Michael Cunningham, novelist
Alice Munro tells the large stories of people whose lives are outwardly small. Rarely does she write about the exceptional outsider. She is a great champion of ordinary outsiders, of people who in small and crucial ways don’t fit, who need a better life than the one being offered to them. She, like Virginia Woolf, has always insisted on the particular importance of women’s lives, insisted that the story of an unhappy housewife in middle age is every bit as important as the story of a sea captain about to undertake the search for a white whale. In so doing, Munro, maybe more than any other writer today, reminds us of the scope and scale possible in a short story. She intricately dissects and charts whole lives, replete with enormous changes, with a thoroughness we might have thought only attainable in a novel.
Her sentences, while never dull, are clear and unvarnished. She has great rhythm. She knows just how long each line should be, and when a longer sentence should be followed by a shorter one. Her sense of music is impeccable, but her work is not some big technique-y thing meant to remake literature. Munro is not Joyce, she is not David Foster Wallace—I say this with respect. Her work is written in a humbler way, and in a sense that’s the greater gamble. She doesn’t aspire to be one of the boys—they are, it seems, mostly boys—who are regarded as the big guns, and because her work is not splashy, her language not assertive, she risks being overshadowed by some of the noisier stylists. In fact, the determination she shows as she burrows into the lives of her characters makes outwardly experimental writing seem like the easier path. Munro is not concerned with impressing the reader. The depth and beauty and truth of the story she is writing are of greater concern to her.
I don’t know another writer better able to chart the intricacies of human beings, the incredible complexity and ambiguity of emotions. For example, Munro has steadfastly refused to accept the notion that mothers or children behave in predictable ways. She allows that parents have ambiguous feelings for their children and children, for their parents. And what Munro can do with sex is a little like what Flannery O’Connor did with divine intervention. Many of Munro’s stories involve the appearance of some sexual connection that sweeps a protagonist’s life away as surely as did O’Connor’s Hand of God. Which is so fabulously true. What’s more likely to upset our plans than sex and love? You’re going along and things seem to be fine, and then—kapow! Along comes a sexual connection you’d never imagined, and your life is changed.
Munro has a firm grasp on the complicated interplay between our will, our desires, and the outside forces over which we have almost no control. An outside force can range from governmental control to something that suddenly shows you your romantic life has been a delusion and a sham. Munro isn’t afraid of a mess; she knows that the mess enhances us. Like all of the authors I revere, she understands that a fiction writer’s job is to further complicate the world. She keeps readers aware that however complex things appear, they are even more complex than that.
If writers tend to be either predominantly cruel or kind, Munro is in a class of her own. She has great compassion, but no sentimentality. Munro reminds us that there are no simple solutions. There’s happiness, tragedy, and everything in between, and any worldview that insists on one thing over the others is deficient or fragmentary. Mystery and surprise are crucial ingredients of every single good story, and Munro is a master of the mystery that resides in the human heart. Few experiences are more satisfying to a reader than to see a character do something utterly surprising and then realize that it was the only thing that the character could possibly have done. In Munro’s stories, you don’t know what’s going to happen to people—just as in life.
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Margaret Atwood, novelist
The fifties were a very male period of writing in the United States. America didn’t have a tradition of women writers. Who, among women, were admired? Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter. Among poets? Emily Dickinson. How many others? In Canada, you didn’t get points off for being a woman. The challenge wasn’t so much being female as it was being Canadian. Embroidery, oil painting, writing, it was all considered a hobby. Writing wasn’t important. There was hardly a market for new novels. The writing community up here was so small at that time. Because of readings and little magazines, poets knew one another’s work, but it was different for prose writers in Canada.
When we were growing up the idea of being a writer was so alien. Just to think you could do it was an act of major hubris. Talent was discouraged. Yet as a child, Alice had read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon, about a young girl growing up on Prince Edward Island who wants to be a writer. Alice has written an afterword for the latter book.
Two other early influences on her were Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. In Wuthering Heights you never hear the story directly from the most powerful people in it. You hear it from the observers: a gentleman named Lockwood, who rents Thrushcross Grange, and Nelly, the housekeeper. This is a very interesting way of putting a book together. Also, there are the two houses. There are the Lintons, who are genteel—not forceful and not sexy. And then there’s Heathcliff. Pride and Prejudice is another very well put together book that draws on the emotions we love so much, and there’s Mr. Darcy, another rude man with lots of money underneath. And economics is such a big factor in Alice’s work. Who’s got money, who hasn’t, who needs money, who’s making it, and who’s paying for things.
Her other influences were writers of stories set in small towns. Alice read Sherwood Anderson—who made her feel that maybe she could do this kind of thing—as well as Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Having grown up in a small town herself, Alice knows them well—specifically, small towns in southwestern Ontario. Why are there so many crazy, demented people in a small town? It’s just that everyone knows everyone and one another’s background. Like a big, dysfunctional family. It’s that way in cities, too, but you don’t necessarily know about all of it, because you may not know the people across the street, or even next door. In small towns people are conscious of gossip, rumor, the keeping up of pretenses, and the varying gradations of social level. It can be confining.
That’s why Alice’s stories are so place- and time-specific. What people eat, what they wear, what appliances they are using, are all important to her. She is interested in questions of authenticity; she looks at her characters’ fronts and pretensions, at what effect they are trying to achieve, and then she examines what lies underneath. Maybe the characters see through each other, and so they have social lies, such as, “You look terrific.” Sometimes they mean it benignly; sometimes they don’t.
She writes about the difficulties faced by people who are bigger or smaller than they are expected to be. When her protagonists look back, from later points of view, the older people they have become possess within them all of the people that they have been. She’s very good on what people expect, and then on the letdown.
One of the many things Alice does so well is to contrast how people thought something would be, compared to how it turned out. We depend on a certain amount of fulfilled expectation. The sun will rise in the morning. Mr. Brown will be at the corner store at 8 a.m. and sell milk. In Alice Munro stories, people go into a house and find out that someone has been murdered. Every expectation is met; and then, there is an event, a surprise—and that’s the story.
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Russell Banks, novelist
There is nothing exotic or off-putting in the opening paragraph or two of an Alice Munro story. The author puts her hand on your shoulder and invites you into her fictional world. She is friendly, and there is a neighborly quality to her narrative prose. She starts in a small place and universalizes characters and lives that we might otherwise overlook. It is as if you are sitting at a table, and she’s going to tell you a story of what happened a while back, down the street. Her intimate tone is interesting and immediate, and she is relaxed, calm, even inactive, almost seductive. Then, once you are in this fictional world, it becomes more threatening.
You realize there are issues of life and death going on, and Munro’s fiction takes hard swerves abruptly. She is able to break off narrative then start it up later, and it’s still connected. We can travel through time and space and point of view, shifting our relation to time and space, so we’re closer in, or further away. Most contemporary short fiction writers capture moments in time, but Munro telescopes backward and forward. Usually this is only seen in novels.
What this does for us is to stretch the range of the dramatic possibility of the short story, which in the hands of US writers has gone minimalist, become reductive and compressed. Munro’s fiction expands outward, and it shows us that while the short story form can be as compressed and hard as a diamond, it can also be as expansive as a novel.
She is almost a cubist. That’s the way memory works and storytelling goes. It’s not mathematics, it’s not logic. It’s remembering and recounting through memory what happened. This is also the way dreams work. Often good fiction corresponds closely to the structure of dreams, but it is aesthetically and morally purposeful. Munro has the great moral force and intelligence to refuse to judge or idealize her characters, which would be easy to do, and she won’t allow her readers to do so either. Alice Munro’s writing casts her as someone who dares to speak the truth about the world, to say the things that we are ashamed or afraid to tell.
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Pamela Wallin, Canadian consul general to New York
Alice Munro grew up in an era in which women were expected to be mothers, teachers, or nurses. You wouldn’t have concluded that you were going to be a writer. But sometimes necessity creates these talents. The Canadian market is a fraction of the size of the US market, which makes it so much harder to earn a living doing what you love to do. Yet geographically, Canada is so large, artists couldn’t just gather together the way they did in the Village in New York. So CBC—Canadian public radio—became that thin line that connected people across distances and gave hope that all this was possible.
We see that a Margaret Laurence or a Munro sparks an Atwood. You need role models. You have to understand that it’s maybe okay, and you have to understand that it’s possible. These writers created the scene, an internationally respected literary culture, and a generation of writers has been spawned. During the past fifteen to twenty years, the number of spectacular Canadian writers to come up has been amazing. And this has taken place while Munro and Atwood are still in peak form. They are living role models.
Munro’s stories convey aspects of Canadian geography and culture as well. In Runaway, there were a couple of references to Saskatchewan, which is my home province. When my grandmother went west, her family homesteaded. They were breaking the soil. In the prairies of western Canada, the government would give people a parcel of land if they would develop it. But you had to be comfortable with isolation in remote areas. And when you were living among farmers who were literally carving life out of the land, you didn’t have time for niceties. No father was going off to the delivery room to watch the baby being born, or focusing on creating a “quality life” for the children.
When I was growing up in the very small town of Wadena, I wouldn’t think of going to big cities such as Toronto or Vancouver. Instead I went to Regina or Saskatoon, which were smaller and closer to me. Alice Munro is from Wingham—also a very small town—but located in southwestern Ontario, where the farming communities tended to be larger, and influenced by their proximity to the US and Toronto. So when she sets stories in this region, characters may leave the comfort of the small-town cocoon, which allows them to go off to a big city, where they will experience the good and the bad. And Munro will show you the small-town and the big-city points of view.
I believe Munro understands the rural-urban divide—what in the US would be seen as the difference between the red and blue states—in terms of lifestyle, cultural and experiential differences. Others write paternalistically about the rural sensibility, but Munro turns such writing on its head. She doesn’t try to defend the characteristics of small towns. She shows you the complexity of life there, and she knows that Peyton Place is not the exception to the rule; it is the rule. In Munro’s stories, it just happens in this different kind of window. In a larger town, a person can choose not to go back to a certain district. But in a small town, people have to learn to accommodate and make relationships work, because they don’t have the luxury of strangeness.
In short, Munro’s stories are authentic. They are not like something you know. They are what you know. The reader wonders, How did she know that I felt that feeling? The familiarity is almost eerie. On the face of it, there is a simplicity to the prose, but this is misleading. In life, when a marriage is breaking down and you’re dealing with it, you just do it, and then at the end you say, How did I get through this? In Munro’s stories, the characters’ turmoil is your turmoil. This is the interaction of real people. After you finish reading, you’re tired, because Munro has made you live through so much emotion.
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Virginia Barber, Munro’s agent for thirty years
I opened my own literary agency in 1974, and Alice became my client in 1976—after her third book, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. At that time, her writing was relatively new to the US market, and I was still developing my network in the publishing world. Anybody would have been happy to represent a writer like Alice Munro. I was doubly excited by her work because she was a woman writer of such power and, I was sure, true distinction. Lives of Girls and Women, which Alice published in 1971, impressed me for many reasons. It was a coming-of-age story about a young girl, and while I was accustomed to reading an initiation-to-life story with a young boy as the central character, this was as powerful as anything I had read. I admired the way her work was conscious of social structures that girls and women were expected to abide by.
There is also something about her writing that is so accessible. She doesn’t use drums and trumpets or purple prose. Quietly and surely she involves you in a story, and then there comes a paragraph or even a sentence that really knocks you sideways, and you see something in a very different light. The stories grow in your mind, and when you’ve finished one, you feel you know something more, or comprehend something familiar in a new way. I marvel at all she can bring to life.
I first approached Alice by letter, asking her if she had considered hiring an agent and telling her that I would very much like to represent her. Among other things, I mentioned how impressed I had been by “Material,” a very brave story about writing, told from the point of view of a writer’s ex-wife, who recognizes that their relationship has become his “material,” however much it has been transformed by its use in a story. Alice responded politely to my letter, saying she didn’t need an agent.
But I didn’t give up. I had represented Rosellen Brown’s Autobiography of My Mother, and I sent a copy to Alice. That book develops the conflict between a daughter and a mother, a conflict which involves moral, political, and personal issues. The mother is a groundbreaking civil rights lawyer dedicated to defending the principles of freedom and equality. The daughter sees the human, the personal, element. When a black maid gets into legal trouble, the mother declines to take her case, as it doesn’t represent an abused right or principle. The daughter can’t accept such an abstract view, and their conflict results in a sudden and unexpected tragedy. Alice’s Lives of Girls and Women is also about intimate family relationships, and it has shifting points of view, so the reader would ask, “Where is the truth in this?” Lives also explores how the moral direction you must take can be careless of an individual life. Alice read the novel, and then wrote me saying that an agent who represents this kind of material was someone she wanted to work with. That was one of the most thrilling moments of my career, and I credit Rosellen regularly.
When I first started working with Alice, I focused on introducing her stories to magazine editors. Very quickly, I was able to generate interest among many outstanding editors such as Anne Mollegen Smith at Redbook, Lisel Eisenheimer at McCall’s, and somewhat later, Mike Curtis at the Atlantic. But, of course, the major editorial presence in Alice’s life at this time became Charles (Chip) McGrath at the New Yorker. I met Chip when another agent and I invited him to lunch at the University Club where my husband was a member. We chose that venue to avoid any question about who would pick up the check, something that could then cause discomfort between working women and men. At that time, women weren’t allowed to join any of the major midtown clubs—not the Harvard Club, the Century, or the University Club. Nevertheless, the lunch went well, and I felt happy to recommend Alice Munro’s stories to Chip.
Chip was greatly impressed by Alice’s stories, and he and Dan Menaker, as well as Roger Angell, who headed the fiction department at the New Yorker at that time, admired and supported her work from then on. In the beginning, I would send several of the stories to the New Yorker at the same time, which is how Alice tended to send them to me. But I learned that if I sent them three Munro stories, they inevitably compared them with one another, choosing one or two and rejecting a third. One day I finally recognized that I should be sending them one at a time, so they would compare one Munro story against all the other submissions they had, not against another Munro story. And after that, we rarely had a Munro story free to send to other editors, who had begun to clamor for them.
The New Yorker offered Alice a “first-reading agreement” for 1978, and they have maintained this policy with her ever since. This was a very significant occurrence in Alice’s career. For if she had ever been concerned that she would need to write a novel for the sake of financial security, the New Yorker’s generous contracts relieved her of that pressure. And by 1979, when Alfred A. Knopf published its first collection by Alice, she had found her literary team: Doug Gibson, her Canadian editor (now with Douglas Gibson Books at McClelland and Stewart); Ann Close, her US editor at Knopf; and my agency. It’s a life bonus for all of us that we worked together so long and in such harmony.
Watching Alice’s forthcoming book develop has been a fascinating experience. Whenever Alice completes a collection, there is often a period in which she’ll say something like, “I’ll never write another story—I’ve used up all my material.” This time I said, “You’ve been working on material about your family for so long, why don’t you write a kind of memoir, some sort of history of your family?”
Clearly she had been thinking about doing something on that order. She had made trips to Scotland, and greatly enjoyed researching people and places that were part of her Laidlaw family’s past. She had discovered an astonishing amount of written material: journals, letters, and published articles by and about the Laidlaw family members. So she had a lot to go on. As she wrote, she began to send me material. It was so interesting—it would begin as historical—for example, she would be describing the Ettrick Valley where the Laidlaws had lived, quoting from letters, journals, this, that, and the other, and then she would come upon a moment where she needed a fact, and none existed. There was a hole in the story. And it became obvious that she needed some sort of material to fill it. Then she would say that maybe it happened this way, or perhaps it went that way, or maybe again it was such and such. So, I said one day—I don’t think I even finished the sentence—“Alice, why don’t you just turn it into stories?” “Exactly what I’ve been thinking!” she replied.
The forthcoming volume comes close to memoir and as close to historical fact as she can get, or tolerate, but in the end, it’s fiction. Some of the stories in this collection are rooted in pieces that Alice has published over the years, but never collected in book form because they were closer to her own life than her other fiction. She has worked on changing these stories more than on any I’ve seen before, partly because she’s re-seeing some of her earlier published and unpublished work, making new combinations and even changing the sense of some stories.
Although I have retired, and my longtime colleague, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, is now her agent, I will always read for Alice, and we’ll continue to talk. Once years ago, Alice called to say that she was giving a dinner party that night and was more nervous about the party than the three stories she had been working on, and so, she had thrown the three of them in the mail to me. Ever since then, when I go for too long without receiving a story, I’ll call her and say, “Alice, it’s time to give a dinner party.” I plan to keep on calling with the same message because even though I don’t know about the parties, I surely do know about the marvelous, essential stories.
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Charles McGrath, Munro’s editor at the New Yorker from 1976 to the mid-1980s
Alice Munro has always been a writer’s writer, and she has also become, for a short story writer, highly popular, simply for doing what she does. I believe that one of her great pieces of luck was living in Canada and being the person she is. She has stayed out of politics and hasn’t paid any attention to fashion—and the world has caught up with her, rather than the other way around. There are two kinds of writers: instinctive writers and thoughtful writers—that is, those who are conscious or aware of what they are doing. Alice Munro is both.
The first story we bought at the New Yorker was “Royal Beatings.” It was set in a different part of the world from the stories we usually published at that time, and it had an emotional freshness. It sounds funny to say now, but the story seemed kind of raw. I remember William Shawn, famous for his fastidious taste, was a little taken aback by the story’s references to “bathroom noises,” and a couplet that read, “Two Vancouvers fried in snot! / Two pickled arseholes tied in a knot!” I defended the inclusion of both. The final New Yorker version of the story included the reference to “arseholes,” but not to “bathroom noises.”
Munro is proof that some people—not many—have a gift for the short story and the novel. She writes novels in miniature. Her work most closely resembles Chekhov’s, but she is not writing sketches. She has a novel’s-worth of incident and character change compressed into a fairly short story. But her stories have gotten longer, which runs a little against the current. Early on, Munro began to play with time, and, over time, the stories got deeper, subtler, and richer. As her work evolved, Dan Menaker, William Shawn, Roger Angell, and I evolved as well, and it became clear we were talking to someone who wasn’t a fresh young thing from the boondocks, but a genuine master.
Munro is not a dramatically experimental writer, but in the last fifteen years she has been doing radically experimental things with form and with time and has been quietly demolishing our perceptions of what is and isn’t possible in the short story. She has become a great risk-taker. She takes structural risks. It’s dazzling how she gets from one point to another in a story. It’s not exactly linear. You could, if you wanted to, take a Munro story and outline it in cause and effect, in chronological fashion—and if you did, there would be big gaps in time, sometimes of whole decades—but she doesn’t write it that way. Sometimes a woman will want to change her life, and you’re not entirely sure why. Munro says that when she reads a story she doesn’t necessarily start at the beginning and read to the end. Rather, she may begin at any point in a story and then read either forward or backward from there. Maybe she writes for that kind of reader.
Increasingly she’s centering the stories on emotional risk-taking—which the reader may not know at the beginning—but they start at a moment when the character has the opportunity to change her life. These are not mere mood pieces. You have a sense sometimes, at the end of a story, that Munro herself is surprised by what has happened to her characters.
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Daniel Menaker, Munro’s editor at the New Yorker from the mid-1980s to 1994
Editors are paraliteraries—like paralegals and paramedicals. Their job is to help the writer to get a piece of writing to be the best it could possibly be with the writer writing at her best all the way through. To work with Alice Munro poses special challenges and offers special rewards. The structure of a Munro story works somewhat like a microscope, so that the closer in the reader focuses, the more the form dissolves and reassembles. Then as one gets to the end of the story, one sees what appears to be a whole cloth. The chronology of the structure of a Munro story is nonlinear and sometimes somewhat modular, so it is flexible. When I was editing her work at the New Yorker, we would look together at sections that might go elsewhere in order to best realize the kind of meaning and effect she wanted the story to have on the reader. She is open, congenial, never rancorous or contentious; she has no vanity, she welcomes suggestions, and is both easy but firm on her part regarding things she doesn’t want to do. She is someone you want to work hard for because she is someone whose good opinion you always seek.
Munro is a distinctive writer. I think the line between style and content is even more blurred in her writing than in that of most good writers. In some ways her stories do not seem consciously experimental—they look “right” or conventional on the page. They are very clear; there’s no obscurity ever. Any reasonably sophisticated reader will have no trouble reading her work. But she has a slyly postmodern sensibility. One of the very modern and unconventional things she does in almost all of her stories is to write about the way people narrate events. For example, first she will give the report of something that somebody hears. Then she will tell the story that someone tells about hearing that report. Then Alice will tell the story of hearing that report. “The Albanian Virgin,” which I edited at the New Yorker, is an excellent example of this overlapping and sometimes conflicting narrative technique. Often it seems as if sets of curtains are being parted one after another, revealing stories within stories—and varying versions of stories—often being told in different voices, all of which, taken together, enables the reader to apprehend different constructions of roughly the same events.
What the reader sees behind the last Munro curtain is a vital animal energy that doesn’t care about stories or complexity or morality. It’s as though she were throwing up her hands and saying, “There’s no real accounting for why this woman loves this man, why this mother abandoned her children, why this husband’s transgression against the community was hidden by his wife even though she despised him. There is a moral anarchy—maybe amorality—at the heart of the human heart.”
In life, she seems to be saying, seduction and betrayal are often invited, as a victim may unconsciously invite a con man to cheat him. Most of us don’t get involved in relationships in which we don’t know what the other person is like. Especially if we sense a disaster coming on—we know what we are getting into. There’s a certain kind of destructive wish in people—this is what Alice Munro writes about. She dramatizes the uncivilized behavior that so many of us get ourselves up to. She uses sexuality to show that life is not a science. And she makes readers, who may feel this amorality in themselves, feel understood—forgiven. To read a writer like Alice Munro is to be understood. To be understood is to be in a community. Munro’s readers create an invisible and often silent community for themselves. She never puts herself above us; she is with us.
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Walter James Miller, poet and critic
I consider Alice Munro to be one of our most important writers of psychological fiction. She has the courage to emphatically revive the psychology of the Romanticist Movement, to stick up for Freud when that’s still justifiable, and to blend the two approaches with her own insights and technical genius, to come to her own bold conclusions.
The day that I realized that she’s describing the terrors and the horrors of the patriarchal world was the day that I began to understand Munro. She doesn’t underline her social message. She doesn’t underline any message. Neither Chekhov nor Munro would be so vulgar as to state the message the way you’d put it in a slogan, or on a flag. That’s not art. Art gives us a situation in which we feel the message, if we’re sensitive to it. One of the great things about Munro is that she forces us to participate in her stories. We have to see connections; she’s not going to point them out for us.
A typical situation in a Munro story is that a woman’s predicament, in some family or social situation—something that seems trivial, or everyday-ish—will explode into a major problem. For example, in “Runaway,” Carla lies to her husband, Clark, telling him how her employer’s husband lured her to his bed. This sexually excites them both, initially, but then leads to something more threatening. Carla tries to solve the issue by running away, and the choices she makes lead her and Clark to discovery.
It becomes clear that Munro is a good psychologist when you see how often her characters have to act out a solution before they can think it out. That’s the human condition—we feel our way through a situation. We rely on interaction and imagination before we find the rational path. In other words, intermediate irrationality must often precede rational behavior. This is an unpopular idea in a world of computer logic, but we need writers with Munro’s scope and talent, especially in our time. We go to literature, and to art generally, for explanation—we’re hungry for it. Munro has the courage to show that modern life is almost senseless and inexplicable, and she proves that it’s more complex than we can bear to know.
She is a master of representing how the mind works, how we come to truths through strange pathways; how all of our mental experience—lying, concealing, denying, free-associating, and rationalizing—leads to discovery, to revelation, if we cooperate with our powers of imagination, intuition, and impulse—those “glories” that are described by the Romantic poets. Acting out our petty behaviors is part of struggling toward insight and revelation, if only we can cooperate with our powers; if we are not bludgeoned into ignoring them. We all lie and conceal things, and there will always be thoughts we don’t say aloud; but reflecting upon these issues, even silently by ourselves, leads to discovery and an appreciation of how full of contradictions life is.
Munro reminds her readers that we must not let the walls of the prison-house grow around us, not let custom weigh on us, not see getting and spending as living. From Munro, we infer that we must make friends with our own intuition, our own imagination, our own naïveté.
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Ann Close, Munro’s editor at Knopf since 1978
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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Douglas Gibson, Munro’s Canadian editor for more than thirty years, now with Douglas Gibson Books at McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
Before I present a book at a sales conference, I’ll slip quickly through it again, just to remember it all. By this point I’ll have read the book three, four times at least, maybe five times, but I just want to refresh my memory. And the damnable thing with Alice is you can’t just flip through; I find myself reading from cover to cover again. I complain about this to her and she laughs. But the truth of the matter is that I’m still seeing new things, and still seeing new links, and still seeing new flips on the trapeze that she’s undertaken and brought off so smoothly. It’s amazing how brave she is in trying new things.
Alice’s forthcoming volume of short fiction, The View from Castle Rock, is partly based on stories of her own ancestors, first in Scotland, later in transit to the New World, and then in the States and in Canada. She has tied several stages of her family’s history to great events: the popularity of immigration from Scotland, and the settlement of North America. Much of her family went to what was, in those days, Upper Canada, today’s Ontario.
The earliest ancestor whose life Alice recounts in some detail was actually born in Scotland right at the end of the seventeenth century, and Alice remarks in the course of the book that in every generation thereafter, there was a member of the family—a son, a cousin—who took it upon, usually, himself to record his life and, by extension, the family’s life. Even Alice’s father, who was to all appearances a perfectly ordinary small-scale farmer in Western Ontario, had literary ambitions. I can say, as the publisher of his book, The McGregors: A Novel of an Ontario Pioneer Family, that he was a man who could tell a very good, solid story in the form of a historical novel.
So Alice found that she had a pretty good knowledge of who moved where and who did what in each generation. It’s a fascinating basis for a book, and when you add Alice Munro’s wonderful fictional imagination to these generational snapshots you get a fascinating book of stories, in which the characters flow up to Alice’s parents, the child Alice, the teenaged Alice, and the university-student Alice.
In a story mostly set in eighteenth-century Scotland, Alice Munro appears as a twentieth-century tourist, if you like, in Melrose, Scotland, and takes the bus to find this, and experience that, as she tries to get back into the world of her ancestors. She seeks out the old homes and finds the old farmhouse that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather lived in, and so on. She talks about how it’s fascinating to explore the past, to find your great-great-great-great-great-grandparents’ tombstone, and to locate the church where they were married, but she says that there is an inevitable sense of distance and remoteness if you are from another place. While she expresses the difficulty of making those imaginative leaps, she succeeds very well.
On my own visits to Scotland, I was able to be useful to Alice in her research for this book. I could travel to the specific settings of the earlier stories, and I could also supply historical sidebars, because I know the country very well. I copied down the precise wording on the tombstones—she wanted to get it exactly—and reminded her of how the graveyard was laid out. The tombstone of her ancestor James Hogg, who wrote The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is literally side by side with that of her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. They are one yard apart.
I was also able to go back to Alice’s family’s farmhouse because, unbelievably, the building still exists, on the Southern Upland Way cross-Scotland walking route. The structure is called a “bothy” and it’s a sort of hut, a shack that has stone walls. Uninhabited and unlocked, it’s open to the public for overnight shelter. Visitors just come in and unroll their sleeping bags, and there’s a fireplace where they can cook their food. You can poke through the old farmhouse, room to room—this obviously was the stable, and this obviously was where the livestock were kept—in a way that you could never do with an occupied farmhouse; and you couldn’t hope for such vivid evidence in a ruined farmhouse. Then off you go, close the door, and someone else can come the next night.
One branch of Alice’s family initially immigrated to Illinois before going to Upper Canada. Their reason for leaving the States is Dickensian: during the winter the father of the family died on the same day that, in another corner of the shack, a daughter was being born. In the spring, after planting, and once the roads were all right, a brother-in-law of the widow walked beside an oxcart, halfway across the continent, from Ontario to Illinois, to pick up the mother and her small children. He walked them back in the summer, to where they would be looked after in his pioneer household. Alice dramatizes that brilliantly for us.
In The View from Castle Rock, Alice expertly draws parallels between what she sees as Scottish characteristics and the characteristics of the descendants of Scots in the part of the world where she grew up. For example, she writes, “I think Scots are like that. Certainly the people I grew up among were like that and were not going to be impressed by fancy outsiders.”
She’s very much aware of being a product of that cautious, self-effacing, small-town, southwestern Ontario background, which keeps an eye on people who are getting too big for their boots. You can bet that a voice was always sounding at the back of Alice’s head: “Don’t say anything that’s going to make you sound stuck-up, or provoke derision along the lines of, ‘Oh, who do you think you are?’” People are aware that it is risky to be original. And I suspect that originality is risky in many other countries, and in many other small-town farming communities. But if you are an artist, and a compelled artist, then that doesn’t stop you. You pursue what you must, and you do the best you can.
Alice is immensely honest and straightforward and full of common sense. Of course the fiction writer is inspired by the real world, but she’s also inspired by her imagination; and how a writer intertwines fact and imagination—mixes the oil and the water—is always fascinating to follow. I think Alice is unusually frank for a fiction writer when she says, “Yes, everything starts in reality.” And I think there are a number of fiction writers who like to play coy: “It all comes full-blown from the heavens—I don’t know where it comes from.” But Alice, who is much too honest for that, says, “It’s all suggested by something I see, I hear, I read about.” Something in real life, and then the magical inspiration occurs. Alice doesn’t talk about magical inspiration—that’s not Alice. But we can talk about it.
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Ms. Awano wishes to thank Virginia Barber; Walter James Miller; O. Aldon James, President of the National Arts Club; and Marjory Bassett, Chair of the Literary Committee of the National Arts Club for their support of this project. Her research also benefited from Robert Thacker’s biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, and Sheila Munro’s memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters.