AUTHOR: Alice Munro

She writes of turkey gutting and fox farming, of trees felled in the Ontario wilderness, of harsh country schools and lingering illnesses, of familiar violence and obscure shame, and above all, of the lives of girls and women. And while these things have perhaps made her less well known than she should be, and the predictable sods have been flung – that her concerns are domestic, narrow, regional, dated, that she only writes short stories – hers is a story of triumph over such petty assumptions. For a long time Alice Munro has been compared with Chekhov; John Updike would add Tolstoy, and AS Byatt would say Guy de Maupassant and Flaubert. Munro is often called the best living writer of short stories in English; the words “short story” are frequently dropped.

People tend to be surprised at how normal Munro is in person. “Writers often feel obliged to adopt some sort of public appearance. But she’s quite self-effacing physically,” says Claire Tomalin, who, as a Booker judge in 1980, made it a personal crusade that Munro should be shortlisted and met her then. But in life she is true to the voice of her fiction – restrained, observant, unpretentious, valuing directness and honesty. Then there is her laughter, frequent and joyous and subversive.

Alice Laidlaw was born on July 10, 1931, just outside Wingham, Ontario; the town and its surroundings have been a constant in her work (renamed Jubilee, or perhaps Hanratty). “I am intoxicated by this landscape, by the almost flat fields, the swamps, the hardwood bush, by the continental climate with its extravagant winters,” she wrote, introducing the Selected Stories (1996). “I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Wal-Mart, and Canadian Tire. I speak the language.” But they have also provided a very particular emotional landscape. “I really grew up in the 19th century,” she says. “The ways lives were lived, their values, were very 19th century and things hadn’t changed for a long time. So there was a kind of stability, and something about that life that a writer could grasp pretty easily.” Western Ontario, only settled in the 1800s, was steeped in the religions the settlers brought with them – Scottish Presbyterianism, English Methodism (known to render entire towns ostensibly dry, in the temperance sense), Anglicanism, Irish Catholicism – or subsequently developed from unions and subdivisions of the originals. Belief ossified into simple obedience and hard work, a threadbare, suspicious probity. It was “really terribly conservative, just a stranglehold, when I think about it”.

Munro’s father, Robert Laidlaw – a direct descendant of James Hogg, author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – was a solitary, a hunter and trapper, and, by the time Alice, the oldest of his three children, was born, a farmer of silver foxes. But he had started too late, with too little capital, and in the depression the farm failed.

Her mother, of Irish extraction and from eastern Ontario, was quite different; genteel, socially ambitious but oblivious to the subtle, tyrannical shadings of class and expectation in a town where the Laidlaws were felt to hail from the wrong side of the tracks. “We didn’t live in the town and we didn’t live in the country. We lived in this kind of ghetto where all the bootleggers and prostitutes and hangers-on lived,” as Munro later wrote. Desperate to fit in, she was embarrassed by her mother. “I had a lot of conflict with her,” she says, “from the time I was a very young child, because she had an ideal of good behaviour. She wanted her daughters to be successful, but also she wanted us to be sexually very pure. And ladylike; being a lady was very important. She wanted me to shine in a way I was not prepared to.” When Alice was 10, her mother was diagnosed with an unusual form of Parkinson’s, “and then of course the whole struggle became terribly difficult, because you were struggling with a sick person who, emotionally, holds all the cards “.

Alice’s first escape was into reading. “Books seem to me to be magic, and I wanted to be part of the magic.” She read and reread favourites, especially Wuthering Heights. “And after a while it wasn’t enough, and I started making up a very imitative type of story, set in Canada – which was kind of odd, but it didn’t bother me. It was a kind of recompense for not being able to get right into the world of the book. Books were so important to me. They were far more important than life.” But in Wingham, such tendencies “didn’t add to my status as a normal person or as an attractive woman. I learned to try to be a different person on the surface, though this never really worked. People saw there was something wrong.”

The next escape was to the University of Western Ontario; there, wishing to disguise her intent to write fic tion, she enrolled in journalism (rather blowing her cover by publishing her first short story, “Dimensions of a Shadow”, in the university magazine). A scholarship student, she eked out the money as best she could, selling her blood, picking suckers from tobacco, working as a librarian, but after two years there was no more and she was faced with a stark choice: marry – the candidate was a fellow student – or do the expected: go home and care for her mother. Self-preservation prevailed, but at the price of an abiding guilt. “My mother’s life was very sad, and if I had been a different person I could have made it quite a bit better. I mean, I have to realise that always. If I had been a different kind of woman, with more immediate warmth, instead of this inner fire, I could have been very helpful to her – not in physical terms, but in day to day communication, instead of leaving her all alone.”

Alice and Jim Munro moved to Vancouver, where Jim worked as a manager at Eaton’s, a department store, and Alice became a good 50s housewife, on the surface at least, she says. They had three children in quick succession (the second, Catherine, born without kidneys, died two days after birth); a fourth daughter was born nine years later. Sheila, the eldest, writes; Jenny is an artist, and the youngest, Andrea, is a yoga instructor. There are four grandchildren. The faultlines in the marriage were there from the beginning, and can be traced to an extent through Alice’s stories: the Jim figure is from a privileged family, snobbish and class-conscious, right-leaning where she tends left, proper in a way she could not be, sometimes overbearing in a way she could not stand. But he also gave her absolute love and support, emotional and material; their donning of traditional roles meant “a great pressure was off me, because I didn’t have to earn money”.

And she was reading “everything I had ever heard of, all the big books of the 20th century, almost”, discovering William Maxwell, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Sherwood Anderson, Ethel Wilson, Willa Cather; “I guess when I began to read American writers I learned a kind of directness in the voice.” But she was also intimidated. “My writing simply distressed me, it was so bad.” She feared the fug of maternity, and clung to what she called her “double life” – scribbling when the children took naps; keeping pieces short because it was too hard to concentrate for long; guilty that time spent writing was time taken from her family – and hated the Vancouver suburbs, where she felt isolated from any kind of writing culture.

Though in Canada, at that time, there was really no such thing anyway; those who wanted to write – Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence – left. “You cannot begin to imagine how much nothing there was, how difficult it was,” says Margaret Atwood, a longstanding friend. “We all started, of course, publishing on a radio programme, Anthology, put together by Robert Weaver.” Munro credits Weaver with being her lifeline, keeping her going when she might have given up. He wrote encouragingly even when she had nothing to send, and when in town took her to parties, where, Weaver noticed, “she wasn’t entirely admired or beloved”, especially by women writers. She was from eastern Canada (historically much resented by the west), beautiful, and, of course, talented. “I think they were jealous of her.” Told this nearly 50 years later, Munro laughs wickedly. “Oh good!”

The other problem was the scale of her ambition. “I went through about a year – I think when I was 29 – when I couldn’t finish a sentence. It was a time of terrible depression, about what I could do measured against what I wanted to do.” And what she wanted to do was write a great novel. A masterpiece, hopefully, to rival The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Sons and Lovers. “I can’t do it yet. And believe me, I’m always trying. Between every book” – there are 10 volumes of short stories, 12 with the Selected and an anthology published in Canada this year – “I think, well now, it’s time to get down to the serious stuff. Sometimes I look at novels and see how short people can make them. If I can string a story out to 60 pages [“The Love of a Good Woman”, 1998] surely it can’t be too hard. It doesn’t work.” It’s a sore point, and her agent and editors don’t mention it.

But then, in 1959, her mother died. Munro wrote a story called “The Peace of Utrecht”, about a woman returning home after her mother’s death from a Parkinson’s-like disease and guiltily, defiantly facing the sister who stayed (in reality Munro’s sister also left, for art school). It was a breakthrough: confronting the fact of her mother freed her into autobiographical fiction (or “personal stories”, as she calls them), into her particular voice and material – though it did not free her from her mother, who remained a fraught presence. “The problem, the only problem, is my mother,” she wrote in “The Ottawa Valley”, more than a decade later. “And she is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. To what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid, of her; and it did not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did.” (In 2001, Sheila published a graceful, affectionate memoir/biography, Lives of Mothers and Daughters. But it too contained the odd outburst. “There is something so out-of-proportion about having Alice Munro as my mother,” she wrote. “[She is] an icon … What is there to do with an icon besides worshipping it, or ignoring it, or smashing it to pieces?”)

By 1963 Jim had quit his managerial job and they moved to the smaller, prettier coastal town of Victoria in British Columbia, where he started a bookshop, Munro’s Books. Now housed in a beautiful, airy heritage building downtown, it has become a Canadian literary landmark, renowned for its quality and tenacity in the face of the big chains. Alice worked in the shop, and somehow, being out of the house and in the world also helped. In 1968 she published 15 years’ worth of stories, including “The Peace of Utrecht”. Atwood, who bought the book as soon as it came out, remembers the title story, “Dance of the Happy Shades”, “made me cry. Because it’s so well done”. The book won Canada’s highest accolade, the Governor General’s award.

“They called her a shy housewife when she won. It made her really mad,” says Jim Munro, who found himself congratulated for bearing up well. “She’s tried to live that down ever since, I think.” She soon discovered it was not just in Wingham that achievement and bookishness were viewed askance. “[Being] a woman writer,” says Atwood, “was still sort of like being a freak.” But Munro has always determinedly held on to her femininity as well as her ambition.

Munro’s next book, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), is called a novel, yet isn’t quite; it began as a straightforward coming-of-age story but despite Munro’s best efforts, “it didn’t have life. It didn’t have punch. Something about it was flabby.” So she split it up into linked stories about a girl called Del, coming of age in a town called Jubilee. “I read Lives as an exploration of the boundaries between fiction and reality,” says Atwood, “because in each of the stories the young girl takes up a certain kind of fiction or a story – sometimes it’s a novel she gets from the library, sometimes it’s the lurid National Enquirer type of newspapers, in one instance it’s a relative who’s writing an interminable history of the region. She takes each of these views of life and compares them to what she herself has observed and experienced and tries to fit them together – without success – and when she finally gets to the end it’s about her own attempts to write. It’s the education of an artist – the portrait of the short-story writer as a young girl.”

This last section is also something of a manifesto – or the closest Munro, a totally undogmatic writer, can get to one. “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum. It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee … what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.” Her subjects – or those who believed they were her subjects, the residents of Wingham – were not appreciative. They wrote wounded editorials and angry letters; attempted to ban her in schools; there was even a death threat.

But finally she was a published, and, in Canada, a fêted, writer. The family had moved, to “the last and grandest house, which I entered with premonitions of disaster”, as she put it in Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), a collection which, she told Sheila, “mined a shallower vein”. Munro was restless. And she was resonating to a broader restlessness, the promise of women’s liberation. Her conversation often circles back to the choices women have, the difficulties of reconciling nurture and ambition, marriage and independence, what has been achieved and what has not. “Neither situation is totally satisfactory,” she says regretfully. “But there was a time in the mid-70s when it was thought that with goodwill – from men – and strength in ourselves, we could do it. We could have both these worlds.” She and her daughters took to calling a (still-resentful) Jim an MCP (male chauvinist pig); they dressed in miniskirts, smoked joints; and in 1973 her 22-year marriage was one of the many 50s unions that ended, heralding five crucial years of change.

The first and most immediate effect, says Robert Thacker, an American academic who is writing Munro’s biography, was that “using the writing to support herself was more urgent”. Munro took jobs teaching creative writing, in British Columbia and then back in Ontario. There, she met a man she had known at university, Gerry Fremlin, a geographer, and over three martinis – or so the story goes – they decided to stay together. His mother was ill and needed nursing, so they moved to Clinton, Ontario, not far from Wingham.

She had meant never to come back. Wingham, 2,600 miles, 22 years away, had developed the hermetic clarity of memory. And “I have written about it and used it up”, she wrote in an uncollected autobiographical story, “Home” (1973). “There are the same banks and barber shops and town hall tower, but all their secret, plentiful messages drained away.” Her return, argues Thacker, forced a re-engagement with the place, and with the adult she had become. One of the furious letters from Wingham had asked, “Who do you think you are?” and subsequent stories obliquely answer the question. (Although this is not her usual technique, Who Do You Think You Are? (1978) is, like Lives of Girls and Women, a series of stories linked by a central character.) “[Rose] is an actor,” says Atwood. “So she’s moved into the life of art. And Munro also takes her further into a certain age – she’s grown up and married, and then it doesn’t work, and all of it is bounced off the Flo character, who has this extremely cynical and ironic and small-town Ontario view of her and of life and of everything else. So it’s about the attempt to dramatise, if you like, the tendency to overblow played against the tendency to undercut. Rose is the overblowing in the “Royal Beatings” story for instance, and Flo is the undercutting.”

“Royal Beatings”, in which tensions between a daughter (Rose) and step-mother (Flo) find a kind of release when the father whips Rose for presumptuousness, was another breakthrough story. Based on beatings she received from her father, and only written after his death, it also marked a shift in Munro’s reach. She had been taken on by an American agent, Virginia Barber, and “Royal Beatings” was sold to the New Yorker. William Maxwell, fiction editor for 40 years, had just left, and the New Yorker was looking for younger, fresher voices. “We wanted to be sure we weren’t getting stuck,” says Charles McGrath, then a young fiction editor at the magazine, now editor of the New York Times Book Review, “and Munro was certainly a good place to start. She dealt with emotion on a kind of raw and immediate level that I don’t think we had seen before.”

Since then Munro has published dozens of increasingly long, increasingly complex stories in the New Yorker, as well as in other magazines, and a collection every three or four years. “I think she has evolved into a much more interesting writer,” says McGrath. “I think her late stuff – and I don’t mean this in a kind of dumb, postmodern way – is often about the very nature of storytelling.” Daniel Menaker, who succeeded McGrath as the New Yorker’s fiction editor and is now editor-in-chief at Random House US, agrees. “She’s a very modern and experimental writer in the clothing of a classical writer. Like William Trevor, she penetrates through various narratives, sometimes about exactly the same events or subjects, and she keeps on parting the curtains for you until you get to the heart of what she’s doing. You get the feeling she’s trying to help you get at some true emotional psychological insight, but that often takes the form of a kind of philosophical surrender to the unknowability of people’s motives and characters, a dark existential uncertainty about what makes people tick. And this, it seems to me, is very important and very abstract – but doesn’t do justice to the liveliness and richness of her characters.”

In “The Children Stay” (The Love of a Good Woman , 1998) a woman leaves a stable, if uninteresting, marriage for an excitable theatre director. “So her life was falling forwards,” she thinks. “She was becoming one of those people who ran away. A woman who shockingly and incomprehensibly gave everything up. For love, observers would say wryly. Meaning, for sex.”

“Alice is the only writer I can think of,” says the novelist Audrey Thomas, a close friend, “who really, truly, examines women’s sexuality. And that’s one of her great strengths. I don’t think you come across it very often.” Sexual infatuation, especially, is “a very difficult subject”, says Tomalin. “She doesn’t write pruriently. She just writes it – I think any woman reading the stories which deal with that recognises them as truthful.” Carefully, directly, Munro conveys ecstasy and self-forgetting, mortification and benediction; and necessity, adds Thomas. “Now that may sound like a very old-fashioned statement, and a non-feminist statement – but I’m not sure that it is. I think everybody needs relationships. Men and women make arrangements.”

Munro “should probably be required reading for all men”, says McGrath. But, he hastens to add, “I think you can overdo the sexual politics. I would argue that she also writes very well about families, and relationships, and insofar as she’s doing that, men are implicated. At various points in the Munro universe men are the oppressors, or have tried to hold the female characters back – one certainly sees that. But she’s not a political writer, and she’s not tendentious.”

Munro has said women narrate their lives differently from men, and AS Byatt has argued that her stories enact the shifts and eddies, the switchbacks and sudden revelations of memory. “What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life – what do they have to do with it?” wonders Trudy, the protagonist of “Circle of Prayer” (1985). “They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing places. Is that all?” Trudy is thinking of two points: her honeymoon, and the morning her husband left her; such moments – of leaving, as Munro did, of infidelity, of irrevocable choice – keep recurring, and are key. In “What is Remembered” (2001), for example, a woman is unfaithful, yet decides to stay, to use what she has done not as a destructive, or a dramatic force, but – as Munro puts it in “Oh What Avails” (1990) – as a “sustaining secret”, a way of surviving. And that secret is also, of course, the difficult, fragile, fiercely protected fact of being an artist.

Although more recently Munro and Fremlin have spent the winters in Comox, British Columbia (where he skis), Munro has lived in Clinton for nearly 30 years now, in a modest house with a huge backyard sloping down to railway tracks, writing for two or three hours every morning, before “real life hauls me away”. She and Fremlin walk for miles through Ontario woodland – which Munro passionately wants protected against the expansion of corporate farms – but she is also social (“we scream with laughter” when we go out for dinner, says Atwood. “We’re a public nuisance.”). “One of the things about Alice that I have really liked,” says Thomas, “is that she doesn’t change. She doesn’t put on any side.”

But Munro is becoming increasingly aware of encroaching mortality. In October 2001 she underwent bypass surgery (her father died in 1976, after a heart operation), and when she is not smiling she looks greyer than one expects, more tired. “I feel some diminishment of power. But I’m not sure about this. Perhaps because I’ve been ill in the last few years. Or perhaps it is real. You can compensate, if you feel weaknesses, you can compensate in a way.

“After I wrote the last book, I thought I wouldn’t write any more, because I had the idea that I was going to become a real woman at last”. Which involves? “Having a lot of people to dinner,” she answers, laughing again. “I would be a regular nice person. The first thing I did was redecorate the condo where we live, and I enjoyed that – but here I am, drifting into writing things again, and wondering, is this the right thing to do at my age?”

Her agent and publishers may wear her down, but “I’ve decided there isn’t going to be a next book. I think there’ll be posthumous stuff, but I’m not sure that I will publish again. Before I had heart surgery I rewrote everything that hadn’t been published, so it would be around in a better version, and now I’ve rewritten some of it again. I’m really working out what will be here when I’m not here. As if that mattered! – but it does. It does to some extent.”

At the end of “Home” she paints a loving scene of the father in the story milking a cow, sitting in a pool of light but surrounded by “the dark circle of these country nights … You can see this scene, can’t you, you can see it quietly made, that magic and prosaic safety briefly held for us, the camera moving out and out, that spot shrinking, darkness. Yes. That is effective. I don’t want any more effects, I tell you, lying. I don’t know what I want. I want to do this with honour, if I possibly can.”

Alice Munro

Born: July 10 1931, Wingham, Ontario.

Educated: 1949-51 University of Western Ontario.

Married: 1951 James Munro, div. 76 (three daughters, ’53 Sheila, ’57 Jenny, ’66 Andrea); ’76 Gerald Fremlin.

Books: 1968 Dance of the Happy Shades, ’71 Lives of Girls and Women, ’74 Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, ’78 Who Do You Think You Are?, ’83 The Moons of Jupiter, ’86 The Progress of Love, ’90 Friend of My Youth, ’94 Open Secrets, ’96 Selected Stories, ’98 The Love of a Good Woman, 2001 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Awards: 1968, ’78 and ’86 Governor General’s Award; ’72 Canadian Booksellers Award; ’77 Canada-Australia Literary Prize; ’95 WH Smith Award; ’99 National Book Critics Circle Award and Giller Prize.


November 20, 2012

On “Dear Life”: An Interview with Alice Munro

Posted by 
munro-233.jpgYour new collection of stories, “Dear Life,” which came out this month, includes several narratives in which women in some way shake off the weight of their upbringing and do something unconventional—and are then, perhaps, punished for it, by men who betray them or abandon them at their most vulnerable. It happens in “Leaving Maverley,” “Amundsen,” “Corrie,” “Train,” and other stories. Even the aunt in “Haven” pays a price for a seemingly minor rebellion against her husband’s dictatorship. Does that trajectory seem inevitable to you—at least in fiction?

In “Amundsen,” the girl has her first experience with a helplessly selfish man—that’s the type that interests her. A prize worth getting, always, though she ends up somewhat more realistic, stores him away in fantasy. That’s how I see it.

In “Leaving Maverley,” a fair number of people are after love or sex or something. The invalid and her husband seem to me to get it, while, all around, various people miss the boat for various reasons. I do admire the girl who got out, and I rather hope that she and the man whose wife is dead can get together in some kind of way.

In “Haven,” there’s a very obvious “ideal wife,” almost a caricature, urged by women’s magazines when I was young. At the end, she lets herself be tired of it. —God knows what will come of that.

“Train” is quite different. It’s all about the man who is confident and satisfied as long as no sex gets in the way. I think a rowdy woman tormented him when he was young. I don’t think he can help it—he’s got to run.

In your stories, there is often a stigma attached to any girl who attracts attention to herself—individualism, for women, is seen as a shameful impulse. Did it take a great effort to break through that in your own life, and put yourself forward as a writer? Was it normal for girls from rural Ontario to go to university when you did?

I was brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was “call attention to yourself,” or “think you were smart.” My mother was an exception to this rule and was punished by the early onset of Parkinson’s disease. (The rule was for country people, like us, not so much for towners.) I tried to lead an acceptable life and a private life and got by most of the time O.K. No girls I knew went to college and very few boys. I had a scholarship for two years only, but by that time I had picked up a boy who wanted to marry me and take me to the West Coast. Now I could write all the time. (That was what I’d intended since I was at home. We were poor but had books around always.)

You’ve written so much about young women who feel trapped in marriage and motherhood and cast around for something more to life. You also married very young and had two daughters by the time you were in your mid-twenties. How difficult was it to balance your obligations as a wife and a mother and your ambitions as a writer?

It wasn’t the housework or the children that dragged me down. I’d done housework all my life. It was the sort of open rule that women who tried to do anything so weird as writing were unseemly and possibly neglectful. I did, however, find friends—other women who joked and read covertly and we had a very good time.

The trouble was the writing itself, which was often NO GOOD. I was going through an apprenticeship I hadn’t expected. Luck had it that there was a big cry at the time about WHERE IS OUR CANADIAN LITERATURE? So some people in Toronto noticed my uneasy offerings and helped me along.

“Dear Life” includes four pieces that you describe as “not quite stories … autobiographical in feeling, thought not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” (One of them, the title piece, “Dear Life,” ran in The New Yorker as a memoir, not a story.) These pieces seem almost dreamlike—fragmentary, flashes of half-remembered, half-understood moments from your childhood. Are they based on diaries you kept at the time?

I have never kept diaries. I just remember a lot and am more self-centered than most people.

Your mother plays a role in all four pieces. You said in a 1994 interview in The Paris Review that your mother was the central material in your life. Is that still true?

My mother, I suppose, is still a main figure in my life because her life was so sad and unfair and she so brave, but also because she was determined to make me into the Sunday-school-recitation little girl I was, from the age of seven or so, fighting not to be.

I was surprised to see you characterize this section of the book as the “first and last” thing you had to say about your own life. It seems that many of your stories have used elements of your childhood and of your parents’ lives. Your 2006 collection, “The View from Castle Rock,” was based on your own family history, wasn’t it?

I have used bits and pieces of my own life always, but the last things in the new book were all simple truth. As was—I should have said this—“The View from Castle Rock,” the story of my family, as much as I could tell.

You discovered, when researching that book, that there had been a writer in every generation of your family. Did you have a sense of that legacy when you were becoming a writer yourself, or did you see your aspirations as sui generis?

It was a surprise that there were so many writers lurking around in the family. Scots people, however poor, were taught to read. Rich or poor, men or women. But oddly I had no sense of that, growing up. There was always a hounding to master the arts of knitting and darning (from my aunts and grandparents, not my mother). Once I shocked them mightily by saying that I would THROW THINGS OUT when I grew up. And I have.

When you were writing in the early days, were there other writers you consciously modelled your work on, writers you cherished?

The writer I adored was Eudora Welty. I still do. I would never try to copy her—she’s too good and too much herself. Her supreme book, I think, is “The Golden Apples.”

How did you settle on the short-story form—or did it settle on you?

For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.

Often when I’m editing a story of yours I’ll try to cut something that seems completely extraneous on page 3, and then when I get to page 24 I suddenly realize how essential that passage was. The stories read as though you had written them in one long breath, but I’m betting that you spend a lot of time thinking about how and where to reveal what.

I do a lot of fooling around with stories, putting things here and there. It’s conscious in that I suddenly think, Oh, that’s all wrong.

Do you find writing difficult, as a rule? Has it got any easier over time?

I do and don’t find writing difficult. Nice bang away at the first draft, then agonizing fix-up, then re-insertions, etc.

A couple of times in the past decade or so you’ve said that you were going to give up writing. Then suddenly new stories have arrived on my desk. What happens when you try to stop?

I do stop—for some strange notion of being “more normal,” taking things easy. Then some poking idea comes. This time, I think it’s for real. I’m eighty-one, losing names or words in a commonplace way, so…

Though each of the stories in “Dear Life” has an openness—even a forgiving quality—the pile-up of regret and disorientation in your characters’ lives adds up to a slightly bitter conclusion. Few of these stories of women’s lives end without loss or sadness. I’m sure this is an irritating question, but do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

I never think about being a feminist writer, but of course I wouldn’t know. I don’t see things all put together in that way. I do think it’s plenty hard to be a man. Think if I’d had to support a family, in those early years of failure?

Is there a story in “Dear Life” that you have particular affection for? One that gave you more trouble than the others?

I’m partial to “Amundsen”—it gave me so much trouble. And my favorite scene is in “Pride,” the one where the little baby skunks walk across the grass. Actually, I like them all pretty much, though I know I’m not supposed to say so.

Photograph by Derek Shapton.

Read more:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *