Why Alice Munro is a short story, not a novelist


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Alice Munro in 2002. (AP / Paul Hawthorne)

This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian author and the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Good timing: Munro also said The New York Times this summer she is finished with writing altogether.) In its announcement, the Swedish Academy called Munro, 82, the “Master of contemporary news”, highlighting the fact that she, unlike most Nobel Prize winners, does not write novels.

In 2001, long before she woke up to a particularly exciting voicemail message about her good news, Munro spoke with Atlantic‘s Cara Feinberg on how she fell in love with the format. One of the reasons she was drawn to it was simply its convenience: as Feinberg points out, one of Munro’s story books begins by saying: running as surely as a power failure used to destroy a piece of computer work. ”Although she started writing as a teenager, Munro raised three children while helping her husband run a bookstore, which may explain why Munro didn’t publish her first collection until she was 37 years old. But as their full conversation lights up, being a short story writer isn’t just about being pressed for time.

Here’s Munro on how she started writing short fiction films:

So why do I like to write short stories? Well, I sure didn’t mean to. I was going to write a novel. And even! I still find ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They are separating. I watch what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel. But when I was younger it was just a matter of opportunity. I had small children, I had no help. Part of that was before the days of automatic washing machines, if you can really believe it. I had no way of having that kind of time. I couldn’t look to the future and say it was going to take me a year, because I thought that at any moment something might happen that would take me away all the time. So I wrote in snatches with a limited wait. Maybe I got used to thinking of my hardware in terms of things that worked this way. And then, when I had a little more time, I started to write these weirder stories, which diversify a lot. But I still haven’t written a novel, despite good intentions.

She also told Feinberg that she often takes an unconventional approach to the format.

In my own work I tend to cover a lot of time and go back and forth over time, and sometimes the way I do it is not very straightforward. I think it’s something that people can find they have to adjust to, but it’s a way of saying everything I want to say, and it kind of has to be done that way. Time is something that interests me a lot – the past and the present, and how the past appears as people change.

Munro is often referred to as “Canadian Chekhov, so it’s perhaps not surprising that she cited the Russian writer as one of her influences.

All news writers say Chekhov, but really, he was terribly important to me. All kinds of news writers come into play. William Maxwell is my favorite North American writer, I think. And an Irish writer who wrote for The New Yorker called Maeve Brennan, and Mary Lavin, another Irish writer. There were a lot of writers that I found in The New Yorker in the fifties who wrote on the same type of material as me, on emotions and places. There were so many other people that I don’t think about right now. I read all the time, and I am often struck by something I read.

She also explained to Feinberg why she was never the type to plan stories before writing them:

You know, I don’t know why it happened, because when I write a story, I don’t really analyze it. But once I finish the story and start doing things with it, I think in many ways what I wrote breaks all the rules of the short story. It comes to mind, but not with particular regret; I guess I can only write what interests me. So I’m not trying to do anything to make it a more regular story. In fact, if a story wants to go in a particular direction, I let it go. I just put it there and see what it does.

Read the full interview here.

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