Meeting Alice Munro – A Tribute October 11, 2013
When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature today, I felt part of a joyous yelp reverberating across Canada. I also remembered the times I’ve seen her onstage and at literary parties, and thought about the way it turned me into a hovering fan-girl, awed by her power and longing to talk.
On evenings like that, at book launches and fundraisers, she must feel constantly watched, so many fan-girls lurking behind bookcases and curtains, all of us noting her alert and attentive nods, the dark sparkle of her eyes, every explosion of her young and frequent laugh; so many of us trying to gather the courage to talk to her until we tell ourselves just do it and surge across the room like small pieces of inexorable fate, the kind you hope to avoid.
At which point we might find to our surprise that she wants to talk about getting your period in school, as she did once with me, making us rush home afterwards to record every word in our journals (which, as I write this, I wonder whether I ought to repeat). Maybe that’s why she doesn’t go to literary events very often. Besieged.
The first of Alice Munro’s books I read was Lives of Girls and Women. I was in my late teens when I gulped it down, identifying utterly with her literary teenager, Del Jordan. That was what I looked for in books at the time, a sense of identification. I thought of myself as an outsider, leaving me with rather a lot of literary characters to identify with. But Del was Canadian and lived in an emotional landscape I recognized from my own Calvinist and Lutheran background. I knew the material Munro was dealing with, could enter it wholesale. I was Del Jordan. Alice Munro was writing about me.
Yet since I already wanted to be a writer, as well as being carried along by her stories, I was also subtly learning something that I would only be able to put into words much later. In reading Alice Munro, I learned that I wanted to make people say: This is what it’s like.
Doesn’t matter what “it” is. Jealousy, hope, compromise, betrayal. War and peace, for that matter. Being single or married, husband, wife or lover. Doesn’t matter where “it” is either, what time and place. I learned that I wanted to make people feel: This is exactly what it’s like. Being human. Imperfect. Alive.
A few years ago, I re-read Lives of Girls and Women, which I deliberately hadn’t done since I was in my twenties. I didn’t want to risk ruining the book for myself, afraid of finding it dusty and dated. Then I brought too few books to a rented cottage, and there was Lives on the bookshelves, and otherwise Tom Clancy, RIP.
So I opened the book and quickly felt relieved. The stories were still fresh. They reverberated, yet they were also different. I’d read them before as telling Del Jordan’s story, and of course they do. But this time I saw the enormous insight and sympathy Munro brings to the character of Del’s mother, Ada, whom I’d earlier read only as The Mother, a teenager’s mother, my own mother: an embarrassment, an impediment, a failure, a trap. This time, I followed Del fondly, remembering how it felt to be that age, but I principally appreciated the walk Munro took around Ada, a woman whose life had not turned out as she had hoped, but who was brave.
What a trick to pull off. To write a teenager who seems utterly true to girls of that age and a woman known to women, all in prose as neat as a stitch. I realized a little belatedly that the book was called Lives of Girls and Women. How could I not have noticed that before?
The first time I saw Alice Munro on stage, she read a brief passage from the book, and I noticed something else. The stories are very funny, unpredictably droll. I’d heard that she hated reading in public, loathed being on stage, but you wouldn’t have known it except from the brevity of her appearance. She read her passage with enormous wit and sparkle, and answered questions afterwards attentively.
Asked when she stopped rewriting her stories, Munro said she never did. She’d changed a couple of words just that night as she’d done her reading. I remembered her publisher, Douglas Gibson, saying that he had to tear her manuscripts out of her hands or she’d never stop reworking them. Onstage, Munro laughed at her perfectionism. She seemed delighted in the oddity of the world, which included herself, even though her writing tells us she must sometimes find it excruciating, as well.
The second time I saw her onstage, Munro was just as witty. Both events were at Harbourfront in Toronto, and this time she was being interviewed along with another writer. The host was making a hash of it. Perhaps out of nerves, he was directing most of his questions at the other writer, who had written a couple of lovely books but wasn’t perhaps seminal.
People in the audience were restive. They’d come to see Alice Munro, who appeared in public so rarely, and all around me were loud mutterings of, Ask her. Talk to her. More than a few other writers would have grown touchy at being left aside, but there was no sign that Munro was bothered. She listened alertly to the windy conversation going on between the other two, her posture impeccable, and only when the long answer to a long question about the writer’s preference in music petered out did she put in brightly, “I like Mozart and bluegrass.” I can still hear her say that today.
In private, she proved just as open, friendly and unpretentious. Once, at a friend’s book launch, I asked her about the years she’d spent living in North Vancouver, where I’d grown up. I thought I’d recognized my neighbourhood in one of her stories, and we worked out that I’d gone to an elementary school only a few blocks from where she’d lived. I told her about how I’d got lost once on the way home and been found by a long-lost friend of my mother’s, neither of whom had realized the other had left Winnipeg.
She talked about how children used to be allowed to get a bit lost and nobody worried all that much. You were permitted to scare yourself, after which you were discouraged from dwelling on it morbidly. We agreed it probably wasn’t very dangerous to get lost when we were children, a generation apart, and how it probably isn’t that bad today, despite the hysteria. Also how she’d felt a little lost when she was living on the North Shore and was happy to leave.
I told her about a man who used to expose himself on a bridge over Mosquito Creek that I crossed on the way to high school. You walked to the end of my block and cut through the neighbours’ yard to head into the forest, clambered down a rough path beside the creek, turned left to go over the bridge, passed the man exposing himself, held your breath until you reached the end of the bridge, climbed up the other side of the ravine and made it safely to school, never telling the adults what was going on and never forgetting it.
She told me about writing Ontario high school exams while being locked in the schoolroom for hours. If you had your period, you spent the time terrified that you would soak through your skirt and have to stand up in front of the rest of the class. She said it probably affected on how well girls did on those exams, which determined whether they would go on to university, maybe get a scholarship, but that sort of thing was never mentioned, either.
As we spoke, Munro looked as if she was enjoying being naughty, talking about getting your period. It only occurred to me later that we were speaking about what was never spoken of, and that this is what she writes about with such genius. She writes what people don’t say, almost don’t have the vocabulary to say. That’s why I’ve always felt in reading her, This is what it’s like. She goes deep inside our communal silence. She spells it out.
The first time I met Alice Munro, in the hospitality suite at Harbourfront, I was so nervous that I couldn’t behave naturally. Instead, I laid a story at her feet the way a dog would a bone. It was about buying the first present I had ever bought my Scottish grandmother with my own money. My grandmother opened the present, which was a nightgown, and said, “I will put that aside to wear in my coffin.”
Alice Munro laughed. Judging from her penetrating look, she knew I was presenting her with an anecdote I thought she might use, but she didn’t answer, and someone else came up.
I’ve never met anyone I admire more.