October 10, 1997
What’s it like to be a man at the end of the 20th century? Carol Shields had no idea. So she put the question to a variety of men she knew—her husband Don, her friends (she doesn’t have many who are men, she says), teaching colleagues, acquaintances from her busy life as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University of Winnipeg chancellor and English professor.
I was one of the men she questioned. Over drinks after Canada Council meetings (we were on the board together) she’d pop her sly questions—“Have you ever hated women? Have you ever wanted to have a baby?”—and listen to the answers with the lively and respectful attentiveness that marks her interaction with everyone she meets.
It was a stimulating experience. These aren’t questions that many of us spend much time examining. Men, that is. Women, says Carol, talk about this sort of thing all the time. But what struck her most about what she heard was that “the men who did have answers seemed so pleased to have this conversation. I learned,” she says, “that men don’t often ask questions. Women ask questions and men supply information.”
What she learned became part of the substance of her new novel, Larry’s Party, though she has used it so subtly, woven it into the fabric of the story so cleverly, that I’d imagine that most of the two dozen men she thanks on her acknowledgements page would have trouble (I did) pinning down exactly how they’d been of help. That’s the mark of the superior writer, of course, to take raw materials and fashion from them something entirely her own.
What would be her ideal in terms of male-female relationships, I ask her? “A world where people absolutely respect each other. A feminist is someone who thinks women are fully human.” And as far as love is concerned? “I think healthy love goes hand in hand with respect: it’s an essential part of it.”
I turn one of her own questions back on her. Has she ever wanted to be a man? “Never. Even for a moment.” And she gives a big, delighted laugh. “I value my friendships with women tremendously. That was one of the things I wanted to write about when I started to write novels.”