Novelist Gish Jen talked to Alice Munro’s two closest editors, Ann Close and Chip McGrath, about the beloved Canadian writer’s rise from struggling mother to Nobel laureate. Plus, our 60-second guide to her life, and Malcolm Jones on her unerring art.
We all love the Alice Munro-as-struggling-writer stories. There is the story of how, when Munro made it onto the cover of Time Canada, she couldn’t afford to buy a copy of the magazine and also get milk for her children. (Of course, she bought the milk.) Or what about the story of how she came to write stories instead of novels because while she could put off her housework for three weeks, she just couldn’t for two years? Munro is our Cinderella.
But she is also, as Cynthia Ozick first said, our Chekov, as we can begin to make out in an interview Munro gave to The Paris Review about those early years:
When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because, it made her the adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I have done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.
Many of us have experienced the writing-mother struggle, but only Munro would tell it this way—reporting not only the hurtful batting away, but also that she told her daughter about it, and what happened as a result. We feel Munro’s regret. And then there is the skipping forward in time, the irony of what happened in the end, and the additional, different regret. It is layered and human and real, like a Munro story.
Of course, an actual Munro story on the theme of female aspiration and constraint might well involve a line like: “Home is where they cut you down to size.” Or: “Who Do You Think You Are?”—that question being the original, Canadian title of what would be published in America as The Beggar Maid. Munro’s early work was so raw and powerful that though it immediately attracted New Yorker editor Chip McGrath, it frightened his legendary boss, William Shawn. McGrath recalls Shawn’s surprise when he finally met Munro at the Algonquin Hotel, where he liked to lunch. “She is not at all what I expected, Mr. McGrath,” Shawn said—apparently expecting, said McGrath, “some kind of Canadian wild woman.” Instead Shawn was taken with this wholly modest and self-effacing writer who could maintain an intimate relationship with her small Ontario hometown even as she wrote the most unsparing stories about it.
She appears to have felt a dissonance in doing so. “I have all these disconnected realities in my life,” she once said—disconnections that give rise to more humor in her work than is usually noted. Her longtime Knopf editor, Ann Close, says audiences are often surprised at how flat-out funny Munro’s readings can be. And yet her intimate outsider status gives rise to more than laughs. It helps her register things that others don’t, and it is possible that her drive to capture them at all is in part a desire to make things cohere. In discussing her decision last year to retire, for example, she described her artistic goal as a kind of ecstatic integration. “What I wanted,” she said, “was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together—radiant, everlasting.”
She did get what she was after. Her work has an inspired completion and accuracy that recalls artists like Durer or Vermeer. As for the “disconnected realities” that might not of their own accord hold together, many of these had to do with class and the female condition. There is no doubt that her work speaks in a special way to women, feeling as we do that her stories give the reality of our lives new volume and density. Munro includes in her stories all manner of things women seldom find on the page—things like our young crushes on older, more worldly girls, and the role that, for example, menstruation can play in the progress, or non-progress, of a romance. Of course, we view most of these matters with no little rue. Still, it is a thrill to behold them rendered.
And meanwhile, we writers worship her. That simplicity of voice! That formal heedlessness! Her artistic achievements are breathtakingly entwined with her concerns, echoing and supporting as they do, for example, the recurrent Munro heroine who makes enormous, life-changing decisions almost on a whim. This figure’s life is largely scripted, even as much in it is a matter of chance. In Munro’s story, “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink,” a moving tin “moon” casts a wholly random beam emblematic of her possibilities, and yet this character often manages to seize her glimmer of opportunity with fantastic, even heroic, aplomb. The woman in a story called “Chance,” for example, goes looking for a man she once met, in improbable fashion, on a train—not only wanting him and all he promised, but also realizing that in life one sometimes finds what she calls “treasures,” only to simply shelve and forget them. Her reckless determination, that’s to say, is not only to pursue her treasure but, movingly, not to forget about it. And this is echoed by a heedlessness in the structure of the story. Starting around the time of “The Progress of Love” Munro had begun to take unprecedented liberties with time that were positively nuts from an artistic point of view, and this is certainly true in “Chance.” By the time she wrote the wondrous “Carried Away,” Munro had blown traditional story structure apart in a way that made writers of every stripe simply kneel.
Finally, though, it is mystery that makes a Munro story: the mystery of her stories’ uncanny rightness, and the mystery of her characters, a core wildness and unpredictability we startlingly recognize. And this, too, is where she transcends whatever particular appeal she might have. For however small the short story form, it is not, as McGrath says, minor. In Munro’s hands, it conveys nothing less than an ultimately unaccountable element in human nature and human experience.
In her great story “Friend of My Youth,” Munro describes how relieved but also cheated she felt by a dream in which her mother was cured of the chronic illness that had marked her life—the cure transforming the “bitter lump of love I have carried all this time into a phantom—something useless and uncalled for, like a phantom pregnancy.” It’s not only as if the “bitter lump of love” that has defined her entire life is a kind of treasure that can suddenly lose its meaning, but as if everything we treasure is a matter of serendipity, and as if we can at any moment come face to face with that fact. And then what?
And then anything, Munro seems to say. In this largest of ways as well as in the smallest, Munro has captured what one paper called “the bright erratic flow of life itself.” Ann Close recalls the thrill of receiving, one after another, for decades, books that couldn’t possibly be better than the last but, astoundingly, were. And Chip McGrath recalls how as a young editor he allowed himself to be taken out to lunch by an agent, only to be presented at the end with a manila envelope. Here are two stories by a new Canadian writer, he was told; to which his reaction was, Great. New Canadian writer. I have just wasted my entire afternoon. Yesterday, though, he was dancing in the shower. Munro is a great writer; a wise writer; a free and brave, exacting, transformative, generous, and profoundly discreet writer. No one has deserved the Nobel more.