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A Memoir of Friendship

The exchanges between two authors brim with the details of their everyday lives

By Jocelyn Bell

A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard
Edited by Blanche Howard and Allison Howard
Penguin ($19)

In 1977, Carol Shields wrote to Blanche Howard, “I don’t think I’ll ever make much money at writing.” Such is the irony of life.

The two Canadian authors met in Ottawa in 1971 when Shields was 35 and Howard was 47. They began corresponding four years later and continued until Shields’s death of cancer in 2003.

A Memoir of Friendship, the volume that results, brims with the details of everyday life: children’s accomplishments, husband’s careers, provincial politics, trips, parties, illnesses and the necessity of making dinner.

But it also reveals the development of two female writers who honed their craft at a time when women sometimes used male pseudonyms to get published (as Shields did to enter a Chatelaine writing contest).

Howard would go on to write five novels and a play. Shields wrote poetry, plays, short stories, anthologies, a biography and 10 novels, including her Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Stone Diaries.

As the authors’ lives weave through ups and downs, the reader comes away with the sense of having met two brave and gracious women whose friendship sustained and encouraged them both.

Be warned though: Pulitzer winners these letters are not. They’re chit-chatty, and self-consciously so. As Shields writes in one missive, “This is a most rambly and incoherent letter — too many thoughts and no organizing structure, as some young slip of an editor might say.” But occasionally there’s poignance, as when they discuss the meaning of life or how writing is their salvation.

Contemporaries of Howard’s or Shields’s — or any avid fiction fan — will also get a kick out of reading their take on authors of the day. Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now is “a bit too artificial,” Howard comments. Wilfrid Sheed’s Transatlantic Blues “dribbles off in the end,” writes Shields.

In a 1982 letter, Howard writes to Shields, “Did you hear Margaret Atwood on the CBC? She thinks the material of everyday life isn’t sufficiently interesting to use for a novel. I think she’s very wrong.”

Those deciding whether to delve into A Memoir of Friendship would do well to pick a side. If you’re with Atwood, keep moving. If you’re with Howard, read on.

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