and 100,000 copies are in print in paperback - a huge run for Canada's small market. "At one point, both the hard-cover and paperback were on a best-seller list at the same time," notes Kent. And its success has sparked interest in her earlier works, such as The Orange Fish (1989) and The Republic of Love (1992).
The hoopla surrounding the Pulitzer will undoubtedly provoke another wave of sales in Canada and in the United States, where six of Shields's works have been published since 1989. "Carol has always had a loyal readership and great reviews, and sales were steadily increasing," says Mindy Werner, senior editor at Viking Penguin, Shields's U.S. publisher. "But this will definitely be a big boost." The New York City-based house has already ordered second and third printings, totalling 80,000 copies, for an eventual total of 110,000 paperbacks in print (it has also decided to add 5,000 hard-cover copies to the 25,000 already in print). "And really, winning it couldn't have happened to a better writer or a nicer person," says Werner. "I adore her."
The award puts Shields in the company of such previous literature winners as John Cheever, William Faulkner, John Updike and last year's laureate, E. Annie Proulx, whose novel The Shipping News has dominated North American paperback best-seller lists for almost a year. While Shields is thrilled by the prize and gratified by the feedback she receives from fans, she is anxious to get back to her regular life of working on her fiction and teaching writing at the University of Manitoba. "It's wonderful, but it's all too distracting," she says. "I've started another novel, and you can't really be a writer without a lot of private time."
Married since 1957 to Canadian Donald Shields, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Manitoba, Shields lived in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and, briefly, Manchester, England, before moving to Winnipeg in 1980. Throughout those years, she studied literature, taught and wrote while raising her family. And her work reflects that experience. Shields's books are saturated with domestic detail: the tactile pleasures and hard practicalities of everyday life are inextricably linked to her characters' emotional and intellectual lives. And while diverse in subject matter, the novels reflect her preoccupation with what she calls "the unknowability of the other, whether it's really possible to tell the story of someone's life."
Cynthia Scott, an acclaimed National Film Board director (Company of Strangers) based in Montreal, is currently grappling with that question as she struggles with two colleagues to bring Daisy Goodwill to life on the big screen. Scott says that translating the novel into film has proved challenging precisely because of the virtuosity of the writing. "The magic of the book is in the language, and we have to find a way to reflect that on film," she says. "But we're determined to stay as close to it as possible, to keep that sense of humanity - and of course that wicked sense of humor."
Meanwhile, Shields herself has ventured into film-making: she has almost finished a script based on her novel The Republic of Love, a contemporary romance set in Winnipeg. And Toronto-based screenwriter David Young is adapting her 1987 novel, Swann: A Mystery, for a Canadian-British co-production of a feature-length film.
Shields's professional accomplishments as a celebrated novelist far outstrip those of her protagonist, Daisy Goodwill. But her domestic life has followed many of the same rituals and marked the same passages of marriage and motherhood. Perhaps her deep understanding of those links inspired her observation in The Stone Diaries that our ancestors were not simpler, more easily contented people. "Those who went before us," she writes, "were every bit as wayward and unaccountable and unsteady in their longings as people are today." Carol Shields's superb evocation of those longings has won her the kind of recognition that Daisy Goodwill could only dream of.
Maclean's April 24, 1995