Alice Munro: Master of the Contemporary Short Story

Robert Thacker discusses the life and work of the Canadian Nobel laureate

alicemunro-robertthacker-hateshipfriendshipcourtshiploveshipmarriage-runaway-dearlife-bloomsbury.jpgHow did you first come to encounter the work of Alice Munro?

I discovered Munro’s writing at a propitious moment in my own life and also, as it turned out, in hers. In 1973 I had just completed a B. A. at a university in my native Ohio, had decided to take a year off to explore graduate-school possibilities in Canada, and so had begun reading Canadian literature. At the suggestion of one of my mentors, I took out a subscription to the Tamarack Review, a quarterly focused on contemporary Canadian writing. The first story in the first issue I received—November 1973—was Munro’s “Material.” I read it, was struck hard by it, and became enraptured by her work right then—it is still among my favourite Munro stories. The next August I enrolled in an M.A. program at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) and, after coursework, presented a thesis on Munro’s narrative techniques in her uncollected stories and first book, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968). It was among the earliest critical studies of her stories, and I have been reading and analysing them ever since.

How would you define her work as a writer?

An organic writer who has always produced draft after draft, ever dissatisfied with what she manages to get on paper in its distance from what she has imagined as the story she is after, Munro is a both a quintessential stylist and a driven artist. She has sought to capture just what it feels like to be alive in the moments she imagines and creates. Over a committed and sharply focused publishing career beginning in 1950, Munro has striven to deduce and render what she once called “the rest of the story” in her situations. She leaves her readers, especially through endings she revises perpetually, feeling the complex ambivalences, the tentative revelations, the quotidian confusions of being.

“An organic writer who has always produced draft after draft, ever dissatisfied with what she manages to get on paper in its distance from what she has imagined as the story she is after, Munro is a both a quintessential stylist and a driven artist.”

Though for many years in the 1950s and ‘60s Munro tried her hand at novels, her imaginary is most attuned to the short story. That imaginary is rooted in her home place—Huron County, Ontario, up by the Great Lake—the place she was born, the place she left for over twenty years, the place she returned to live and to write about, in all its variety and complexity, in 1975. Most of her characters are similarly rooted: they cannot be understood apart from their cultural connections there. Neither can Munro.

Where would you situate Munro’s work in the broader context of contemporary writing?

In 2013 the Nobel Committee proclaimed Munro the “master of the contemporary short story” as it made an award which was itself widely (and even wildly) acclaimed. Having had a long preliminary in Canada, one that saw Dance of the Happy Shades followed with Lives of Girls and Women (1971), linked stories her publisher called a novel and a book that became something of a feminist cri-de-coeur, Munro during the late-1970s began making regular appearances in the New Yorker and other U. S, commercial magazines. With these stories, she became a writer’s writer. Her stories were noticed and talked about, were shared among like-minded friends. Meanwhile, Munro herself remained a bit mysterious, off in Canada, writing. She seldom appeared among the literati. But throughout the 1980s and into the ‘90s her reputation grew. Short stories only, mostly first seen in the New Yorker and inevitably revised before reappearing at regular intervals in collection after collection, deepening in their complexity, power, and reach. In the late-1980s Cynthia Ozick wrote in a blurb that Munro “is our Chekhov” while others saw Turgenev or Yeats. Beyond such comparisons, the effect of reading Munro—individual short stories with a breadth exceeding that of many novels, especially during those minimalist times for that form—asserted the ongoing contemporary relevance of the short story. When the New Yorker published three connected Munro together in its 2004 summer fiction issue—what has come to be called “The Juliet Triptych”—no one was surprised.

“In 2013 the Nobel Committee proclaimed Munro the ‘master of the contemporary short story’ as it made an award which was itself widely (and even wildly) acclaimed.”

What is it that defines Munro as a Canadian writer?

Munro is herself Canadian to her very core. Yet unlike her close friend and contemporary, Margaret Atwood, she has never written about Canada or its politics in any significant way. Her characters and situations are drawn from Huron County, the home place she knows most intimately—the details of human life there are very much a part of Munro’s imaginary, but they themselves are not her subject. Human life is.

That said, I want to return to something I said at the outset, that 1973 was a propitious moment for Munro. That was the year she left her marriage in British Columbia and returned to Ontario, the place she had left in 1951 as a twenty-year-old newlywed. In between she had written of Huron County over time and distance. In 1973 she returned, in her forties and a writer of growing reputation, first to London, Ontario where she had attended university and then to Clinton, in Huron County, in 1975 where she has lived ever since. This return brought her home, brought her close to her subject, and it effected a transforming deepening of the stories she produced. As she once told an interviewer, “I write about where I am in life,” and since 1975 she has been back in Huron County her home place. It shows everywhere in her stories.

How can reading Munro inform or complicate our understanding of the short story as a form?

In 1977 Charles McGrath, Munro’s first editor at the New Yorker, wrote to her with the news that the chief editor William Shawn had decided against publication of her “Chaddeleys and Flemings” since it “read more like straight reminiscence than a story.” For his part, McGrath said that he thought Munro had “taken the material of reminiscence and turned it into something much stronger—a moving, complicated work of fiction.” And in an 1984 letter to Munro’s agent, Virginia Barber,  in which he sent along a renewal of Munro’s first-reading agreement, McGrath asserted that “she is simply one of the finest short stories alive . . . .” McGrath and his colleagues in the fiction department at the magazine were, given what they saw every day, in a position to assess Munro’s stories comparatively. They found the first stories of hers—stories that ultimately became part of Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) / The Beggar Maid (1979) and The Moons of Jupiter (1982)—to be both of an extremely high quality and also a bit coarse in their depiction of class. These qualities made Munro, very quickly, very much a New Yorker author. When the Nobel Prize was announced in 2013 the New Yorker republished “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (1999-2000), one of her most powerfully affecting late stories, as a tribute to her as one of theirs.

Read sequentially, Munro’s stories reveal a deepening complexity combined with an ongoing familiarity—the place, now often called “Alice Munro Country,” the characters with histories similar to Munro’s own, echoing details of her own life, though not emphatically, and assuming the larger culture. During the late 1970s Munro began thinking about what she called “a family book,” one made up of researched family history, memoir, and short stories based in personal experience. That book, The View From Castle Rock (2006), gestated for almost thirty years and, quite literally, now should be seen as a synecdoche for the whole of Munro’s career. Similarly, the “Finale” which ends Dear Life (2012), the collection which is probably Munro’s last, takes readers back with daunting precision to some of the stories found in Dance of the Happy Shades. That is, throughout Munro has used the life she has lived to wonder over and to probe that life, to shaped powerful stories which, as they conclude, recreate feelings and understandings of being itself. Munro writes narrative, as Dennis Duffy has asserted, and ultimately whether her stories are based on research, memory, or imagination is irrelevant. They are as real as anything is, both in affect and effect.

In what ways do you think Munro negotiates literary influence and inheritance?

Munro has always generously acknowledged the influences she has felt—the writers of the American South, most especially Eudora Welty and her The Golden Apples (1949), Willa Cather, and William Maxwell are prominent. In 2010 Munro called the latter “my favourite writer in the world” and, just after his death in 2000, revised an earlier essay of hers for inclusion in a tribute volume, deepening it and making her appreciation and felt influence evident. As she has written on too, Munro has revealed a deep erudition in allusion and reference—to literary inheritance generally, but to classical literature in particular in stories such as “White Dump” (1986), “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” (2001), and “Chance” (2004).

More recently, influence has gone the other way, with a generation of writers acknowledging Munro’s influence. I’m thinking of writers like Carol Shields, Lorrie Moore, and Cheryl Strayed, but there are many, many more. Pedro Almodóvar, in a recent New Yorker profile connected to his just released Julietta, a film based on Munro’s “Juliet Triptych,” calls her “the mistress of simplicity.” Simple and quotidian as to characters and lifestyle, perhaps, but as Almodóvar well knows, stories revealing a deep complexity and understanding.

You have published a number of works related to Alice Munro, including the 2005 biography Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives and 2016’s Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013. What was the impetus behind this new collection of essays?

Actually, I was able to revise and update Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives in 2011 when Emblem brought out the trade paperback as a Douglas Gibson Book, so I have continued writing Munro’s biography—when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, I wrote the biography found on the foundation’s website. Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013 is a contextualized selection of my own critical essays. Through a newly written introduction, historical inter-chapters, and an afterword I address Munro’s growing critical reputation over time. Because she writes stories only, and because the relations between and among them are complex, Munro’s work has proved difficult subject for the critical monograph.

“Owing to the Nobel, the collection appeals to a worldwide audience and also highlights late Munro, the three volumes under consideration foremost in cementing her stature.”

The impetus for Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Runaway, Dear Life was to offer original scholarship focused on three of Munro’s most frequently taught collections within the Bloomsbury Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction series. Owing to the Nobel, the collection appeals to a worldwide audience and also highlights late Munro, the three volumes under consideration foremost in cementing her stature.

The book explores a broad range of themes and topics. Could you say a little bit about that?

While critics seldom agree in the relative placement of collections, few would dispute that the three collections offered here, with each receiving attention from three critics after my overview introductory essay, are among Munro’s most evocative and best. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) is a volume in which each story is both unique, reading and teaching well, and also compatible with the others found there. This is especially so about the title story and the frequently analysed  “Family Furnishings” (2001)—destined to entitle of the second volume of Munro’s selected stories—and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a story which served as the basis of a much-praised film, Away From Her (2007). With Runaway (2004), the volume which contains the “Juliet Trilogy,” Munro offers stories which are among her most indeterminate and allusive, with stories such as “Passion,” “Powers,” and “Runaway” receiving considered critical attention here along with the Juliet  stories. Dear Life, finally, shows Munro returning to earlier concerns and subjects—some as far back as the late-1950s—and offering a self-conscious “Finale” which returns her to her beginnings and to familiar subjects.

For newcomers to Munro’s writing, can you recommend a place to start?

Both selected volumes of Munro’s stories, Selected Stories (1996) and Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 might be taken up in this way, although if a person would like to begin with one of Munro’s own collections, I would suggest The Progress of Love (1986). In this book the stories complement one another in an evident emerging complexity.

What’s next for you?

I have Munro essays, drafted and delivered, at hand and in need of revising. Also, I very much hope to write an extended study of The View From Castle Rock, contextualized within the whole of Munro’s life and career. As a critic, I do believe it will prove to be seen as a central, even the crucial, Munro collection. It was so long in the making, coming as it did from a writer who herself so long in the making. There is also the possibility of a shorter Munro biography for the international market.

Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Runaway, Dear Life is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Editor

Robert Thacker is Charles A. Dana Professor of Canadian Studies and English at St. Lawrence University, New York, USA. His many previous publications include Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives – A Biography (2005).

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