Bringing Life to Life

A conversation with Alice Munro, whose stories are fueled by her fascination with the way people portray their own lives

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro
320 pages, $24

Alice Munro never meant to be a short-story writer. She'd aimed for sprawling novels, born of years of work and planning. But when it came down to it, there just wasn't time. "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," she once wrote in an introduction to one of her short-story collections. As a young author taking care of three small children, Munro learned to write in the slivers of time she had, churning out stories during children's nap times, in between feedings, as dinners baked in the oven. It took her nearly twenty years to put together the stories for her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968 when Munro was thirty-seven. Since then, she has published ten other books, including her acclaimed latest, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and has become known as a master of the short-story form. "With magical economy," a Washington Post reviewer wrote in 1998, "she sketches the contours of a life or a complex relationship, but it's a detailed portrait—with subtle shading and deep perspective—rather than a mere suggestion... Her stories are probably unrivaled in their fullness."

As in her other fiction, the nine stories in Hateship, Friendship... are set in her native Canada, often in small, provincial towns similar to her own childhood home of Wingham, Ontario. They are, for the most part, stories of women—their desires, regrets, strengths, and weaknesses. On subjects ranging from a torrid love affair to a terminal illness to a cruel teenage prank played on an older, lonesome woman, Munro's stories explore the lavish life of the mind, and the effects one's inner perceptions can have on the world outside.

When I spoke with Alice Munro by phone from her daughter's house in Calgary, she and her husband were on their way to Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada, where they live for five months each winter. She was also only a few weeks past heart surgery—a procedure she mentioned only in reference to the delay it caused her cross-country drive. "We're late this year because of my surgery—we're not usually going out when we're ducking snowstorms," she told me. "But I just can't give up this drive. We've been driving through the same towns for years, and noticing what happens. It's like a time when you drop out of your life and into just being an observer." It is a role she knows well, and a skill she has honed over a lifetime of writing.

—Cara Feinberg

Alice Munro
Alice Munro   

In your introduction to one of your earlier collections, Selected Stories, you say your stories have, over the years, "grown longer, and in a way more disjointed and demanding and peculiar." Why do you think they've evolved this way?

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.

You said your stories tend to break the rules. How so?

Well, I have an idea. Some of the stories I admire seem to zero in on one particular time and place. There isn't a rule about this. But there's a tidy sense about many stories I read. 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.

I noticed that in many of your stories, particularly in this newest collection, your characters revisit an event from the past—from adolescence or even childhood. Can you speak more about time as a topic in your work?

Maybe I should say that memory interests me a great deal, because I think we all tell stories of our lives to ourselves, as well as to other people. Well, women do, anyway. Women do this a lot. And I think when men get older they do this too, but maybe in slightly different terms. I've listened to men talking, and they will tell about their lives in terms of times of trial—hunting trips, war experiences, times they told off a policeman. And women... well, of course women will do childbirth, and they will do illnesses, and what it was like with the children. I'm probably talking of women my age, for whom that was the major content of their lives. But they also seem to be looking for some big emotional story. They think about former marriages or love affairs and sort of make them into stories the way men will make the hunting trip into a story. What interests me is how these stories are made—what is put in at different times in your life, what is left out at different times, and how you use the stories to see yourself, or sometimes just to make life bearable for yourself. Very few people seem to want to see their lives in terms of one pointless thing after another.

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.

In "Family Furnishings," a story from your new collection, you write about a girl discovering her passion for writing, and her aunt's dismay when she finds herself as a character in one of her niece's published stories. Did this story come from your own experience?

No—none of that actually happened, but it's certainly true that when I was young, writing seemed to me so important that I would have sacrificed almost anything to it. And sacrificing somebody like a cousin was not a big problem. Because I thought of the world in which I wrote—the world I created—as somehow much more enormously alive than the world I was actually living in. And I think many writers do that. As you get older your rampaging need to write diminishes a bit. You have to face the amazing fact that you're probably going to die, at some time, anyway. So everything you do in your life then seems more relative because it's just part of your life.

Have you had an experience where people in your own life recognized themselves—rightly or wrongly—in your stories and confronted you about it?

I had an experience where some people thought they were in a story where they weren't, and were very, very upset about this. And you know, in the small town where I grew up people didn't read much—when I started publishing, anyway—and so they weren't accustomed to the first-person mode. So when you wrote a book that said, "I," then they tended to read it and say, "Who was this and when did she do that?" My father said, "She must have used her imagination, because as far as I know, she never had any boyfriends."

Actually, I'd wanted to ask you about the setting of your stories. You're famous for writing about a particular region—Western Ontario—and I wondered what your reaction was to being called a "regional writer."

I don't mind at all if being a regional writer means being someone like Eudora Welty. To me, the region is important just because I feel it so vividly, but I don't think I'm writing experiences that are limited to that region. I think if I had grown up somewhere else on the continent, I would be using that as my setting, and perhaps certain things about the characters would be different. In "Family Furnishings," which is a story that goes back to my childhood and adolescence, certain things that impinge upon that girl are peculiar to the community she lives in. But the story is not. When I read, for instance, Edna O'Brien's stories of her youth in Ireland, I feel a tremendous connection. I don't really think the main thing about a story, ever, is to bring a region to life. I think it's just to bring what you know of life to life. And people have regions everywhere—some regions may not be seen as regions. For instance, another important Canadian writer, Mordecai Richler, who recently died, wrote mainly about Jewish life in Montreal, which is a village. I mean, he was writing about a kind of village, and I think we all have villages.

What other writers have influenced you? The title story in your new collection brought to mind Flannery O'Connor, but you didn't take it in the direction of tragic hero.

No, no. And that's something I think is growing on me as I get older: happy endings. Events can take any turn, and sometimes it's a lucky one. Of course I'm not pretending that the title characters, Johanna and Ken, lived happily ever after, but I imagine they got along. And presumably, life would be somewhat better for both of them. So, I have noticed this tendency in myself. I think some of the reviewers have said that as well, but in a rather disconcerted way.

As for who influenced me, you hit the right place in the beginning. When I was in my twenties, I read Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty. Eudora Welty held my greatest admiration. But I read almost everybody in my twenties, as people do. I felt it necessary. And very few novels defeated me. I'm now reading The Brothers Karamazov over again, because I find there was so much I missed when I read it when I was young. I didn't read the parts about money then. I only read the parts about emotion. You know, when it got to money, well, I just skipped.

You may be one of the few to admit not having read it cover to cover, though not the first person to—

...have actually done so! Yes, it's true.

But I should also mention Chekhov. 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.

You once wrote a wonderful descriptive essay about how you read stories. You said, "A story is not like a road to follow ... it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows...."

That's true. I wrote that piece as an introduction, I think, or an essay for a friend of mine. At first, I didn't know what to write about at all, because I hadn't really thought about what a story was. But then I thought about the way that I read, which, as I said in that essay, is going into the story anywhere. I can tell in a couple of sentences how I feel about a story. Then, I go on reading, and I read frontwards, backwards, all over. It is just like being enclosed in the story and seeing things outside the story in a different way—through the windows of that house. And it's not at all like following a path to see what happens. Quite often, I know what happens as soon as I start reading it. Maybe not the twists the plot will take, but the real story. In my story "Hateship, Friendship..." the plot is rather important, but often in a story the plot really isn't the most important element.

I suppose this speaks not only to how you read, but to the way you write. Your stories tend to be less plot-driven, with "Hateship, Friendship..." perhaps being an exception.

Yes, but even there, when I started to write it, I began with the girls writing letters. That's the way the whole thing started originally. But then, when I picked it up later and looked at it the second time, I just wanted to start it somewhere else—which I did in the final version.

I'd like to talk a bit about the form and structure of your writing. You are one of the few successful writers on the continent to make your name by publishing only short stories. What draws you to the short-story format?

I did write Lives of Girls and Women, which is kind of a novel, but it's in sections like stories. 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.

I do think of some of your later stories as novella-like.

Yes, I think so too. That may be what I go on writing.

Let's talk a bit about the children in your stories. In "Hateship, Friendship..." the children changed the entire trajectory of an adult life. And in the other stories in your collection, the things that happen in childhood are by no means insignificant. Children are real, full characters who lead lives full of emotion and heartbreak.

Yes, yes. I think in my case, and in the case of many writers I've read, childhood events are really never lost or discarded. They may be seen in many different ways, but never lost. Maybe for some people they are. But something about writers makes them want to recall these things, even if they are quite unpleasant, devastating things. Not in the sort of way where you get free of them or make them better, but to find out about them, to see what was really going on. This is tremendously important to me. I never think in terms of making myself a better person. I mean, recalling stories is not like what you might do with a therapist. It's just exploring, taking out the layers of things, trying to see.

Would you say this clarity is something you achieve when you're thinking up a story, or through the actual process of writing?

Oh—when I decide to write about it. When it comes to me that this is something that I want to write about. That means that I'm in this discovery process. Most people I listen to think about their lives in terms of, "Wasn't this funny, what happened to me?" "Wasn't this awful, what happened to me?" And I do too, you know? Originally, it's something you're just looking at from your point of view. But then when I start to write about it, it becomes quite different.

Many of the young characters in your stories tend to be very wise, maybe even wiser than the adults around them. We rarely see the children in your stories as sublimely ignorant, and I wondered if this was more a comment on the children or the adults who populate your stories?

I suppose it's just a memory. I never remember being innocent. I always remember things being very complicated. Mostly I remember having a self as a child who was completely hidden from the world of adults and teachers and people around me. But that may have something to do with the generation and the place. But the earliest thing I can remember is the need to protect, the need to hide, the need to disguise. And this is so your self will not perish. Sometimes even now I think about the way children are treated. So much is done in terms of manipulation, not punishment, as would have been done with me. You know, not letting them alone with the things that have happened to them. This is perhaps the viewpoint of my age. I'm surprised when people want to protect children from horrific things, from knowledge of them happening. Or when grief counselors or trauma counselors rush in to somehow get the children through. Well, I'm surprised about that in human life in general. So many experiences seem to have to be dealt with, gotten through, as if unhappiness and loss were not natural. I haven't actually talked about this before.

No, but it's very relevant. Particularly since September 11.

Yes. I was surprised to hear a woman say that she had told her little children stories about it, because the children were four or five years old. She told them stories about people blowing up firecrackers or something. I thought, it's very strange. I thought, are the children doing the exact same thing that I did—keeping their own conclusions to themselves?

It's interesting to hear you talk about the very understandable need to protect yourself—and then to read such revealing stories in your collections.

Well, I got over it—I really did. When I first started to write I wrote imitative stories, the way everybody does. But then I started writing my own material, and even if it isn't autobiographical, it seemed this exploration was the only thing I wanted to do, and to keep doing. Otherwise, I wouldn't write. It is no good to go into writing and to think, "I'm not going to mention that because it isn't very nice."

Many of your later stories, particularly in this new collection, deal with the heavy themes of loss, illness, and death.

Well, I take from what I learn as I grow older. I'm more apt now to have friends who are dying from cancer, or people who have to go into a nursing home. I mean, I'm not really into that yet, but it's starting to be there. There's a story in my new collection called "What is Remembered," where a woman is looking back on her single love affair, or fling, and her husband has died. And this has an effect on how she looks back.

But your stories, despite these themes, are never maudlin. Even in "Floating Bridge," a story about a woman with cancer, you have her more worried about the responsibilities of returning to the real world after her last treatment than the pain of her disease.

Oh yes, I hope they're not maudlin. I do look at things differently now. When I was thirty, if I'd tried to write about someone dying of cancer, I would have been overwhelmed by the tragedy of it. Just growing older has an effect. It's the simple experience of where I am in life.