AN INTERVIEW WITH ALICE MUNRO
by Lisa Dickler Awano
The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro’s collection of stories forthcoming from Knopf in November, will be her twelfth volume in a distinguished career that has spanned more than fifty-five years and has garnered resounding international acclaim. Her fiction has helped to extend the known boundaries of the short story genre and our appreciation of its potential. “Alice Munro deserves the Nobel Prize,” proclaimed Time magazine, upon listing her name in its 2005 roster of the world’s one hundred most influential people. Munro, according to Mona Simpson, author ofTime’s profile, “understands reality in a complex, capacious way, leaving intact its dimensions of dream and wonder, its shadings of the fantastic.”
Munro’s eleven previous collections of short stories include: Dance of the Happy Shades; Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You; The Beggar Maid (first published in Canada as Who Do You Think You Are?); The Moons of Jupiter; The Progress of Love; Friend of My Youth; Open Secrets; Selected Stories; The Love of a Good Woman; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; andRunaway. She is also the author of a novel, Lives of Girls and Women.
In the course of her illustrious career, Munro has received a wide array of awards and prizes, including three of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards, two Giller Prizes, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Lannan Literary Award, England’s W. H. Smith Award, the United States’ National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor for Literature, a US prize previously accorded to such literary stars as Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Toni Morrison, and Nadine Gordimer. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and her collections can be read in thirteen languages.
Alice Munro, née Laidlaw, grew up in Wingham, in Huron County, Ontario, on the banks of the Maitland River, called Meneseteung by the native Canadians, and by Munro herself in her short story of that title in Friend of My Youth. She published her first story at the age of nineteen, in 1950, while a student at the University of Western Ontario. One year later she married Jim Munro, and by the age of twenty-six she was the mother of two daughters, with another to follow. That she continued writing at all, at a time when most women were expected to content themselves with home and family was, in itself, a small miracle. That she eventually penetrated the US market in the 1970s was an even greater miracle.
By 1977, when the author’s work was appearing in the New Yorker, Munro was already a celebrated author in Canada and had raised three children, divorced, become economically independent, and remarried. Her depiction of emotional ambivalence in her stories is mirrored in her daughter Sheila’s memoir, published in 2001, in which the younger Munro finds her own voice through examining and embracing the complexities of her relationship with her famous mother. At present, Alice Munro and her husband divide their time between Clinton, Ontario, just thirty-five kilometers from her girlhood hometown, and Comox, British Columbia, where she lives close to her daughter and grandchildren.
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As I prepared to speak with Munro about The View from Castle Rock, I thought about omitting one of my questions, in which I had paired Munro’s depictions of pioneer women in her stories with those of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie, a book I admired and had recently read to my children. I wondered whether an author of Munro’s stature might be offended by my linking her mature works to an example of young people’s literature, even though I knew she had written an afterword to L. M. Montgomery’s children’s classic, Emily of New Moon,and that she considered it “one of the best books in Canada.” Yet I reminded myself that one of the qualities I most admired about Alice Munro was her courage to take risks in her work, and I decided I would ask my question. Maybe.
I needn’t have been concerned. First, her memory is as astonishing as it is reputed to be. Even taking into account that Munro was freshly familiar with the territory I was covering, as she had just written a book on the subject, the precision with which she remembered the minute details of long questions she was hearing for the first time gave me new insight into her ability to write fictive reality with such authenticity. When I posed a question, she would listen intently, then reply without pause in seemingly simple, elegant sentences that matched exactly the shade of meaning of what I was asking. She spoke in a neighborly tone, in crisp cadences that echoed the rhythms of her stories.
And of course, being Alice Munro, early on in the interview she made a point of complimenting me on having asked a good question, and so before I knew it, I was launching into my query involving Little House on the Prairie, to which she responded with the same serious consideration that she had accorded every other question I had asked. Thank you, Alice Munro.
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Q: The View from Castle Rock draws upon material relating to both your paternal ancestors and your personal recollections. In your 1994 “Art of Fiction” interview with Paris Review, you spoke of how William Maxwell had written about his family in Ancestors, and you said: “He did the thing you have to do, which is to latch the family history onto something larger that was happening at the time—in his case, the whole religious revival of the early 1800s. . . . If you get something like that, then you’ve got the book.” Might you comment on this in regard to your new collection?
A: I think that that’s very helpful, because otherwise what you’ve got is family history, and that’s very interesting to you and other members of your family perhaps, but not generally. This book has a lot to do with a certain part of Scotland which had also undergone an interesting religious phenomenon, although not exactly a revival. The Protestant faith there had taken hold in a very austere form, and it had a total effect on people’s lives. Also, allied with this religion, there was education, because reading the Bible was terribly important. As a result, you had what you might call an educated peasantry, a lower class who could all read, and who spent their time, what leisure they had, in a kind of exploration of what were really theological or philosophical questions. These were questions that would lead you to some pretty difficult, and even pretty crazy, conclusions. So they were wrestling with all of this material, and that in itself is interesting. This wasn’t happening in many places to people of this class. In addition, the Borders of Scotland—this is southern Scotland, below the Firth of Forth, which I’m writing about—gave rise to a period in history that’s called the Scottish Enlightenment, and there were writers and the philosopher David Hume, and the economist Adam Smith, and people like that, who started coming out of more or less the same background.
Also, one of the things I have that was a great benefit, was a lot of writing by the people in my family—there seemed to be one in every generation, at least—who really took to writing things down. Writing about experience, about what was happening to them, writing stories that were in the family history, writing evaluations of whatever society they happened to be living in—sometimes very intolerantly—and so I had all this mass of material.
Robert Thacker writes, in his biography, “Autobiography is imbedded in Alice Munro’s work, autobiography always resonant with fictional imaginings (‘grafted on from some other reality’), and she can be seen as always ‘writing her lives,’ the lives she has both lived and imagined.”
Yes, part of the new book is about my family from material that I have gleaned from research, and part of it is from my own life and my own experience, but not always completely autobiographical, completely based on fact. However, these stories are more nearly autobiographical stories than those I have published elsewhere. Some of them I’ve written as much as ten years ago, but haven’t published them in my other collections because they seemed to me to belong in a somewhat different setting. Some of these stories have fictional elements to them, but I think they are always very psychologically true.
Acts of manipulation, secrecy, betrayal, violence—even murder and suicide—are integral to your stories just as they are to human existence. Often it seems, your characters engage in these acts when they perceive themselves to be powerless to get what they need—or want—in life by pursuing their desires openly and directly.
I think that’s probably true, and I think that the stricter the society is, and the life that one is supposed to live, then the more manipulative people become. And of course some people are much better at this than others. The people who aren’t very good at it may just have outbursts, sometimes, that aren’t successful at all, and I think maybe the people who are good at it wouldn’t even call themselves manipulative. It’s just a traditional way of behaving.
What were some of the driving needs of your ancestors, and some of the obstacles that stood in their way?
I think what they would be conscious of would have been chiefly economic needs, because these people were quite poor and their lives were very harsh. And so I think they would think of themselves as being very practical people who were concerned with work, and hard work, and somehow getting a little ahead in life that way. But I think there were also questions, perhaps because of the way their Presbyterian religion didn’t provide people with ritual, the kind of ritual by which you keep your soul sort of uplifted, and know that you are on the right side of things. The Presbyterian religion tends to throw the burden onto the individual. It’s a religion where you have to investigate the behavior of your own soul—it’s very inward. So I think this would be something that people were aware of—maybe some people more than others—but it was something that you were aware of without thinking about it or questioning it, so there would be that as well.
And then a lot of these people were storytellers, not in a very conscious way, but the kind of people who make life into stories, and there is one in every generation who seems to take hold of the experience and be able to make some kind of story out of it. Though the story will be very conventional on the surface, or usually conventional, there are very sharp descriptions, which means that a person was noticing everything that went on, and not just taking a general idea of things, but a very particular idea, which is what writers do. I think that’s what made them so interesting to me.
Did they try to surmount their difficulties through writing?
No. I think the writing always happened when there was an obvious need for it, say you write about the voyage, or you write about what life is like in the new country. Indeed, they probably would have thought of writing a novel or a story as a very frivolous activity.
In “The View from Castle Rock,” Mr. Carbert, a wealthy businessman, asks Walter, a struggling farmer, about the journal he is keeping as they voyage by sea toward Nova Scotia. “‘I only write what happens,’ Walter says, wanting to make clear that this is a job for him and not an idle pleasure.” Mr. Carbert responds, “So you do not describe what you see? Only what, as you say, is happening?” It seems that in the times of a much later generation of your family, when you were growing up in Canada, authors still risked not being taken seriously if they defined themselves as fiction writers. And today, here in the US at least, that still seems to be the case.
That is true. And I think maybe this is a North American thing, but I’m not sure. I think it’s a Protestant thing . . . “Is this a useful activity?” This is the “usefulness” of people who were generally of straightened means, and who had to make sure their time counted if they were going to “get ahead. ” I have a feeling that “getting ahead” meant more in the United States, and just “being respectable” meant more in Canada.
Extrapolating, I wonder if “being respectable” would have been very important in England, too.
That’s true, yes. I think England had more of a class structure in which people could be, not exactly content, but the idea of individual responsibility might not have been so strong. Perhaps the class structure helped you be somewhat comfortable in what you were. Though there would always be individuals who weren’t this way.
But with the Presbyterian Scots, their being comfortable would probably consist not in their class, but in their knowing that they had kept the rules and were going to be among the “saved” or the “elect” after death. And one of the rules, I think, might be not to attract attention to yourself too much.
But then there were always such flagrant exceptions to this in Scotland. Someone like Robert Burns. Such people usually had to take a lot of criticism. They were usually not well-thought-of.
In your stories set in towns like Wingham, there are many references to religion, but it doesn’t seem to be a completely controlling influence.
No, it hasn’t been. Not in my time. A little bit when I was growing up, but not very much. Though there are lots of fundamentalist churches here. But the major churches, like the one I belong to, are not notably fundamentalist anymore. Rules were stricter when I was growing up, but even then I don’t think people spent a lot of time privately agonizing over it.
When there are references to church in your stories, I’m more aware of an emphasis on class than on religion.
That’s quite true. And what church you belong to has something to do with your class. There’s much more of what I would call genuine, and maybe troubling, religious feeling in the States, than here.
You must remember that I am generally writing of a time that is a few decades behind us. Sometimes I write contemporary stories, but not often. So if I am describing my childhood, then that’s the period of the Second World War, and this is a long time ago. So I don’t describe an absolutely contemporary scene, and I think it’s very hard to do so. I notice people who do that—who get all the right signifiers in—their work dates very quickly. But that isn’t why I don’t do it. It’s just because I seem to be at least a couple of decades behind in what I’m digesting of what I’ve seen in my life.
Might you talk about the role of memory in your writing?
As a young writer, I started by writing stories that were quite far from myself. The first stories used characters who were almost like Southern characters. Exceptionally lonely misfits. People whose lives could be shown in clear outlines. I couldn’t write the exploratory stories of my own past until I was in my thirties.
When I began writing about my past, I wrote about childhood. I don’t often write stories about the present. No one gets e-mail in my stories because I don’t get e-mail. I don’t know right now until five years from now; I have to go into the past to get things lit up a little. Often I write about the 1960s, when I was a young woman. “Trespasses” [from Runaway] is out of the ’60s period. The father has the dream and jargon of that time. The story is probably set in the ’80s.
Often you explore the ambiguous nature of the parent/child relationship in your stories. In “Soon” and “Silence” [from Runaway], the mother is named Juliet, and the daughter is named Penelope, which seems to suggest something of a mother/daughter role reversal. When Penelope finally runs away from her mother, does she want Juliet to find her?
Penelope, in the beginning, wants to reassure her mother she is alive, but she wants her freedom very much. I think this is something that is happening in modern life, because generations have very different rules. As long as your parents have a hold on you, you have to either lie or do something brutal to break the hold. I think Penelope is carrying out what is probably a fantasy for many adult children. She wants her own life. Her mother is a dramatic woman, with lots of feeling, and maybe she doesn’t want to carry it anymore.
The word “burden,” appears many times in Runaway. In Open Secrets, you often use words like “load” and “knot.”
Everyone in life has burdens. Everyone thinks about how they can get out from under them, get away. I like to point the action in one way and then take it into a direction that is not expected. Maybe people find out that they have to get away, or people think they’ll get away, and they don’t get away in the way they think they will.
Characters in your stories often take great risks.
Yes. When I’m writing a story I don’t think right away, These people will take risks. I might not see it when I’m writing. But it’s one of the most interesting aspects of writing for me. I like to see people at some point in their lives when they have to make a decision. Then for example, having decided what she wants to do, a character finds a reason why she can’t do it. This comes as a surprise to her.
What are some of the risks that characters took in this new book?
Well, of course, I think coming across the Atlantic Ocean to an entirely unknown continent they knew nothing about was as huge a risk as you can imagine. And knowing that you weren’t going to go back to visit your old home in six years or something . . . you were never going to see it again, you were never going to see most of the people that you had grown up with, and your family. It was a shock for most people, I think.
Not everybody would have done that.
No, but often desperation played into that—not just bravery. But in some cases, yes, some of them were quite adventurous and that’s why one of the stories—one of the sections—is about my great-great-grandfather, who didn’t stop in Canada but went on to Illinois. He was obviously wanting to be an American, because it fitted in with some idea of what he wanted in life, which would be, I imagine, more independence, and there would be more ambition in it. And this didn’t happen, because just a couple of years after he got there, he got cholera and died, and his family had to come back to Ontario. I find this a very interesting point in the family’s life, because I think those little children who were brought back from Illinois were probably imbued with the feeling of defeat. Because I think when they came back they were—not outcasts, because the family was kind to them—but they didn’t have a settled future.
What options existed for your great-great-grandmother, who became a single mother when her husband died?
She had these brothers-in-law in Ontario whom she could write to and who came down and got her. Lacking that, there were jobs for women, mostly working in hotels, cleaning, serving, and working in kitchens in the community, and I suppose that’s what she would have had to do. She would have had to bring up her children just anyhow, and they would have had to go to work almost immediately. There were kids working at seven and eight years old.
What were some of the surprises that your ancestors met with in the New World?
I think everything must have been a surprise, and I think from some of these surprises they retreated, because one of the things in coming to North America would have been that they suddenly saw a lot of different people. And that would be more true of the ones who went to Illinois. There’d be a mixture. There’d be people from other parts of Europe. Probably at this time—the 1840s—there would be some African Americans. There would certainly be Indians. And all this would be a shock. Even to hear people talking and to think of the way people lived. And their reaction to this was mostly to retreat into a community of people like themselves.
Did some of the driving needs of your ancestors, and the obstacles that they faced in trying to achieve their goals, persist or turn up over and over again in different ways, through the generations?
That’s a very good question. I think people’s patterns of behavior turn up over and over again. I don’t think people would always think of them as obstacles, because even surmounting an obstacle means a certain self-awareness and a certain valuing of yourself that was not favored in my family. I would say the idea there was to do your duty, live a good life, live a hardworking life, and the obstacles they would call obstacles would be simply matters of keeping their physical strength going, doing what you had to do, never slackening, never giving up, but still, not promoting yourself particularly. Do you see what I mean? To have too strong an idea of yourself as an individual would never be favored, though I think many of them did, just the same.
What I am saying is really what I remember of my own upbringing, which I gather would be in terms of my family, and also of the community.
It’s fascinating to hear, as you speak, how little has changed, in so many ways.
That’s true. I was going to say “discouraging,” but I guess it’s not really. It’s just one of the facts about human society, and when you live as long as I do you see how the expectations that people had—whether they’re bad or good—don’t seem to be the ones that come true.
Unless there’s some intense drive. After all, you decided very early on to be a writer, and you did it. You made that happen over time. So it seems that there are some drives that will not be stopped.
That’s right. But it was sort of in the family. My father wrote a book before he died, a novel about pioneer life. He had been a really hardworking man all his life, who had gone to high school for two or three years and had been very bright. But he got out into an agricultural life quite early and then in the last year of his life, he decided he wanted to write a book, so he did. And his writing is very good. His novel was rather conventional, but his feeling for language, which some people have to learn, was right there.
Is there anything about him in your new book?
Yes, there is. In fact there’s a section of his writing in the new book that I’ve quoted. Before he wrote his book he was already writing sort of reminiscent pieces for a local magazine, and this is one of them. It’s called “Grandfathers.” So he’s there. One of the things I like about the new book is that there are so many voices. There are quotations and letters and voices that are not mine. And I hope that weaves together pretty well.
All writers are interested in depicting how their characters change over the course of a story; you frequently push your characters beyond a state of change—to the point of total transformation. Might you give us an example of this from your new collection?
I think it would be my father who actually changed in a way, through his children. I think it was because I had written a book or books, and he saw that there wasn’t some “magical world” out there that people who lived where he lived could never reach. He saw that something like writing a book was a normal activity for some people. And that there wasn’t this kind of fear of the world, that most of the people I knew had—a feeling that there were gaps that you could never cross over.
That must be a wonderful thing for you to know.
Yes, it is. But you know, with me, it didn’t just happen. Everybody looking at the success they’ve had tends to think of their own perseverance, but in my case I just happened to be alive at a time when there were people who were there, in Canada particularly, with a strong nationalist notion of building a literature. And there were subsidies by the government. There were magazines just coming in when I was, say, in my thirties, and there was our national radio, which accepted things. And there was a kind of a—I wouldn’t say it was a devotion to literature on most people’s part in the country, but certainly there were people devoted to literature, to bringing Canadian literature out, and I was just in time to get this. Bob Weaver [broadcaster of Canadian Short Stories, later Anthology, on CBC radio, and a founder and editor of the Tamarack Review] is one of the people that I really owe everything to. Also, as is obvious, it was an easier time to be a woman, especially as I grew older.
I don’t think there was as strong a feeling in Canada as perhaps in some other countries about women being writers. I think there was a pretty strong feeling in the United States, in the Hemingway–Dos Passos era, and also in Australia—when I visited there, it was even worse, much worse. But in Canada, since we’d never had any writers to speak of, they were glad of what they could get.
Margaret Atwood said exactly that when I interviewed her for this project.
Yes. There was no trying to keep you out because of your gender in Canada. And oddly enough, I think it was partly because it was a faintly “sissy” occupation. And I would think that though male writers dominated in the United States, a lot of them seemed to have to go to some lengths not to be “sissies.” So I think the same thing was all over North America. I think it was because so many women had been teachers from the late 1800s on, and so the whole business of literature was kind of bound up with gentility.
So that would help to explain the emphasis on machismo in the work of some male writers of that era.
I think so, yes. A whole lot of energy had to go into this. I think that’s over.
Frequently in your stories, you examine perceptions of so-called normalcy in society, and you explore the extent to which a character will either fit into these strictures, or stray from them. In “The View from Castle Rock,” Mary, a so-called spinster, is pitied for her odd-seeming behavior and her unmarried status, yet from her point of view, “men’s women, mother women—lead an appalling life. First with what the men do to them . . . and then with what the children do, coming out.” In researching and writing your new collection, what were some of the changes in perceptions, over time and across oceans, in what constituted “normal behavior,” especially in regard to women?
You know, I don’t think there were many changes in my family until my generation. Until then, the women of an agricultural class lived very much the same lives in 1900 as they had been living in 1800, and on a different continent. The only thing was that they were a little bit more comfortable in Canada, because even though no one had done particularly well, they had done well enough that people were not living at that bare level they had lived in in the Ettrick Valley. So the changes were mostly in terms of a bit of physical comfort. But the expectations and lives were very much the same. Women in 1900 died in childbirth, just the way they always had. The big changes everywhere I think, have happened since the Second World War in women’s lives. But they were happening slowly all through the twentieth century.
It has been said that in America, in some ways, there was much more opportunity for women during World War II, while the men were away at war.
Oh, tremendously so! But you know, right after that, there was a big resurgence of domesticity and rise in the birth rate, and this was the time in which I was a young mother and housewife, and I can tell you there was a strong feeling then against women getting out and doing anything. It was as if it was a reaction to what had happened during the war and maybe even earlier.
What about some of those women who came earlier, for example, in your story “A Real Life,” [from Open Secrets] in which Dorrie traps muskrats and skins squirrels, or in Little House on the Prairie, in which Caroline, the mother, drives a stagecoach through a rising creek and helps to build the family’s log cabin?
I think that in an agricultural life, women and men were equal, and their lives were very similar. They had the same kind of responsibility, the same kind of hardship, and their lives were made up of hard, physical work. But the minute you think of intellectual life, or a life that demands advanced training—like becoming a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer—the barriers against women were such that woman had no possibilities.
Would your married female ancestors have owned property?
I think there were measures put through in the nineteenth century, with great difficulty, regarding a married woman’s property. I know when Charlotte Brontë married, which would be about 1850, she was amazed to discover that her husband owned all the rights to her books. After that, I think by the year 1900 there were some changes made. And always, they had to be pushed for. That was why women had a dowry.
A husband wouldn’t have owned that too?
Well, he owned it while they were married, but I think if they separated he had to do something. Anyway, I was just thinking about things like that; I was thinking about how in Anna Karenina, the feckless husband sold a forest that belonged to his wife so he could buy jewels for his ballet-dancer mistress.
Virginia Barber, your longtime agent, said when I interviewed her for VQR that when she was starting her agency in New York in the mid-1970s, women were frequently denied club memberships, and there were still questions, when a female professional initiated a luncheon with a male colleague, regarding who would pay the tab. Were these kinds of attitudes all around you in Canada at that time?
Well they would have been. I didn’t even know anything about them because I had married young and I never had a checking account or anything, and I didn’t think about it. Mainly because we didn’t have much money, and we were both trying very hard to get ahead, and it seemed like a mutual enterprise, so I never thought,Why don’t I have a checking account? But that was generally the way it was.
So when you were starting out, you must not have known a lot of women who were doing what you were doing, or who shared your goals.
No. I didn’t know anybody. But my first husband understood what my goals were and he was absolutely generous about that. He really wanted me to write, and he really believed I would be successful. I was so fortunate that way. Because I don’t know anybody else who would have wanted the wife to do something that took her away from her “normal” role—or might have been seen as competition.
You had to have been very strong and focused.
No, I wasn’t. I’m not very strong at all. I just had to do it. You know, when Jane Austen wrote her manuscripts, she always kept embroidery hoops beside her, so that if anyone came into the room, she could be doing embroidery. Well, that’s very symbolic, and it hadn’t changed in my time—in my early time.
So previously, women felt that they had to hide the fact that they were writing fiction because otherwise they would be seen as overstepping their roles. And now that it is more acceptable for women to be writers, at least in the US, they may continue to downplay the fact that they write fiction, because it is often regarded so dismissively in our materialistic society.
That’s true. So it’s not making money. If you were going out and selling advertising or something, it would be better. If there was a steady income from what one was doing. I think that has happened. And I’ve heard many young women say that they can’t “take time off” [from] earning [in order] to write.
I think during the sixties there was more of a trend to do what you wanted to and live in poverty. Poverty became fashionable for a certain level of people who were educated and concerned that their lives should mean something. But I think what they didn’t understand was they were living in a very prosperous economy, and if you wanted to get a job for a few months and save your money, anybody could do it. And so, it wasn’t terribly realistic. Anyway, most of their kids want to be stockbrokers, I think.
In your research, what were some of your discoveries across cultures and generations in attitudes toward romantic love and marriage?
I think the big thing was that in order to have a sex life people got married, particularly women. Men maybe managed not to. But in these very straightened communities, with everybody watching, I don’t think men managed to get too far outside of the norms, either, and so, when you’re young, and sex is going to be restricted to one person, I think that that becomes love. There may be some people who are very hardheaded or very unlucky and who never have illusions of this kind. But I think most people did. And so love was connected with marriage and a family and fidelity, and some cases I think this worked awfully well. There had to be some spark between the people who contracted this marriage in the first place. And I think if there was, a life of shared goals and the ethics of hard work would keep it going. But then I think there were plenty of cases in which there was nothing much to keep it going. But people didn’t expect anything different. I think sexual adventuring was always a matter of class and leisure. So the kind of people I come from, I don’t think it would impinge much on their lives. What interests me is that many people didn’t marry and this would be a very narrow life perhaps, but you don’t know really what such lives are like. And I’m sure people had the kind of sexual imagination and romantic feelings—what we used to call “crushes” when I was in high school—I’m sure there were people who would have those all their lives. And perhaps they would never be revealed, and perhaps they would be, in a way, quite nourishing.
Among the married, or the unmarried, or both?
Both. I think now when sex is so open, we forget how much some very small thing might mean—like somebody brushing your arm, or something like that.
Would you say that there is a connection in your stories between violence and sexuality?
I don’t think about sexuality being connected to violence. In overlooking the stories I would say that it is true that I feel there is something about sex that is threatening, irresistible—not necessarily benign. Often the sexual attraction will be between people who would not otherwise be chosen. I am thinking about sexual attraction as an isolated thing and surprising. The stories show that sex is a vein where rationality breaks down.
One of your characters who express violence in part through sexual acts is Ladner, in “Vandals” [from Open Secrets], and he seems an unusual, though fascinating, personality in the Munro canon.
Ladner has no loyalty to belonging to the people he lives with or his community. His remoteness made him interesting to me. I wanted to do something that used a man like that. He doesn’t explore; he doesn’t change. It’s the people around him who do.
In your story “Fits” [from The Progress of Love] Robert describes a pivotal and seemingly irrational act in that story as being, “like an earthquake, or a volcano,” and goes on to say, “People can take a fit like the earth takes a fit.” In “The View from Castle Rock,” Mary is perceived to be having a fit when she lunges after Young James, whom she imagines to be in danger.
Oh, yes. That is truly what I mean by “fit” in a way . . . that something so powerful happens that you are lifted out of yourself, and out of all your normal kind of behavior. I don’t know, I suppose many of the stories have something like this. You know, one thing about writing is that it is very hard to see into your own process. Very hard. And sometimes it seems, when you are asked questions about it, that you are just being evasive. But actually, it’s that you can’t remember very well. Sometimes it’s almost like when you start to tell people about “a dream I had last night,” and then only unimportant bits of it seem to occur to you.
Might part of the difficulty in talking about your process be that so much of your work seems to be rooted in the unconscious?
Well, I suppose it is. I never try any way of getting in touch with that, but I suppose when I find a story I want to write, that a lot of it is there, yes. I write because I want to get a feeling of mystery or surprise. Not a mystery that finishes you off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder. I don’t really like interpretations. I don’t want to make definite explanations. If I had a different take on human behavior, I would want to take it down in patterns or a more scientific way. But that’s just not what interests me.
Ann Close, your longtime editor at Knopf, mentioned, when I interviewed her for this piece, that on a rereading of “Lichen” [from The Progress of Love], she realized that certain details that she thought had been in the story weren’t literally written there. She was remembering things that took place, in a sense, between the lines. We marveled at your ability to intuit how the subconscious works, and your understanding of how to put that insight into writing.
Of course, you can’t really ask an author, “How do you think about the subconscious?” because—
Because you don’t.
Yes. And yet . . . do you remember your dreams?
About as well as most people do. I don’t remember them, except a very few of them, with any accuracy. You know, you wake up and you think, That dream was about . . . and unless you think about it right then, it’s gone, and all you will have is an atmosphere that was in your dream.
I’m glad Ann said that, because I often feel with writing I really value that that’s what’s happening, that I’m getting some kind of—the word they use for it isatmosphere, but that’s quite an inadequate word. Some of the things that are very hard to communicate can nevertheless be got through with words that don’t exactly say those things. And I don’t know how this is done, but I’d hope that sometimes it would happen. Because of course I can’t read my own work the way I read other people’s work.
I wonder if your ability to mine the subconscious is one the factors that leads readers to compare your stories with Chekhov’s. So much of his work is subtextual.
It is, yes. I would interpret this as just sort of getting a knock in the chest or something, which is what his work always gave me and still does. Almost a fear and excitement and it’s like what some people get from religion, I guess. Some kind of sense of a reality you can hardly bear, or something like that, and yet which is the most important thing.
Who have been some of the writers who over the years have continued to have that powerful effect for you?
William Maxwell did . . . does. And sometimes William Trevor, and I think Edna O’Brien can do very wonderful things. I think she’s one of the consistently underappreciated writers right now. I won’t go on, because it’s very hard for me to think of names and I leave out people who are important.
In Lives of Mothers and Daughters, your daughter Sheila’s memoir, she writes of your ancestor, Margaret Hogg, who knew the Bible and traditional ballads and stories by heart, and Sheila says that you, too, have a near-photographic memory.
Yes, I do. You see, what really interested me about Margaret Hogg is that she harks back to a much older time than her own, when there was no written literature. This goes back as long as people have been telling stories. There have been people who memorized the ballads and memorized stories and she was one of those. She had things in her head—not written down. And she was right at the end of the time when that was so useful.
But I do have that kind of memory, in a way.
In “Who Do You Think You Are?” [from The Beggar Maid], Rose is punished by her teacher, Miss Hattie, for thinking herself “better then other people” when she demonstrates to her class her ability to memorize and then recite a poem she has studied on the blackboard for only a few minutes.
And generally in your stories, you describe the region, house furnishings, and other physical specifics of your settings in great detail. Did you, like the children in “White Dump,” [from The Progress of Love], grow up playing the “boring card game that taught you the names of Canadian wildflowers,” in order to acquire this store of knowledge, or do you simply hear this kind of information once and never forget it?
I don’t remember that from the story, and I don’t remember ever playing it. I may have invented it, or it’s possible. . . . But as to all the detail, I think that’s almost something I have to curb. I cannot tell a story without wanting to say what kind of house people lived in, if it was brick, what color of brick, what there was in the kitchen, and all sorts of things that can become too much of a weight, and sometimes I do consciously try to cut them down a bit.
Yet throughout your work, these descriptions of your characters’ surroundings portray a sense of place as vividly as if it were a character in each story.
I found the American Southern writers of the generation just before mine to be very congenial in that way, because they do a lot of that. European writers don’t do nearly so much; maybe because they’ve got so much past around them, they could never stop if they did.
I wonder if this also relates to what you were saying earlier, about the various ways that religions developed in different places and what kinds of expression were considered acceptable.
Yes, that could be.
Your descriptions of the minute details of physical and emotional experiences, such as childbirth, are so sensorially and psychologically precise that they enable the reader to participate in your characters’ experiences. Have you kept journals that you write from?
No, never. If I have any time for writing, I always write fiction. I just wouldn’t want to put all that energy into a journal. When I read Virginia Woolf’s journals, I think, This is marvelous. It’s marvelous that she sat down every day and did that. And she was also writing her novels. But I don’t have that much literary energy.
She didn’t have children.
That is true. She cooked though, sometimes. But the things I remember, for instance, about childbirth—that kind of thing—almost everybody remembers a lot about childbirth. That’s not something you forget.
Yes, but even though it’s a heightened experience, many of us remember it more impressionistically than you do. I have heard that it’s common for people to recall traumatic experiences in sharp detail—as if time had stopped. But you graphically remember elements of daily life.
That’s true, yes. I don’t know . . . maybe that is just a certain kind of memory, because it hasn’t been because of effort.
In your new collection, do characters reinvent themselves and their pasts, or remember and/or reinvent their ancestors from earlier stories?
Well, I guess I do. That’s really what it is. It’s an exercise in . . . I would call it discovery, but I suppose everything you write is reinvention, because it’s got to pass through you, it’s what you can see.
Also in the new volume, do any of your characters from one generation reappear in some other manifestation in another generation?
Yes, some do. I think they do.
In Lives of Mothers and Daughters, Sheila mentions that Margaret Hogg’s son, James Hogg, knew Wordsworth, and it seems that Wordsworth is important to you.
Yes, he is. Wordsworth, as you know, enjoyed a great reputation as a poet. And Hogg wrote parodies of him at one time. He wrote parodies of Byron, too, and all sorts of poets, in an effort to make some money. I don’t think they were very pleased with this, if they knew about it, but later on there’s a story about him going to visit Wordsworth. In that time you could go and visit writers without invitation. You just showed up to pay your respects. And so that’s what Hogg did, and I think he was with someone else, who knew Wordsworth a little. When they were in Wordsworth’s house, Hogg said, “Imagine, two great writers in the same room!” And this is what I love about Hogg—that he’s so different from the family ideal. He’s just totally boastful and his self-esteem is huge, and Wordsworth didn’t like this very much either, I don’t think.
Walter James Miller, in his Walter Talks Books CD lecture on Runaway,discussed how interested you are in Wordsworth’s philosophy about—
Nature? Oh, yes, tremendously. I was going to say, “I was when I was younger,” but that’s one of the stupid things that people say . . . as if they got smarter when they’re older. I just absorbed it, I think, but I had a great feeling about nature in my late teens—the countryside I grew up in—a sort of mystical feeling. It entirely replaced religion, but it was, in a way, of the same quality as religion.
Has Wordsworth’s philosophy come to have a contemporary meaning for you?
It has. Yes. And of course, now I’m not alone in feeling this way. It was a feeling that I really guarded when I was a young girl, because people would have laughed at me, I thought. And now, it’s quite common for people to have this feeling and this concern. Whether it will help or not, I don’t know.
You often explore the role that coincidence, or seemingly random incidents play in your characters’ lives. What were some of your discoveries regarding how these elements helped to shape your family history?
You know, I don’t know if that’s in my family history. That’s almost something I love to do because I’ve seen it in life and I do it more as I get older. It’s almost playful, but I like sometimes to work with coincidences and the way things like that have always been used in storytelling. Sometimes they are quite far-out, and they’re quite fun to think about. I suppose any family stories would have something of that, yes, because they’re what everybody wants to find in a story—surprise.
Might some of the coincidences in your family history have been physical in nature? For example, the weather in Ontario can be so harsh, and your forebears would have had to deal with unpredictable elements, such as storms.
Yes, that’s right. And something like that happening at a certain time could have all kinds of effects on your life. For instance, yesterday I was going to go to a town fifty miles away to have lunch with an old friend, whom I haven’t seen, really to talk to, for many years, and there was a terrific snowstorm. Well, suppose that had been an incident where it was much more crucial than having lunch with an old friend. Supposing you were going to elope with somebody. That’s the way things are affected.
About Lisa Dickler
Lisa Dickler Awano has interviewed, profiled, and researched Alice Munro for the New York Times, VQR, the New Haven Review, and theVancouver Sun for the past nine years. Her other work has aired on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered and appeared in the New York Quarterly and Chicago Review. Awano also organizes readings at New York City’s National Arts Club.