A Letter From Carol Shields About Living, Writing, Cancer, and Julie

In the weeks after my wife, Julie, died, I wrote, as she had requested, to perhaps a dozen individuals who were important to her but not in our intimate circle of friends and family to let them know that she had finally succumbed to breast cancer, which had been diagnosed just before our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. Most of the names on her list were unfamiliar to me, but I did recognize one – Carol Shields.

At that time, I did know Julie admired Carol Shields and had, in fact, endured considerable discomfort to attend a creative writing workshop in an inhospitable setting  during an especially frigid New England winter just to work with her, but I did not realize that, since that workshop, they had regularly corresponded until Julie became too ill to write. For my part, I had been an unabashed fan of Carol Shields since Julie had recommended (OK, demanded) I read her Pulitzer Prize wining novel, The Stone Diaries.

A few days after I mailed the letter to Carol Shields, I received her reply, made all the more poignant by the fact that she herself was suffering from breast cancer, which would cause her death three years later.

Carol Shields On Julie’s Death: “In The Shadow Of Her Old Illness”

Note: The content of the letter from Carol Shields in text format can be found at the end of this post.



Carol Shields

Carol Shields was an American born Canadian, who authored ten novels, including The Stone Diaries, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the Governor General’s Award. She also published several collections of short stories, a number of plays, books of poetry, criticism, and a biography of Jane Austen. She was the recipient of  many honors, including  a Canada Council Major Award, two National Magazine Awards, the 1990 Marian Engel Award, the Canadian Author’s Award, and a CBC short story award. She was appointed as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1998 and was elevated to companion of the Order in 2002.

Carol Shields CBC Interview

I recently happened onto this interview Shields gave to the CBC which the network’s guide describes:

In February 2000, she [Carol Shields] spoke candidly to Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel about her illness and how it changed her writing.

It is a touching, unsentimental dialog that has an impact beyond dealing with cancer or writing books, touching on what it means to be human. The interview can be found at Carol Shields on living with cancer

Julie Showalter

Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.

Text Of Carol Shields’ Letter

9 January 2000

Dear Allan,

Your letter has just reached me here in England, and I was heartbroken to hear about Julie’s death. I did know, of course, that she felt herself to be in the shadow of her old illness – and I admired, so much, her ability to set that aside and continue with her writing.

Her writing had such promise, and I remember that I responded to it particularly because of its wit, which is rather more rare than you might think. She had a very quiet control over her work, but the humour was always close to the surface, part of her vision of the world. She also brought to our small class the kind of generosity and good will that such a group requires. She also contributed much needed maturity and balance. Well, I adored her – as I am sure hundreds did.

This will be a hard time for you, Allan, and for the boys. My thoughts will be with you. This has been my year to learn about health problems, too – breast cancer and then a heart condition. I will think of Julie as my example of courage. Blessings to you all and thank you for writing.

Carol Shields (Signature) ))

Note: Originally posted Apr 15, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com


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