By Lisa Dickler Awano
October 22nd, 2010
An interview with Alice Munro begins precisely on time, and always with a quick, friendly, personal exchange of greetings and news. Then we’re off on an odyssey in which a couple of hours fly by as we discuss her stories and how they came to be. Munro’s conversational voice is so similar to the sound, diction, and rhythms of her writing, that every reader of her work already knows how she speaks. In her down-to-earth manner, she presents complex ideas in concrete, understandable ways.
And in the same way that Munro the author draws her readers into participating in her stories, Munro the interviewee invites her public into the process of examining her work. With great interest, she frequently asks about the interviewer’s perceptions of her fiction and discusses responses she has received from her readers. When I offer an idea that strikes her as interesting, she hails it as a point she hasn’t previously thought of. When she disagrees with something I’ve postulated, she tells me without hesitation, in a direct but respectful manner that inspires me to reexamine and think further. Munro teaches through her writing, of course, but also through her ability to connect personally with her readers. Perhaps this is why we so intimately connect with her stories.
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LDA: You explore new themes and approaches to writing in each book you write. How does this collection differ from your previous volumes?
AM: Well, it did strike me at first, with a kind of horror, that there are a lot of rather grim things. There aren’t too many moments of lightness in these stories and I didn’t intend them to be not light.
LDA: In your story “Dimensions,” the protagonist, Doree, can’t seem to stop visiting her “criminally insane” husband, Lloyd, at the institution where he is held after he murders their children.
AM: “Dimensions,” the first story (in the collection), is really a horror story—but I feel it is totally believable. It’s the control story just gone to a crazy pitch. What interests me is the way that Lloyd is the only one that Doree can connect with about what has happened. Then he starts bringing on her (that their children are) really in heaven sort of thing. And until she can help that other man on the highway, she’s lost. That’s what saves her. I sort of loved that myself.
LDA: Me too. The word that I see more often than any other in your work is “connection,” or some form of the verb “to connect.” That seems to be what Doree desperately seeks, and what she finds when she helps the man on the highway.
LDA: What does “connection” evoke for you?
AM: Salvation. I mean, that’s what Doree gets from it—the salvation to be herself and to know the truth, which is that her children are dead, and they’re not in any fancy paradise that her husband has thought up.
LDA: It seems that throughout this story, and throughout your canon, characters are looking for some way to make a connection.
AM: Well, I think most of us are. But it’s a tricky word, because other people are wanting to get out of connections which suppress them, or drive them crazy, or whatever.
LDA: That leads me to think of Marlene and Charlene in your story “Child’s Play,” in which two girls become connected for life through their drowning of a third child.
AM: That is so very horrifying a story, as horrifying as “Dimensions.” What I’m really doing there is trying to get at what I believe is the genuine ruthlessness in children.
And the feeling of . . . you just cannot bear if that person touches you, or you can’t bear if you have to be with so-and-so, and that kind of fierce division by which you try to avoid contagion. Verna—the girl who is murdered—is like the contagion of all the stupid things in life that don’t need to be there when a young child is growing up and thinking about making her own life.
So much is done now to counteract the cruelty of children, when not much used to be. But in my story as well, there are people trying to counteract it, but they’re doing it in such an icky way that it just enrages the girls further. Some readers may say, “Oh, for God’s sake, this couldn’t happen.”
LDA: There’s tremendous coverage, in the American press, about cruelty among children.
AM: It’s happening here in Canada too. There was a horrible murder in Toronto, where a fourteen-year-old girl persuaded her boyfriend to kill a girl she thought of as her rival, and he did it. Anyway, a story is not always about what could happen, or it’s certainly not about what did happen.
LDA: Another of the stories in this collection takes its title, “Face,” from the prominent purple birthmark that the protagonist was born with,which affects his life, and the lives of those around him, for better and worse.
AM: I loved writing “Face” because I don’t know what came first. I guess that first scene, where the father rejects (his disfigured child) completely. I have known (of people), not in my husband’s generation, but in the generation before his, who would just do that. Nothing could come near them that wasn’t perfect, or respectably perfect. I wanted to write a story about this, but also to write about how somebody survives; and he does survive. Of course it’s the love of that little girl Nancy, that nobody expects or understands, and we don’t really know what has happened to her. But I think she’s all right. It’s about love, and love among children. So we’ve got hate among children and love among children.
LDA: Throughout your canon, you have delved into the ambiguous nature of relationships between parents and children. In “Deep Holes,” you explore the chasms in relationships between members of a family. During their picnic on a treacherous overhang at Osler Bluff, Kent, one of the children, has an accident that changes the course of his life. We see how the consequences of that event reverberate through the years. Does “Deep-Holes” hark back to your earlier story “Silence,”, or others of your stories in which communication breaks down between older and younger generations?
AM: Maybe a little. But there is a real place like Olser Bluff, and whenever I get into places like that I become a young mother again, thinking of all the dangers there are. And then from that, somehow, I got this idea. It’s not really about Sally, the mother, as much as the son, Kent. He’s trying to find some route to goodness, which is often a terrible bother to other people. He’s cut off from other people by his need to dramatize himself as a good person.
People like this often do a lot of good in the world, as Kent is doing. But he’s also a very inhumane person to be around. Right at the beginning, they are off on a picnic, there are a lot of rough spots in the family, but everybody’s doing their best, especially Sally, the poor woman nursing her baby. So what does Kent do? He goes too close to the edge, and falls over. He didn’t mean to do that exactly, but this is what this type of person will do. It’s especially important to me too how Sally’s husband, Alex, is always kind of obtuse, but he’s the one who has to be there to get the kid out of the hole.
Kent is not an entirely unpleasant character, but he’s a person who’s looking for something in life that is going to make a lot of disturbance. And what is interesting to me is the mother’s feeling about such a child. She sort of knows that he’s a pain in the. . . but she can’t stop caring for him more than anybody else.
LDA: You’ve had four daughters and lost one child to infant death. Do you think that your loss of that child has come up for you when you’ve written stories that involve the loss of communication between parents and children?
AM: No. I haven’t written much about that child, because I was so young emotionally, and so I was not as maternal then as I became later—even a couple of years later. I think that loss wakened something in me. Before that I was very brisk. I was going to be a mother, and I was going to be a good housewife, and I was going to be a good wife, and I was going to do a lot of marvelous writing. That’s the kind of thing you think when you’re twenty-one. Then none of this was coming true. But it was really much later that I began to feel the real pain of that loss. I had to grow up emotionally before I could feel it.
LDA: Then you don’t think it came out later in the writing?
AM: I’ve been planning to write a book about that for years, and I think I may still do it. But it may have come out in a sidelong way. The real feeling about my children came out in the story, “Miles City, Montana.”
LDA: In that story, the protagonist’s small child nearly drowns accidentally in a swimming pool during a family vacation.
AM: That really happened you see, and it was a powerful experience, believe me. God, one experience like that, and you know what some people have to go through. That was the first time that I translated . . . . that I took on that material is important.
LDA: It seems as though in your more recent collections, when you use material from your own life, the resulting story is less directly autobiographical than it was in your earlier stories, such as “Miles City, Montana,” or “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” or “The Ottawa Valley,” or “Who Do you think You Are . . . .”
AM: That’s right. Those stories are more nakedly personal. I think this is a matter of age. When you’re younger there’s a kind of breathlessness about “I can write about this.” It’s very exciting to realize what you can do. You’re discovering, along with the reader, what you felt. But I think now I’m writing—not at all in a more guarded way, but just in a way of having seen more, or maybe retreating a little from the personal. There’s not been any decision to do this. You never know why you do what you’re doing. And you don’t know what you’re doing until either someone points it out, or you see it yourself.
LDA: As a parent, I’m much more guarded about what I write now than I was before I had children because of my concern about how it might affect them.
AM: I wasn’t at all guarded in the beginning about what I said about myself. But as your children grow up and become more and more a part of your adult world, I think that is true, because they didn’t ask to be born to a writer. And they shouldn’t have to undertake the burden of it.
LDA: Do you think that in “Deep-Holes,” Sally keeps pursuing her estranged son Kent partly because she feels that she hasn’t got anyone in the world besides her grown children?
AM: Yeah. Her children are grown up—they don’t need her—her husband is dead . . . .Yet she’s an intelligent, pleasant, not-unlikable woman. In fact, I felt very much identified with her.
LDA: Even when Sally’s husband, Alex, was alive, he was controlling toward her and sometimes unkind toward his son Kent. Not infrequently in your stories, a female character will stay in a relationship with a man who doesn’t treat her well, or she will obsessively pine for a man who has abandoned her. For example, in your title story, “Too Much Happiness,” you write about Sophia Kovalevsky, the brilliant nineteenth century mathematician and author, who faced prejudice as a woman for her genius. We journey through Europe with her as she pursues both a paying job worthy of her talents, and her lover, Maksim, who frequently rejects her.
AM: “Too Much Happiness,” is a true story about Sophia Kovalevsky. Reading her life and dramatizing it, I could find all these things . . . some have changed, and some haven’t that much. Oh, I love that story – I love her. I love her femininity, her weaknesses as well as her strengths. The way she falls desperately in love with Maksim and she just can’t give him up. But what does he hold against her? Her achievements
LDA: He’s threatened by her capability.
AM: Yes. I don’t know if they would have had a very happy marriage, but it would have been worth trying, because they were both interesting people.
LDA: Speaking of “happiness,” often in your canon, and particularly in your collection Friend of My Youth, your protagonists ask themselves, “Am I happy?”
LDA: In your story “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass,” Hazel, the protagonist, ponders the lives of two women who both have a relationship with the same man. She wonders to herself whether:
. . . perhaps he was making those two women happy. What could she mean by that? Maybe that he was giving them something to concentrate on. A hard limit that you might someday get past in a man, a knot in his mind you might undo, a stillness in him you might jolt, or an absence you might make him regret – that sort of thing will make you pay attention, even when you think you’ve taught yourself not to. Could it be said to make you happy?
“Meanwhile, what makes a man happy?
It must be something quite different.”
Might you comment on this?
AM: Women need an emotional life, I think, and maybe they need it more than men do. You see women in very bad relationships, and they’ll leave, and then they’ll go back. And so what is that? Isn’t it “something to concentrate on” that involves another human being?
LDA: But could it be that often women aren’t financially independent enough to leave, to support their children?
AM: Of course, and I don’t think of that enough. I mean, for someone brought up really poor—and maybe it is because I was brought up poor—I hardly ever think about money. I’ve gone through periods in my life when I should have been thinking about money, and just luck pulled me through. That’s very odd, because poor girls are supposed to be much more practical. Maybe it’s because I know that you can live very close to the bone. But that was true when I was young—it wouldn’t be as true now. So it could be practicality too. I do think though that women often need an emotional life—maybe even a bad one.
LDA: Is it “connection” that a character is looking for when she becomes fixated on a relationship with a man who hurts her?
AM: Probably, or probably she’s afraid of giving it up. I mean, she’s got something. The new study that I really want to do is about loneliness, which you don’t really catch on to unless you live long enough. Fear of loneliness, I think, is something that motivates us, maybe without our knowing it, for a long time. But if you live long enough, you have to learn about it. I don’t know if much fiction has been done about this. I know some has, but it’s rather new for people to live long enough.
LDA: Here’s another passage from “Hold Me Fast . . .” about the protagonist, Hazel, that shows a way in which you were working with the theme of loneliness as an author in your fifties:
Hazel was a widow. She was in her fifties, and she taught biology . . . She was a person you would not be surprised to find sitting by herself in a corner of the world where she didn’t belong, writing things in a notebook to prevent the rise of panic. She had found that she was usually optimistic in the morning but that panic was a problem at dusk. This sort of panic . . . had to do with a falling-off of purpose, and the question why am I here?
You’ve also written about the loneliness that mothers feel when raising children.
AM: Yes. But I think that harried loneliness, (when raising children) is quite different from what you can feel when you actually become a kind of useless person. There are all kinds of words to cover that up, but your presence in the world is no longer totally necessary as it is when you have children. So there is a loneliness there. There’s a loneliness all your life in some ways about just having to find time to be yourself. But that’s something different. The loneliness I’m talking about I’m just beginning to get some idea of now. I’m not there yet, but I have friends who are, and you can see the manufacturing of pleasures, or diversions, which you don’t have to do when you’re younger.
LDA: I feel your stories tell us, “Look, you’re not alone—this happens to everybody.”
AM: I hope so. I hope it doesn’t happen to everybody, but I hope they tell that.
LDA: You risked loneliness when you were in your early forties, in the early 1970′s, when you and Jim Munro divorced after about twenty years of marriage. Then you married your second husband, Gerald Fremlin, with whom you have said that you have shared a fulfilling emotional life for thirty-five years.
AM: Well, I was very lucky in my timing. There was that period when practically every woman who had married before she was twenty-five was getting out and running around, and enjoying herself, and thinking, “How wonderful.” Then that wore off, of course. But there was a big thing then of women who had really hardly lived—they’d gone right from being teenaged girls to being mothers. And I think there was a big bursting out of that— before any of us became even realistic about the age we were, and the world we were going into. And some of us got lucky, and some didn’t.
LDA: It seems that you have made your luck.
AM: Oh, not altogether, Lisa. Things have to come your way.
LDA: What were some of the most critical things that came your way?
AM: Gerry. And things like that are accidental to some extent.
LDA: I’d like to ask you about how your story collections connect to form your canon. Short story author Eudora Welty, whom you have cited as an influence, noted in her mid-forties in her essay “On Writing” that her own stories had “repeated themselves in shadowy ways, that they (had) returned and may return in the future too—in variations—to certain themes.” However, she observed, “it is a pattern of which a new story is not another copy but a fresh attempt made in its own full-bodied right and out of its own impulse, with its own pressure and its own needs of fulfillment.” Looking across the volumes of your stories, it seems that in your work as well, there are thematic templates that turn up over and again and link your stories across the collections.
AM: I’m glad you’ve seen that. I didn’t know I was doing it, but I think that’s a very good thing to do, because short story collections are problematic. Sometimes I think still people think of them as a junior branch of fiction writing. And they are very serious. So you have to recognize the ways in which you’re working. At a certain time, when writing one book, you’re working with a particular mass of material. And this material may come to you in separate stories, but it’s really connected with what you’re going through or thinking about at the time. I’m trying to make it sound like more solid fiction, which I think it is.
LDA: There is a tremendous cohesiveness about the stories within each of your collections.
AM: I did notice something like that when I reread Too Much Happiness; all of it together. I felt that there was something there which is the viewpoint of an older person. It’s of me now.
LDA: When you’re writing one story, do you take note of a theme or a symbol or something else and remind yourself to develop it when you write the next story?
AM: No, never. I put one story away and then I start on another. This seems quite heartless, because it’s like you have a child, and you spend maybe a decade just bringing up this child with all the fervor you have got, and then you say, “Well . . . goodbye.”
LDA: Could that mean that your previous stories reside in your subconscious?
AM: Yes. I write stories with all this terrific intensity, and then they’re gone out there and they’re sort of like cousins that you played with when you were a child, and now you meet them and you think . . . What’s her name? That sounds very disappointing to people.
LDA: Maybe that makes it possible for you to move on?
AM: It does. It clears the way for another story.
LDA: In your story “Wenlock Edge,” the protagonist, a book-smart but naïve college student, has a humiliating experience that embitters her. She takes revenge on her desperate young roommate named Nina, whom she blames for what happened, and with whom she might empathize and even identify with had she more maturity, or objectivity.
AM: “Wenlock Edge” is a pretty devastating story, I think, in what I wanted it to tell about the behavior of perfectly nice, ordinary people, which I think the student is.
LDA: At one point in the story, while the student is at the home of a near-stranger, an older man named Mr. Purvis, she finds herself complying with his wishes, although they make her feel uncomfortable. Mr. Purvis, who is fully dressed, desires that she sit naked at his dining room table while they eat together. Later, while she is still undressed, he leads the way into his library, where he asks her to sit in a revealing way while she reads poems to him from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Although he doesn’t use force to win his way, the student doesn’t refuse him.
AM: Actually that was something someone told me that had happened, but I wanted very much to use it in a way of finding out why the girl would do that, and what she would feel like before and afterwards. So I put myself in that position, thinking it out.
After that story was published, I was at a party, and the men there all thought it was unrealistic; they thought it would never happen. And the women all said, “Oh, yeah?” I think (the men) wanted to think that way. Because what the student does is her own investigation, which she doesn’t realize the implications of. She really thinks that she is in power, even though it’s a thing she has to force herself to do. She doesn’t realize actually how much power Mr. Purvis has over her and her mind and her future until it’s all over.
LDA: Both the student protagonist and her roommate, Nina, seem like victims to me.
AM: The student has all kinds of smarts to keep her afloat in the world. But Nina is totally a victim because she has nothing. And Nina finds an implausible sort of romance that she is nevertheless willing to invest in and our heroine doesn’t even allow her to keep that. So in a way, it’s a bleak story. But I don’t think it’s bleak in terms of being not what people would do. “Dimensions,” the first story in the book is fairly unusual—it’s an extreme story—and I don’t think “Wenlock Edge” is extreme.
LDA: A narrative that has “repeated itself in shadowy ways” in your canon is that of the widely-read but unworldly young protagonist, who hails from a family that is struggling economically, and who takes a summer job in a relatively prosperous setting. Sometimes in these stories, the protagonist is aided in her new world by a character whom we would least expect to open the door of opportunity for her. Such is the case in “Some Women.”
The story is set during World War II. We meet a variety of women of different ages, who are working with and against each other to care for a young Air Force veteran named Bruce Crozier, who is dying from leukemia. His step-mother, Old Mrs. Crozier, owns the house in which the story takes place, and in which two women have been hired to work. One is the teenaged, unnamed protagonist, who sits and watches over Bruce while his wife is out teaching, and the other is a masseuse named Roxanne, who starts out by giving massages to Old Mrs. Crozier, but who increasingly begins to tend to Bruce’s needs—with Old Mrs. Crozier’s blessing. The story is one of my favorites in your new collection.
AM: I’m really glad when people like it. It’s one of my favorite stories too, because I was being myself as a young girl. It isn’t autobiographical at all in incident, but in the spirit of the young girl, (the unnamed protagonist)—totally. In the way that she’s very rude . . . she just goes in (to another person’s home), takes a book out of the bookcase and she thinks it’s hers. She isn’t deeply concerned with anybody but herself. That’s the way a thirteen-year-old girl is. And that’s why I enjoyed writing it so much—I enjoyed the selfish spirit of that young girl.
LDA: The necessarily selfish spirit.
LDA: Charles McGrath, who introduced your work to the New Yorker, and edited it there for years, told me in an interview that that your fiction offers readers “a novel’s-worth of incident and character change compressed into a fairly short story.” It seemed to me that in “Some Women,” you were working with a different manner of time compression than you have in the past. Do you think that one interpretation of that story could be that the numerous female characters in it are all different versions of the same woman—the young protagonist—as seen at varying ages and circumstances across the span of her lifetime?
AM: I hadn’t thought of that, but I suppose so. The story explores women at different ages, and with different levels of education.
LDA: I was very interested by the friendship that develops between Old Mrs. Crozier and Roxanne, the masseuse.
AM: Yes. I really liked Roxanne, with her trying with all she’s got. I know a lot of women like that. I have a feeling that Old Mrs. Crozier is not a lady. She was picked up on a business trip to Detroit, after all. And I think there are things in her past that she doesn’t get allowed to express now because she’s an old woman and her looks have gone.
She’s there in this town in this house that she doesn’t care for or understand, she has very few resources, and here’s this lively girl. . . .Also they are united in their dislike of the educated woman. I think that is the game that Mrs. Crozier is playing with Roxanne as her pawn. But I don’t mean that she realizes that this is what she’s doing. She sort of likes to see Roxanne operating, until it gets serious.
LDA: There seems a bit of a similarity between Nina, the victim in “Wenlock Edge,” and Roxanne, the masseuse in “Some Women.”
AM: Goodness . . . yeah.
LDA: Roxanne is a victim too.
AM: I think probably in this book, and in most of my books, there are a lot of strings tying the female characters together. Roxanne is a victim, isn’t she? She’s doing everything she can to make the most of what the culture has given her, but it hasn’t given her an awful lot. I mean . . . dirty jokes. That part of “Some Women” I really liked doing because I live in a community where dirty jokes are a currency of conversation. I don’t suppose anyone with a more sophisticated background knows about that.
LDA: Do you think that the telling of dirty jokes may be common to all backgrounds? I mean, sexual jokes, racial jokes—the kind that you might hear told in a bar anywhere you go?
AM: Yes. And some of them you hear, here, from people who are extremely prudish in their behavior. They “disapprove” of an awful lot of things. But in the world of jokes, everything goes. So it’s a great release. And I don’t know if it’s been used all that much in fiction by women.
LDA: You do a lot of humorous work. Where does that come from?
AM: I’m kind of a jokey person in my ordinary relationships. Sometimes people are shocked when they read my work. If I go out to dinner, I seem to be set on having. . . . was it Hemingway who talked about having as good a time as possible? I think I’ve always been like that; I was like that when I was a kid. It’s probably a big defense. However it’s not a bad one.
LDA: For me, humor often comes out of fear.
AM: Oh, yes.
LDA: And it’s been useful to me.
AM: It has to me too—being such an oddball person in my community.
LDA: You have often written stories set in communities of people similar to the one in which you were living. How did you find the courage to stay put in your town?
AM: You’ve got to be schizophrenic. I mean, there’s this really nice person that everybody will like, and then there’s this awful person that they will be astonished at. And you just go on juggling these.
LDA: And people accept it after a while?
AM: I don’t suppose they do. I suppose they think that I don’t hear. But they are pretty good, and I’m an older person now—I’m seventy-eight. I think you’re allowed more latitude, because you’ll soon be dead.
Some people may think you’ve written about them, and often it’s a complete surprise, because you didn’t know that you were thinking about them at all—if you were. I think you’ll find that people will either recognize themselves and you haven’t done it at all, or they don’t.
But you never do really write about people you know. You change the characters to fit the story once you get going. I don’t think good writing comes from accuracy about what happened, and what people are like. It has to change. Because you’re really wanting to express something underneath the writing, like we talked about when we spoke about the children in “Child’s Play.” And the characters are just working for that. They’re sort of like your servants.
LDA: Do you find sometimes when you’re writing, the characters just take over and you are surprised by what they do?
AM: Yes, I guess sometimes. There are certainly some things that happen that get incorporated. But mostly I keep them in pretty good control. Mostly what’s interested me before I ever started writing stays what interests me.
LDA: You have told me that it usually takes about three months for you to write a new story. From day to day, what kinds of things do you find sustaining?
AM: The things that comfort me about daily life . . . routine, private time . . .
LDA: Is there some particular creative spark that keeps you writing?
AM: I never think that way. I think I’m just writing, writing, writing.
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Authors Criticism Interview