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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by Derek Shapton.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/11/on-dear-life-an-interview-with-alice-munro.html?printable=true&currentPage=all#ixzz2Jr5YqRbj

I Am Forbidden

Anouk Markovits grew up in France, in an ultra-orthodox Satmar home. She attended a religious seminary in England instead of high school. She left home at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage. Markovits is the author of I Am Forbidden, described by the New York Times as an “elegant, enthralling novel” and praised by the Sunday Telegraph of London for “luminously beautiful prose.”  The book was selected by Random House to re-launch its Hogarth imprint, originally founded in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Translations of I Am Forbidden are forthcoming in a dozen countries. Markovits’s first novel, Pur Coton, written in French, was published by Gallimard.



Inside Out: Anouk Markovits

By Martha Schulman |
Mar 16, 2012

Anouk Markovits never intended to write about the Satmar Hasidic community in which she grew up, but then came 9/11, and Markovits thought, “I’ve had personal experience with fundamentalist environments.” Still, writing about that world didn’t come easily. Whether fiction or memoir, most books set in these environments are written by and about those who, like Markovits, have left, and that wasn’t the story she wanted to tell. Which raised the question: “Could I possibly write a book about the people who stayed?”

Markovits’s English-language debut, the novel I Am Forbidden (Hogarth Press, May 8), in which the outside world remains always outside, a place of temptation, opportunity, or of no interest whatsoever, is that book. Though compact (it started out “humongous” Markovits says, “but the longer I worked on it, the shorter it got”), the story spans 70 years—from the start of WWII to the present—and three locations: Transylvania, Paris, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.



 PW Daily  Tip Sheet


When we first meet Zalman Stern, the most brilliant student in the Satmar rabbi’s court in 1939 Transylvania, Romania, he’s in the throes of an erotic dream, “sinning in his sleep,” despite heroic efforts. Markovits started there, she says, because she “wanted to establish that world in the most efficient way.” Fundamentalisms, she says, have no room for the individual, no room for the body; indeed, the body is something to be on guard against. Zalman and his wife survive WWII and move to Paris with their growing family, which includes Mila, the orphaned daughter of Zalman’s old study partner. The book is her story. In some ways, Mila’s life is a series of miracles: reconnected to her community, she marries Josef—himself a hidden child during the war and the man who saved her. They live in Williamsburg, where the Satmar rabbi and the remnants of his European followers are rebuilding their lost world. But the most ordinary miracle of all, conception, is denied her.

Without a child, Mila cannot perpetuate the family the Nazis almost destroyed, nor is her marriage secure. As she grows increasingly desperate, both she and Josef begin to consider actions that violate orthodox strictures. When they both take action, simultaneously, in Paris, amid the electricity of the 1968 student revolt, the results are decisive, but decidedly mixed. While Mila can live with the choices she makes, Josef, whom Markovits calls the “character in the book who most grips me,” cannot.

Casting Mila as her protagonist allows Markovits to explore the condition of being a mamzer. Often loosely translated as bastard, the word designates a person born from a relationship considered unacceptable and, as a result, rendered unmarriageable unto the 10th generation. To Markovits, this profound injustice—banning people for acts they did not commit—embodies the nature of fundamentalism, which insists that “truth is eternal, absolute, doesn’t relate to contingencies.” Contingencies, of course, are what individual lives are made of. Finding a way to depict what it means to live in the gap between unchanging and eternal beliefs and life’s shifting realities was essential to Markovits, who believes that the novel’s job is to shed light on what is scandalous in a society.

If Markovits sounds serious about literature, she has reason: she credits her ability to leave her community to two things. First, since there were only two Satmar families in her French town, she went to school and played with non-Satmar children, both Jewish and not. Second: reading. Books were not only a way to encounter a world she was told to shun, they let her see the inner lives of that world’s inhabitants. In I Am Forbidden, Markovits reverses the lens, giving her believers inner lives that outsiders can see and feel. Asked how she got over her initial doubts about writing, Markovits, who is trained as an architect and “fascinated by how things work,” said it was by focusing on the task of shaping the novel. And when her worries about getting inside the characters resurfaced, she thought about how little Flaubert would have had in common with a real-life Emma Bovary and told herself: “If Flaubert can write Madame Bovary, I can write I Am Forbidden.”

A frequent contributor to Publishers Weekly, Martha Schulman’s essays and short stories have been published in the U.S. and Britain.