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Talking with Carol Shields

Carol Shields, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, has narrated all three of her books—THE REPUBLIC OF LOVE, THE STONE DIARIES, and now her newest, LARRY’S PARTY. She always wanted to be an actress. “I always tried out for parts in the school play, but I was too self-conscious, and I didn’t have a loud voice.” When her publisher, Viking, offered the chance to read her works, she thought, “Here’s something I can do!”

Shields thought it would be fun. And she was right. “I really enjoyed it. It’s a very strange way to spend two days—sitting in a little room all by yourself behind a glass window.” Shields worked well with her director, Peter Sellers. “He’s very careful. Every time I fluffed a ‘p’ or made a smacking sound, he’d stop me. I learned to keep my stomach from growling by bringing a big stack of crackers to the studio and munching on them during breaks. I asked them if I was the worst stomach rumbler, and they said, ‘Well ... yes!’”

Shields has done a lot of reading aloud. “I read aloud to my children, of course.” Recently her husband was in the hospital for six weeks and wasn’t quite able to hold a book. On some days she read to him all day. “We read old New Yorkers, particularly those long profiles they do that one never has time to fully read otherwise. That seemed to be a kind of rehearsal for reading my books.”

When Shields writes, she hears her characters’ voices in her head. When she narrated her books, however, she didn’t speak the characters’ voices exactly the way she heard them because her directors didn’t want her to be “too actressy.” “They wanted me to be reading a book,” she explains. “This was very difficult in the last scene of LARRY’S PARTY, in which there are many voices cutting in on one another. The scene is, in fact, a party. Instead of doing a man’s voice or a woman’s voice,they advised me to start each person’s speech at a different pitch—higher or lower—than the previous speaker’s. Anyone can quickly master that little trick.”

To be sure, Shields has great respect for the professional narrators who also read her works. “Sometimes they say the lines better than I heard them.” Nonetheless, Shields enjoys the artistic control she gains by narrating her own audiobooks. “I really was grateful that they let me do this without even auditioning me.”

In all of her work Shields tries to capture the “transcendent moments” that occur between people. How is the audio creation of her central theme different from that of the print version? “I think it’s different, but I would hesitate to compare its impact. The mystery of print is very complicated. But one of the wonderful things about audio is that you can do other things while reading.”

NOV/DEC 97

 

Photo © Neil Grahman

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