Published on OCTOBER 4, 2008 in The New Yorker
Things you may not know about Alice Munro
POSTED BY ANDREA WALKE
On Friday night, the Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro, a woman about whom Cynthia Ozick wrote, “She is our Chekhov, and is going to outlast most of her contemporaries,” sat down to talk with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. Munro wore rust-colored pants and a cream-colored, cowl-neck sweater, holding her hands in a prayer position as the audience greeted her with lengthy applause. “It was worth coming to New York for that, wasn’t it?” Deborah Treisman said, and Munro agreed that it was. Here are some things which emerged in the conversation, which even devout fans may not know:
- As a child, Munro was constantly telling herself stories. One of the first was “The Little Mermaid,” by Hans Christian Anderson, whose ending she couldn’t bear. The mermaid has to make a choice between killing the prince and going back to join her mermaid sisters, a decision that Munro thought was horribly unfair. So she made up a new, happier ending.
- She had so much confidence in herself, at the age of seventeen, that she thought she would like to marry Laurence Olivier, and believed that she would have no trouble “snagging him” if the two were somehow to meet.
- In the small town she grew up in in Ontario, women weren’t expected to read books except on Sunday, because the rest of the time they could knit. Her father was an avid reader, however, and also a writer himself, later in life. Munro said that she thought her father was undaunted by the prospect of writing a book because “if Alice can do it there should be no problem.”
- “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories” was the headline that appeared in a local paper when Munro first began publishing.
- People in her hometown who read her stories often say, “Well, that was certainly strange.” Or, “I read your story in The New Yorker,” after which there is a long pause and Munro almost feels that she should say she’s sorry.
- It was never her intention to be exclusively a short-story writer; she thought she would write novels like everyone else. But now she acknowledges that she “doesn’t see things in the proper way to write a novel.” She likes to see to the end of each piece, to know that she’ll be done by say, Christmas, and she doesn’t know how writers work on such long and open-ended projects as novels. “You might die while writing a five-hundred-page novel.”
- When she’s at the beginning stages of writing a story, she might sit and look out the window for a week, not doing a word of writing, “just letting things get settled in my head.”
- She sees her stories visually before they become words. She often starts with an image of some incident and the people involved—a sense of some action, or some effect that the characters have created on each other. She doesn’t know at that stage exactly what’s happened to them or what they’re saying to each other, only that these people somehow belong in the story together.
- She thought that “Away from Her,” the recent film version of her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” was beautifully done, but “a story can always do so much more” than a film. Also, she likes her title better.
- Some of her Scottish relatives were writers who got invited to the dinner parties of Sir Walter Scott, mainly to serve as buffoons. She wonders about how much the point of fiction is merely to serve as entertainment.
- Her story “Deep Holes,” which ran in the magazine in June, is a reprise of the themes in her trilogy of stories “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” about a woman named Juliet and the daughter, Penelope, who abandons her. Munro thinks that these stories are about having to accept that “sometimes we cannot satisfy each other”—that as parents we don’t always get the children we want and as children we don’t get our desired parents.
- The process of writing hasn’t got any easier as she’s aged. Every day is still a struggle, and “it always seems like a miracle that I’m so grateful for, if it seems to work.” A couple of years ago, she made a public announcement in Toronto that she was going to stop writing, because she was tired of this struggle. She said that because a writer has to spend so much of her life being an observer there were things about “life as an ordinary person” that she was worried she’d missed. Her husband was very dubious of this plan, she says, but she really believed it at the time. The problem was, she discovered, she “wasn’t very good at” not writing. “How long did you stop for?” Deborah Treisman asked. “Three months, maybe,” Munro replied. The audience seemed relieved.