Beautiful Ruins

A Conversation with Jess Walter February 20 & March 16, 2010

Jess Walter followed a convoluted path into the literary mainstream: He was a newspaper reporter who became a nonfiction author who became a ghostwriter who became a mystery novelist who became a literary novelist who also writes screenplays. But no matter the genre, Walter’s work is stamped with vivid watermarks—prose that blends rapid-fire rants with unerring rhythm, a dark humor that has been called “standup tragedy,” an engagement with the political and social, and a devotion to storytelling. “The idea that plot is this ugly, brutish thing that we have to drape our beauty over is infuriating,” he says, “because to me, plot is this beautiful, elegant shape.”
His essays, short fiction, criticism, and journalism have appeared in Details, Playboy, Willow Springs, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. His nonfiction book, Every Knee Shall Bow, was a finalist for the pen Center West literary nonfiction award in 1996. His novel Citizen Vince won a 2006 Edgar Allan Poe award, and his following novel, The Zero, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award.
Walter started his career writing for his hometown newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, where he helped cover the standoff between Randy Weaver and federal agents at Ruby Ridge, in North Idaho—work that eventually led to the publication of Every Knee Shall Bow in 1996. His first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, came out in 2001, followed by The Land of the Blind, Citizen Vince, The Zero, and most recently, The Financial Lives of the Poets, which Time magazine called “a small masterpiece, a Wodehouse-level comic performance. But it’s also a deceptively amusing survey of the post-Fannie-and-Freddie American landscape, with a mother lode of bitter truths lying right below its perfect, manicured lawns.”

We spoke with Walter over two meetings at Spokane’s Davenport Hotel, which features prominently in The Land of the Blind. “It’s taken me a long time,” Walter said, “to arrive at a place where I feel like I’m doing the work I set out to do.”

Samuel Ligon How has your writing career evolved or developed since your start as a journalist?

Jess Walter:
It’s evolved accidentally, the way natural selection works in making platypuses. If you decided to become a literary writer by going into journalism and then ghostwriting and then writing mysteries, that’s the worst path you could take. I like to say I’ve taken the service entrance into literary fiction.
I started at the newspaper in 1986 as a junior in college. When Ruby Ridge happened in 1992, I started sending out proposals right away and I took sabbaticals from the newspaper to work on that book. Later, my publisher asked if I wanted to help write Chris Darden’s book on the O.J. Simpson trial. I was compelled by Darden’s Shakespearean angst. I teased him about it later, and called him “Black Hamlet” because I didn’t understand what he was so anxious about.
My publisher at the time said, “Would you be interested in helping him write his book?” In my naiveté, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ghostwriting. I knew it existed, but I didn’t realize it was an industry, so when she asked me to help him, I just assumed we were going to write it together. We sat down to negotiate, and I didn’t have an agent at the time. I sat across from his agent, his lawyer, and Chris, and they have this contract that says I’m ghostwriting, and I said, “I’m not doing this if my name’s not on the book.” They were like, “How big do you want your name?” I said, “I want my mom to see it from outside a bookstore window.” So that was the agreement, and then there was discussion about what the cover would say—“By Christopher Darden, as told to,” or “By Christopher Darden with”—and I said, “I don’t care about that. I just think it’s a lie to not have my name on the cover.”

Later, when I would do ghostwriting projects—I didn’t want my name on a book once I realized the stigma, and once it became clear to me that ghostwriting was not what I wanted to do. But that was the first ghost job, the Darden book, and again, it wasn’t strictly a ghost project, because my name’s on it. And also, this was a really intelligent guy, and I said, “We’re going to write this book together.” So we had two laptops, and we’d write sentences back and forth. It was collaborative. I moved in with him. And I feel…everything’s accidental, nothing’s planned, but I look at that early part of my career, the ghostwriting, which began with Darden and ended with the Bernard Kerik situation placing me at Ground Zero. I’ve got Ruby Ridge, the O.J. Simpson case, the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I kind of had a perfect fiction writer’s vantage to these cases that, for someone who loves satire and writing about the culture, turned out to be perfect training. It’s not the training I’d advise someone to undertake, and I was miserable through much of it, but it turned out to be a great track to the kind of fiction I wanted to write.

S.L. How have your books changed from Every Knee Shall Bow to The
Financial Lives of the Poets?

J.W. Each book I write is a kind of reaction to the last one. It’s a constant leveling and adjustment to try to make each book complete and full in itself. When you’re in a book, you’re not thinking about the next one or the last one, you’re only thinking about the one you’re in, but you bring the way the last one felt. My starting point is often, The last one felt like this, now I need to do that. Especially Over Tumbled Graves—I was stunned that everyone saw it as a mystery novel. I look back now and see that’s because it was a mystery novel. You put a serial killer in your book, people tend to treat it like a serial killer book. You eat one lousy foot, they call you a cannibal. But at the time I was writing it, I thought I was writing this deep literary novel that happened to have serial killers and cops in it. And then when it came out, that wasn’t the response. So, with Land of the Blind I thought, Well, I’ll nudge it over a little further. And with Citizen Vince, I think I was a little aware of the way these books were landing, the way they were received, the way they were perceived, the way they were put into bookstores.

There are all sorts of indignities along the way that cause you to do certain things. I remember I was excited to have a reading at Powell’s, this amazing bookstore. I told some friends to meet me there. I didn’t really think that two o’clock in the afternoon was a funny time for a reading at Powell’s. So my friends show up and I walk to the desk and say, “I’m Jess Walter, I have a reading here.” The woman at the counter says, “Oh, that’s a drop-in signing. What’s your book about?” And I said, “Well, it’s a kind of literary crime novel about a serial killer—” I didn’t even finish and she grabs the microphone and says, “Genre department.” This guy comes forward and my friends are standing right there and I’m thinking, Oh, this sucks!

S.L. Can you talk about the difference between “literary” fiction and
“genre” fiction?

J.W. I’ve often felt frustrated at the divide between commercial and
literary fiction, because to me, it hurts both. You can have this horrible writing in crime fiction because people only focus on plots, and they treat them like crossword puzzles. “Well, I knew who the killer was on page eleven! I’ve solved it! Why do I need to keep reading?” And when people complain about literary fiction, they say there’s not enough story. So I’ve always felt like there’s got to be some sweet spot in the middle you can hit. With Land of the Blind, I thought, Oh, I’m writing a coming of age novel, and I’m kind of melding it with this other thing, and it’s also a novel of ideas! You have all the conventions of crime fiction that I wasn’t following. There was no murder. It starts with a confession instead of the body, which is where you start with a murder mystery. I wanted someone to come in and confess to a crime that hasn’t actually been committed. And then it was a kind of twenty-five-year-long murder that began when they were children—it’s really about the way he treated this guy as a kid. So it was, in my mind, a coming of age novel disguised. Again, you hit what you think is some sweet spot and no one wants it. People really want crime fiction and they love those books. You mess with the conventions, they don’t understand why. I was making Subaru Brats—you know those little Subarus that were a cross between a pickup and a car? Nobody wanted those or there would be a bunch of them around today. And I made a great Subaru Brat, but I was the only one who appreciated it.

S.L. Do you think anybody succeeds in that kind of hybrid?

J.W. I think Richard Price comes closest. Once he established his literary
bona fides he could write crime fiction. Pete Dexter, because he won the National Book Award, can write a crime novel and have his position. John Banville wins a Booker Prize and can go write crime fiction. But it doesn’t work the other way. You can’t name someone who’s made a career as a crime writer who is then respected as a literary novelist.

Shawn Vestal: But after you won the Edgar for Citizen Vince, the next book, The Zero, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

J.W. When I say no one’s done it, I kind of think I’m the only one.
[Laughs.] And I don’t know that most people want to do that. It’s one of those Guinness Book of World Records things that no one else really wants to do. You stand on your head on a toilet for four years and you’ve done it longer than anyone else. It’s not a path a lot of people want to take.
brendan lynaugh Citizen Vince felt like more than a crime novel. Were you aware that you were turning a corner?

J.W. It felt like the kind of novel I wanted to be writing. I get really excited about thematic elements, probably more than I should, and more than most writers. I kept thinking, This is really about voting. That was the sweet spot I had always imagined between crime fiction and literary fiction—you know, that I could create characters that were hopefully deep and rich. There would be all these ideas swirling around, especially in the character Vince and in his monologues. I like ranting and riffing, and Vince could do that in a voice I was pleased with, and yet, I could still drape it over the conventions of a crime novel. I think it was more the sort of novel I’d imagined I would write all along. And it does feel like I turned a corner at that point. And then I moved on to The Zero and Financial Lives of the Poets.

lynaugh: You’ve mentioned having to teach yourself how to write a novel.
Can you remember big moments in that process?

J.W. I still feel like I’m teaching myself all the time, learning things and in a constant conversation with myself about what it is. The emotions of writing a novel, the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the loathing for what you’ve written—I described it in my journal at one point as the diary of a man living on the ocean who has no idea what tides are. “Oh my God, the water’s going out! It’s a drought! Oh my God, the water’s coming in! It’s a flood!” I couldn’t believe how seriously I took this. With every book I would say, “If this is not the worst thing ever written…I need to just throw this away and start from scratch.” And then the next day, I would say, “I may be writing a new kind of literature here. There’s a very good chance that my grandchildren will have to study this book. I should put a little note in there for them.” The grandiosity was stunning, and the lows were stunning, too

I think of it as this engine, these pistons going up and down. The process that I fool myself with is that I write the last sentence last, and so I’ll comb over the beginning so many times, but I can’t finish if I feel like there’s something wrong early on. I always have to go back and rewrite things. The moment I finish a novel, I always feel the same incredible high. My finishes are phony at first. I always have to go back through dozens of times, but that sense, when I write the last sentence and pull my hands away or clap my hands like a Vegas dealer, it’s thrilling. And then maybe a week later, or two days later, the crashing doubt comes back. I’ve learned now that I love almost every part of that journey. I even love the self-loathing. I think to separate the hypercritical self-loathing writer from the one who dreams of doing something beyond his ability is impossible and probably not even worthwhile. I don’t think you could have one without the other.

I just read David Shields’ new book Reality Hunger and now my debate and argument with myself is also with him. I’m constantly walking around, saying, “Well, take that, David Shields!” or “What about this, David Shields?” Which is great—to have a foil. But that book was remarkable and vexing in so many ways. I found myself walking around arguing with him, which is such a pointless thing to do. It reminded me of some drunk guy on the dorm floor you’re trying to argue with and he just keeps quoting Pink Floyd. You can’t win that argument. And other times, it reminded me of arguing with a girlfriend, because you say, “Well, clearly this, this, and this,” and she says, “But that’s just how I feel.” You can’t win that, either.

But it makes me want to debate those points, because I think it’s a really compelling case, a great read, and really powerful work. Because it’s a manifesto, it wants to make a case, and it’s a case I would certainly argue with. First, that narrative is dead, and that there’s some supplanting of it by a desire for reality. I think the reality that we’re really desiring is far more narrative driven than he’s letting on. We don’t really want reality. We want reality set in a certain narrative frame. What we really want is the Elephant Man. We want freak show. Reality tv is not like the lyric essay, which is the thing he’s arguing for. It’s like the Elephant Man. It’s the freakiest stuff you can imagine. That’s what we want to see on YouTube—glimpses of the freakish.

I find it illustrative that A Million Little Pieces was rejected as a novel, because you couldn’t get away with that shit in fiction, but you can, oddly enough, in this kind of hybrid nonfiction thing. So there’s the idea that fiction and nonfiction have blended in a way. That because history is subjective, that because memoirs only come from memory, because journalism has been proven to be imperfect, there should be no filter between fiction and nonfiction, which I find to be almost insane, almost a kind of academic trick in which you point to a swamp and say, “Look, therefore there is no land, nor water. They are only the same thing.” And you get there through some sort of “if or then” dialogue with yourself, and pretty soon, you’re trying to drive a boat through the desert. You can’t do that.

Just because there are places where there’s swampland doesn’t mean that there isn’t a desire and need and higher form for nonfiction and fiction. So that’s the argument I walk around having. Zadie Smith wrote about Reality Hunger—something like, “All right, Mr. Shields, read better fiction. You’re right. There’s a lot that’s dead with fiction. Now go read the good stuff, because those manipulations and tired conventions are exactly what good fiction tries to overcome and subvert and not fall victim to.”

S.L. You suggested that nonfiction can get away with stuff that fiction
can’t. Like what?

J.W. What was Tom Wolfe’s famous pronouncement? That fiction can’t
keep up with the real world? I think fiction has the responsibility of a kind of universality that nonfiction doesn’t. A good example is Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. His portrayal of Tourette’s is—to anyone who has nervous habits or tics or things—so real that it immediately takes you inside that condition. It’s brilliant for that. It isn’t just someone with Tourette’s spouting dirty words, which is what the reality television version would be. It’s a human portrayal of this thing that may be freakish to people who don’t have it, but through Lethem’s telling is a fully realized and human condition that we relate to.

S.L. You mentioned two North Korean pieces the other day, one fiction,
one nonfiction. What could the nonfiction deliver that the fiction couldn’t?

J.W. The first thing that pops into my head that the nonfiction delivered
was context. Both pieces had to do with the period of starvation in North Korea. Both had people making this sort of paste from tree bark that they would eat. In some ways, the nonfiction was more harrowing for its authority, for its truth, I guess. It provided context. I found out how many people starved to death during this period. And the nonfiction piece was structured almost like a short story, which is really interesting, because it was not a big societal piece. It was focused on one woman who had been a party believer and whose husband and mother and one of her children had starved to death. She’d finally made her way into South
Korea. And it was a narrative of these people starving to death, with the context that this was happening to the entire nation, the politics behind it, the seamless way in which those externalities could be brought in and not break you out of the illusion of the piece. You could come in and out of narrative and pure informative reporting, and I think when fiction does that—one good example is The Known World—it can be thrilling, but it’s also a really tricky thing. It’s an innovation of voice that when I see it, I’m kind of thrilled. That’s what this nonfiction piece was able to do.
The great thing about it, the thing I would probably agree with David Shields about, is that it did not require a movement at the end. It did not require some artful ending. It just ended. The woman went to South Korea. She lived with her daughter and she put on a bunch of weight. There didn’t need to be one last scene in which she goes out to the woods and strips some tree bark and takes it home because she’s acquired a taste for it. It was able to sort of just play itself out.

The short story (which hasn’t been published yet but is forthcoming in Playboy) by Adam Johnson was about an orphan in the same time period, who kidnaps Japanese tourists and brings them back to North Korea—kind of sanctioned by the army. The story is full of starvations, full of all this stuff, and the movement of it, the artful movement is really pleasing and yet you’re aware that that’s where it’s going. When it finishes, you have the sense of release of a story. You’ve been taken to this world and then released from it. And you’ve seen a full movement of character. You’ve seen something that wasn’t required in the nonfiction piece, a reckoning or a surprise or some other narrative turn; the stone was carved into a figure. And I think we know those effects and we know those feelings that we expect to get from both, and maybe that’s what Shields finds so thrilling about the hybrid style that he’s working in. To confuse those effects, to fire off these neurons when you expected those to be fired off, that’s what every fiction writer hopes to do—to not give you what you expect, but something that’s satisfying in some way and which you didn’t see coming.
ligon Do you think that the nonfiction was about a phenomenon that
occurred in North Korea and something systemic to North Korea, and the fiction was about a person?

J.W. It’s funny, because the nonfiction was about a person, and this
person was used to illustrate a condition within North Korea. And so the person was almost a way of viewing the larger context, whereas in the short story, the context was backdrop at most, or was a way to sort of narrow down on that person. You know the world you’re in. You’re in North Korea. It’s this period of hardship and starvation and that telescopes down on the individual, whereas the other one opens up the world that way. I do think those are both intriguing shapes and that they do very different things. Thank God for both.

lynaugh : Often in your books, the main character has some sort of disability the blindness in The Zero, and various characters in other books who can’t sleep the entire story. What does disability do for your novels?

J.W. I think everybody has some disability. I think that’s the condition
of being human. What happens when they’re more visible, more on the surface? You’re definitely putting pressure on. That’s what I like about crime in fiction. I like conflict that’s sharper and higher-pitched. And I like that within—I think it’s another kind of conflict, a conflict within the character, and the way in which the world deals with these people and they deal with the world. I guess it’s heightening that stuff.

I got a stick in my eye when I was five and had to train myself to look people in the eye, because when I was a kid I would constantly look down so that other kids wouldn’t make fun of me—so to me, disability is a very real state of humanity that I think we all have in some way. I think I use the vision and eyesight issues because that’s such an elemental and key way in which we deal with each other. I also think it’s probably an autobiographical desire of mine to try to explore this in fiction.
ligon In Land of the Blind, Clark lost an eye as a kid. In The Zero, Remy has
a problem with detached retinas. How does your experience of getting a stick in the eye when you were a kid move away from autobiography in your work and take on a fictional quality?

J.W. Autobiography is a tool of the fiction writer. I think that Land of the Blind is all about vision, about how Clark sees himself, how the world sees him. And the gaps within there. You become interested in those things in a really personal way, and then I think the thing to do with fiction is refine that interest, refine that sort of thematic push that you have in something until it takes on some meaning you weren’t aware of. I think you arrive at levels of meaning in fiction that you don’t always reach with memoir, that you might not reach with any other kind of writing because of the process, which forces you to go possibly deeper into character than you would with nonfiction or memoir. I think it forces you to create themes that are even more alive than a memoir would be. We’ve all read those autobiographies by generals or politicians, in which you think, “Were they even around for their own life?” They seem to be describing it as this series of achievements that have no motivations connected to them.
vestal You write about the newspaper industry in The Financial Lives of the
Poets. Do you think the decline of journalism’s had an impact on fiction?
walter It’s hard to not focus on the ancillary effects, where the review
is going to come from and things like that. I’ve always thought that journalism has been a great training ground for novelists. I would make twenty-seven percent of our novelists go work at a newspaper, because you learn to navigate these systems.

You cover any sort of politics, you cover crime. You begin to see the difference between public and private, the way people show themselves in public and the way they really are. You learn the mechanisms of a culture, how a courtroom works, how a police department works, how an election works. One of the ghost jobs I did involved a political campaign and these political operatives…. I’ve got these characters stowed away. They’re such great characters because they have insight into the hypocrisies that we know are there, but we don’t exactly know how they work. That precision, that journalistic precision, is something. Like Richard Price. He’s very much like a documentarian in that style. He’s in there, in those cop cars, in those projects. He’s working with those social workers, and to hear anyone describe his process, it sounds exactly like immersion journalism. So in that way, I think journalists can be outward-looking in their fiction; I think they can get beyond the limits of their own experience and imagination more freely because of their training.

Also, you write every day. You lose fear of publication. You know how to work on deadlines. But you also get out of yourself as a writer. You write something that is very utilitarian—people use it. It’s sort of disposable. I remember being in mfa workshops and people bringing their stories in and the angst of that room was almost too much for me to bear. They had so much invested and I never felt that.

At a newspaper someone is going to handle your stuff. They’re going to edit it, they’re going to change things. You learn to keep your stories separate from yourself. That’s valuable for a new writer because the fear of publication stops a lot of people from working, the idea that it’s got to be perfect. No journalist goes in thinking that they know everything at the beginning, and yet, today, as a fiction writer, you almost get more attention for your debut novel than the ones after. You’re expected to kind of arrive as this fully formed artist, and I know I wasn’t. It’s taken me a long time to arrive at a place where I feel like I’m doing the work I set out to do. I used to have an editor at the newspaper who would say, “All right, this is beautiful writing here, but you have three adjectives. We’re going to pick one. What’s the best one?” I was constantly pruning and looking for the telling detail.

Also, because of the constraints on space, I think journalists often write better paced fiction, which is the reason people love crime fiction and other potboilers. It’s not that people have bloodlust. It’s about pacing.
vestal Many of your books have humorous elements. What makes
something funny? And how do you use that toward a serious purpose?
walter One of the tics I’m trying to get away from is tending toward things
only because they’re funny. A few times, I’ll find myself so in love with something I thought was funny that it takes away from the narrative or it introduces something that strains credulity. Some of the humor in Citizen Vince I’m proudest of is the really quiet stuff. It doesn’t come out of absurdity. It just comes out of small character moments. I guess some of it is absurd, two guys in a witness protection program debating the pizza in town, but that’s also a complaint I’ve heard from every New Yorker who ever moved to Spokane, so it seems weirdly grounded, too. You don’t want anything to be a crutch. Plot has been a crutch for me, suspense has been a crutch for me, and sometimes I think humor is a crutch for me.

S.L. Plot seems to be one of the hardest things to talk about, and people
often ask writers, “Do you know the plot before you go in?” What do you know of the story before you start actually writing words?

J.W. There’s a fallacy that the story starts when you’re writing words. I
walk around with the idea, with the characters, with all of that stuff, until I think I may have a clear sense of what that story is—before I start writing it.

I’m going to digress a little bit. One of the frustrations I have with Shields’ book is that he keeps saying narrative is clearly dead, that clearly no one likes narrative. And it’s like, No! People are reading Dan Brown not because he’s a great prose stylist, but because of the narrative. Story is alive and well. People love it. And it doesn’t even have to be a new story. It can be the same old story. That central premise is totally wrong.

I loved reading Charles Baxter’s essay on rhyming action, because to me, there’s an artistic elegance in plot and story. There’s a sense among some people that there’s been an academic movement away from storytelling. There was a great essay—and I call it great because it was infuriating to me in so many ways—that blamed the Cult of the Sentence for the death of literary fiction, the much talked about death of literary fiction, the idea being that somehow, writers focusing only on the sentence as a unit of beauty and on the writing itself, have divorced themselves from what readers want. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but I have heard writers say, “I don’t want any story at all. I just want beautiful language.” And I think, first of all, Bullshit. But second of all, the idea that plot is this ugly, brutish thing that we have to drape our beauty over is infuriating, because to me, plot is this beautiful, elegant shape. And that’s what I get so thrilled about in writing. That’s what I got excited about with Citizen Vince, when I began to see this kind of movement of the character and the way the language and everything would reveal this movement that would take you to this place where you would have a feeling of completion. The plot of that story is inseparable from a kind of motion in which Vince lives in this town. He’s afraid someone has been sent to kill him from New York. So he goes to New York, where he’s assigned to kill the guy he thinks came to kill him. I love that movement.

lynaugh: In the plot of Citizen Vince, toward the end, there’s a withholding of Vince’s plan. Did you worry about that being too “devicey”?

J.W. I love device. When that comes about is when we go in Reagan and
Carter’s heads, the day that Vince comes home. If I’m showing those scenes, he’s on an airplane, he’s thinking, Holy crap, now I gotta go kill this guy. Or maybe I won’t. I’ve got a big decision. It would have been so static. The book is third person and there are plenty of other times in which you don’t exactly know what Vince is up to. You don’t exactly know what he’s doing at that card game until he tells Gotti why he’s there. So if it was the first time it had come up, it would have felt far more “devicey” and I probably would have been too embarrassed to do it. But instead, we’re looking at Carter and Reagan, who are doing a sort of thematic dance around what this novel is about, the idea of shadows following each other, and when we get back to Vince, he’s taking action and his thoughts are in the moment.

G.E. Some readers might feel there’s a kind of withholding in terms of
the vote.

J.W. Who he votes for? Maybe because I initially saw this as a screenplay,
I thought of that scene as a camera shot, like the famous tracking shot in Citizen Kane in which the camera rises and rises and rises. It’s one of the longest shots in history. It rises completely out of where Kane is
speaking. And so I imagined that same shot when Vince is voting, that you’d be centered over him and you’d be seeing the ballot the way he does and then all of a sudden, the camera rises and rises and rises so you could see the act of voting but you could never see who he voted for. I really did imagine that I turned my head when Vince voted and gave him the same privacy we all get.

S.L. What does it do for the novel that the reader doesn’t know?

J.W. If it was just a novel about a guy who became a Republican or
Democrat, what would that be worth? It’s about a guy who chooses as his point of redemption, his symbolic redemption, the process of voting, which is a really corny thing, and I knew it was corny the minute I thought of it. Am I really going to write a civic thriller? That’s what it is, a kind of civic thriller, but no one else gets to choose what our own symbols of redemption are. And for Vince, voting is meaningful. On the most basic level, not telling the reader who he votes for connects with a theme of the book, that it’s about this person choosing this thing we all take for granted and maybe see as empty or corny or whatever it is, and around that creating a new identity and allowing himself to change.

lynaugh Can you talk about other devices you’ve used?

J.W. Fiction writing can feel kind of meek sometimes, and if we’re going to run from device, if we’re going to run from things like that, it’s going to stay meek. Your job is to engage the reader. Sometimes to fool them awhile, sometimes to suspend something that you don’t want them to know for a while. Sometimes it’s to have the action interrupted by an em dash and not tell the reader what happened. Sometimes it’s to write something in first person. There are all different kinds of tools and techniques and I don’t know what makes them devices. But I like to be playful, and I like inventive styles of writing.

The book that nailed me the hardest in the last few years was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is a Russian nesting doll of a book. It’s a device at its very genetic core and I was thrilled reading it. I loved to see what could be accomplished.
I don’t have some bag of devices. But I certainly am constantly looking for something inventive to do with structure, with voice, with all of those elemental pieces of writing that combine to make the whole. So it might be a large structural thing. It might be a voice thing. It might be something that feels as “devicey” as having the action break at midpoint in The Zero and then having the character discover alongside the reader what’s missing. Which feels more blatantly “devicey,” but opens up the thing in a way that you wouldn’t have gotten if you’d written the novel straight. I think those kinds of formal inventions and devices and gimmicks can sometimes lead you to a place to discover not only what’s possible with the language and the sentences and paragraphs, but also what your story is about, what brought you to this. For me, when it works the way it did in The Zero, there’s not a lot of distance between the formal playfulness and the thematic drive that made me want to do it in the first place.

S.L. Why is withholding important to fiction? Can withholding ever
become cheap?

J.W. A lot of times, what makes something work is what isn’t there. We
know that with language, we know that with character, so why wouldn’t it be the same with story? Why wouldn’t the things that you choose not to put in be those things that kind of open the piece up?
When is it cheap? When you’re honestly assessing your own work and you worry about things, what I worry about is that I’ll sell the farm for a cheap gimmick. One of my favorite novels is Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, which occurs in reverse. It’s all gimmick. Does it work? Depends on the reader, but I love the inventiveness of it. And Martin Amis referred to that book in The Information, which is another great novel. In The Information, the novel that the protagonist has just written makes people nauseous and causes them to have strokes. Amis is writing about Time’s Arrow and people’s reaction to it.

You know your weaknesses and strengths as a writer, so I’m probably the worst person in the world to ask when a device becomes cheap, when it overwhelms the thing it’s working on, because I tend to like those. Maybe it’s because I read a great deal and I’m looking for something new and different. But I also think it goes back to the fact that I’m most interested in the elemental things, finding out what exactly makes voice, and then the large things, almost like a scientist. Science is interested in the very tiny and the huge, the universe and the subatomic. So I think that my concern with structure, with the fullness of things, makes me more prone to like those sorts of innovations.
vestal What are the similarities or differences between the Spokane in your
books and the real one? Or have you set out to capture the “real” Spokane?
walter I don’t know if William Kennedy said, “I’m going to capture
Albany.” You just tell those handful of stories that strike you, and then later, if they end up creating a full sense of a place, I can’t imagine it being anything more than accidental at best, because I never set out to create Spokane. I was a crime reporter, so I think I’ve probably created a much more downtrodden, crime-ridden, nasty-ass place than really exists, and yet, I think it’s a very real version of some of those places, too. The Financial Lives of the Poets is set anywhere, and yet to me, it’s so clearly Spokane. People write to me and say, “I think that 7-11 is right by my house! I live in Santa Monica.” “I think that 7-11 is right across the street, except it’s a Piggly Wiggly here.” So I think there’s probably something universal in what I’m envisioning as Spokane in that book.
vestal Vince makes a brief cameo—uncredited as Vince—in The Financial
Lives of the Poets, and it made me wonder if you had a sort of vision of a kind of world behind the immediately present world. Or a kind of network.
walter I think I do, and I think every author kind of does. I don’t mind
those things overlapping a little, but in no way do I think of that as some definitive portrait of the city. It’s just the terrain that I happen to be writing about. Usually when I’m done with a book—I don’t, for instance, wonder if anything else happened to Brian Remy from The Zero. Maybe Carolyn Mabry from my first two novels, I think there might be more to talk about there, but for the most part, I don’t feel like characters deserve a second novel. And though some of my characters have reoccurred, they’ve been fringe characters. I think it’s another kind of playfulness that made me sneak Vince in there. And the fact that I don’t call him Vince—because at the end of Citizen Vince he’s sort of gone back and claimed his early identity, which is Marty. But I also liked the wink at myself that ninety-nine percent of readers won’t get. When people do discover it, though—again, we talked about withholding—there’s a kind of withholding. I could have easily made it Vince and made it clear, but when people get it, it’s like this special thing between me and the couple of readers who have noticed it.

S.L. Does your fiction get anything from the place—Spokane—that it
wouldn’t get from a different town, like Tallahassee or Des Moines or Providence?

J.W. I think Spokane is one of the most isolated cities of its size in the
United States, and that its isolation casts a lot of different shadows. I think there’s a sense of isolation here that’s great for fiction. And yet the place doesn’t have an accent. It doesn’t have a special ethnicity. It’s a really general place, but hours from anywhere, which gives it a kind of lab quality. As if you could have any kind of experiment here that you wanted. There’s a lot of film work here now because it has that quality—it could be anywhere. So I think yes and no. Spokane could be Des Moines. It could be Providence. It could be the Lower East Side in certain ways, and yet, I think its isolation allows a lot of different things to happen. In thrillers, you’re constantly trying to get your hero alone, and if you think about it, cops always travel in at least twos, sometimes twelves, and yet, you’ve got to get to a point where your protagonist is alone facing whatever he or she is facing. I think that isolation from the rest of the world that Spokane has creates story possibilities. You
can have guys from the Witness Protection Program show up here and have everything they need. It’s kind of self-contained. Most cities of two or three hundred thousand are not self-contained. Most are outside bigger cities and this is like Pluto. I guess Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. It’s like Neptune, a small, distant planet. It doesn’t have moons. It’s in its own orbit.

ehrnwald What’s the difference between writing a screenplay and writing a

J.W. Screenwriting is so collaborative. It’s not the writer’s medium. It’s
a director’s medium and an actor’s medium. So that’s the first thing, the collaboration. Also, form is so important and so is economy. Form and economy are the two things you’re constantly battling, and I sort of equate the formal restrictions to poetry, not that I’m much of a poet myself. But I’ll start writing a poem and it’ll turn into prose because I can’t master the economy or the form. I’ve said before that scripts tend to be more external, more action-driven. They don’t have to be. You can have a voice-driven script. You can have My Dinner with Andre, all dialogue. So it doesn’t have to have action. You could have 110 pages of voice- over. It could all be internal. Didn’t they make Johnny Got His Gun into a movie? I think they did, which takes place entirely inside the mind of someone who has been maimed in battle and is unable to communicate with the outside world. Then it’s done through flashback; you still have to show something on the screen. But practically, they couldn’t be more different forms. I like both. Screenwriting I just don’t take as seriously. I don’t think it’s as hard. I don’t think it’s as interesting. I don’t think it’s as rewarding. I think because it takes someone to animate it and make it live that it is beyond my understanding. I can’t imagine ever being fully satisfied with a screenplay. I like fiction better, as a reader and a writer. I like the process of reading a novel far more than seeing a film.
Because my own fiction has flirted with being adapted and made, I’ve had to kind of come up with a mental divorce between a film and the source material—because they are totally different things. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favorite novels and one of my favorite films, and they are not the same thing at all. You can’t get that paranoia
from the book in the movie. You can’t get the walls, the machinery behind the walls from the novel into the film. You couldn’t get Jack Nicholson into the novel and you shouldn’t try. You couldn’t get Danny DeVito as Martini. Those things are animated by actors.

vestal Were there any trends that you noticed as a judge for the 2008
National Book Award?

J.W. Another judge told me, “You’ll be stunned by how many good
books you read and how few great ones.” And I think that’s probably true of any year you judge. There’s a ton of very good fiction out there, but I finished most of the books with some sense of their failing. And their failing was not necessarily the author’s fault. The thing that comes to every writer as they start to finish something is that they’ve begun an imperfect journey. I don’t think any book is perfect and sometimes things are more interesting because of the imperfections.
The other thing you’ll hear people say sometimes: “Why isn’t anyone writing realism?” or, “Why did postmodernism die?” or, “Why isn’t anyone doing this or that?” And the thing I realized is that everyone is doing everything. I found examples of every literary trend you could imagine. Are we finding our way to those books? Are publishers getting behind those books? Are those books reaching wider audiences? No. But someone was trying almost everything. There were some small things that I noticed, like books with titled chapters. There were a lot of linked story collections. It’s hard to tell what’s driven by the writers and what’s driven by the marketplace, such as it exists. It may be publishers saying, “We need more linked stories.” The collections that I thought worked best, though, often weren’t linked. Those collections that were linked felt like bland novels or you’d make a game of saying, “All right, which story did they write to try to link this together?”

vestal A lot of your work involves an individual with some kind of fraught
relationship with a system. Did your work on Ruby Ridge in any way set that course?

J.W. I think my whole life as a reporter was geared toward seeing how
systems fail us. You look at the systems we love—just the people at this table—we love universities and they’re in a kind of spiral of failure right now that is epic in scale. We love newspapers and they’re dying out from under us. We love literature and it’s not healthy at all. I love movies and that system’s falling apart. It isn’t just the criminal justice system, it isn’t just the government. The kind of systems that we create to take care of us and to take care of the things we care about and love always break down and fail, almost inevitably. You build the machine and the machine is going to fall apart. The thing I always go back to in my fiction is that these systems, in a way, don’t even exist. They’re powered by people’s insecurities, emotions, greed. One example is New York politics. It’s a huge interworking system of all of these different elements, and yet my experience of it was Rudolph Giuliani, who had a kind of Mussolini-like desire for power and acclaim, and Bernard Kerik, who was a figure destined to implode because of his own appetites, weaknesses, and frailties. And the O.J. Simpson murder case, which I saw kind of secondhand, coming into the wreckage afterward, was all about the failings of people, or the way human frailty causes these systems to break down.

There’s a relationship between a jury and the judge and lawyers that approaches Stockholm Syndrome or one of those syndromes. Gerry Spence, in Ruby Ridge, was brilliant at playing juries. He would do everything but crawl in the box with them. “You and I all know that this case is insane….” The most brilliant thing that he did in that case—the prosecution put up all of these rifles. All the Weavers’ guns were on this big pegboard. It was daunting, all these guns. At one point, Spence just strode up there and yanked a gun off and sighted it and then handed it through the jury box. The prosecution objected, and Spence said, “Your Honor, they put them up here. I just wanted the jury to get a closer look.” Knowing that an Idaho jury—everyone’s sighted a rifle at some point. So now these rifles aren’t things on a wall. You’d see jurors looking around the courtroom with rifles, and the prosecution going, “Oh shit, we just lost the case.” That was the kind of thing that went on in the Simpson case, too.
I find the anti-government furor today fascinating in so many ways. Because there is no government. It’s us. And in Every Knee Shall Bow, that was the thing I sort of tried to pull back the curtain from. White separatism was another kind of system. Systems don’t battle. It’s the people within them.

S.L. Do you see common attributes in your characters? Can you look at
your characters and say, “I recognize this character as having this kind of moral code or that set of beliefs, or being stuck in this system?”
walter It’s one of those things that can freeze you up if you spend too much
time thinking about it. My characters can be wiseasses. They can be a little lost, a little out of step with everything going on around them. But that also allows them to be more observant of paradoxes and ironies and of those moments in which the things that we strive for, and the things that we do, don’t connect. Or, to go back to systems, the things that the system’s supposed to do and what it actually does don’t align.
I think the kind of character I’m drawn to is someone who sees the cracks that other people don’t see, Brian Remy in The Zero being one example—he’s the only one aware of his own condition, which he comes to believe the rest of the world shares but just doesn’t recognize. I think the characters’ awareness of the absurdities around them is the main thing. And then there are obviously some surface things—that they don’t sleep, they’ve all lost an eye, they probably order the same drinks. They riff the way I like to riff. I love Marilynne Robinson’s answer when someone asked her if any of her characters were her and she said, “Oh, yes, all of them.” I think there’s that sense when you create these people that they’re extensions, hopefully not only of you, but partly of you.

S.L. You talked about fragmentation in Over Tumbled Graves, but there
was a different kind of fragmentation in The Zero. Did that fragmentation come early for you in the writing?

J.W. wr I had written a short story years ago called “Flashers, Floaters, and Vitreous Detachment.” In that story, there was an insane person who
saw streaks and lines and believed the streaks and lines were connecting people and buildings and ideas and things. I had that piece just sitting there forever. When I was at Ground Zero, we kept not finding bodies. We kept thinking we were going to find more bodies and we kept not finding them. The idea that these people were just gone, that they had been atomized, was hard to get your mind around. I kept thinking about that Maltese Falcon idea of disappearing and starting your life over. So I started mulling a novel about someone who disappears and starts life over.
More than any of the other books, that was a thematic book. There were all these things I wanted to say about the culture, about the way we reacted to September 11th, about the leadership at Ground Zero, about all those things that were bubbling around, and yet I couldn’t quite ever complete those thoughts. I couldn’t get my mind around what it was I was trying to say to myself. And I thought, If I wait for this, I will never get there. I sort of transferred my own confusion and inability to track and process to the character. And that felt right. I can’t remember the first time I wrote one of those sentences where I just ended it with a dash, but oh my God, it was the most freeing thing, realizing that you don’t have to write those transitions. Transitions suck. Transitions are almost always forced. Or if they’re not, then they take you—they transition—to a place you don’t want to go.

I had done some screenwriting at that point, and there’s an old saw in screenwriting that you want to begin a scene as late as possible and end it as soon as possible. And I thought, What if I end the scene way before anyone even knows what the scene is about? The freedom of that was a great discovery once I realized I could just bail out of scenes any time I wanted. Sometimes, the scene would accomplish what I thought it was going to, and other times, it would just hang there, a complete fragment. I was aware, all along, of the larger story I was telling, but the fragmentation kept it so fresh for me, because I was never sure how much of it I was going to reveal. I had almost two versions of the story. I had the full story, and I had this fragmented version I was telling. It made me a little crazy as a writer to be walking around with this kind of insane story that I’m telling myself in my head.

S.L. And that book was also about systems—

J.W. Part of it is that I’m writing in 2003 and we’re all gung ho to get into Iraq, and I’m writing a book that when I showed my wife, she said, “I think you’ll go to jail for this.” And my agent said, “I don’t think I can represent this book.” But I couldn’t stop working on it.
I went back to Kafka and kept drawing in my mind these lines between Kafka’s systems and the kind of overarching sense in Kafka’s work that the state is bearing down on him, on the individual. And in my mind, this was worse, because we were culpable. We were the system that was bearing down on us. We had a part in it by our inaction, by the fact that we kept electing George W. Bush. We were culpable in the surreal nature of our response to this action. We all knew that we weren’t really going to war because Iraq had gotten yellowcake uranium. We knew that wasn’t the reason. We just wanted to kick some ass. Maybe some of us put little “no war” signs in our windows. And I felt a little bit…I felt as if we’d all gone insane, as if the whole culture had gone a little bit insane. Maybe some of us were only a little insane, but it felt like such a big, important thing to be working on and writing and saying. And from a writer’s standpoint, it was thrilling to be dangling these scenes, and to be sort of nakedly saying things that I, as a younger writer, would not have had the courage to even try to say.

OCTOBER 24, 2012, 12:09 PM

The Burden of Justice: Louise Erdrich Talks About ‘The Round House’


Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel, “The Round House,” was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s set on the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation that is so familiar to her readers, and it tells the story of Joe, a 13-year-old who seeks justice after his mother is brutally attacked. In her review, Michiko Kakutani wrote that the novel “opens out to become a detective story and a coming-of-age story, a story about how Joe is initiated into the sadnesses and disillusionments of grown-up life and the somber realities of his people’s history.” In a recent e-mail interview, Ms. Erdrich discussed the difficulty of obtaining justice on reservations, the influence of her father on her fiction and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:


In The New York Times Book Review, Maria Russo said this book represented a departure because your novels “have usually relied on a rotating cast of narrators, a kind of storytelling chorus.” There’s a fairly large cast of characters in the book, so why did you decide to have Joe narrate the whole thing?


In order to write a novel about jurisdictional issues on American Indian reservations — without falling asleep — I decided to try a character-driven suspense narrative. Personally, I always envied and wanted the freedom that boys have. I get a kick out of 13-year-old boys I know. Also, as this is a book of memory, I am able to add the resonance of Joe’s maturity.


It’s hard as a reader not to share Joe’s desire for revenge on the man who attacked his mother. Do you think he’s ultimately wrong to pursue it?


Wrong or right, for many families this is the only option when justice is unobtainable. I wanted the reader to understand what taking on that burden is like. On any state elections map, the reservations are blue places. Native people are most often progressives, Democrats, and by no means gun-toting vigilantes. Being forced into this corner is obviously an agonizing decision.


The novel’s plot partly revolves around the problem of jurisdiction that keeps some brutal crimes on tribal land from being efficiently investigated and tried. Has there been any progress in fixing that problem?


President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law in 2010 — it was an important moment of recognition. More recently the Senate Judiciary Committee crafted a helpful piece of legislation. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012 would have given tribal nations limited jurisdiction over sexual predators regardless of race. Right now tribal courts can only prosecute tribal members. The problem is that over 80% of the perpetrators of rapes on reservations are non-Native. Most are not prosecuted. The bill went forward only to stall in the House, blocked by Republican votes. Hate to say it, but that one’s on them.


In your “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review, you said, “My father is my biggest literary influence.” Where do you feel his presence most in “The Round House”?


My father is the sort of man who would have spoken a monologue like one that Judge Coutts [Joe’s father] speaks in the novel, which includes a gundog on Dealey Plaza, a flagpole sitter, the Ojibwe clan system, the Orthian chanted by Arion of Methymna before he was cast into the sea, and Metis fiddle playing. He is also famous for a frightful stew like the one that appears in this book. My father created the pot of stew while my mother was in the hospital recovering from the birth of one of my sisters. He kept adding various elements to the stew all week — just heating it up in the same pot. That last sentence is beginning to sound like a book metaphor, so here I’ll stop.


At a panel that was part of The New Yorker Festival a couple of weeks ago, discussing the general lack of strong marriages in fiction, Lorrie Moore said she felt the marital life of Joe’s parents was a central part of “The Round House.” Do you agree that contemporary fiction is lacking portraits of strong marriages? And how central to you was the marriage in this book when you were planning and writing it?


My parents’ marriage is a gift to everyone around them — 60 years of making their kids laugh. How many parents are actually funny? It isn’t easy to write a happy marriage (Tolstoy’s dictum). So of course the only way to write about a happy marriage is to have a malevolent outside force attempt to destroy it.


The North Dakota Ojibwe reservation in your novels has frequently been compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County for its scope and variety of characters. Have you been directly influenced or inspired by Faulkner?


Most writers have been influenced by Faulkner.


How do you keep track of the characters you’ve created in this world? Are there genealogical charts hanging on your walls?


I love this question because I can mention Trent Duffy, the best copy editor in New York. Trent has meticulously cataloged and recorded each character’s family tree as well as all of their habits and the color of their hair, eyes, nail polish, etc. For myself, I have only messy notebooks and bits of hotel notepads jammed up with ideas.


“The Round House” is a sequel of sorts to “Plague of Doves,” which also revolves around a violent crime, and I’ve read that there’s a third related book planned. Will the third book deal with similar themes of violence and justice?


Talking about how I might write the next book is like talking about whether or not to have sex. Any dithering ruins it.

Rape on the Reservation




TWO Republicans running for Congressional seats last year offered opinions on “legitimate rape” or God-approved conceptions during rape, tainting their party with misogyny. Their candidacies tanked. Words matter.

Having lost the votes of many women, Republicans now have the chance to recover some trust. The Senate last week voted resoundingly to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, the 1994 law that recognized crimes like rape, domestic abuse and stalking as matters of human rights.

But House Republicans, who are scheduled to take up the bill today and vote on it Thursday, have objected to provisions that would enhance protections for American Indians, undocumented immigrants and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, among other vulnerable populations.

Here in Minneapolis, a growing number of Native American women wear red shawls to powwows to honor survivors of sexual violence. The shawls, a traditional symbol of nurturing, flow toward the earth. The women seem cloaked in blood. People hush. Everyone rises, not only in respect, for we are jolted into personal memories and griefs. Men and children hold hands, acknowledging the outward spiral of the violations women suffer.

The Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape. Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. Further tearing at the social fabric of communities, a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.

The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas. Alexandra Pierce, author of a 2009 report on sexual violence against Indian women in Minnesota, has found that there rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season. A non-Indian can drive up from the cities and be home in five hours. The tribal police can’t arrest him.

To protect Native women, tribal authorities must be able to apprehend, charge and try rapists — regardless of race. Tribal courts had such jurisdiction until 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have inherent jurisdiction to try non-Indians without specific authorization from Congress. The Senate bill would restore limited jurisdiction over non-Indians suspected of perpetrating sex crimes, but even this unnerves some officials. “You’ve got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right?” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.”

Leaving aside the fact that most Native defendants tried in the United States face Indian-free juries, and disregarding the fulsome notion that Native people can’t be impartial jurists, Mr. Grassley got his facts wrong. Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.

Tribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions. They know that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.

Since 1990, when Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator from Delaware, drafted the original legislation, the Violence Against Women Act has been parsed and pored over. During reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005, language on date rape and orders of protection was added. With each iteration, the act has become more effective, inclusive and powerful. Without it, the idea that some rape is “legitimate” could easily have been shrugged off by the electorate.

Some House Republicans maintain that Congress lacks the authority to subject non-Indians to criminal trials in tribal court, even though a Supreme Court opinion from 2004 suggests otherwise. Their version of the bill, as put forward by the majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, would add further twists to the dead-end maze Native American women walk when confronting sexual violence. John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said it would create “more off ramps for defendants by adding multiple levels of removal and appeal, including the right to sue tribes.” A compromise backed by two other Republicans, Darrell Issa of California and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, is vastly preferable to the Cantor version. It would offer a non-Indian defendant the right to request removal of his case to a federal court if his rights were violated.


What seems like dry legislation can leave Native women at the mercy of their predators or provide a slim margin of hope for justice. As a Cheyenne proverb goes, a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.



Richard Ford Biography

Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944, the only child of a traveling salesman for a starch company, and was raised in Mississippi and in Arkansas. He went to college at Michigan State University, where he met Kristina Hensley, to whom he has been married since 1968. Ford attended law school very briefly before entering the University of California at Irvine, where he received his M.F.A. in writing in 1970.

After publishing two novels, A Piece of My Heart (1976) and The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), Ford took a job writing for Inside Sports Magazine. When the magazine was sold, he decided to write a book about a sportswriter; the resulting novel, published in 1986, received widespread acclaim: it was named one of five best books of 1986 by Time magazine. The Sportswriter was followed by Rock Springs (1987), a highly praised book of short stories, and in 1990 by a novel set in Great Falls, Montana, called Wildlife. His previous novel, Independence Day, won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, the first novel ever to win both awards. In 2012 he published Canada, his first stand-alone novel since Wildlife.

In addition to his steady production of fiction, Ford has also taught writing and literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, at Princeton University, and at Williams College.

Ford lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his wife, Kristina, is the head of the city planning commission. He travels frequently and also spends time on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta and at his cabin in Chinook, Montana.


Frank Bascombe Series
1. The Sportswriter (1986)
2. Independence Day (1995)
3. The Lay of the Land (2006)

A Piece of My Heart (1976)
The Ultimate Good Luck (1981)
Wildlife (1990)
Canada (2012)

Rock Springs (1987)
Women with Men (1997)
A Multitude of Sins (2001)
Vintage Ford (2004)

My Mother in Memory (1988)

Above bibliography does not includes contributions to story collections or anthologies edited by Ford.

This biography was last updated on 05/21/2012


Interview with Tim Adams of The Observer

Your new novel, Canada, begins in a place called Great Falls, Montana, where you have set other stories, including the novelWildlife. Is it a place you know well?

  1. It’s what the poet Richard Hugo calls “a triggering town” for me. I went there first in 1984 and it changed my life. My wife, Kristina, was living in Missoula, which is farther west. And we started going pheasant hunting together on the plains. And the first time I saw Great Falls I thought: “Wow, you know, what a place…”

What was it that made it seem somewhere you could write about?

For one thing I liked the name “Great Falls” on the page. When I see it, it still makes my heart skip a little. It is a dramatic place. It’s on the frontier of the Rocky Mountains, it’s right where the Missouri river turns epically to the east. There is an enormous air force base there. It is one of those places where you could set just about any story and it would seem plausible.

It seems in this novel – and I would say this is true of a lot of your writing – the kind of place in which people should feel rooted, but rarely do.

Exactly right. And in that conception is drama for me. That is the archetype of America, really. “People who should feel rooted, but rarely do.” Europeans arrived here used to the securities of village life and they found themselves lured west on to this vast pampas.

Your book has great opening lines: “First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Is that how it began?

Well, I started writing the book 20 years ago. I wrote 20 pages and then I set it aside. I am sort of a comer-backer, anyway. But I took this bag of notes and put it in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator. The story was already called Canada and I knew it was about a 16-year-old boy going across the Canadian border to Saskatchewan. I didn’t know why he was going there. I didn’t know why two parents would have abandoned him, but over those 20 years I would get a little idea about how a person would get in that situation, and write it down and add it to the envelope of notes in the freezer.

I know your father died of a heart attack when you were 16 and you have written elsewhere of boys suddenly having to grow up in that way. How consciously do you think you are trying to describe that event to yourself?

It’s not unreasonable to think that I am trying to do that. But it was an awful long time ago. It has been 52 years since my father died. I think I am drawn as much just to that pivotal point in anyone’s life, when they stop being a child.

The novel becomes, among other things, as the young protagonist’s experience gets ever more extreme, a sustained interrogation of the idea of “normal”. Do you think anyone has a normal life?

Well, I believe in the idea of “normal” in the way that I believe in the idea of logic. Or the idea of character. All of these ethical constructs are just that: constructs. We use them as a way of reassuring ourselves that what is going on around us is not completely haywire. They tell us a story that makes things bearable. Internal chaos does not suit us and we can’t cope with it for very long.

In the book, Canada becomes a sort of promised land, a refuge. There is a line characters cling to: “Canada was better than America and everyone knew that – except Americans.” Is that how it feels to you?

I never had much conceptual idea of Canada being better. But whenever I go there, I feel this fierce sense of American exigence just relent. America beats on you so hard the whole time. You are constantly being pummelled by other people’s rights and their sense of patriotism. So the American’s experience of going to Canada, or at least my experience, is that you throw all that clamour off. Which is a relief sometimes.

How does that sentiment go down among American readers?

Last night, I was in New Orleans at this book party full of local oligarchs, a charity group. I was trying to tell them why I called the book Canada, and I said this stuff about America beating on you and I saw a lot of unfriendly faces in the room. There is this very strong “If you are not for us, you are against us” feeling in America just now. Perhaps there always has been. You are not allowed to complain. Or even have a dialogue. But if a novel is there for anything I believe that is what it has to induce.

I was intrigued by something in your acknowledgements, a thank you to your doctor, Jeffrey Karnes, for solving “the novelist’s dilemma”. Can you explain?

Jeff is the guy I go to for check-ups every year. When I was trying to finish the book I was due to see him but I said: “Jeff, I don’t want to get everything checked out this time, because if you find something wrong I know I won’t finish my goddam book.” And he just said that was fine, he understood.

From the vantage of 68, looking back, does your own life feel like a coherent narrative?

I like this age. Everything still works. I play squash twice a week. And I feel at peace with myself for the first time, in particular with my decision to be a writer. Writing never came naturally and I still have to force my hand to do it. But I have my wife’s approval. And I have a readership, still. And when I finished this book I had this thought I had never had before: maybe this wasn’t the worst thing you could have done, the worst life you could have chosen…

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

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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.

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