Friday, March 11, 2011

Virginia Barber / An Appreciation of Alice Munro


AN APRRECIATION OF ALICE MUNRO
by Virginia Barber
Lisa Dickler Awano, Compiler and Editor

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 theNew 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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