To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. The following excerpts are taken from an interview with acclaimed Canadian author Alice Munro, originally printed in 1995 as part of a special issue of Meanjin that focused on Australian-Canadian relations. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013.
Meanjin: How does a story get started?
Munro: Story telling is continuous. Story doesn’t stop, at least not the sort of stories I’m interested in writing. There are certain types of stories which do, in fact, end. Which do come to a conclusion. Political stories conclude. Because they have some purpose to fulfil which is separate from telling a story. Such stories want to engage and challenge us with the issues they present, usually in the hope of satisfying some political or social agenda. The problem with issue-driven fiction is that it doesn’t arouse feelings or disturb us in the way I think good fiction should. The message becomes more important than the questions or puzzles nurtured by human experience or behaviour.
Meanjin: Are you suggesting then that your stories do not make a political or social comment?
Munro: No. I’m certain my stories do have social and political content, at least in the broadest sense of those terms. Obviously every human action has some political impulse and social consequence. But I’d rather leave any interpretation of these motives in my work to the reader or the critic. Why invent characters if they simply embody some polemical goal? I don’t like messages attached to my reading. This is why I’m not too fond of Tolstoy or D.H. Lawrence. While some of the writing in both writers is beautiful, I’m not at all interested in the sermons attached to their stories. On the other hand, Eudora Welty makes a southern American town feel absolutely magical, but she may be—in fact, often is—politically incorrect. The experience she relates, though, is both accurate and authentic. And emotionally and intellectually disturbing. Her book, The Golden Apples, is one of my favourite books. But I guess if I were black and had grown up in the South, I would have felt excluded from that book.
By contrast, I was annoyed with the dialogue in a novel I read recently because the exchange between the characters appeared to be little more than a political debate. I think my response here has something to do with the fact that I proceed from induction rather than deduction. I also think that writing about ‘current issues’ dates very quickly. Still, in certain contexts I can see where writing that’s overtly political can be ‘useful’ fiction.
Meanjin: How have your views of writing changed from the publication of Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) to the recent publication of Open Secrets (1994)?
Munro: When I started to write I wrote about things that puzzled me—death, love, all the obvious concerns that tend to confuse us throughout our lives. Describing life made life bearable for me. While I’m still puzzled, I realize the questions we ask are far more intriguing than the answers we give or sometimes think we’ve discovered. This is why Open Secrets is not a good introduction to my work. These stories don’t close in the way people expect or want them to.
Meanjin: You’re suggesting that some readers are challenged when their expectations are unfulfilled? They feel cheated, perhaps, because part of their sense of anticipation as a reader is that you will bring the story to a satisfactory resolution?
Munro: Yes. The stories in Open Secrets aren’t about what they seem to be about. Clearly some people find this quite disconcerting. My sister, who is a conservative reader—she reads good books, but nothing too experimental—phoned me after she’d read the first story in Open Secrets and said ‘I can’t stand it.’ She had wanted a normal ending, where everything was resolved. One woman, who I consider to be a fairly sophisticated reader, wrote to me recently about the new book and accused me of having betrayed a trust, a trust presumably that had been built up through her reading of the earlier books. She signed her letter ‘Still a fan’, but she was obviously upset. Certainly I’m grateful for readers, but my response to her was that we never had a contract. When I write there is a reader there for me, an imagined ideal reader, someone I’m definitely talking to, but no writer can be handcuffed by reader expectations. I don’t mind negative reactions because they make me reflect on what I’m doing. Criticism is more helpful then unadulterated praise. I realize that when people object to certain things they bring their own biases. This forces me to re-examine my ideas and usually confirms what I’m doing. On the other hand, I’m bothered when people say how grim or depressing my stories are. This has been particularly true with Open Secrets. I disagree with this response to my work. ‘Spaceships Have Landed’ has a lightness about it of which I’m quite fond.
Meanjin: I would agree, although I don’t think your stories are ever ‘light’, at least not in the sense that most people would use that word. Your stories are beautifully balanced, and humour and irony are a part of that balance.
Munro: Obviously I don’t mean to suggest that violence of any sort, mental or physical, done to any human being is ‘light’ subject matter.
Meanjin: But you are concerned that the full range of emotional experience be recognized in your work?
Meanjin: Does it bother you, then, when certain critics use the terms ‘provincial’ or ‘regional’ to describe your writing? Do you think these words, which are used by Brian Fawcett and others in a way that is accusatory, accurately reflect what you are doing?
Munro: Outside of Canada readers are much more receptive to what is regional. Americans see this quality in Faulkner or Welty as a virtue.
Meanjin: Or, more recently, in Raymond Carver.
Munro: Yes. Fawcett compared my work to Carver’s. In Canada these are pejorative terms. Patronizing. I’m not certain what either word means to these people. They appear to be limiting their use of the terms to geography. They’re usually talking about a place they think is unimportant. I write about what I know well. My people go back one hundred and fifty years in that place. I know what’s going on in a bar, a house, a church, a store; I have a feeling for what’s going on. This is essential! Those who criticize my work as being too provincial seem to be suggesting that people live very different lives in different places. To a certain extent this is true, but the implication is that the rural experience is limited. Hence, less valid. I think we should celebrate those differences. At the same time those differences are not so great that we cannot share in the emotional experiences that are common to us all. I think this criticism is a desperate attempt to legitimize Canadian literature. Urban equals legitimacy. How can Canadian literature be world class if written about rural Ontario? This is such a parochial complaint to begin with. By extension, I guess they would dismiss all the southern American women writers I like so much. Or many of the Latin American writers who have become so popular. After all, Garcia Marquez is regional, at least as I understand their use of the term. I think Fawcett is probably equally concerned that I’m not pushing a particular ideology.
Meanjin: In Open Secrets you’ve extended the short story form. It’s easy for an established writer to settle back and repeat successes, but you’ve refused to do this. You take risks which, with all due respect to your detractors, doesn’t surprise me.
Munro: It’s pointless to go on if you don’t take risks. While the stories in Open Secrets have elements of mystery and romance, for example, themes which have always attracted readers, the stories don’t satisfy in the same way as a traditional mystery or romance would. As I stated earlier, I wanted these stories to be open. I wanted to challenge what people want to know. Or expect to know. Or anticipate knowing. And as profoundly, what I think I know. Also, I wanted to record how women adapt to protect men. The emotional and intellectual pull in ‘The Albanian Virgin’ is the legitimacy given to the female who denies her sexuality. This is similar to the school marm in the old west who gave up her female identity to become the teacher. The different woman. The emotional pull is the strength of denial. Women have been pulled in half this way for a long time. Well into this century; marriage and having children have not been attractive options for a lot of women. And, frankly, nor have the alternatives. Equally important in this new collection, I’ve been concerned with time. How do we relate to time and space. In ‘Carried Away’ I began with a conventional romantic plot, but from the start I knew Louisa would lose the man. The reality is you don’t always get the man you want. And what if there are alternate realities? I felt it was important that the man age in the story, but that Louisa encounter the several potential realities available to her in her future. Our own lives are made up of this sort of mix. We are the ones who impose the notion of succession on our lives. Perhaps this is how we avoid confronting what is fantasy and what is reality. That is, if it is ever possible to make a meaningful distinction between the two. We rarely live beyond the one reality we define or choose for ourselves. Yet things happen simultaneously in the universe. Something completely unimportant really does matter, at least in one version of the future. And rarely is it what we expect. I suspect these are the concerns which caused some of my readers to feel uneasy about the new book. Form is never stationary or static. Much of the material might appear to be familiar but the security that familiarity offers the reader is illusory. For some first-time readers of my work, these stories must appear quite strange or fragmented indeed. Quite disjointed.
Meanjin: The word displacement comes to mind. Events in time are not necessarily sequential, especially when we factor memory into the equation. Your work has been evolving in this direction for some time. Figurative gaps, what we usually define as metaphor, have been supplanted by spatial and temporal gaps. Does this explain why the stories in the new collection are all quite long? All have the scope, the range, the vision of novels. As the inspiration for your work becomes more complex, have you considered writing novels? I should admit here that I really don’t think Lives of Girls and Women is a novel.
Munro: I don’t know if Lives is a novel or not. Thats for you to decide. Certainly each section in the book is quite separate. Quite distinct. Yet the book is unified.
The answer is yes. I’m always trying to write a novel. In fact, I’m working on one right now, but I have trouble making them long enough because I’m incapable of doing the in-between stuff. You know, the things that keep it moving along, but that aren’t important in themselves. If I finish this novel I’m working on, it will probably be too short. But I feel somewhat encouraged by a Dutch writer I’m reading, Cees Nooteboom. His novels are very short, often less than a hundred pages. I could write a novel of that length, but I don’t think my publisher would go for it.
I’ve tried to write several novels and they’ve all failed. When I try to write a novel it flies in too many directions. From a little clot it moves out and I can’t rein it in. Most, if not all, of these efforts have eventually become stories. For example, three stories in Open Secrets, which started as a novel, come from a single source: ‘The Albanian Virgin’, ‘Carried Away’, and ‘A Real Life’. A book by Edith Durham, High Albania, provided the initial information and inspiration for ‘The Albanian Virgin’. She travelled the country extensively around 1908, a bit earlier than the time I set my story in. And the concept of the Albanian virgin, about which she had written, fascinated me. There was this possibility for women that if they opted out of marriage and sex they could become independent. They could be some kind of honorary man. They would be all alone and had to do everything for themselves. But there was this possibility—they could reject the traditional role and be just themselves. As I said earlier, we’ve had something similar in our culture, a modern counterpart. The spinster. The woman who didn’t marry but carved out a life for herself and became a music teacher or librarian. She, too, had to renounce sex and everything that went with it. You couldn’t have it both ways.
Then in writing the first drafts of that story, I attempted to use ‘A Real Life’ as a framing device. Needless to say, that didn’t work. Dorrie’s character grew into something unexpected. And quite special. Her liberation is exhilarating. Her potential, while unrecognized by others in her community, is as huge as the world she is prepared to explore. She is capable of change in a way that threatens Millicent. ‘A Real Life’ became its own story. Next, the protagonist in the first version of ‘The Albanian Virgin’ was a librarian, but I soon found myself doing research on librarians and popular titles of the day. The next thing I knew I had kidnapped my librarian from ‘The Albanian Virgin’ and brought her to ‘Carried Away’.
But I still wanted to write about the Albanian Virgin. The two people who supply the tale are based on a couple who used to come into the bookstore my first husband and I started in Victoria. They were English and had very strong accents. They were always trying to sell us books for cash. Anything for cash, in fact. Once, when I admired a bracelet the woman was wearing, mostly to make conversation, she immediately offered to sell it to me. But I didn’t want it, of course. With the money they managed to make, they played the horses. The man went around with a wheelbarrow and wore a long cloak. They were quite a sight. At that time, this was around 1963, you did not see many eccentrics in Victoria.
This is the way in which my potential novels tend to fly to pieces. Ideas for stories need an emotional pull and once I sense that pull I go with it. I lose control over my original intention.
Meanjin: Does this matter? I would have thought that if the work is complete on its own terms, then it has fulfilled whatever obligation it has to the reader. Borges suggests that you should provide no more than what the reader needs to complete the work in his or her own imagination.
Munro: Yes, I can accept that. I’m certainly not intentionally withholding anything from the reader. I feel the stories are complete. They’re simply not novels.
Meanjin: The label is really unimportant. Your stories are as long as many of Marguerite Duras’s novels. And, while different, I would suggest they have comparable depth and complexity. Maybe its these qualities that define a novel?
Munro: I don’t know. However, I do know that I must pursue the emotional life my stories demand of me. I guess I’ve learned to accept what is given. As long as the stories disturb people or point to the ways in which they should be dissatisfied with the status quo, then I assume I’ve done my job.
Meanjin: Then writing is more than merely ‘a way of getting on top of experience’, as you said in an earlier interview?
Munro: When did I say that? It must have been a long time ago. Certainly I never managed to achieve that goal.
Meanjin: Your stories often deal with sexual experience and often that experience is very sensual. Is this important in your writing?
Munro: Yes. Sex and sexuality are central to our being.
Meanjin: In this respect, you seem equally comfortable in your creation of female or male protagonists. For example, in ‘Thanks For The Ride’ from Dance Of The Happy Shades you write from the male point of view with amazing accuracy and insight. And in the new book both ‘Spaceships Have Landed’ and ‘Carried Away’ capture the male psyche as well as any male writer. How do you feel about voice appropriation?
Munro: I love it! I intend to do more! Is this really still an issue? Are there people who actually believe that a woman can’t write from the point of view of a man? I would have thought it was the intensity and colour of perception and the quality of writing that mattered. In the past people criticized me for only writing about WASPs. They thought that the range of my work was too limited. Too narrow. Not relevant at all. Why wasn’t I interested in real problems? What about our Native people? they’d ask.
Meanjin: I admire much of the writing in Open Secrets, but one sentence in particular struck me …
Munro: ‘You cannot let your parents anywhere near your real humiliations.’ Is that the sentence?
Meanjin: Yes. How did you know?
Munro: You mentioned earlier that you have a nineteen-year-old daughter. I wouldn’t have thought that this was as applicable to young people today. I like to think that children can talk more openly to their parents now than they were able to in our generation, but I guess there will always be this part of us that is secret. Private. That doesn’t cross the generational gap very easily.
Meanjin: Actually I was reacting to the line within the context of my own experience. But I think the substance of the sentence is still true. There are emotional experiences that are terribly difficult to communicate.
Munro: Yes. You’re right, of course. Sex remains a barrier to so much.
Meanjin: One of the Stories in Open Secrets, ‘The Jack Randa Hotel’, is set in Australia. Obviously you’ve spent time there and feel comfortable enough with your knowledge of the place to use it as a setting.
Munro: Yes. The first time I went there was after I had won the Canada· Australia Prize. That was in 1979/1980. The following year, in 1981, I did a term as writer-in-residence at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane. By then I’d made lots of friends and this led to trading houses with Judith Rodriguez and Thomas Shapcott in 1983. They came to Clinton and we lived in their house in Melbourne. Its hard to believe that this is now more than ten years ago. That I haven’t been back since, and may perhaps never be able to go again. I’ve always thought that this would somehow continue to happen, but other things take over one’s life and all of a sudden you’re so much older.
Meanjin: It sounds as if you enjoyed your time in Australia.
Munro: I enjoyed it tremendously! Let’s hope they don’t mind me saying this, but I found it very much like being on a mirror planet. Most things seemed to be very similar. There were the same kinds of scandals involving politicians, big murder cases that were followed by everyone, and so on. All the things we have in Canada. Only the names were different. But the whole culture seemed very familiar. The only difference was that it was more openly male dominated. And they were more open to controversy. Literary controversies, I mean. In Canada we’ve always been very genteel. We do not like to criticize our writers. There seems to be a fear that if we started doing that, our literature would not be able to take it and would disappear again. As if it were a protected plant or bird. But in Australia there was no such caution and people indulged in feuds and things like that.
I guess it has to do with the fact that they’re much more independent than we are. They’re much farther away from Britain and not close to the United States. They’ve stood up for themselves. Their film industry is marvellous and what they turn out for TV is also very good. I could have easily spent all my time watching Australian soap operas. I particularly liked a show called Cop Shop. And what I also noticed is that they admire their directors and actors. They’re stars. And the Australian movies enjoy big billing in the cinemas. Very different from here.
Meanjin: What about Australian writers? Who do you like?
Munro: Let me answer it like this. I love the work of Elizabeth Jolley. I think she is one of the greatest writers in the whole world. Period.
Meanjin: Do you have a writing schedule that you stick to?
Munro: Yes, I get up, make some coffee and start working. I write till eleven in the morning. After that I tidy up the house, go for a walk, write letters and read.
Meanjin: For the last few years you have divided your time between living in Ontario and B.C. How do you feel about this?
Munro: I like it. I like being near my daughters and grandchildren. But the geography of B.C. is so different. It’s all so vertical. I miss being able to see across distances. I’m not accustomed to having something suddenly block my view. I miss the geography around Clinton. I know it. I know how to look at it….
Meanjin Volume 54 Issue 2 1995
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles