Alice Munro, who has set much of her canon in her native southwestern Ontario, has long been considered one of the foremost writers of psychological fiction in English. Her continual innovation in short-story structure has expanded our understanding of what the form can achieve. During her sixty-year career, Munro has published thirteen collections of stories and a novel, and has received numerous awards, including the Man Booker International Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The title of her new story collection, Dear Life, sounds like a fitting sigh of exasperation mixed with joy from an author whose writing celebrates the irreducible complexity of human experience and relationships. In fact, when I asked how she chose the title, Munro explained:
Those words are very wonderful to me because I heard them when I was a child, and they had all kinds of meaning. “Oh, for dear life!” would just mean that you were kind of overwhelmed with all that had been required of you. I liked the contrast between that and the words “dear life,” which are maybe a joyful resignation, but when you say “dear”—the word—it doesn’t bring up sadness. It brings up something precious.
Munro has been speaking with me about her fiction for nine years. I found myself smiling with recognition when she told me during the following interview that her work is often inspired by listening to how people talk to one another, and to their stories. It struck me then that our interviews share some aspects of the ways that she structures stories.
While Munro and I never plot the route our conversations will follow, they often wander along a path similar to the one she takes in her autobiographical stories in “Finale,” the concluding section of Dear Life. I ask her to start by grounding us in a new book or story’s setting, and she responds by connecting her story or personal history to larger events or circumstances of the time in which it takes place—a technique she has said she admires in William Maxwell’s Ancestors: A Family History. The story “Dear Life,” for example, opens with a geographical description of the neighborhood in which Munro grew up. I’m often surprised to discover, when examining these “factual” introductory comments, that they are multi-layered and revealing of the author and her creative process. They throw light on underlying motifs in her oeuvre and often hold the key to a given book or story.
Our conversations, like Munro’s stories, plunge into issues of characterization and structure, taking surprising turns around unexpectedly sharp corners. We may be speaking about what seems a minor aspect of a story, when all at once a major theme or a complex of emotions underlying the work is illuminated. When this happens, Munro will take the idea in the opposite direction and explore its converse, just as she does in her fiction.
Sometimes I ask a question that doesn’t go anywhere and produces silence. Then suddenly Munro will say something that seems to me unrelated. Often, it isn’t until much later, after I’ve been working with the transcript for a while, that I begin to sense how her comment fits in with something we may have discussed much earlier in the conversation or in another interview or how it was related to what we were discussing when she made the remark, but in an indirect way that I wasn’t ready to understand. When I return to her closing remarks, I’ll unexpectedly find connections that lead me back to the beginning of the interview—to listen again and hear it anew, in a more textured way.
Editor’s Note: This interview is edited for length, removing false starts and asides. Some questions have been shortened or eliminated.
Awano: What is your writing process?
I work slowly; it’s always difficult—it’s nearly always difficult. I’ve been writing steadily, really, since I was twenty years old, and now I’m eighty-one. My routine now is to get up in the morning, have some coffee, start to write. And then a little later on, I might take a break and have something to eat and go on writing. The serious writing is done in the morning. I don’t think I can use a lot of time in the beginning; I maybe can only do about three hours. I do rewrite a lot, and I rewrite and then I think it’s all done, and I send it in. And then I want to rewrite it some more. Sometimes it seems to me that a couple of words are so important that I’ll ask for the book back so that I can put them in.
I started with the idea of writing novels, and I wrote short stories because that was the only way I could get any time. I could take off housekeeping and childrearing for a certain amount of time but never for the amount that you need to write a novel. And after a while I got as if the story form—actually a rather unusual story form, usually quite a long story form—is what I wanted to do. I could say what I wanted to say in that space. And this was hard at first because the short story was a form that people wanted to be a certain length. They wanted it to be a short story, and my stories were quite unusual in the way that they sort of went on and on and told you different things and so on.
I never know—at least, usually I don’t know—that a story is going to be a certain length. But I’m not surprised. I give it all the space it needs.
Anyway, I don’t care if what I write now is a story—is classified as a story—or what. It’s a piece of fiction, that’s what it is.
You’re a very lyrical writer. Do you still write poetry?
Oh, a bit now and then, yes. I like the idea of poetry, but you know, when you write prose, I think you have to be careful not to make it consciously poetic. It’s got to have some sharpness to it, and that’s the way I like to write now. I like to write in a way that, I don’t know, maybe that will frighten people a bit?
It also seems to me that you’re very interested in folklore.
Yeah, but you never know what you’re going to be interested in. You don’t decide beforehand. All of a sudden you realize that this is what you want to write. So I wouldn’t have thought of that myself, but I listen a lot to stories people tell and get the rhythm of them and try to write. I think, Why is this sort of story so important to people? I think you still hear lots of stories that people tell which are maybe supposed to illustrate some strangeness about life. And I like to pick up those stories and see what they tell me, or how I want to deal with them.
I read somewhere that folklore was thought to be women’s form of storytelling.
I think that’s true, that women who were not taken seriously, even after women learned to write, and could write, perhaps were still telling stories. You know, women spend a lot of time together, or they used to. And I can remember things that you did together when you had huge suppers to feed the men. The men would be working in the fields, and when they came in—this is in my childhood—you would serve them an enormous meal. There was great pride amongst the women in how big and wonderful the meal was, and then afterwards you had these mounds of dishes to wash. And all this time, you’re talking to each other. It’s very important.
But of course that is all gone now. That is an old way—a rural way—and I don’t know if women still talk like this or not. Do women talk to each other? Are they encouraged to or not? But wherever women get together, I think there’s an urge to tell stories, and there’s an urge to say to each other, “Why do you think this happened?” “Wasn’t this a strange thing to say?” or, “What does this mean?” Women have a tendency maybe to try to interpret life verbally. Whereas a lot of men I know, or used to know, didn’t have this urge. They felt it better to go ahead and deal with what you were dealt and maybe not wonder too much about it.
I wonder if this could be an insight into why you chose the short-story form—or it chose you?
It could be. I love working with people, with people’s conversation and also the surprises that come to people. To me this is very important. What happens that you didn’t expect. In one of my stories [“Runaway”], a woman who has a very difficult marriage decides to leave her husband, and is encouraged to by a very rational older woman, and she does. And then when she tries to run off, she realizes she just can’t do this. It’s a sensible thing to do, she has lots of reasons for doing it, but she can’t do it. How come? And so that’s the kind of thing I write. Because I don’t know “how come.” But I have to pay attention to it. There is something there that deserves attention.
Themes repeat throughout your canon, tying your stories together across collections. I thought that “Runaway” could have been an alternate title for some stories in Dear Life, such as “Train.”
Oh yes, yes. That story interested me a lot because I think sometimes people just don’t understand what they have to do. I mean, this man [Jackson, the protagonist] has got to get away from personal entanglements. He doesn’t know why. But when they come close, that’s it. There is a sexual element there, but it’s not the only thing. And I think there are people like that.
I thought that one of your characters in Dear Life who really achieves what she needs to in life is Belle, also in “Train.”
Oh, yes, yes, yes. Yeah, I think she does. And I love the way she gets more and more frank about things as she gets more and more pills. I really like her. But she is a survivor, in a weird sort of way, because a lot of things have been against her—difficult for her. But I think there are just people like this who take whatever comes and make some kind of fairy story out of it. In other words, she does not see her life as deprived. She sees it as interesting. And many people would see it as a complete loss, because she isn’t living the kind of life that a person of her class would have expected to live—she isn’t married; for a long time [she has been] asexual. And yet there’s something about her—[she] is not just coping with this, but has sort of woven it into a life of her own. And I think she’ll always do that. I’ve known people like this. I’ve known people who seem, oh, just to have a kind of a gift for being interested and being happy to a certain extent.
People like you.
I think I’m much more traditional.
I think your story “No Advantages” offers insight into your success. When you describe Belle, I feel that her success is similar to yours. You’ve had all of these difficulties, and you’ve turned them into opportunities to write.
That’s true, but I had great luck as well. If I had been a farm girl of a former generation, I wouldn’t have had a chance. But in the generation that I was, there were scholarships. Girls were not encouraged to get them, but you could. I could imagine, from an early age, that I would be a writer. And mind you, nobody else thought so or would think in such terms. But it wasn’t purely freakish. I did a lot of physical work as a young girl because my mother was not able to. But it wasn’t enough to slow me down. I think in a way I was very lucky, because if I had been born, say, to a very well-educated family, say a family in New York, people who knew all about writing, the whole world of writing, and so on, I would have been totally diminished. I would have felt, “Oh, well, I can’t do that.” But because I didn’t live with any people who thought about writing, then I had this ability to just say, “Well, I can do it.”
In the story “Dear Life,” you explore the paradox of your relationship with your parents.
It’s love and fear and dislike. It’s all those things.
You keep coming back, in your later work, to your relationship with your father, who was an accomplished writer and an extremely sensitive person, and a reader all his life.
He was, yes.
A person who, in many of your stories, seems to be a doppelgänger for you, the developing young writer. But then there’s this immovable fact, that you refuse to turn away from, which is that he hit you with a belt when you were growing up.
That’s true. And I could say, “Well, of course, this is much more common in that period—most of the people I knew got beaten occasionally.” And the beating of a child was by no means reprehensible. It was a natural way to get the child whipped into shape. Also, because of poverty, and the need for the child to contribute labor to the household, and not just be an interesting fixture of a child growing up as it seems to me that children can be now. So all this was very practical, and needed to be done. And it was also very terrifying and probably—a lot of people would say—it was destructive. I can’t think that way because I don’t … I still reject it and feel a kind of horror about it to myself. I feel that I was an unworthy person, and that’s what it makes you feel. But also I realize that this is what happened at the time, and you can’t shy away from that. And you also can’t shy away from why it had to happen. There just wasn’t time or money to bring up children in a way that took account of their needs—why they’re behaving in a certain way. And also, there isn’t time for the children to be, you know, mouthy or talk back. You just can’t afford to have this going on. Because what’s going on, chiefly, is making enough to live on, where everybody has to work and be useful to the family. Because I was an extremely rebellious child, at least I had ideas that I was eager to get out of, I would just sauce back anybody. And all this was counterproductive as far as the family went.
You also had a paradoxical relationship with your mother.
And in a way, that’s much more complicated. Because I was basically a lot like my father, but I wasn’t like my mother, and that was very sad for her.
Because of her illness?
No, not because of her illness, really. It would have been worse maybe without her illness. But she wanted a really nice little daughter who conformed, who was clever but conformed and gave recitations and didn’t question anything.
And yet, she was ahead of her time in a lot of ways.
In a lot of ways, she was, yes. She was fine about women’s rights and that sort of thing. She was just very, very puritanical, which many women were in her time.
It seems that your greatest frustration with your mother was with her attitudes toward sex.
Oh, yes. But then, of course, that came from God-knows-what. Most women, I think, who were ambitious, would feel, in a way, that sex was the enemy, because getting married would put an end to all that [ambition]. I mean, the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman, as they used to say, is to have to get married, and that is having sex. So having sex was something you had to be very sure to keep control of.
In the story “Dear Life,” you use the idea of renovating a house in connection with the workings of memory. Can you talk about how you think about the nature of memory?
It’s interesting what happens as you get older because memory does become more vivid, particularly distant memory. But I don’t try at all with memory, it’s just there all the time, and I don’t know if I write about it more than I used to. Certainly the “Finale” stories are a conscious working with memory, and I haven’t done that very often because I think if you’re really going to write seriously about your parents, your childhood, you have to be as honest as you can, you have to think about what really happened, rather than what story your memory dishes up to you. But of course you never can do that, so at least you’ve got to say, “Well, this is my side of the story—this is what I remember.”
You’ve said to me sometimes that we keep repeating things that are difficult until we work through them.
I think that’s particularly true probably of early childhood memories. And there’s always an attempt being made to work through them. But what does “work through” mean? It means that they don’t hurt anymore? That you’ve thought them through and have what you think is a fair idea of what was going on? But you never write about that. You have children. When they write their story of their childhood, it’s still going to be just their story, and the “you” in it is going to be a “you” that you maybe wouldn’t recognize. And this is why I think you have to acknowledge that the story that makes the most honorable effort is still not going to get at everybody’s truth. But the effort is worthy.
If you’re a writer, you’re sort of spending your life trying to figure things out, and you put your figurings on paper, and other people read them. It’s a very odd thing, really.
You do this your whole life, and yet you know that you fail. You don’t fail all the way, or anything, it’s still worth doing—I think it’s worth doing, anyway. But it’s like this coming to grips with things that you can only partially deal with.
This sounds very hopeless. I don’t feel hopeless at all.