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An Appreciation of Alice Munro

ISSUE:  Summer 2006

Generally speaking, the book editor’s job is to work with the writer to be sure the text is as strong as possible, and in the case of a short story collection, to order the stories. A lot of editorial work is intuitive. To some extent, it’s being able to get on someone’s wavelength. Ginger Barber has also been good about parts of stories that needed work. We’ve all had oars in the water. Alice, Ginger, Doug Gibson, and I have worked together for nearly thirty years, with no serious disagreement that I can recall. I think this is actually a tribute to Alice, who is a pleasure to work with, and to her writing, which is a gift to work on.

Alice herself is an enormously good editor. Sometimes when I get a story and I’ve maybe not yet read it, or I’ve just read it and I’m preparing to talk to her about it, another version will arrive. She is also a tremendous rewriter. I think it’s a happy moment for her when she knows she can’t change anything again. In fact, both of us laugh and say that one of my most important jobs is telling her when the story is done—keeping her from overthinking it, or changing it in ways that could diminish or even ruin it.

I don’t line edit the stories much. Many come in almost perfect shape. Other times we’ll have a conversation when something isn’t quite working, and we’ll talk about whether she’s thought of taking something out, or moving it around, and then she fixes it. But Alice’s sentences are her own.

Her stories come from authentic emotions and feelings, and for that reason, readers identify with her characters. Alice is tapped into her own subconscious, and is able to put that tone on the page. The stories read easily, because they’re transparent—what they say goes straight into the reader’s head. She is sure-footed. Even when you are surprised by a shift in a character’s thoughts, it seems completely organic. We all make those kinds of transitions in our thinking processes, even though they don’t point to an end the way a story does.

There are always elements of surprise and mystery in the stories. Sometimes I think, when I read one of them for the first time, that it’s about one thing, or that a specific happening or thought is there, and then when I reread it I realize the happening or thought exists only between the lines—so that the reader thinks that there is something in the story that literally isn’t. I believe that’s a sign of greatness.

Alice takes risks as a writer and has done so right from the beginning. This is why each collection is better than the last. For example, in “Royal Beatings,” (from The Beggar Maid), the first story she sold to the New Yorker, she took chances. The very idea of the story—parents and child engaged in a ritual of punishment that brings certain satisfactions to them all—is risky. And in “Runaway,” the use of such a vivid and obvious image as a tiny goat, which crashes into the story precipitously, is a brilliant risk. In Runaway, Alice used more aggressive symbols than she had in past collections.

Runaway was particularly interesting to me because often the women in the stories seem to be in situations that Alice’s characters have been in in past stories, but they make different choices. For example, in “Passion,” Grace, the main character, did not run away with the object of her passion as many Munro characters do. She passed up the chance. In “Runaway,” Carla didn’t leave her husband; she got off the bus she was taking and came back home. Runaway was lighter in some ways than Alice’s previous US collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and it was very much about younger women. Even when the stories were recalled by women further along in life, the action had taken place when they were younger. In Hateship, there was a lot about illness and dying, and so the characters were older.

Like many writers, Alice never wants to be very obvious about the endings of her stories. Sometimes I work with her on that. I might ask her to put a hint of what’s coming in the body of the story so that the ending won’t be too abrupt. Maybe I’ll say, “It’s not quite clear,” or, “Not quite working.” We go back and forth, talking. The three endings we worked on most in Runaway were in “Silence,” “Powers,” and “Tricks.”

On her own, Alice did eight revisions of “Powers.” Then we worked on that ending because it was hard to finish off the story part of it and give Nancy her due. Alice also went through many revisions of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (from Hateship). “Tricks” was a hard one. We didn’t want the ending to be too “tricky.” Some of what we work on is having the right “beat” to the ending, so that it sits right, easing you into another thought or out of the story.

When I asked her at the end of Runaway if she wanted to reread the galleys, she said, “No, because I’ll rewrite the stories.”

As usual, Munro’s next collection, The View from Castle Rock, is something new again. This time she has worked what little she knows of her family’s history into a group of stories that follow her father’s family from Scotland in the early 1800s up through her own girlhood. When I read them I was bowled over. Although she was working with so little that she actually knew, she was able to make absolutely real and believable characters come alive in such different times and places.

In the past she has written stories—such as “Meneseteung” (from Friend of My Youth), “Carried Away,” “The Albanian Virgin,” “A Wilderness Station” (all from Open Secrets), and in a sense, “Powers”—that had historical settings. This new volume has a saga-like feeling, almost like a novel, and although you don’t follow all of the same people from story to story—you more or less drop in on different folks in succeeding generations—you’re dying to get to the next story to find out what will happen to this family.

There are a lot of very strong women in the first part of The View from Castle Rock. And strong men, too. Alice writes more about men in this collection than she usually does. There is a large focus on fathers, which is interesting, because Alice has said that she considers her mother to have provided her major material. Three of the stories are about fathers—“Working for a Living,” “Fathers,” and “Home” (published following these appreciations).

Some of these stories are based more on events in her own life than usual. As she says in an author’s note, “You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on.” Since readers and critics often try to determine what’s true in a literal sense in an author’s writing, these stories ought to keep people busy for quite a while.

Having your job provide you with such a superb experience as being one of the first readers of Alice Munro’s stories, and working with her on them, has been an extraordinary gift. And the most wonderful thing of all is that after ten collections, when I get new stories—she’s already three into another collection—I’m still knocked out by them.


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