R.I.P. Alice Munro (1931 – 2024)

“Compared to Anton Chekhov for her peerless short stories for which she won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Alice Munro (left) has died.FULL STORY


Robert Harlow

April 07th, 2008

T: From your books, it sounds like you've had your share of rubbing shoulders with what we euphemistically call the real world.
HARLOW: Well, my father was a railroader who came out west from Maine in 1909. I grew up in Prince George when it was still a small town of two thousand people. I did the usual things there like drive a truck, work in mills, and some timber cruising. When the war came, I was fifteen. I graduated from high school at seventeen and joined the Air Force. I was a bomber pilot for '43, '44 and '45. Then I went to UBC. I'd never even been to Vancouver, except to join up, but I had this ambition to go to university because very few people from my hometown ever did. I got my BA and then took Earle Birney's creative writing workshop in 1946.

T: That was the first creative writing workshop ever taught in Canada. HARLOW: Yes, that's right. All sorts of people from that class went on to do interesting things, but I think I'm the only writer.

T: What kind of influence was Earle Birney?
HARLOW: Earle was a marvellous role model, a pretty fantastic guy, because I got to see how much energy you had to expend on writing. After I studied some more at Paul Engle's workshop in Iowa, and got married, I was working at the CBC as a producer. Earle phoned me up from UBC one day and asked if I'd be a sessional lecturer for eight months. I went downstairs and saw the boss, who told me I couldn't have leave. So I quit. Then they decided to let me go as sort of a sabbatical. When Earle got fed up with UBC and left, I was approached and asked if I would stay on as head of the newly established Creative Writing Department. I contemplated that decision for, oh. ..about twelve seconds.

T: How much had you written by then?
HARLOW: I'd written a book for my thesis at Iowa. Then I wrote parts of another two novels in the fifties. Then I published Royal Murdoch and Gift of Echoes. Later on, in 1970- 71, I went on a leave of absence and wrote the bulk of Scann in about eight or nine actual writing months. I did it with my long-suffering family in Majorca. People think of it as a very formidable book now but I never thought of it that way as I was writing it.

T: Now with Making Arrangements, you've written an entirely different book.
HARLOW: I guess I believe an author should be able to write a full spectrum, not write himself over and over. Hemingway, for instance, fell into that trap a bit. He was a great writer but he did write himself over and over again. Most really good writers simply get better and better at the trade and can do a great number of things. People always say "Dickensian" as if he only wrote one kind of book. That's not true at all. His scope was fantastic. The same with Faulkner. The difference between Sartoris and Light in August is light years.

T: You once wrote, "Many authors are lost to poverty, journalism, hack writing and too much time on their hands." Why do you feel journalism is bad for writers?
HARLOW: When I said journalism, I meant the whole media thing. Journalism is just too close to real writing. It saps your energies. You have to save that energy for yourself it you're a writer. Hemingway was not a journalist when he wrote his first book. For The Sun Also Rises he quit work and starved and sponged off women or friends or whatever he could do. You have to be wily every day of your life.
When I was doing what amounted to journalism for the CBC, I didn't really write. There were nine years when I kidded myself I was doing it. Now I save my best brains for when I write in the mornings from six until nine or ten. Then I go out to the university and use my second best brains for teaching. My third best brains are for the evening.

T: Do you ever look at a lot of excellent journalists and see frustrated writers?
HARLOW: Sure. Years ago a friend quit his job with the Vancouver Sun and left his family to write the Great Canadian Novel. It didn't happen. Guys dream of that all the time. I don't know how many paragraphs he had at the end of the year but it wasn't very many. Everybody says, "I'm going to go out and write," like they're going to go out and have a baby. You have to do three or four pages a day. It's a craft. It's hard work that does it. You need a lifetime of experience.

You paid me a great compliment when you said Making Arrangements seemed to have spontaneous humour. I don't know how many pages of stuff I tore up because I was allowing myself to get into it. That's what technique is all about in writing. To get the author the hell out of his own work so it can be its own spontaneous self.

T: Many people argue that a university can't teach the craft of writing, that all writers have to be self-educated.
HARLOW: There have always been creative schools in various forms. Like in Moscow or St. Petersburg or Vienna at the turn of the century when people sat around and shared their ideas. That's all we do. I share my experience with young people. Now universities have finally recognized the value of that kind of learning environment and they're sponsoring it.

T: With creative writing, is there ever a danger that the "creative" gets stressed over the "writing"? Or do you not separate the two?
HARLOW: That's a very good question. The answer is I think there's something magic about creativity but I don't go around being "creative." That's why I refuse to discuss content in my classes. We only discuss technical arrangements that are needed to fulfill the intent of the author. For instance, last year a student had a story where a woman shoves a gun up her vagina and blows herself up. The class thought the guy who wrote the story was a male chauvinist of the worst order. So I let the discussion go along those lines and it didn't take them long to discover it was fruitless to discuss content. They had to discuss how that could work in his story. That's what happens in a workshop. It's very practical.

T: So you teach writing and not creativity.
HARLOW: Yes. When new instructors come on staff, often you'll find them holding dramatic callisthenics. But that only lasts for a few weeks. Pretty soon they realize the kids want to learn how to write. The only way they can do that is by teaching themselves, by writing. In a way, the person who teaches in a creative writing workshop is simply the best writer in that group. If you get one really good writer, that's a good workshop, and everyone in it is suddenly trying to write their asses off to get as good as he or she is.

T: I'd have to say that all the writers I've met of any consequence all have abnormally strong egos or drives. HARLOW: I like to translate that word ego into drive, too. People with drive stick out. The trick is to learn how to translate that drive into the energy that goes into writing.

T: Do you ever get people who write extremely well but are too passive about their talent?
HARLOW: Sure. And they don't last long. Sometimes it's not so much passivity as lack of confidence that gets to people. Some of them can't stand any criticism at all. I had a girl turn up the other day and she'd never had her work criticized by senior students before. She came in what looked like a uniform, and with a beret on. The way she wore her clothes, they were like battle dress.

T: What happens to the ones who can't cut it?
HARLOW: The ones who get in and don't make it? I never fail them. I tell them I've made a mistake. It was my fault. I was the one who let them in. We select people by looking at their writing. We ask for a hundred pages if you're a grad student, fifty pages if you're a senior student, twenty-five pages if you come out of high school. You can pretty well tell from that. If I make a mistake, they go away and try another way of learning to write or they read for the rest of their lives. But they'll never call an artist down. They'll never say Canada Council shouldn't give a writer a buck or two to finish a book. They appreciate the work involved.

T: You wrote, "By the time the writer has shown he has talent and has begun to develop, the experience he will need as the basis of his work has mostly been gathered." I would disagree with that.
HARLOW: I think the basic experiences we have are all done by the time we're seventeen or eighteen. The way we're going to treat life and deal with experience form then on is pretty much in place.

T: You're just talking about personality.
HARLOW: The tools for handling life. Even though I know it's pop psychology to say it, you're all in place by age five. People do change when they go through puberty. The edges come off. And getting married and having children are certainly heavy experiences. But they don't usually change you fundamentally. Once the personality framework is there, you just get richer and richer as you get older. According to myth, finally you get to be wise.

T: So you believe if you're going to be a writer, it's from what happened to you in the first twenty years?
HARLOW: I think so.

T: When did you know you had to be a writer?
HARLOW: When I was nine I decided to be a travel writer. I had the gift of gab and I was always good on paper so I thought writing would be easy. But I never really started writing until quite late, when I was twenty-two or so. I'm an anomaly in that respect, but the war intervened.

T: In my teens I made a close correlation between creative energy and sexual energy. Did you think that way, too?
HARLOW: When I first was in university, the sexual tension and hysteria was incredible. We spun like dervishes for four solid years. The good girl/bad girl theory was all there. Now, with the pill, young people are more mature. The energy that might have gone into hysteria can now go into creativity. So yes, I do believe the human animal's first analogies will be sexual. However, I don't think there's any one-to-one relationship between sexuality and creativity.

T: Do you differentiate between therapy writing and someone who's writing from strength?
HARLOW: Sure. Solzenitzhen writes from controlled experience and Sylvia Plath was a therapy writer. Everybody goes through a period in their life when they're like Plath, male or female. But with therapy writing I think the author's usually in the book too much, and the result is neurotic autobiography.

T: Do you see any trend nowadays away from that subjectivism of the sixties?
HARLOW: You know what we're doing now? Fantasy. Science fiction. In the last week I've had three science fiction stories turned in. This is typical. We did it in the fifties, and it was done in the thirties when times were bad, too. In times of great change, people suddenly don't understand the world and turn to fantasy as a way of handling things. Speculative fiction has always been some kind of bottom line. Shakespeare did his Tempest after a long life of writing. Tolkien did his Lord of the Rings.

T: It's all very well to know how to write. But do you also teach your students how to read?
HARLOW: Very few people ask that question. But yes, it's absolutely essential to writing to learn to read for technique. God bless English studies. It's analysis. Writing is synthesis. The twain do not often meet. In high-class criticism, which everybody hopes they write, I'm sure they do meet. Authors have to learn for themselves both synthesis and analysis. If I'm standing in line at the supermarket, I find myself picking up a nurse romance to see how and what the author is doing.

T: What should aspiring writers read?
HARLOW: Most people say to read anything that comes to hand, and I suppose that's half the answer. The other half is the hard part. All the time you're reading you should be finding out how it's done. And you don't usually start being curious about technical things until after you've begun to be serious about writing. So, one of the things I do with my students is to try to encourage them to be serious about both writing and reading all the time-see if I can't get them to teach themselves to read as authors, rather than just as readers, and that leads them immediately to seeing how things are done. Then they apply that to their own writing.
Eventually a snowball effect occurs and larger and larger questions rise up for them to answer for themselves. What is a novel, for instance? Or, what can it be? Read Dickens and you know that he invented a lot of things that it can be -those things that Sterne didn't invent in Tristram Shandy. Read Grass and he will show you how to turn Dickens' novel upside down and inside out and make The Tzn Drum. Read Faulkner and you will see a half dozen other approaches. And then there are the great novella writers-Grass again, Mann, Unamuno, Moravia, Henry James, Robbe-Grillet. Mann does The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice -a ten-pound novel and a beautiful novella. James does The Ambassadors and Daisy Miller or Turn of the Screw. Grass does The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse. Those aren't just long and short books. There's a technical tactic involved. Sooner or later writers reading as authors will begin to build on that tactic and will discover and use the novella for their own purposes the way, perhaps, Marian Engel did it when she wrote Bear, or Laurence when she wrote Alest of God, or Solzenitzhen when he wanted to do A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovzich. The novella is the basic prose form. It deals with the energy generated by individual moments of consciousness or time, if you will. Once upon a time. The novel has "the times," society, added to those energised moments, and that changed it into an entirely different genre. The short story stops a moment of time so that it can happen for us lyrically, poetically. The best short stories are always poems. And, of course, there are those other parts of writing that are common to all genres that we run into all the time when we read point of view, for instance, which is a subject vast enough to take up your time for most of your writing life. All the concerns of composition like narrative line, tone of voice, making scenes, the whole lot. There's always enough content, seldom enough technique.

T: That list of books you recited was pretty international, especially for a literary nationalist.
HARLOW: Right. Nowadays I'm becoming pretty chauvinist. The reason is because we have some pretty good technicians among us here in Canada. Robert Kroetsch, for instance. And have you read Betty Lambert's Crossings? It's a fine novel. You could write a treatise on its technical aspects. The same could be said for Reshard Gool's book, The Nemesis Casket. An absolute gem. I think the greatest thing that ever happened to literature in this country was the 1967 Centennial. The federal government had to give some money to literature because they gave it to everybody else. Now we've got a lot of excellent writers in this country. The problem now is to get the public aware of what is being produced.

Essay Date: 1978

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