An Interview with Alice Munro


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 of Time’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;and Runaway. 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.
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