A Brief Introduction to Alice Munro, Nobel Prize Winner for Literature

munroEarly this morning, it was announced that celebrated Canadian short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Over the course of fourteen collections of stories, Munro, who grew up in rural Ontario, pays particular attention to the lives of women and girls, many of them dealing with the realities of small-town life, and many of them longing to escape their circumstances (though they are rarely able to do so without consequence).

If you’ve never had the pleasure of encountering Munro’s work, start with the pieces she’s published in The New Yorker, which has a selection of her stories available for free. Those include “Runaway,” about a woman who leaves her husband, but returns to him despite his violent tendencies, and “Free Radicals,” which focuses on a widow whose husband dies suddenly just after she has been diagnosed with cancer. “How was I to know he’d steal my thunder?” she wonders.

If you prefer to hear Munro’s work read aloud, this edition of the New Yorker’s fiction podcast features a Munro story called “Axis.” In it two women from small-town Ontario think back on the men they became involved with in university, and how those relationships spiraled out to affect their lives decades later.

Munro herself was once a college girl in a similar situation—after two years on a scholarship, she married her first husband and moved to British Columbia. In a long, lovely interview with The Paris Review, Munro talks about finding time to write amid the hectic pace of young motherhood:

Have you ever had a specific time to write?
When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon.

What about before the girls were old enough to go to school?
Their naps.

You wrote when they had naps?
Yes. From one to three in the afternoon. I wrote a lot of stuff that wasn’t any good, but I was fairly productive. The year I wrote my second book, Lives of Girls and Women, I was enormously productive. I had four kids because one of the girls’ friends was living with us, and I worked in the store two days a week. I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six. And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack. I was only about thirty-nine or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I’ve got that many pages written now. They can see how it’s going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race.

Many of her early stories were written in western Canada, but Munro eventually returned to the small-town Ontario of her childhood, where much of her work is set. A piece at The Walrus magazine traces Munro’s early life in Wingham, Ontario, and travels through the country depicted in her books to get a sense of how her stories came to life.

Though she didn’t publish her first collection until she was in her late thirties, Munro quickly gained a reputation for her ability to boil down all the emotional intensity of a novel into a few, or a few dozen, pages. The magazine Quill & Quire recently asked Munro’s editors, “How do you edit one of the most precise writers working in the English language?” The verdict: with a light touch and the occasional “helpful nudge.”

But winning the Nobel Prize may be the one experience Munro is incapable of putting into words. Interviewed early this morning by the CBC, she said, “It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can’t describe it. It’s more than I can say.”

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