Alice Munro on telling stories
Alice Munro was born in Wingham, Ontario in 1931. Her father was a fox and mink farmer, her mother a teacher. Alice began writing as a teenager, studied at the University of Western Ontario and worked as a library clerk. After marrying she moved with her husband to British Columbia; in 1963, in Victoria, the pair opened a bookstore. Since the late 1960s, Alice Munro has dedicated herself to writing.
Growing up in Wingham often provided backdrops that inspired aspects of her stories. In the words of the Nobel Prize committee: “These often accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages. The underlying themes of her work are often relationship problems and moral conflicts. The relationship between memory and reality is another recurring theme she uses to create tension. With subtle means, she is able to demonstrate the impact that seemingly trivial events can have on a person's life.”
ALICE MUNRO: I got interested in reading very early, because a story was read to me, by Hans Christian Andersen, which was The Little Mermaid, and I don't know if you remember The Little Mermaid, but it's dreadfully sad. The little mermaid falls in love with this prince, but she cannot marry him, because she is a mermaid. And it's so sad I can't tell you the details. But anyway, as soon as I had finished this story I got outside and walked around and around the house where we lived, at the brick house, and I made up a story with a happy ending, because I thought that was due to the little mermaid, and it sort of slipped my mind that it was only made up to be a different story for me, it wasn't going to go all around the world, but I felt I had done my best, and from now on the little mermaid would marry the prince and live happily ever after, which was certainly her desert, because she had done awful things to win the prince's power, his ease. She had had to change her limbs. She had had to get limbs that ordinary people have and walk, but every step she took, agonizing pain! This is what she was willing to go through, to get the prince. So I thought she deserved more than death on the water. And I didn't worry about the fact that maybe the rest of the world wouldn't know the new story, because I felt it had been published once I thought about it. So, there you are. That was an early start, on writing.
STEFAN ÅSBERG: And tell us how you learned to tell a story, and write it?
I made stories up all the time, I had a long walk to school, and during that walk I would generally make up stories. As I got older the stories would be more and more about myself, as a heroine in some situation or other, and it didn't bother me that the stories were not going to be published to the world immediately, and I don't know if I even thought about other people knowing them or reading them. It was about the story itself, generally a very satisfying story from my point of view, with the general idea of the little mermaid's bravery, that she was clever, that she was in general able to make a better world, because she would jump in there, and have magic powers and things like that.
I couldn't have been so brave if I had been living in a town, competing with people on what can be called 'a generally higher cultural level'.
SÅ: Was it important that the story would be told from a woman's perspective?
AM: I never thought of it being important, but I never thought of myself as being anything but a woman, and there were many good stories about little girls and women. After you got maybe into your teens it was more about helping the man to achieve his needs and so on, but when I was a young girl I had no feeling of inferiority at all about being a woman. And this may have been because I lived in a part of Ontario where women did most of the reading, telling most of the stories, the men were outside doing important things, they didn't go in for stories. So I felt quite at home.
SÅ: How did that environment inspire you?
AM: You know, I don't think that I needed any inspiration, I thought that stories were so important in the world, and I wanted to make up some of these stories, I wanted to keep on doing this, and it didn't have to do with other people, I didn't need to tell anybody, and it wasn't until much later that I realized that it would be interesting if one got them into a larger audience.
SÅ: What is important to you when you tell a story?
Well, obviously, in those early days the important thing was the happy ending, I did not tolerate unhappy endings, for my heroines anyway. And later on I began to read things like Wuthering Heights, and very very unhappy endings would take place, so I changed my ideas completely and went in for the tragic, which I enjoyed.
SÅ: What can be so interesting in describing small town Canadian life?
You just have to be there. I think any life can be interesting, any surroundings can be interesting; I don't think I could have been so brave if I had been living in a town, competing with people on what can be called 'a generally higher cultural level'. I didn't have to cope with that. I was the only person I knew who wrote stories, though I didn't tell them to anybody, and as far as I knew, at least for a while, I was the only person who could do this in the world.
SÅ: Were you always that confident in your writing?
I was for a long time, but I became very unconfident when I grew up and met a few other people who were writing. Then I realized that the job was a bit harder than I had expected. But I never gave up at all, it was just something I did.
SÅ: When you start a story, do you always have it plotted out?
I do, but then it often changes. I start with a plot, and I work at it, and then I see that it goes another way and things happen as I'm writing the story, but at least I have to start out with a fairly clear idea of what the story is about.
SÅ: How consumed are you by the story when you start writing?
Oh, desperately. But you know, I always got lunch for my children, did I not? I was a housewife, so I learned to write in times off, and I don't think I ever gave it up, though there were times when I was very discouraged, because I began to see that the stories I was writing were not very good, that I had a lot to learn and that it was a much, much harder job than I had expected. But I didn't stop, I don't think I have ever done that.
SÅ: What part is hardest when you want to tell a story?
I think probably that part when you go over the story and realize how bad it is. You know, the first part, excitement, the second, pretty good, but then you pick it up one morning and you think “what nonsense”, and that is when you really have to get to work on it. And for me it always seemed the right thing to do, it was my fault if the story was bad, not the story's fault.
SÅ: But how do you turn it around if you are not satisfied?
Hard work. But I try to think of a better way to explain. You have characters that you haven't given a chance, and you have to think about them or do something quite different with them. In my earlier days I was prone to a lot of flowery prose, and I gradually learned to take a lot of that out. So you just go on thinking about it and finding out more and more what the story was about, which you thought you understood in the beginning, but you actually had a lot more to learn.
SÅ: How many stories have you thrown away?
Ha, when I was young I threw them all away. I have no idea, but I haven't done that so often in recent years, I generally knew what I had to do to make them live. But there may still always be a mistake somewhere that I realize is a mistake and you just have to forget about it.
SÅ: Do you ever regret throwing a story away?
I don't think so, because by then I have gone through enough agony about it, knowing that it didn't work from the beginning. But as I say that doesn't happen very often.
Everything the story tells moves the reader so that you feel you are a different person when you finish.
SÅ: Growing older, how does that change your writing?
Oh, well, in a very predictable way. You start out writing about beautiful young princesses and then you write about housewives and children and later on about old women, and this just goes on, without your necessarily trying to do anything to change that. Your vision changes.
SÅ: Do you think you have been important to other female writers, being a housewife, being able to combine household work with writing?
I actually don't know about that, I would hope that I have been. I think I went to other female writers when I was young, and that was a great encouragement to me, but whether I have been important to others I don't know. I think women have a much, I wouldn't say easier time, but it's much more okay now for women to be doing something important, not just fooling around with a little game that she does while everybody else is out of the house, but to be really serious about writing, as a man would write.
SÅ: What impact do you think that you have on someone reading your stories, women especially?
Oh, well, I want my stories to move people, I don't care if they are men or women or children. I want my stories to be something about life that causes people to say, not, oh, isn't that the truth, but to feel some kind of reward from the writing, and that doesn't mean that it has to be a happy ending or anything, but just that everything the story tells moves the reader in such a way that you feel you are a different person when you finish.
SÅ: Who do you think you are? What has that expression meant to you?
Well, I grew up in the countryside, I grew up with people who were generally Scotch-Irish, and it was a very common idea not to try too much, never to think you were smart. That was another image that was popular, “Ah, you think you are smart.” And to do anything like writing you'd have to think you were smart, for quite a while, but I was just a peculiar person.
SÅ: Were you an early feminist?
I never knew about the word “feminism”, but of course I was a feminist, because I actually grew up in a part of Canada where women could write more easily than men. The big, important writers would be men, but knowing that a woman wrote stories was probably less to her discredit than if a man wrote stories. Because it was not a man's occupation. Well, that was very much in my youth, it's not that way at all now.
SÅ: Would it have changed your writing if you had finished your university studies?
It might have indeed, it might have made me a lot more cautious and a lot more scared about being a writer, because the more I knew about what people had done, I was naturally rather daunted. I would perhaps have thought I couldn't do it, but I don't think it would have happened, really, maybe for a while, but then, I wanted to write so much that I would just have gone ahead and tried it anyway.
SÅ: Was the writing a gift, given to you?
I don't think the people around me would have thought that, but I never thought about it as a gift, I just thought that it was something that I could do, if I just tried hard enough. So if it was a gift, it certainly wasn't an easy gift, not after The Little Mermaid.
SÅ: Did you ever hesitate, did you ever think that you were not good enough?
All the time, all the time! I threw out more stuff than I ever sent away or finished, and that went on all through my twenties something. But I was still learning to write the way I wanted to write. So, no, it wasn't an easy thing.
SÅ: What did your mother mean to you?
The writer in 1968. [o]
Oh, my feelings about my mother were very complicated, because she was sick, she had Parkinson's disease, she needed a lot of help, and her speech was difficult, people couldn't tell what she was saying, and yet she was a very gregarious person, who wanted very much to be part of a social life, and of course that wasn't possible for her because of her speech problems. So I was embarrassed by her, I loved her but in a way perhaps didn't want to be identified with her, I didn't want to stand out and say the things she wanted me to say to people, it was difficult in the same way that any adolescent would think of a person or a parent who was maimed in some respect. You would want that time to be totally free of such things.
SÅ: Did she inspire you in any way?
I think she probably did but not in ways I could notice or understand. I can't remember when I wasn't writing stories, I mean, I didn't write them down, but I told them, not to her, to anybody. But the fact that she read, and my father read too … My mother, I think, would have been more agreeable to someone who wanted to be a writer. She would have thought that was an admirable thing to be, but the people around me didn't know that I wanted to be a writer, cause I didn't let them find out, it would have seemed to most people ridiculous. Because most people I knew didn't read, they took to life in a very practical way and my whole idea of life had to be rather sheltered from people I knew.
I want people to think of my books as related to their own lives in ways . . . I am trying to say that I am not a political person.
SÅ: Has it been hard to tell a true story from a woman's perspective?
No, not at all, because that's the way I think, being a woman and all, and it never bothered me. You know this is kind of a special thing with growing up as I did, if anybody read, it was the women, if anybody had the education it was often the woman; it would have been a school teacher or something like that, and far from being closed to women, the world of reading and writing was widely more open to women than it was to men, men being farmers or doing different kinds of work.
SÅ: And you were brought up in a working class home?
SÅ: And that's where your stories start as well?
Yes. I didn't realize it was a working class home, I just looked at where I was and wrote about it.
SÅ: And did you like the fact always to write at specific times, looking at a schedule, taking care of the kids, cooking dinner?
Well, I wrote whenever I could, and my first husband was very helpful, to him writing was an admirable thing to do. He didn't think of it as something that a woman couldn't do, as many of the men that I met later did, he took it as something that he wanted me to do and never wavered from that.
SÅ: It was great fun in the first place, because we moved in here, determined to open a bookstore, and everybody thought we were crazy and would starve to death, but we didn't. We worked very hard.
How important was the bookstore in the beginning for the two of you, when it all started?
SÅ: It was our livelihood. It was all we had. We didn't have any other source of income. The first day when we opened we made 175 dollars. – Which you thought was a lot. Well, it was, cause it took us a long time to get back to that again.
I used to sit behind the desk and find the books for people and handle all the things you do in a bookstore, generally just by myself, and people came in and talked about books a lot, it was very much a place for people to get together rather than immediately buy things, and this was especially true at night, when I'd be sitting here by myself, and I had these people come in every night, talking to me about something, and it was great, it was a lot of fun. Up until this point I had been a housewife, I was at home all the time, I was a writer as well, but this was a wonderful chance to get into the world. I don't think we made much money, possibly I talked to people a little too much, you know, instead of getting them to the books, but it was a fantastic time in my life.
SÅ: Visitor in the bookstore: Your books remind me of home. – Yes, I live right south of Amsterdam. Thank you so much, goodbye.
Think of that! Well, I love it when someone just comes up to you like that, when it's not only a matter of getting autographs, but of telling you why.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Munro has won 22 literary prizes. In the 1987 photo above, Alice accepts the Governor General's Literary Award from Canadian Governor General Jeanne Sauvé. [Blaise Edwards/Canadian Press]
SÅ: Do you want young women to be inspired by your books and feel inspired to write?
I don't care what they feel as long as they enjoy reading the book. I want people to find not so much inspiration as great enjoyment. That's what I want; I want people to enjoy my books, to think of them as related to their own lives in ways. But that isn't the major thing. I am trying to say that I am not, I guess I am not a political person.
SÅ: Are you a cultural person?
Probably. I am not quite sure what that means, but I think I am.
SÅ: You seem to have a very simple view on things?
Do I? Well, yes.
SÅ: Well, I read somewhere that you want things to be explained in an easy way.
Yes, I do. But I never think that I want to explain things more easily, that's just the way I write. I think I write naturally in an easy way, without thinking that this was to be made more easy.
SÅ: Have you ever run into periods when you haven't been able to write?
Yes, I have. Well, I gave up writing, when was it, maybe a year ago, but that was a decision, that was not wanting to write and not being able to, a decision that I wanted to behave like the rest of the world. Because when you are writing you are doing something that other people don't know you are doing, and you can't really talk about it, you are always finding your way in this secret world, and then you are doing something else in the normal world. And I am sort of getting tired of that, I have done it all my life, absolutely all my life. When I got in company with writers who were in a way more academic, then I became a little flustered, because I knew I couldn't write that way, I didn't have that gift.
SÅ: I guess it's a different way of telling a story?
Yes, and I never worked on it in a, what shall I say, conscious way, well, of course I was conscious, I worked in a way that comforted and pleased myself more than in a way that followed some kind of idea.
SÅ: Did you ever see yourself win the Nobel Prize?
Oh, no, no! I was a woman! But there are women who have won it, I know. I just love the honour, I love it, but I just didn't think that way, because most writers probably underestimate their work, especially after it's done. You don't go around and tell your friends that I will probably win the Nobel Prize. That is not a common way of greeting one!
SÅ: Do you ever go back these days and read any of your old books?
No! No! I am afraid to! No, but then I would probably get a terrific urge to change just a little bit here, a little bit there, and I have even done that in certain copies of my books that I would take out of the cupboard, but then I realize that it doesn't matter if I change them, because it's not changed out there.
SÅ: Is there anything you want to say to the people in Stockholm?
AM: Oh, I want to say that I am so grateful for this great honour, that nothing, nothing in the world could make me so happy as this. Thank you!
STEFAN ÅSBERG is a Swedish foreign reporter for Swedish Television. Åsberg was stationed as a foreign correspondent in Washington, DC 2002–2007 and 2010–2014. Between September 2015 and September 2018, he was a correspondent in the Middle East. Stefan lives in Stockholm.
Translation of this interview by Rose-Marie Nielsen; production by the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company and Swedish Television. Recorded in Canada, November 12 and 13, 2013. © Swedish Academy, Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company and Swedish Television.