Alice Munro's Generous Intimacy

Oct 2013 UDPATE: Alice Munro just won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature and Eleanor Wachtel has re-podcasted her delightful 2004 interview with Munro (described below, under "Fascinating"). Listen online or download it now for safekeeping from the iTunes Writers and Company podcast.

Alice Munro is greedy about how much she can fit into a short story. She is not one of those writers who over-favor a single (whiny) protagonist: her perspective is simultaneously singular and generous, which gives an old-world depth to her stories, but she is the opposite of fusty--her frank and intimate narration is entirely modern and shockingly honest. (According to an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, it was a Munro short story that broke the f-word barrier for fiction in the Shawn-era New Yorker, though Jesse Sheidlower's The F-Word credits a Bobbie Ann Mason story.) As has been said many times before, Munro's stories have the scope of novels and the verisimilitude of Chekhov.  She is profligate with time, place, and event. She does not hoard revelations or dole them out in precious morsels. Her best plots deliver more than one punch: they enact a pacey drive toward the main character's impulse or insight, and then follow up with consequences that knock them in another direction.

Fascinating Munro Audio
The technique and structure of Munro's fiction cannot be dissected--it is too holistically constructed, each element radiating from a shared center of artistry--which makes it all the more fascinating to hear Munro speak about her work. The best audio interview I've ever heard with Munro is the Wachtel one mentioned above, recorded at Munro's favorite Goderich lunch spot in October 2004, and rebroadcasted and podcasted by CBC's Writers & Co. on Canada Day (July 1st) 2009, just over a month after Munro added the 2009 Man Booker International Prize to her mountain of awards. The interview lasts about an hour. It encompasses the arc of Munro's life and career, her opinions on adultery and hardship in fiction, her childhood in rural Ontario and how a scholarship launched her into the wider world, her frustration with the heroines of Tolstoy and her intimation of the sex in Austen, the unconscious theme of the stories in Runaway, the differing nature of her relationships with her mother and father, and her exploratory composition method. The audio is also available for online listening from the Writer's & Company webpage.

Subscribe to Snag Future Downloads
I also recommend subscribing to Wachtel's CBC Writers & Company podcast feed on iTunes, in hopes that they'll repost this great interview the next time Munro wins an award, and then you can download it for keeps and put it on your iPod for portable listening. Wachtel is one of the best author interviewers around, so it's worth tapping into the Writers & Co. podcast just to see who's up next (she also interviews filmmakers and journalists). Interviews are available for download for four weeks after they're podcasted.

Elizabeth Strout Lauds Alice Munro
Wachtel assembled a panel of Munro devotees (online link to schedule archive--scroll down to fourth item) at the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival in October 2009. Joseph Boyden, Amit Chaudhuri, Joan London, Alistair McLeod, and Elizabeth Strout talk about Munro's writing and her effect on their work. Writers & Co. podcasted the panel's tribute to Munro on 11/23/09 (should be available for downloading until Dec. 09).  Strout's 7-minute reading and appreciation begins at Minute 6:30, but the whole 53-minute panel discussion is interesting. If you download it before it expires from iTunes, you can take it for a walk.

Alice Munro and Diana Athill Onstage
The 30th International Festival of Authors, which took place in Toronto in October 2009, featured a first-ever onstage meeting of Alice Munro and legendary editor Diana Athill, hosted by Bill Richardson. The Globe and Mail videotaped the 44-minute chat (unfortunately the Q&A was not captured on the recording). Richardson wisely lets les grandes dames littéraires hold the floor, but I didn't feel that Munro came through as fully as she does in the October 2004 Wachtel audio interview.  You can watch the whole Munro-Athill chat online at the Globe and Mail's "In Other Words" site.

Munro's Long Career in Short
The publication of Munro's latest collection, Too Much Happiness, led to Sam Tanenhaus's interview with Munro for the NYTimes.com Book Review 11/27/09 podcast*. The 7-minute phone conversation begins around 30 seconds in, and includes the author politely repulsing the "ordinary" and "drab" labels often applied to her characters. "None of them seem ordinary to me," Munro says (Minute 2:30). She calls the short form "expansive," talks about her early influences (Minute 5:30: Chekhov, Welty, McCullers, O'Connor, Maxwell), and she's good-natured about the weary question of why there are no Munro novels, revealing that she once cut the beginning of an attempted novel into four stories. There are some intriguing but spoilerish moments when Tanenhaus and Munro talk specifically about two of the new stories in Too Much Happiness, so if you like to approach your Munro with no foreknowledge, listen to the podcast after you read. The podcast is available for download as of this posting on iTunes, and for online listening at the NYTimes.com podcast archive (November 27, 2009: direct mp3 link here).

*Details corrected 12/9/09, thanks to IFOA.