When Alice Munro’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning short story collection The Love of a Good Woman was published, we had the chance to sit down with her for a chat. The result was a rare glimpse into the mind of a master, as we learned about her influences and her love of the short story form, and even got a bit of writing advice.
Read the full interview below, and click here to read an author bio and browse a complete list of titles by Alice Munro available from Random House . Munro’s latest short story collection, Too Much Happiness, is currently available in hardcover from Knopf.
A Conversation with Alice Munro
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: Where do you get the idea for a story or for a particular character?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: What advice would you give to young writers?
A: 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.
Q: What writers have most influenced you and who do you like to read?
A: 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.
Q: Cynthia Ozick has called you “our Chekhov.” How does that comparison make you feel?
A: 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!
Q: Many critics have praised you for being able to create an entire life in a page. How do you achieve such a feat?
A: 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.
Q: 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 stories?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: Do you have a particular story or stories that are especially close to your heart?
A: 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.