A Conversation with Alice Munro
What draws you to short stories as opposed to novels? What do you find
that the shorter form enables you to do that a novel perhaps would not?
I seem to turn out stories that violate the discipline of the short
story form and don't obey the rules of progression for novels. I don't think
about a particular form, I think more about fiction, let's say a chunk of
fiction. What do I want to do? I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned
way--what happens to somebody--but I want that 'what happens' to be delivered
with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the
reader to feel something is astonishing--not the 'what happens' but the way
everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.
Where do you get the idea for a story or for a particular character?
Sometimes I get the start of a story from a memory, an anecdote,
but that gets lost and is usually unrecognizable in the final story. Suppose you
have--in memory--a young woman stepping off a train in an outfit so elegant her
family is compelled to take her down a peg (as happened to me once), and it
somehow becomes a wife who's been recovering from a mental breakdown, met by her
husband and his mother and the mother's nurse whom the husband doesn't yet know
he's in love with. How did that happen? I don't know.
What are your writing habits--Do you use a computer? Do you write every
day? In the morning or at night? How long does it take to complete a story?
I've been using a computer for a year--I'm a late convert to every
technological offering and still don't own a microwave oven--but I do one or two
drafts long hand before I go to the keyboard. A story might be done in two
months, beginning to end, and ready to go, but that's rare. More likely six to
eight months, many changes, some false directions, much fiddling and some
despair. I write everyday unless it's impossible and start writing as soon as I
get up and have made coffee and try to get two to three hours in before real
life hauls me away.
What advice would you give to young writers?
It's not possible to advise a young writer because every young
writer is so different. You might say, "Read," but a writer can read
too much and be paralyzed. Or, "Don't read, don't think, just write,"
and the result could be a mountain of drivel. If you're going to be a writer
you'll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing
something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you
want it to be better, and even when you get old and think "There must be
something else people do" you won't quite be able to quit.
What writers have most influenced you and who do you like to read?
When I was young it was Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Katherine
Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, James Agee. Then Updike, Cheever, Joyce Carol
Oates, Peter Taylor, and especially and forever, William Maxwell. Also William
Trevor, Edna O'Brien, Richard Ford. These I would say are influences. There are
dozens of others I just like to read. My latest discovery is a Dutch writer,
Cees Nooteboom. I hate doing lists like this because I'll be banging my head
soon that I left somebody wonderful out. That's why I speak only of those who
have influenced, not of all who have delighted me.
Cynthia Ozick has called you "our Chekhov." How does that
comparison make you feel?
I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it's a humbling
experience. I don't even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all
of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light--there's no
striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, wouldn't I love to do that!
Many critics have praised you for being able to create an entire life
in a page. How do you achieve such a feat?
I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth--what clothes
they'd choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened
before and what will happen after the part of their lives I'm dealing with. I
can't see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I
want to give as much of them as I can.
Most of your stories have not strayed very far from home--your native
Ontario. What makes where you live such fertile ground for so many different
I don't think of myself as being in any way an interpreter of rural
Ontario, where I live. I think there's perhaps an advantage living here of
knowing more different sorts of people than you would know in a larger community
(where you'd be shut up, mostly, in your own income or educational or
professional "class"). The physical setting is perhaps
"real" to me, in a way no other is. I love the landscape, not as
"scenery" but as something intimately known. Also the weather, the
villages and towns, not in their picturesque aspects but in all phases. Human
experience though doesn't seem to me to differ, except in fairly superficial
ways, no matter what the customs and surroundings.
Memory plays a key role in many of your stories. What is it about the
power of memory and how it shapes our lives that most intrigues you?
Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories--and
telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly
manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these
edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose,
some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional
stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What could be more
interesting as a life's occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by
trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our
lives) and at the way people's different memories deal with the same (shared)
experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in
me feels an odd exhilaration.
Do you have a particular story or stories that are especially close to
I always like the story I'm trying to write at the moment the best,
and the stories I've just published next best, In my new book, I'm very attached
to "Save the Reaper" and "My Mother's Dream." Among the
older ones, I like "Progress of Love" and "Labor Day Dinner"
and "Carried Away" a lot. And actually many others.