April 07th, 2008
When Alice Munro resided in Clinton, Ontario, she was interviewed in 1978.
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 Huron County, 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 Huron County. 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 tranquillity." 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.
Essay Date: 1978