On “Dear Life”: An Interview with Alice Munro
Posted by Deborah Treisman
Your 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.