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The Writing Life: Go Ask Alice
MINUTES from the shores of Lake Huron in western Ontario, three towns form an isosceles triangle, bounded by no more than 50 kilometers, that Alice Munro's readers may know well. Wingham (pop. 2,885) is where the author was born in 1931. Clinton (pop. 3,000) is where she now lives with her husband, geographer Gerald Fremlin, in the house in which he was raised. Goderich (pop. 7,500) -- Munro calls it "the most beautiful town in Canada" -- is the setting for much of her work. Here, where the mansions are dun-colored, the squirrels are black and the geese look slightly predatory, Munro and Fremlin take their constitutionals along the lake. It is a town with two dry cleaners, an evocative and imposing set of grain elevators, a restaurant called Bailey's and a used bookshop. "We don't get many of Alice's books," says the woman behind the counter in the bookstore. "Which is a good thing. It means no one wants to get rid of them."
This fall finds Munro at a peculiar crossroads. In June, at a fundraiser, she announced that she would not be writing any more stories. This makes bittersweet the publication of two new books: "Carried Away: A Selection of Stories" (Everyman's Library: 560 pp., $25), a retrospective that gathers 17 pieces from throughout her career; and "The View From Castle Rock" (Alfred A. Knopf: 350 pp., $25.95), a loosely linked collection of 12 new works. Yet Munro hardly seems ready for retirement. At 75, she remains beautiful, with bright, fierce eyes and quick, responsive bird-like movements. Her liveliness recalls that of an angry teenager. Munro continually refers to ideas for future stories and hatches new characters and sources of dramatic tension even in casual conversation. Still, she cautions, "If I write a bad story now, everyone would publish it. I have to be my own disciplinarian."
Munro and I meet for lunch at the Benmiller Inn, midway between Goderich and Clinton. Ben Miller was a wool baron in the early part of the 20th century, and Munro remembers going with her mother to get seconds and remnants and "wool ends." The family did not have much money. Munro's father, Robert, was a fox farmer and her mother, Anne, was a woman with an entrepreneurial flair who saved the family bacon at least once before developing Parkinson's disease. She died in 1959. "I was so ... weird as a teenager," Munro says over Sauvignon Blanc and trout, seated at a table overlooking a thin tributary of the Meneseteung River (memorialized in her story "Meneseteung") -- a burbling, almost happy strip of water lined with cedar and juniper in an otherwise wintry-grim landscape. "I was already deep into being a writer. I went to a dance. Nobody danced with me. This bewildered and annoyed me. I never went to a dance again."
Munro left for the University of Western Ontario in 1949. This is where she published her first story, "The Dimensions of a Shadow," in the college literary magazine. A year later, her story "The Strangers" was read on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s "Canadian Short Stories" program, and her career took off. It was a good time for young Canadian writers. The government was handing out scholarships and subsidies, regardless of gender or subject matter, in the hope of growing a generation of Nobel hopefuls. Munro cites the words of her friend and fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood, who contributes the introduction to "Carried Away" and has said that in Canada, at that time, writing was not considered a manly profession but was rather best left to women and schoolteachers. "My life has been tremendously lucky," Munro says. "If I hadn't gotten that scholarship to university, I would have dried up in Wingham. You can't be alone too long with your hopes and ambitions. I would have become a weird spinster."
In 1951, she married James Munro and began a two-decade effort, against all odds, to be a good suburban wife. She had four children. (The second, Catharine Alice, died the day she was born in 1955.) "There was huge social disapproval for women who listened to the news on the radio, much less would-be writers," she recalls. "I was trying to write all the time. I liked keeping house and being a mother, but it was the expectation that a woman should spend her free time going to coffee klatches and talking about nothing that bothered me."
AFTER a while, Munro began, quite literally, to feel as if she could not breathe. "I became neurotic. I knew plenty of women who wanted to accomplish things but didn't take the risk, wives of prosperous men, and they survived" -- implying that she couldn't have. Although her first collection of stories, "Dance of the Happy Shades," appeared in 1968 to great critical acclaim and won Canada's highest literary prize, the Governor General's Award, she couldn't help but have the I'm-not-good-enough feeling that had been so carefully drummed into her as a good Presbyterian child. "I became frightened," Munro says. And so she left. In 1973, she divorced her husband and with her two younger daughters -- her eldest was already 20 -- returned to Ontario from Victoria, British Columbia, where the couple had a bookstore called Munro's. "Divorce is good for women and bad for families," she says. "If you are a mother, your children have to come first. I didn't even have a checking account, but I was not afraid of poverty. In the '70s in Canada, it was not fashionable to have a lot of stuff anyway."
Munro thinks a lot about men and women. She feels just as passionately about things now, she says, as she did when she was younger, and it shows. "Do you remember Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf's book 'To the Lighthouse'?" she asks. "Remember that scene where she's trying to paint in the garden and that young scientist starts interrupting her, and the only way she can get him to go away is to compliment his boots?" We talk about other female characters in the literature we were asked to read in school: the terrifying Madame Bovary, destroying herself in Yonville-l'Abbaye; Anna Karenina, choosing between her happiness and her child; and the sacrificial lambs in D.H. Lawrence's stories and novels.
Munro does not regret the choices she made, nor does she seem proud of them. Her oldest daughter, Sheila, published a book in 2002 called "Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro," which was not quite "Mommie Dearest" but almost. For Munro, there was no turning back. She was glad to come home. "This is where I'll always live," she assures me as the light in the large dining room shifts and we move on to a second glass of wine. "I prefer inhospitable, 'Wuthering Heights' climates, essential gloom. As I get older, I get less poetic and more real."
Munro has always been happy to sacrifice breadth of venue for depth in her stories. She understood that living in and writing about the same place for 50 years would give her work a richness and texture, that it would mean peeling layers from the most ordinary people and events. Has she become a local hero? The museum has a Munro exhibit, and her house is on a tour given in the summer, but it makes her nervous to think of people she knows reading her books. Her grandmother's comments on her first story, written when she was 18, still echo in her head: "There's enough unhappiness in life without writing about it."
"The View From Castle Rock" was inspired by the book "Ancestors," in which William Maxwell (always and ever Munro's favorite writer) melds the lives of his forebears into his own. For her part, Munro takes readers back several generations to the Ettrick Valley, 50 miles south of Edinburgh, between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth, an area inhabited by shepherds and listed in the Statistical Account of Scotland (1799) as having "no advantages." She begins with Will O'Pharp, her fifth great-grandfather, a man who heard fairies singing his name, and his grandson James Hogg, a prolific letter writer, note taker and the author of "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner." From these and other bits of fact, Munro weaves a tapestry of stories that skip through generations, blending fiction and nonfiction, past and present. Some of these pieces are written in the third person, some in the first (Munro's characteristic voice). Efforts to separate the characters from their historical context or the author from the protagonist would be worse than futile. Foolish.
"When I was younger, I thought always of the personal life. But something happens when you get older. I was fascinated with the material and I felt privileged in comparison to their lives," Munro says about her ancestors, who came to North America from Scotland in the early 1800s, stopping for a while in Illinois before settling in Canada. "They would not like this book, however. I'm sure of it. Why? Because I am calling attention to myself in ways they would not have approved." Many of her books have been banned for their sexual content, in schools as close as eastern Ontario.
As for the use of fact to fuel invention, Munro insists that it's a big part of how fiction works. "Fiction is serious business," she explains. "You really have to think these characters through. You have to think about how people really live their lives and the compromises they make." She feels strongly that writers can't write fiction deeply about other cultures; they must write about what they know. Often, it is not until long after she has completed a story that she remembers which aspects had their roots in her life. "It doesn't matter who or what or why," she says, almost impatiently. "I am writing my version of someone, as unfair as that may be, since they have no way of responding."
As an example, she refers to a story from her new collection called "Fathers," in which a girl named Dahlia hates her father -- who beats her and her brother -- and dreams of killing him. "My father beat me," Munro acknowledges. "I didn't hate my father, but the beating puzzled me. In my family, you would never speak of these things. In this way, being a writer is a shameful thing. You lay out all this nakedness, all the things they have tried so hard to make clean."
Early on, Munro decided that stories, as opposed to novels, fit both her voice and her view of the world. (She has said that she thinks "in chunks of fiction.") Asked to elaborate, she says, simply, "I feel the tension in a short story more immediately than I do in a novel," although as a young mother, she "didn't have time to write anything else." Her only novel, "Lives of Girls and Women," was published in 1971.
After lunch, Munro takes me on a little tour of her landscape. We begin in Goderich, where she used to come once a summer with her family to swim in the lake. She is fairly active in the community and supports a women's shelter in Huron County. Then we move on to Clinton. At midday, the main streets of both villages look almost moribund, like movie sets of ghost towns. Brown leaves swirl in the middle of the crosswalks. The Beer Store seems by far the most active place. "I know," she says, laughing, "I'll show you the pride of Clinton." We turn down a side street, and suddenly we are face to face with a Las Vegas-style casino. A huge neon sign blinks in garish colors -- SLOTS -- surrounded by fake tropical, Hawaiian-style shrubbery. "It's not nearly as gorgeous in the daytime as it is at night," the author insists.
Munro had heart surgery in 2001 and, despite her sense of spirit, often says that she feels tired. "I hate to see the days getting shorter," she laments as we drive past houses in which she played as a child. We pass rough-hewn stone farmhouses surrounded by fields of mud so dark they look burned. Antiques stores line the roads, and signs bark: "Prepare to Meet Thy God!" Many driveways have large piles of wood waiting to be organized and stacked for winter.
Munro's house sits on a corner lot in town, a calm, cream-colored structure with a blue-green shingled roof and delicate fretwork on the eaves. You can just make out the figure of her husband at the kitchen table, waiting for her to come up the walk. Later, they'll have a light supper. She'll read her biography of Milton or maybe that novel by Kiran Desai. He'll look at maps and hum her a song that neither of them can seem to forget. The nights will get longer and colder and the smell of wood smoke will fill the air.