Why Alice Munro Is a Short-Story Writer, Not a Novelist

Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, told The Atlantic in 2001 that she was a busy woman who liked to let her stories decide their own futures.
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Alice Munro in 2002. (AP / Paul Hawthorne)

This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian author and the 13th woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Good timing: Munro also told The New York Times this summer that she may be done with writing altogether.) In its announcement, the Swedish Academy called Munro, 82, the "master of the contemporary short story," highlighting the fact that she, unlike most Nobel Prize laureates, does not write novels. 

Back in 2001—long before she woke up to a particularly exciting voicemail message about her good news—Munro spoke with The Atlantic’s Cara Feinberg about how she fell in love with the format. One reason she was drawn to it was simply its convenience: As Feinberg points out, one of Munro's story collections begins by saying, "A child's illness, relatives coming to stay, a pile-up of unavoidable household jobs, can swallow a work-in-progress as surely as a power failure used to destroy a piece of work in the computer." Though she started writing as a teenager, Munro raised three children while helping her husband run a bookstore, which may explain why Munro didn't publish her first collection until she was 37. But as their full conversation illuminates, there's more to being a short-story writer than simply being pressed for time.

Here's Munro on how she first started writing short fiction:

So 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. But I still didn't write a novel, in spite of good intentions.

She also told Feinberg that she often took an unconventional approach to the format.

In my own work, I tend to cover a lot of time and to jump back and forward in time, and sometimes the way I do this is not very straightforward. I feel that this is something that people may find they have to adjust to, but it's a way of saying whatever it is that I want to say, and it sort of has to be done this way. Time is something that interests me a whole lot—past and present, and how the past appears as people change.

Munro is often referred to as "the Canadian Chekhov," so perhaps it's no surprise she cited the Russian writer as one of her influences.

All short story writers say Chekhov, but really, he was terribly important to me. All kinds of writers of short stories come into this. William Maxwell's my favorite North American writer, I think. And an Irish writer who used to write for The New Yorker called Maeve Brennan, and Mary Lavin, another Irish writer. There were a lot of writers that I found in The New Yorker in the fifties who wrote about the same type of material I did—about emotions and places. There were so many other people who I'm just not thinking about right now. I read all the time, and I'm often struck by something I'm reading.

She also explained to Feinberg why she's never been one to plan out stories before she writes them:

You know, I'm not sure why this has happened, because when I'm writing a story, I don't really analyze it. But once I've got the story finished and I begin doing things with it, I think that in many ways what I've written breaks all the rules of the short story. This occurs to me, but not with any particular regret; I figure I can only write what interests me. So I don't try to do anything to make it a more regular story. In fact, if a story wants to go in a particular direction, I let that happen. I just put it out there and see what it does.

Read the full interview here.

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Nolan Feeney is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Entertainment channel. 

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