Friday, October 11, 2013

Alice Munro

Sorry all Haruki Murakami fans and supporters. The Nobel Prize for Literature this year has been announced and it goes to the unassuming Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. She is the 13th woman to win this prize so far and the first Canadian since Soul Bellow in 1976 to win the award.

Often compared with Chekhov, she is the most celebrated contemporary short story writer of our times. While Murakami fans may mourn, for Munro fans, this is perfect opportunity for those unacquainted with her work to take a first-hand look at her genius work, and see what a short story can achieve. Yes, the award is, in a sense, a nod to the art of story itself, which is often consigned to a second class genre after novels and poetry. Traditionally, it is the novelists and poets who have been awarded the world’s highest literary awards.

HERE’S SOMETHING about Alice Munro AND SOMETHING by Alice Munro

Alice Ann Munro (née Laidlaw; born 10 July 1931) is a Canadian author. The recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work, she is also a three-time winner of Canada's Governor General's Award for fiction. The locus of Munro’s fiction is her native southwestern Ontario. Her "accessible, moving stories" explore human complexities in a seemingly effortless style. Munro's writing has established her as "one of our greatest contemporary writers of fiction," or, as Cynthia Ozick put it, "our Chekhov."

Alice Munro, the renowned Canadian short-story writer whose visceral work explores the tangled relationships between men and women, small-town existence and the fallibility of memory, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy said that Ms. Munro, 82, who has written 14 story collections, was a “master of the contemporary short story.” She is the 13th woman to win the prize. The selection of Ms. Munro was greeted with an outpouring of enthusiasm in the English-speaking world, a temporary relief from recent years when the Swedish Academy chose winners who were obscure, difficult to comprehend or overtly political.

Ms. Munro, widely beloved for her spare and psychologically astute fiction that is deeply revealing of human nature, appeared to be more of a purely literary choice. She revolutionized the architecture of short stories, often beginning a story in an unexpected place then moving backward or forward in time, and brought a modesty and subtle wit to her work that admirers often traced to her background growing up in rural Canada. Her collection “Dear Life,” published last year, appears to be her last. She told The National Post in Canada this year that she was finished writing, a sentiment she echoed in other interviews.

How old were you when that first book came out?
I was about thirty-six. I’d been writing these stories over the years and finally an editor at Ryerson Press, a Canadian publisher that has since been taken over by McGraw-Hill, wrote and asked me if I had enough stories for a book. Originally he was going to put me in a book with two or three other writers. That fell through, but he still had a bunch of my stories. Then he quit but passed me onto another editor, who said, If you could write three more stories, we’d have a book. And so I wrote “Images,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” and “Postcard” during the last year before the book was published.

What was the process involved in writing Lives?
I remember the day I started to write that. It was in January, a Sunday. I went down to the bookstore, which wasn’t open Sundays, and locked myself in. My husband had said he would get dinner, so I had the afternoon. I remember looking around at all the great literature that was around me and thinking, You fool! What are you doing here? But then I went up to the office and started to write the section called “Princess Ida,” which is about my mother. The material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up. So, once I started to write that, I was off. Then I made a big mistake. I tried to make it a regular novel, an ordinary sort of childhood adolescence novel. About March I saw it wasn’t working. It didn’t feel right to me, and I thought I would have to abandon it. I was very depressed. Then it came to me that what I had to do was pull it apart and put it in the story form. Then I could handle it. That’s when I learned that I was never going to write a real novel because I could not think that way.

The Beggar Maid, too, is a sort of a novel because it’s interconnected stories.
I don’t want to second-guess things too much, but I’ve often wanted to do another series of stories. In my new book, Open Secrets, there are characters who reappear. Bea Doud in “Vandals” is mentioned as the little girl in “Carried Away,” which is the first story I wrote for the collection. Billy Doud is the son of the librarian. They’re all mentioned in “Spaceships Have Landed.” But I mustn’t let this sort of plan overtake the stories themselves. If I start shaping one story so it will fit with another, I am probably doing something wrong, using force on it that I oughtn’t. So I don’t know that I’ll ever do that kind of series again, though I love the idea of it. Katherine Mansfield said something in one of her letters like, Oh, I hope I write a novel, I hope I don’t die just leaving these bits and pieces. It’s very hard to wean yourself away from this bits-and-pieces feeling if all you’re leaving behind is scattered stories. I’m sure you could think of Chekhov and everything, but still.

And Chekhov always wanted to write a novel. He was going to call it “Stories from the Lives of My Friends.”
I know. And I know that feeling that you could have this achievement of having put everything into one package.

''I never intended to be a short-story writer,'' says Alice Munro, leaning back and laughing in a chair in her publisher's office. ''I started writing them because I didn't have time to write anything else - I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don't think I'll ever write a novel.''

The 55-year-old Ms. Munro is the author of a new, critically acclaimed collection of short stories, ''The Progress of Love,'' as well as one novel (''really a collection of related stories'') and four other volumes of short stories, including ''The Beggar Maid'' and ''The Moons of Jupiter.'' She has been called one of the foremost contemporary practitioners of the short story.

''I don't really understand a novel,'' Ms. Munro says. ''I don't understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There's a kind of tension that if I'm getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don't feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that's explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.''

Many of your stories are about women. How do you feel about being called a feminist writer?
Naturally my stories are about women—I'm a woman. I don't know what the term is for men who write mostly about men. I'm not always sure what is meant by "feminist." In the beginning I used to say, well, of course I'm a feminist. But if it means that I follow a kind of feminist theory, or know anything about it, then I'm not. I think I'm a feminist as far as thinking that the experience of women is important. That is really the basis of feminism.

Over the course of your career, have you changed the type of women you write about?
I'm not sure that I have. I'm not an autobiographical writer, but I've pretty well followed my own life in terms of what I think about and what I see. So if now I'm writing stories about an older woman looking back on her life, it's because of where I am now. I was a young woman when I wrote "Walker Brothers Cowboy" [a story about a young child spending the day with her father]. I was then in my thirties, and I was looking back on my childhood—so I do tend to look back. I don't tend to do the present very well. I have to see things in the rearview mirror before I can get what they were all about. I still write a lot about the sixties, which was a watershed decade for women of my age. We weren't young enough to really be with that decade, but we were young enough to see that all possibilities were not closed to us. It's something I look back on over and over again. But during the sixties, I was writing The Lives of Girls and Women, which is about a much earlier period.

What are your writing habits—do you use a computer? Do you write every day? In the morning or at night? How long does it take to complete a story?
I’ve been using a computer for a year—I’m a late convert to every technological offering and still don’t own a microwave oven—but I do one or two drafts long hand before I go to the keyboard. A story might be done in two months, beginning to end, and ready to go, but that’s rare. More likely six to eight months, many changes, some false directions, much fiddling and some despair. I write everyday unless it’s impossible and start writing as soon as I get up and have made coffee and try to get two to three hours in before real life hauls me away.

What advice would you give to young writers?
It’s not possible to advise a young writer because every young writer is so different. You might say, “Read,” but a writer can read too much and be paralyzed. Or, “Don’t read, don’t think, just write,” and the result could be a mountain of drivel. If you’re going to be a writer you’ll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think “There must be something else people do” you won’t quite be able to quit.

What writers have most influenced you and who do you like to read?
When I was young it was Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, James Agee. Then Updike, Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Taylor, and especially and forever, William Maxwell. Also William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Richard Ford. These I would say are influences. There are dozens of others I just like to read. My latest discovery is a Dutch writer, Cees Nooteboom. I hate doing lists like this because I’ll be banging my head soon that I left somebody wonderful out. That’s why I speak only of those who have influenced, not of all who have delighted me.

Cynthia Ozick has called you “our Chekhov.” How does that comparison make you feel?
I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it’s a humbling experience. I don’t even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light—there’s no striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, wouldn’t I love to do that!

Do you find writing difficult, as a rule? Has it got any easier over time?
I do and don’t find writing difficult. Nice bang away at the first draft, then agonizing fix-up, then re-insertions, etc.

A couple of times in the past decade or so you’ve said that you were going to give up writing. Then suddenly new stories have arrived on my desk. What happens when you try to stop?
I do stop—for some strange notion of being “more normal,” taking things easy. Then some poking idea comes. This time, I think it’s for real. I’m eighty-one, losing names or words in a commonplace way, so…

Munro was no young literary phenom—she did not achieve fame in her twenties with stories in The New Yorker. A mother of three children, she “learned to write in the slivers of time she had.” She published her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968 at 37, an advanced age for writers today, so many of whom have several novels under their belts by their early thirties. Munro always meant to write a novel, many in fact, but “there was no way I could get that kind of time,” she said: "Why do I like to write short stories? Well, I certainly didn’t intend to. I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel. But when I was younger, it was simply a matter of expediency. I had small children, I didn’t have any help. Some of this was before the days of automatic washing machines, if you can actually believe it. There was no way I could get that kind of time. I couldn’t look ahead and say, this is going to take me a year, because I thought every moment something might happen that would take all time away from me. So I wrote in bits and pieces with a limited time expectation. Perhaps I got used to thinking of my material in terms of things that worked that way. And then when I got a little more time, I started writing these odder stories, which branch out a lot."

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