All about Alice
The first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature
October 11th, 2013
In 2013 Alice Munro became the first Canadian to be accorded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many would argue she is the finest writer Canada has produced. It is impossible to select one collection of her short stories as being superior to the rest.
Winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, twice winner of the Giller Prize (Canada’s most glitzy literary prize), three times the recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (Canada’s most venerable literary prize), Alice Munro is peerless. Her work has gained her the distinction, accorded by the New York Times, of being “the only living writer in the English language to have made a major career out of short fiction alone.” In 2004, that newspaper also produced the oft-repeated compliment, “More than any writer since Chekhov, Munro strives for and achieves, in each of her stories, a gestalt-like completeness in the representation of a life.” In 2005, she became the 11th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia, but most readers assume she is an Ontario writer.
Born as Alice Laidlaw in Ontario in 1931, she married fellow student Jim Munro in 1951 and moved to Vancouver, where her two eldest daughters were born. While writing in West Vancouver, she befriended Margaret Laurence and was encouraged by Ethel Wilson. Another daughter was born in Victoria, where she and her husband opened Munro’s Books in 1963, still considered one of the finest independent bookstores in Canada. The store marked its 50th anniversary in the same year that she won the Nobel Prize.
Munro gave birth to her youngest daughter in 1966. In all, she lived in Vancouver and Victoria for 22 years before her first marriage ended and she moved back to Ontario. After her divorce, Alice Munro married former university friend, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer/cartographer, in 1976. He died on April 17, 2013. For many years she maintained two residences: one in Clinton, Ontario, and another in Comox, on Vancouver Island. She received the news of her Nobel Prize at 4 a.m. while visiting one of her daughters in Victoria. “It just seems impossible,” she told the CBC. “It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can’t describe it, it’s more than I can say.”
Alice Munro’s dual status as a British Columbian and an Ontario resident is often overlooked. “I like the West Coast attitudes,” she said in 2004. “Winters [in B.C.] to me are sort of like a holiday. People are thinking about themselves. The way I grew up, people were thinking about duty.” One can suggest the dichotomy between duty and exploration is a fundamental friction in her stories.
Alice Munro made her critically acclaimed debut with Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). Her second book, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), was the basis for a Canadian movie. In addition, Sarah Polley adapted the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for the film Away from Her (2006), starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. Most of Alice Munro’s books have been edited by Douglas Gibson, also her publisher, at Douglas Gibson Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, formerly Canada’s leading publishing house for literature. Gibson lives in Toronto.
With her mother’s encouragement and consent, Sheila Munro, while living in Powell River, published an astute study of their family dynamics and her mother’s books, Lives of Mothers and Daughters (2001).
Winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, twice winner of the Giller Prize; three times the recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, Alice Munro is peerless. In 2013 she became the first Canadian and only the thirteenth woman to be accorded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Her work has gained her the distinction accorded by the New York Times as “the only living writer in the English language to have made a major career out of short fiction alone.” She is also the recipient of the 11th George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia. “Alice Munro has devoted her career to the short story,” wrote a reviewer for The Times (U.K.), “and when reading her work it is difficult to remember why the novel was ever invented.”
Alice Munro was born Alice Ann Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario on July 10, 1931. She was raised on a farm with a sister and a brother. Before he turned his hand to farming, her father, Robert Eric Laidlaw, had raised foxes and minks and worked as a watch-man. Her mother, Anne Clarke Laidlaw, was a former teacher who developed Parkinson’s disease and died in 1959. While she undertook a large share of the domestic duties, Alice Laidlaw nursed her improbable ambitions to become a writer. “I think choosing to be a writer was a very reckless thing to do,” she told CBC’s Shelagh Rogers in 2004, “although I didn’t realize it. I was planning an historical novel in grade seven. It gave way to a Wuthering Heights novel I was writing all the way through high school.” Alice Munro has also said, “My oddity just shone out of me.”
At age eighteen, Munro won a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario where she studied for two years; published her first short story, ‘The Dimensions of a Shadow’, in 1950, in Folio, an undergraduate literary magazine; and she met fellow student Jim Munro. They married in December of 1951 and moved to Vancouver where their two eldest daughters were born. Another daughter died of kidney failure on the day she was born.
In Vancouver Alice Munro befriended Margaret Laurence, another housewife who was learning to write, and she was inspired by the success of local novelist Ethel Wilson, who she also met. Encouraged by her first husband to pursue her writing when they resided in West Vancouver, Alice Munro once rented a small office for herself in Dundarave, which became the basis of a story about a female writer being unable to escape the role of caring for others. As a mother, Munro has been described by one of her daughters as more of a watcher than a nurturer.
In Victoria, where a fourth daughter was born, she helped establish Munro’s Books, opened in 1963, now generally considered one of the finest independent bookstores in Canada, and she gave birth to her youngest daughter in 1966. She resided in Vancouver and Victoria for 22 years before her first marriage ended and she moved back to Ontario.
After separating from her husband in 1973, Alice Munro became writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario in 1974. In 1975, she moved to Clinton, Ontario, in Huron County, with a former university friend, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer, partially in order to help look after his mother. Clinton is located approximately 35 kilometres from Wingham where she grew up. (The issue of Folio in which she had first published a short story also contained a story by Fremlin, who is slightly older than her.)
Alice Munro married Fremlin after she was divorced in 1976, the year she received her first honorary doctorate (having been unable to finish university due to lack of funds). For many years Alice Munro divided her time between residences in Clinton in Ontario and Comox on Vancouver Island.
Encouraged by CBC’s Radio’s Robert Weaver since 1951, Alice Munro sold her first short story to Mayfair magazine in 1953. “I never intended to be a short-story writer,” Munro once said. She has suggested she might have opted for the short story approach to fiction because she was balancing her duties as the mother of three children, but she also spent many of her formative years as writer trying to write a novel without success. Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), received the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.
Her follow-up, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), was marketed as a novel and received the Canadian Booksellers Award. Her reputation began spreading to the United States. “The short story is alive and well in Canada,” wrote Martin Levin in The New York Times (September 23, 1973), reviewing Dance of the Happy Shades, “where most of the 15 tales originate like a fresh winds from the North.”
A frequent contributor to the New Yorker magazine since 1976, Alice Munro has firmly established her reputation as Canada’s most consistent writer with her impeccable style and exacting perceptions. All her books have been well-received and feature heroines who seek some measure of control over their lives through understanding, while flirting with recklessness. “The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless,” Munro has said. “I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
Munro’s work has received many literary prizes, including three Governor General’s Awards, the Giller Prize, a Canada Council Molson’s Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Prize, the first Canada-Australia Literary Prize and the first Marian Engel Award. She is the first Canadian to receive the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the Rea Award for lifetime achievement in short stories.
Alice Munro’s Runaway (2004) has eight stories that reflect her dual hometowns of Comox and Clinton. More than one reviewer has suggested it’s impossible to characterize the subject matter of Runaway because Munro’s beguiling stories are so multi-layered and diverse, but she has herself noted, “what I wanted to do in this book was take these sharp turns in people’s lives.” Three linked tales follow Juliet, a young teacher who visits her fisherman lover’s home the day after his wife’s funeral. In the title story, Munro keeps the reader guessing as to how a white goat’s disappearances relates to a couple’s unraveling relationship. The final story covers almost a lifetime in its 65 pages. The collection earned Munro her second Giller Prize and numerous other awards.
In the early 1990s Alice Munro began spending her winters in Comox, on Vancouver Island, keeping a low profile. Her daughter Sheila Munro published an astute and revealing autobiographical and critical study of their family relationship and her mother’s books, Lives of Mothers and Daughters (2001), with Alice Munro’s encouragement and consent. [See Sheila Munro entry] An authorized and respectful biography by Robert Thacker appeared four years later.
Lives of Girls and Women was the basis for a Canadian movie that featured Munro’s daughter Jenny as the heroine Del Jordan. A short film adaptation of her story ‘Boys and Girls’ won an Oscar in 1984. Sarah Polley’s superb cinematic adaptation of Alice Munro’s story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain,’ renamed Away from Her and starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Alice Munro became only the third recipient of the new Man Booker International Prize in June of 2009. Certainly part of her appeal is that her work is distinctly Canadian in a classic ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ mold: It is imperative not to get uppity, to eschew arrogance, or at least feign humility. Typically, she told her Man Booker audience at Trinity College in Ireland that writing, for her, has always amounted to “always fooling around with what you find. … This is what you want to do with your time—and people give you a prize for it.”
In one of the more believable stories in Too Much Happiness, entitled ‘Fiction,’ a graduate of UBC Creative Writing department has published her first collection of stories called How Are We To Live. The protagonist, Joyce, is an older woman who once gave this girl music lessons as a child. She has realized this up’-n’-coming writer is the daughter of the woman to whom she lost her first husband when they were all living at place called Rough River, decades before.
Curiosity sends Joyce to the author’s book launch at a North Vancouver bookstore. From her classically Canadian perspective, Munro writes, “Joyce has never understood this business of lining up to get a glimpse of the author and then going away with a stranger’s name written in your book.” The self-confident young author has written a story that completely documents the domestic complications that were witnessed as a child, the various intrigues that led to Joyce’s divorce, and yet she does not recognize her former music teacher in the flesh. She is very busy taking herself seriously as an author. There is a poster of her wearing a little black jacket, tailored, severe, very low in the neck, and Munro adds, “Though she has practically nothing there to show off.”
This is about as scathing as Alice Munro gets. The self-satisfied young author has simply reiterated reality without going to trouble of fictionalizing it, adding nuances of her own. This writer “sits there and writes her name as if that is all the writing she could be responsible for in this world.” Then there is a line break. An open space on the page. A reprieve. The once-jilted Joyce, since remarried to a 65-year-old neuropsychologist, has left the book signing. And Alice Munro adds a final paragraph.
“Walking up Lonsdale Avenue, walking uphill, she gradually regains her composure. This might even turn into a funny story that she would tell some day. She wouldn’t be surprised.”
SELECTED AWARDS: International Man Booker Prize, Governor General’s Award (3), PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, Giller Prize (2), The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, W.H. Smith Prize in the U.K., National Book Circle Critics Award in the U.S., Trillium Prize, Molson’s Prize, Libris Award, Rea Award for Lifetime Achievement, Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award (renamed George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award). Harbourfront Prize, 2013. Nobel Prize for Literature, 2013.
DANCE OF THE HAPPY SHADES (1968)
LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN (1971)
SOMETHING I’VE BEEN MEANING TO TELL YOU (1974)
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? (1978). Published as THE BEGGAR MAID: STORIES OF FLOAND ROSE in the United States and U.K. (1978)
THE MOONS OF JUPITER (1983)
THE PROGRESS OF LOVE (1986)
FRIEND OF MY YOUTH (1990)
OPEN SECRETS (1994)
SELECTED STORIES (1996)
THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN (1998)
HATESHIP, FRIENDSHIP, COURTSHIP, LOVESHIP, MARRIAGE (2001)
THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK (2006)
ALICE MUNRO’S BEST: SELECTED STORIES (2008)
TOO MUCH HAPPINESS (2009)
Munro, Sheila. Lives of Mothers and Daughters (M&S, 2001).
Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing her Lives (M&S, 2005).
Short Story Compilations:
Selected Stories – 1996
No Love Lost – 2003
Vintage Munro – 2004
Carried Away: A Selection of Stories – 2006
New Selected Stories – 2011
Probable Fictions: Alice Munro’s Narrative Acts, ed. by Louis K. Mackendrick (1981); Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro by Ildiko De Papp Carrington (1989); Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro by Beverly Rasporich (1990); Alice Munro: A Double Life by Catherine Ross (1992); The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro’s Discourse of Absence by Ajay Heble (1994); The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers by John Cooke (1996); Alice Munro by Coral Ann Howells (1998); The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro, ed. by Robert Thacker (1999); Reading in: Alice Munro’s Archives by Joann McCaig (2002).
By Alan Twigg / BCBW Publisher / email@example.com / copyright 2013
INTERVIEW with ALICE MUNRO
When Alice Munro resided in Clinton, Ontario, she was interviewed by Alan Twigg in 1978. This interview was first published in For Openers: Conversations with 24 Canadian Writers (Harbour 1981). It was reprinted in Strong Voices: Conversations with 50 Canadian Writers (Harbour 1988).
T: Your writing is like the perfect literary equivalent of a documentary movie.
MUNRO: That is the way I see it. That’s the way I want it to be.
T: So it’s especially alarming when Lives of Girls and Women gets removed from a reading list in an Ontario high school. Essentially all they’re objecting to is the truth.
MUNRO: This has been happening in HuronCounty, where I live. They wanted The Diviners, Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye taken off, too. They succeeded in getting The Diviners taken off. It doesn’t particularly bother me about my book because my book is going to be around in the bookstores. But the impulse behind what they are doing bothers me a great deal. There is such a total lack of appreciation of what literature is about! They feel literature is there to teach some great moral lesson. They always see literature as an influence, not as an opener of live. The lessons they want taught are those of fundamentalist Christianity and if literature doesn’t do this, it’s a harmful influence.
They talk about protecting their children from these books. The whole concept of protecting eighteen-year old children from sexuality is pretty scary and pretty sad. Nobody’s being forced to read these books anyway. The news stories never mention that these books are only options. So they’re not just protecting their own children. What they’re doing is removing the books from other people’s children.
T: Removing your books seems especially absurd because there’s so little preaching for any particular morality or politics.
MUNRO: None at all. I couldn’t write that way if I tried. I back off my party line, even those with which I have a great deal of sympathy, once it gets hardened and insisted upon. I say to myself that’s not true all the time. That’s why I couldn’t write a straight women’s lib book to expose injustices. Everything’s so much more complicated than that.
T: Which brings us to why you write. Atwood’s theory on Del Jordan in Girls and Women is that she writes as an act of redemption. How much do you think your own writing is a compensation for loss of the past?
MUNRO: Redemption is a pretty strong word. My writing has become a way of dealing with life, hanging onto it by re-creation. That’s important. But it’s also a way of getting on top of experience. We all have life rushing in on us. A writer pretends, by writing about it, to have control Of course a writer actually has no more control than anybody else.
T: Do you think you’ve chosen the short story form because that requires the most discipline and you come from a very restrictive background?
MUNRO: That’s interesting. Nobody has suggested that before. I’ve never known why I’ve chosen the short story form. I guess in a short story you impose discipline rather soon. Things don’t get away from you. Perhaps I’m afraid of other forms where things just flow out. I have a friend who writes novels. She never touches what she’s written on the day she’s written it. She could consider it fake to go aback and rework the material. It has to be how the work flows out of her. Something about that makes me very uneasy. I could never do it.
T: You’re suspicious of spontaneity?
MUNRO: I suppose so. I’m not afraid spontaneity would betray me because I’ve done some fairly self exposing things. But I’m afraid it would be repetitious and boring if I wrote that way. It’s as if I must take great care over everything. Instead of splashing the colours of and trusting they will all come together, I have to know the design.
T: Do ideas ever evolve into something too big for a short story?
T: I thought the title story of Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You was a good example of that. It didn’t work because you were dealing with the lifetimes of four different characters.
MUNRO: You know I really wanted to write a novel of that story. Then it just sort of boiled down like maple syrup. All I had left was that story. For me it would have been daring to stretch that material out into a full novel. I wouldn’t be sure of it. I wouldn’t be sure it had the strength. So I don’t take that chance.
T: Do you write your stories primarily for magazines now, or for eventual inclusion in a book?
MUNRO: Writing for magazines is a very sideline thing. It’s what enables me to survive financially, but it isn’t important to me artistically. Right now I’m working on some stories and I might not be able to sell any of them. This has happened to very established writers. Markets are always changing. They say to begin writers study the market. That’s no use at all. The only thing you can do is write what you want.
T: You once said that the emotional realism of your work is solidly autobiographical. Is that how your stories get started? When something triggers you back to an emotional experience?
MUNRO: Yes. Some incident that might have happened to me or to somebody else. It doesn’t matter which. As long as it’s getting at some kind of emotional core that I want to investigate.
T: Do ever worry that goldmine of your past will dry up?
MUNRO: I never know. I never know. I thought I had used it all up before I started this book. Now I’m writing out of a different period. I’m very interested in my young adulthood.
T: Has there been a lot of correlation between your writing and raising your daughters?
MUNRO: Tremendously. When I was writing Lives of Girls and Women, some of the things in there came from things my daughters did when they were ten or eleven. It’s a really crazy age. they used to go to the park and hang down from their knees and scare people, pretending to be monkeys. I saw this wild, ferocious thing in them which gets dampened for most girls with puberty. Now my two older girls are twenty-five and twenty-one and they’re making me remember new things. Though they live lives so different from any life possible to me, there’s still similarities.
T: Do you feel a great weight has been lifted now your kids are older?
MUNRO: Yes. I’m definitely freer. But not to be looking after somebody is a strange feeling. All my life I’ve been doing it. Now I feel enormous guilt that I’m not responsible for anybody.
T: Maybe guilt is the great Canadian theme. Marian Engel wrote Canada is “a country that cannot be modern without guilt.” And Margaret Laurence said she came from “people who feel guilty at the drop of a hat, for whom virtue only arises from work.” Since intellectual work is not regarded by many people as real work, did you face any guilt about wanting to write?
MUNRO: Oh, yes. But it wasn’t guilt so much as embarrassment. I was doing something I couldn’t explain or justify. Then after a while I got used to being in that position. That’s maybe the reason I don’t want to go on living in HuronCounty. I notice when I move out and go to Toronto, I feel like an ordinary person.
T: Do you know where you got your ambition to write?
MUNRO: It was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I just kept on trying. I guess what happens when you’re young has a great deal to do with it. Isolation, feelings of power that don’t get out in a normal way, and maybe coping with unusual situations…most writers seem to have backgrounds like that.
T: When the kids play I Spy in your stories, they have a hard time finding colours. Was your upbringing really that bleak?
MUNRO: Fairly. I was a small child in the Depression. What happens at the school in the book you’re referring to is true. Nothing is invented.
T: So you really did take a temperance pledge in the seventh grade?
MUNRO: Yes, I did.
T: Sounds pretty bleak to me!
MUNRO: I thought my life was interesting! There was always a great sense of adventure, mainly because there were so many fights. Life was fairly dangerous. I lived in an area like West Hanratty in Who Do You Think You Are? We lived outside the whole social structure because we didn’t live in the town and we didn’t live in the country. We lived in this kind of little ghetto where all the bootleggers and prostitutes and hangers-on lived. Those were the people I knew. It was a community of outcasts. I had that feeling about myself.
When I was about twelve, my mother got Parkinson’s disease. It’s an incurable, slowly deteriorating illness which probably gave me a great sense of fatality. Of things not going well. But I wouldn’t say I was unhappy. I didn’t belong to any nice middle class so I got to know more types of kids. It didn’t seem bleak to me at the time. It seemed full of interest.
T: As Del Jordan says, “For what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every small, pothole, pain-cracked illusion…”
MUNRO: That’s the getting everything-down compulsion.
T: Yet your work never reads like it’s therapy writing.
MUNRO: No, I don’t write just out of problems. I wrote even before I had problems!
T: I understand you’ve married again. And that it’s quite successful.
MUNRO: It’s a very happy relationship. I haven’t really dealt much with happy relationships. Writers don’t. They tell you about their tragedies. Happiness is a very hard thing to write about. You deal with it more often as a bubble that’s about to burst.
T: You have a quote about Rose in Who Do You Think You Are.?, “She thought how love removes the world.” With your writing you’re trying to get in touch with the world as much as possible, so does this mean that love and writing are adversaries?
MUNRO: Wordsworth said, “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.” You can follow from this that a constant state of emotion would be hostile to the writing state.
T: If you’re a writer, that could have some pretty heavy implications.
MUNRO: Very heavy. If you’re a writer, probably there’s something in you that makes you value your self, your own objectivity, so much that you can’t stand to be under the sway of another person. But then some people might say that writing is an escape, too. I think we all make choices about whether we want to spend our lives in emotional states.
T: That’s interesting. My wife’s comment on Who Do You Think You Are? was that your character Rose is never allowed to get anything. She’s always unfulfilled. Maybe she’s just wary of emotion.
MUNRO: She gets something. She gets herself. She doesn’t get the obvious things, the things she thinks she wants. Like in “Mischief,” which is about middle-aged infidelity, Rose really doesn’t want that love affair. What she does get is a way out of her marriage. She gets a knowledge of herself.
T: But only after a male decides the outcome of the relationship.
MUNRO: I see that as true in relations between men and women. Men seem to have more initiative to decide whether things happen or don’t happen. In this specific area women have had a lack of power, although it’s slowly changing.
T: When you write, “outrageous writers may bounce from one blessing to another nowadays, bewildered, as permissively raised children are said to be, by excess of approval,” I get the feeling you could just as easily substitute the word male for outrageous.
MUNRO: I think it’s still possible for men in public to be outrageous in ways that it’s not possible for women to be. It still seems to be true that no matter what a man does, there are women who will be in love with him. It’s not true the other way round. I think achievement and ability are positively attractive qualities in men that will overcome all kinds of behaviour and looks, but I don’t think the same is true for women.
A falling-down-drunk poet may have great power because he has talent. But I don’t think men are attracted to women for these reasons. If they are attracted to talent, it has to be combined with the traditionally attractive female qualities. If a woman comes on shouting and drinking and carrying on, she won’t be forgiven.
T: Whenever I ask writers about growing older, they not only answer the question, they respond to the question. I suspect you’re enjoying getting older, too.
MUNRO: Yes. Yes. I think it’s great. You just stop worrying about a lot of things you used to worry about. You get things in perspective. Since I turned forty I’ve been happier than ever before. I feel so much freer.