LITERARY LOCATION #1: Kitsilano Public Library, 2425 MacDonald St., Vancouver

The first Canadian author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alice Munro, first worked in the Vancouver Public Library prior to becoming an acclaimed short story writer and a mother. As outlined in a biography by Robert Thacker, within a month of her arrival in Vancouver in 1952 with her new husband, Jim Munro (who would eventually own and operate Munro's Books in Victoria), Alice Munro got a part-time job at the Kitsilano branch of the Vancouver Public Library. She worked part-time for VPL until the fall of 1952, then full-time until June of 1953. After her first daughter, Sheila, was born in October of 1953, she worked part-time until her next pregnancy in 1955.

LITERARY LOCATION #2: 2749 Lawson Avenue, West Vancouver. Go over the Lions Gate Bridge from Vancouver, proceed west along Marine Drive to 25th Avenue & Marine, turn right up the hill on 25th, left onto Lawson, proceed one-and-a-half blocks.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro lived here with two young daughters above Dundarave village. She and her husband Jim Munro became friendly with two other couples in the area, Harry and Jessie Webb, who were bohemian artists at 2476 Bellevue Avenue, near the Dundarave pier; and editor/writers Stephen and Elsa Franklin who were planning to open the Pick-a-Pocket Bookshop at 2442 Marine Drive. The Franklins were commissioned to design the bookstore's interior; the Munros were initially going to be partners. After the bookstore became a fixture on the same side of the street as Libby's Drugstore, the Franklins moved east to Ontario where Elsa Franklin became the manager of Pierre Berton's career. Jim Munro received the Order of Canada for operating Munro's Books in Victoria from 1963 onward, but the initial impulse to operate a bookstore arose from Pick-a-Pocket Books in Dundarave, still a laid-back enclave where Alice Munro where once briefly rented an office in order to write.

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Many would argue Alice Munro is the finest writer Canada has produced. In 2013 she became the first Canadian to be accorded the Nobel Prize for Literature. [Scroll down to the bottom of this entry to find her editor Doug Gibson's excellent eyewitness account of the ceremony.] It is impossible to select one collection of her short stories as being superior to the rest.

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, twice winner of the Giller Prize (Canada's most glitzy literary prize), three times the recipient of the Governor General's Award for Fiction (Canada's most venerable literary prize), Alice Munro is peerless. Her work has gained her the distinction, accorded by the New York Times, of being "the only living writer in the English language to have made a major career out of short fiction alone."; In 2004, that newspaper also produced the oft-repeated compliment, "More than any writer since Chekhov, Munro strives for and achieves, in each of her stories, a gestalt-like completeness in the representation of a life.";

In 2005, Alice Munro accepted the 11th George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia, but most readers assume she is an Ontario writer.

Born as Alice Laidlaw in Ontario in 1931, she married fellow student Jim Munro in 1951 and reluctantly moved to Vancouver in 1952 after her husband had secured a good job in a department store. First they lived across from Kitsilano Beach in a basement suite of a three-storey building at Arbutus and Cornwall among "high wooden houses crammed with people living tight."

In 1953, they moved briefly to a drab house in North Vancouver before settling in the relative security of upwardly mobile but yet-to-be pretentious West Vancouver. Here her two eldest daughters, Sheila and Jenny, were born. Another died the day she was born. While writing in West Vancouver, she befriended fellow Vancouver homemaker Margaret Laurence and they were both encouraged by Ethel Wilson. It was not all sweetness and light. For a New York Times article in 2006, her daughter Sheila recalled, "When I got home from school my mother would be sitting in that chair in the living room in the dark... She just wanted to be left alone to write."

Despite being left to her own devices at home in West Vancouver, Alice Munro never learned to drive. In 1963, the Munros moved to Victoria and opened Munro's Books. (Long considered one of the finest independent bookstores in Canada, Munro's Books would mark its 50th anniversary in the same year that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize.)

According to historian Eve Lazarus, at first the Munros lived in a rented house in Victoria at 105 Cook Street. In 1966, Alice Munro gave birth to her youngest daughter, Andrea, and the family bought a Tudor Revival mansion in Rockland, listed for $30,000. An offer of $20,000 was accepted. It had five fireplaces, high ceilings and a nanny's quarters. The heritage home was reputedly built in 1894 and designed by Francis Rattenbury, but there are no records to verify it. Houseguests would include Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Livesay, Audrey Thomas and P.K. Page.

In all, Alice Munro lived in Vancouver and Victoria for 22 years before her first marriage ended and she moved back to Ontario. After her divorce in 1972, Alice Munro married former university friend, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer/cartographer, in 1976. Jim Munro married textile artist Carole Sabiston in 1977, and they remained in the Rockland house. Fremlin died on April 17, 2013.

For several years, Alice Munro maintained two residences: one in Clinton, Ontario, and another in Comox, on Vancouver Island. She received the news of her Nobel Prize at 4 a.m. while visiting one of her daughters in Victoria. "It just seems impossible," she told the CBC. "It seems just so splendid a thing to happen, I can't describe it, it's more than I can say."

Alice Munro's dual status as a British Columbian and an Ontario resident is often overlooked. "I like the West Coast attitudes,"; she said in 2004. "Winters [in B.C.] to me are sort of like a holiday. People are thinking about themselves. The way I grew up, people were thinking about duty."; One can suggest the dichotomy between duty and exploration is a fundamental friction in her stories; and the geographical disparity between unruly British Columbia and hidebound Ontario matches her character.

Alice Munro made her critically acclaimed debut with Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), written mostly on Cook Street. Her second book, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), was the basis for a Canadian movie. In addition, Sarah Polley adapted the story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain"; for the film Away from Her (2006), starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. Most of Alice Munro's books have been edited by Douglas Gibson, also her publisher, at Douglas Gibson Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, formerly Canada's leading publishing house for literature. Gibson lives in Toronto.

With her mother's encouragement and consent, Sheila Munro, while living in Powell River, published an astute study of their family dynamics and her mother's books, Lives of Mothers and Daughters (2001).

FULL ENTRY:

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, twice winner of the Giller Prize; three times the recipient of the Governor General's Award for Fiction, Alice Munro is peerless. In 2013 she became the first Canadian and only the thirteenth woman to be accorded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Her work has gained her the distinction accorded by the New York Times as "the only living writer in the English language to have made a major career out of short fiction alone." She is also the recipient of the 11th George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia. "Alice Munro has devoted her career to the short story," wrote a reviewer for The Times (U.K.), "and when reading her work it is difficult to remember why the novel was ever invented."

Alice Munro was born Alice Ann Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario on July 10, 1931. She was raised on a farm with a sister and a brother. Before he turned his hand to farming, her father, Robert Eric Laidlaw, had raised foxes and minks and worked as a watch-man. Her mother, Anne Clarke Laidlaw, was a former teacher who developed Parkinson's disease and died in 1959. While she undertook a large share of the domestic duties, Alice Laidlaw nursed her improbable ambitions to become a writer. "I think choosing to be a writer was a very reckless thing to do," she told CBC's Shelagh Rogers in 2004, "although I didn't realize it. I was planning an historical novel in grade seven. It gave way to a Wuthering Heights novel I was writing all the way through high school." Alice Munro has also said, "My oddity just shone out of me."

At age eighteen, Munro won a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario where she studied for two years; published her first short story, 'The Dimensions of a Shadow', in 1950, in Folio, an undergraduate literary magazine; and she met fellow student Jim Munro. They married in December of 1951 and moved to Vancouver where their two eldest daughters were born. Another daughter died of kidney failure on the day she was born.

In Vancouver Alice Munro befriended Margaret Laurence, another housewife who was learning to write, and she was inspired by the success of local novelist Ethel Wilson, who she also met. Encouraged by her first husband to pursue her writing when they resided in West Vancouver, Alice Munro once rented a small office for herself in Dundarave, which became the basis of a story about a female writer being unable to escape the role of caring for others. As a mother, Munro has been described by one of her daughters as more of a watcher than a nurturer.

In Victoria, where a fourth daughter was born, she helped establish Munro's Books, opened in 1963, now generally considered one of the finest independent bookstores in Canada, and she gave birth to her youngest daughter in 1966. She resided in Vancouver and Victoria for 22 years before her first marriage ended and she moved back to Ontario.

After separating from her husband in 1973, Alice Munro became writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario in 1974. In 1975, she moved to Clinton, Ontario, in Huron County, with a former university friend, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer, partially in order to help look after his mother. Clinton is located approximately 35 kilometres from Wingham where she grew up. (The issue of Folio in which she had first published a short story also contained a story by Fremlin, who is slightly older than her.)

Alice Munro married Fremlin after she was divorced in 1976, the year she received her first honorary doctorate (having been unable to finish university due to lack of funds). For many years Alice Munro divided her time between residences in Clinton in Ontario and Comox on Vancouver Island.

***

Encouraged by CBC's Radio's Robert Weaver since 1951, Alice Munro sold her first short story to Mayfair magazine in 1953. "I never intended to be a short-story writer," Munro once said. She has suggested she might have opted for the short story approach to fiction because she was balancing her duties as the mother of three children, but she also spent many of her formative years as writer trying to write a novel without success. Alice Munro's first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), received the Governor General's Award for Fiction.

Her follow-up, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), was marketed as a novel and received the Canadian Booksellers Award. Her reputation began spreading to the United States. "The short story is alive and well in Canada," wrote Martin Levin in The New York Times (September 23, 1973), reviewing Dance of the Happy Shades, "where most of the 15 tales originate like a fresh winds from the North."

A frequent contributor to the New Yorker magazine since 1976, Alice Munro has firmly established her reputation as Canada's most consistent writer with her impeccable style and exacting perceptions. All her books have been well-received and feature heroines who seek some measure of control over their lives through understanding, while flirting with recklessness. "The complexity of things -- the things within things -- just seems to be endless," Munro has said. "I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple."

Munro's work has received many literary prizes, including three Governor General's Awards, the Giller Prize, a Canada Council Molson's Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Prize, the first Canada-Australia Literary Prize and the first Marian Engel Award. She is the first Canadian to receive the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the Rea Award for lifetime achievement in short stories.

Alice Munro's Runaway (2004) has eight stories that reflect her dual hometowns of Comox and Clinton. More than one reviewer has suggested it's impossible to characterize the subject matter of Runaway because Munro's beguiling stories are so multi-layered and diverse, but she has herself noted, "what I wanted to do in this book was take these sharp turns in people's lives." Three linked tales follow Juliet, a young teacher who visits her fisherman lover's home the day after his wife's funeral. In the title story, Munro keeps the reader guessing as to how a white goat's disappearances relates to a couple's unraveling relationship. The final story covers almost a lifetime in its 65 pages. The collection earned Munro her second Giller Prize and numerous other awards.

In the early 1990s Alice Munro began spending her winters in Comox, on Vancouver Island, keeping a low profile. Her daughter Sheila Munro published an astute and revealing autobiographical and critical study of their family relationship and her mother's books, Lives of Mothers and Daughters (2001), with Alice Munro's encouragement and consent. [See Sheila Munro entry] An authorized and respectful biography by Robert Thacker appeared four years later.

Lives of Girls and Women was the basis for a Canadian movie that featured Munro's daughter Jenny as the heroine Del Jordan. A short film adaptation of her story 'Boys and Girls' won an Oscar in 1984. Sarah Polley's superb cinematic adaptation of Alice Munro's story 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain,' renamed Away from Her and starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Alice Munro became only the third recipient of the new Man Booker International Prize in June of 2009. Certainly part of her appeal is that her work is distinctly Canadian in a classic 'Who Do You Think You Are' mold: It is imperative not to get uppity, to eschew arrogance, or at least feign humility. Typically, she told her Man Booker audience at Trinity College in Ireland that writing, for her, has always amounted to "always fooling around with what you find. ... This is what you want to do with your time-and people give you a prize for it.";

In one of the more believable stories in Too Much Happiness, entitled 'Fiction,' a graduate of UBC Creative Writing department has published her first collection of stories called How Are We To Live. The protagonist, Joyce, is an older woman who once gave this girl music lessons as a child. She has realized this up'-n'-coming writer is the daughter of the woman to whom she lost her first husband when they were all living at place called Rough River, decades before.

Curiosity sends Joyce to the author's book launch at a North Vancouver bookstore. From her classically Canadian perspective, Munro writes, "Joyce has never understood this business of lining up to get a glimpse of the author and then going away with a stranger's name written in your book."; The self-confident young author has written a story that completely documents the domestic complications that were witnessed as a child, the various intrigues that led to Joyce's divorce, and yet she does not recognize her former music teacher in the flesh. She is very busy taking herself seriously as an author. There is a poster of her wearing a little black jacket, tailored, severe, very low in the neck, and Munro adds, "Though she has practically nothing there to show off.";

This is about as scathing as Alice Munro gets. The self-satisfied young author has simply reiterated reality without going to trouble of fictionalizing it, adding nuances of her own. This writer "sits there and writes her name as if that is all the writing she could be responsible for in this world."; Then there is a line break. An open space on the page. A reprieve. The once-jilted Joyce, since remarried to a 65-year-old neuropsychologist, has left the book signing. And Alice Munro adds a final paragraph.

"Walking up Lonsdale Avenue, walking uphill, she gradually regains her composure. This might even turn into a funny story that she would tell some day. She wouldn't be surprised.";

SELECTED AWARDS: International Man Booker Prize, Governor General's Award (3), PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, Giller Prize (2), The Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, W.H. Smith Prize in the U.K., National Book Circle Critics Award in the U.S., Trillium Prize, Molson's Prize, Libris Award, Rea Award for Lifetime Achievement, Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award (renamed George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award). Harbourfront Prize, 2013. Nobel Prize for Literature, 2013.

BOOKS:

DANCE OF THE HAPPY SHADES (1968)

LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN (1971)

SOMETHING I'VE BEEN MEANING TO TELL YOU (1974)

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? (1978). Published as THE BEGGAR MAID: STORIES OF FLO AND ROSE in the United States and U.K. (1978)

THE MOONS OF JUPITER (1983)

THE PROGRESS OF LOVE (1986)

FRIEND OF MY YOUTH (1990)

OPEN SECRETS (1994)

SELECTED STORIES (1996)

THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN (1998)

HATESHIP, FRIENDSHIP, COURTSHIP, LOVESHIP, MARRIAGE (2001)

RUNAWAY (2004)

THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK (2006)

ALICE MUNRO'S BEST: SELECTED STORIES (2008)

TOO MUCH HAPPINESS (2009)

DEAR LIFE (2012)

FAMILY FURNISHINGS (2014)

Also:

Munro, Sheila. Lives of Mothers and Daughters (M&S, 2001).
Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing her Lives (M&S, 2005).

Short Story Compilations

Selected Stories - 1996
No Love Lost - 2003
Vintage Munro - 2004
Carried Away: A Selection of Stories - 2006
New Selected Stories - 2011

Plus:

Probable Fictions: Alice Munro's Narrative Acts, ed. by Louis K. Mackendrick (1981); Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro by Ildiko De Papp Carrington (1989); Dance of the Sexes: Art and Gender in the Fiction of Alice Munro by Beverly Rasporich (1990); Alice Munro: A Double Life by Catherine Ross (1992); The Tumble of Reason: Alice Munro's Discourse of Absence by Ajay Heble (1994); The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers by John Cooke (1996); Alice Munro by Coral Ann Howells (1998); The Rest of the Story: Critical Essays on Alice Munro, ed. by Robert Thacker (1999); Reading in: Alice Munro's Archives by Joann McCaig (2002). Reading Alice Munro, 1973-2013 by Robert Thacker (University of Calgary Press 2015).

By Alan Twigg / BCBW Publisher / bookworld@telus.net / copyright 2015

"Interview"