Alice Munro: The incomparable storyteller

‘I don’t think I could stand being really famous.’ From the Maclean’s archives, a conversation with the author

Diane Turbide
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Alice Munro, seen in 1994. Photo by Peter Bregg

Alice Munro, seen in 1994. Photo by Peter Bregg

Acclaimed Canadian author Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for literature. The following profile of Munro was first published in Maclean’s Oct. 17, 1994, after the publication of Munro’s eighth book of stories, Open Secrets, and shortly before the awarding of the then-new Giller Prize. (Munro, a judge in that inaugural year, would go on to win the Giller–twice.) 

Alice Munro is describing her amateur acting career, launched in the past five years. “In one play–both of them were murder mysteries–I was an aging but still sexually voracious professor of English,” she says with a laugh. “And in another, I played a lady writer who comes into the library and demands to know if any of her books are available. I loved it.”

The mere fact that Munro performed in public–the plays were fund-raisers for a local theatre near her Clinton, Ont., home–is surprising. An acclaimed fiction writer, she usually shuns public appearances, gives few interviews and refuses to go on book tours. “Well, that’s because I have to be me,” she says to explain her dislike of such self-promotion. “With acting, I love the mask.” Now, with Open Secrets, her eighth book of stories, Munro is again in the limelight–and being unmasked once more as a consummate artist. “The incomparable Alice Munro,” as a New York Times critic recently described her, “is not just a good writer but a great one, the first Canada has produced.”

In fact, that kind of praise is not uncommon for the 63-year-old author. Since her first book of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), won the Governor General’s Award (the first of three), Munro has attracted every kind of accolade, including U.S. author Cynthia Ozick’s description of her as “our Chekhov.” Her intensely felt stories–often featuring women born and raised in southwestern Ontario during the Depression–have found resonance around the world, across generations and gender. They have been translated into 14 languages, are frequently anthologized and remain steady sellers. All seven of Munro’s previous titles are in print–no mean feat for a contemporary author–and one of them, the coming-of-age classic Lives of Girls and Women, is being made into a movie that will air on the CBC next season.

Despite those achievements, the author is disarmingly modest. “In my family, as in Canada, there was a double message. If you don’t get to be famous, then the attitude was, `Well, how come?’ And if you do become famous–`Well, how come?’ ” Warm and expressive in person, Munro protects herself from media scrutiny. She rarely allows journalists into her home in Clinton, 200 km west of Toronto, where she lives with her second husband, retired geographer Gerald Fremlin (they spend winters in Comox on Vancouver Island). Instead, she allows a recent interview with Maclean’s to take place in a restaurant 20 km away in Goderich, a small port city on Lake Huron that often turns up in her short stories disguised as Walley or Tupperton. It is also a mere half-hour drive from her birthplace in Wingham, Ont. “I don’t think I could stand being really famous,” says Munro, as she waits for her lunch of mussels and a glass of white wine. “I think how awful it must be to have your own life made public in that way. I would never do one of those TV interviews that would show me in a private moment, say, walking along a river. It’s not that I’m shy. It just feels like such a loss–a loss of what you hold as your own life.”

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Occasionally, Munro undertakes a role that requires some public appearances. Last week in Toronto, she teamed up with fellow novelist Robertson Davies for a public reading. And she is one of three judges for the Giller Prize, a new $25,000 award for the best work of fiction published in Canada, due to be announced on Nov. 2. Many observers privately say that had Munro declined to be a judge, her own new book would have won easily. Fellow jurist and writer Mordecai Richler called Munro’s gesture “a real act of grace.”

The speculation is probably right. In Open Secrets, Munro takes her exploration of character, circumstance, landscape, fate and time–and the interplay among them–to new levels. The stories, filled with troubled and questing souls, have amazingly intricate structures. Yet the feeling they produce is a gravity-defying lightness–cathedrals in the air. The reviews have been almost uniformly ecstatic. Last month, a critic in Newsweek magazine, noting the book’s wealth of detail, commented that her risky stories left readers “slack-jawed with wonder and filled with delight.” Novelist David Helwig, reviewing in the Montreal Gazette, called her writing “gossip informed by genius.”

Seven of the eight stories originally appeared in The New Yorker, which has a 17-year-old contract with the author reserving the right to publish her stories first. Daniel Menaker, a senior fiction editor at The New Yorker before moving to Random House publishers, worked with Munro for 20 years. “She’s a distinctive, original and complex voice,” he told Maclean’s. “And the things she says with that voice–her stories–are vastly interesting and complicated, and work on every single level that you would ask a piece of writing to work on. She has very few equals in the entire history of short fiction–I feel very sure about that.”

It is a long way to the pages of The New Yorker from Wingham. But Munro says she knew from the time she was 12 that she wanted to be a writer. She was the oldest of three children born to Robert Laidlaw, a fox farmer, and a homemaker mother, Anne, who had once taught school in the Ottawa Valley. The family was extremely poor, yet Munro says that reading books, and her own desire to become a writer, made her feel as if she had two existences. “I lived in a world of strangely literary values,” she says. “It took me out of the circumstances in which I was living. I worked quite hard at housework, but I never considered quitting high school to earn a living, which any other girl in my financial situation would have done at that time.” Munro also credits her family for helping her realize her aspirations. “I was allowed to have notions of what I could do that were way beyond the class I was living in.”

Munro would recreate that hardscrabble childhood in her first two books, Dance of the Happy Shades and Lives of Girls and Women (1971). Critics praised her superb evocation of place and her laser-like gaze on the social pecking order and the repressive sexual mores that her characters both embodied and rebelled against. The two collections introduced a theme that she would continue to wrestle with in much of her fiction: her uneasy relationship with her mother. Genteel, intellectually inclined and wary of how sex could wreak havoc with women’s lives, Munro’s mother was ambitious for her daughter. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease during Munro’s adolescence, and suffered from it until her death in 1959. Thirty years later, her presence haunts the title story of Friend of My Youth, released in 1990.

One of the most frequent comments about the author’s work–early on and now–is how she makes the lives of ordinary people seem extraordinary. But Munro, sitting in a restaurant where she knows the waitress and the owner, in the county where both she and her husband grew up–and are sometimes still remembered as children–bristles at the”ordinary people” label. “You know, I’m never really sure what people mean by that,” she says. “Sometimes, it seems to mean anybody who doesn’t work in TV or the movies.” Munro still sees herself very much as one of those so-called ordinary people–“I look like any number of women my age, somebody’s mother or aunt,” she says. Maybe. There is something youthful about her–not just the flowing clothes and striking jewelry, but also her animated conversation, shot through with irony.

She appears to keep her life compartmentalized: Munro the writer, the rarely seen public persona, exists alongside Alice, who keeps up with friends and relatives around the county and who volunteers to bake pies at fund-raisers for the nearby Blyth summer theatre. Says Janet Amos, artistic director of the annual Blyth Festival: “This is her home turf–she has lots of cousins and friends here. She doesn’t talk about her writing, and she shies away from anyone who gushes. I think it gets in her way.”

Perhaps that Alice is the watcher who feeds the writer. And it is that person who is capable of finding raw material in just about anyone’s existence. Describing the small town of Jubilee, a teenage narrator in Lives of Girls and Women seems to reflect Munro’s own beliefs: “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable–deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”

Munro’s literary success hardly came overnight. In high school, she won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in London, where she met her first husband, Jim Munro. The couple married in 1951 and moved to Vancouver. In 1963, they relocated to Victoria with their two daughters–a third was born there in 1966–and opened Munro’s bookstore, which continues to thrive today. It was one of the happiest–and most arduous–times of her life, she says. She was raising her girls–Sheila, Jenny and Andrea–working in the bookstore two nights a week and writing in between. She says she sometimes still feels guilty about her children, remembering how she had to steal time to write. But she doesn’t think she was a bad mother. “I could have been a better one–if a better mother means giving complete attention to motherhood for 10 or 15 years.” But, she says, “had I–being the person I am–done that, I probably would have been in the loony bin or on Prozac.”

By 1972, Munro’s marriage had unravelled and she returned to London. In the next decade, she produced three collections, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) and The Moons of Jupiter (1982). Many of their stories are set in the same Huron County area, but Munro also used contemporary urban locales in Canada, Scotland and Australia. More and more, her tales reflected the sexual confusion of contemporary men and women, the divorces and new family arrangements. There are many stories of adultery, affairs that end badly and the sexual wilderness felt especially keenly by women entering middle age. Her heroines are often sensualists, overwhelmed by desire, longing for intimacy and yet constantly aware of how their lives can be derailed by men–sometimes how they let them be derailed.

By 1976, Munro was herself ensconced in another marriage. She had known Fremlin in university, but they had not seen each other in 20 years. He telephoned her after hearing her interviewed on CBC Radio, and they arranged to meet. A romance bloomed, and the couple later moved to Clinton, where they settled in the house in which Fremlin was born.

Since returning to the region where she grew up, Munro has continued to mine the area for its secrets and forgotten history. She became friends with R. J. Thompson, a librarian in the Goderich public library, who has a keen interest in local history. To help Munro with background, at various times he has found himself researching passenger-ship lines at the turn of the century, how 19th-century orphans were cared for and little-known Presbyterian sects. “At one point, I asked her, ‘Alice, can’t you just make this stuff up?’ ” recalls Thompson with a laugh. He says that he has often heard people telling anecdotes to Munro, urging her to write about them. “But I’ve noticed that it’s often the offbeat detail, the little aside, that will kindle her interest,” he says. “Sometimes just a phrase survives when I read a story later.”

Munro’s new book is more focused on the history of Huron County itself than any previous works. The richly layered stories move back and forth in time, sometimes spanning more than 100 years in the area’s early settlement when Scottish, Irish and English immigrants homesteaded the harsh terrain. Points of view shift frequently, sometimes contradicting an earlier passage in the story. Two generations of the Doud family and the fortunes of their piano factory recur throughout the book, creating a marvellous sense of momentous change and the passage of time. And there are the usual Munro elements: murders, marriages, horrible accidents, love, intrigue, surrender–and surprises at every turn. As always, the stories convey Munro’s sense of life’s arbitrariness, of the subjectivity of truth–no matter how hard our traditions and social rituals try to disguise it.

In “The Stone in the Field,” a story in The Moons of Jupiter, Munro included a few lines about how a dying man recalls that his great-uncle was killed by a falling tree while clearing land. Now, a dozen years later, Munro expands that anecdote into one of the strongest stories in Open Secrets, “A Wilderness Station.” The accident becomes a murder, but at first it is unclear whether it is the victim’s wife or brother who committed the deed. The woman confesses and surrenders at the Huron County Gaol–but no one believes her. Meanwhile, she writes her own account of what really happened to her long-lost friend. But, in typical Munro fashion, that’s just the beginning.

The kernel of the story came from a bit of family lore about her great-great uncle, who was killed by a falling tree. “I looked around the cemeteries, and this man does not have a grave anywhere. All my other ancestors do, going back to the 1850s. Now, all it probably means is that they buried him on the farm. But other things began to occur to me–two brothers alone in the woods, the possibilities there.” The author is adamant, however, that there is no suggestion of foul play in real life.

Even the few stories with exotic locales have their roots in Huron County. “The Albanian Virgin,” ostensibly the tale of a young Canadian woman traveller kidnapped by Albanian bandits in the 1920s, is based on a real-life episode of a Clinton librarian, Miss Rudd, who got separated from her travelling party in Albania. Munro heard the story from her husband, and she was later able to verify some details in local newspaper accounts written at the time. “I could not put these two elements together: Clinton librarian, Albania,” Munro recalls. “So I started reading everything I could about Albania. It got to the point that people didn’t want me around–I’d keep bringing every topic round to Albania somehow. So,” she says, raising her eyebrows mischievously, “wanna hear some things about Albania?”

Of course, Munro acknowledges, the story is not really about a “high romance in Albania” as she archly describes it. What really grabbed Munro’s attention was the role that sex played in determining a woman’s status in the tribal culture of that time. If a woman renounced sex to become a “virgin,” she could live as an equal with men: she could own land, carry a weapon, be served food prepared by women. “It just fascinated me that her whole status was dependent on not having sex with men–and not on the equipment she was born with,” says Munro. “There was no pretence that she was mentally or physically inferior. Once she had had sex, she was consigned to a kind of inferiority.” That is only one element of the deftly constructed tale: Munro manages to link the foreign adventure to a young Victoria woman almost 50 years later in a way that subtly–and breathtakingly–makes the story’s meaning clear. And the two tales that precede it, “Carried Away” and “A Real Life,” fit beautifully into Munro’s preoccupations in the Albania story, even though they differ completely in plot, place and people.

An experienced time traveller in her fiction, Munro now lives side by side with her past. Her childhood home in Wingham is now a beauty parlor called Total Indulgence, offering haircuts, manicures and leg waxes. The irony–given the Victorian attitudes to the body and sensual pleasure according to which she was raised–is delicious. Yet she says that she cannot bring herself to go inside the house she grew up in. “I think I’d be overwhelmed by what I’m always overwhelmed by–which is our family life. All the love and trouble and everything that’s in a family’s life. I would see it there in the rooms.” Her voice slows and catches a bit. “And perhaps I’d see myself as a child.” She pauses, then adds: “I think writers are particularly addicted to retrieving emotions, not letting them go, the way other people do.”