Alice Munro, In Her Own Words: 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature


I got interested in reading very early, because
a story was read to me, by Hans Christian Andersen, which was The Little Mermaid, and
I don’t know if you remember The Little Mermaid, but it’s dreadfully sad. The little mermaid
falls in love with this prince, but she cannot marry him, because she is a mermaid. And it’s
so sad I can’t tell you the details. But anyway, as soon as I had finished this story I got
outside and walked around and around the house where we lived, at the brick house, and I
made up a story with a happy ending, because I thought that was due to the little mermaid,
and it sort of slipped my mind that it was only made up to be a different story for me,
it wasn’t going to go all around the world, but I felt I had done my best, and from now
on the little mermaid would marry the prince and live happily ever after, which was certainly
her desert, because she had done awful things to win the prince’s power, his ease. She had
had to change her limbs. She had had to get limbs that ordinary people have and walk,
but every step she took, agonizing pain! This is what she was willing to go through, to
get the prince. So I thought she deserved more than death on the water. And I didn’t
worry about the fact that maybe the rest of the world wouldn’t know the new story, because
I felt it had been published once I thought about it. So, there you are. That was an early
start, on writing. And tell us how you learned to tell a story,
and write it? I made stories up all the time, I had a long
walk to school, and during that walk I would generally make up stories. As I got older
the stories would be more and more about myself, as a heroine in some situation or other, and
it didn’t bother me that the stories were not going to be published to the world immediately,
and I don’t know if I even thought about other people knowing them or reading them. It was
about the story itself, generally a very satisfying story from my point of view, with the general
idea of the little mermaid’s bravery, that she was clever, that she was in general able
to make a better world, because she would jump in there, and have magic powers and things
like that. Was it important that the story would be told
from a woman’s perspective? I never thought of it being important, but
I never thought of myself as being anything but a woman, and there were many good stories
about little girls and women. After you got maybe into your teens it was more about helping
the man to achieve his needs and so on, but when I was a young girl I had no feeling of
inferiority at all about being a woman. And this may have been because I lived in a part
of Ontario where
women did most of the reading, telling most of the stories, the men were outside doing
important things, they didn’t go in for stories. So I felt quite at home. How did that environment inspire you? You know, I don’t think that I needed any
inspiration, I thought that stories were so important in the world, and I wanted to make
up some of these stories, I wanted to keep on doing this, and it didn’t have to do with
other people, I didn’t need to tell anybody, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized
that it would be interesting if one got them into a larger audience. What is important to you when you tell a story? Well, obviously, in those early days the important
thing was the happy ending, I did not tolerate unhappy endings, for my heroines anyway. And
later on I began to read things like Wuthering Heights, and very very unhappy endings would
take place, so I changed my ideas completely and went in for the tragic, which I enjoyed. What can be so interesting in describing small
town Canadian life? You just have to be there. I think any life
can be interesting, any surroundings can be interesting, I don’t think I could have been
so brave if I had been living in a town, competing with people on what can be called a generally
higher cultural level. I didn’t have to cope with that. I was the only person I knew who
wrote stories, though I didn’t tell them to anybody, and as far as I knew, at least for
a while, I was the only person who could do this in the world. Were you always that confident in your writing? I was for a long time, but I became very unconfident
when I grew up and met a few other people who were writing. Then I realized that the
job was a bit harder than I had expected. But I never gave up at all, it was just something
I did. When you start a story, do you always have
it plotted out? I do, but then it often changes. I start with
a plot, and I work at it, and then I see that it goes another way and things happen as I’m
writing the story, but at least I have to start out with a fairly clear idea of what
the story is about. How consumed are you by the story when you
start writing? Oh, desperately. But you know, I always got
lunch for my children, did I not? I was a housewife, so I learned to write in times
off, and I don’t think I ever gave it up, though there were times when I was very discouraged,
because I began to see that the stories I was writing were not very good, that I had
a lot to learn and that it was a much, much harder job than I had expected. But I didn’t
stop, I don’t think I have ever done that. What part is hardest when you want to tell
a story? I think probably that part when you go over
the story and realize how bad it is. You know, the first part, excitement, the second, pretty
good, but then you pick it up one morning and you think “what nonsense”, and that
is when you really have to get to work on it. And for me it always seemed the right
thing to do, it was my fault if the story was bad, not the story’s fault. But how do you turn it around if you are not
satisfied? Hard work. But I try to think of a better
way to explain. You have characters that you haven’t given a chance, and you have to think
about them or do something quite different with them. In my earlier days I was prone
to a lot of flowery prose, and I gradually learned to take a lot of that out. So you
just go on thinking about it and finding out more and more what the story was about, which
you thought you understood in the beginning, but you actually had a lot more to learn. How many stories have you thrown away? Ha, when I was young I threw them all away.
I have no idea, but I haven’t done that so often in recent years, I generally knew what
I had to do to make them live. But there may still always be a mistake somewhere that I
realize is a mistake and you just have to forget about it. Do you ever regret throwing a story away? I don’t think so, because by then I have gone
through enough agony about it, knowing that it didn’t work from the beginning. But as
I say that doesn’t happen very often. Growing older, how does that change your writing? Oh, well, in a very predictable way. You start
out writing about beautiful young princesses and then you write about housewives and children
and later on about old women, and this just goes on, without your necessarily trying to
do anything to change that. Your vision changes. Do you think you have been important to other
female writers, being a housewife, being able to combine household work with writing? I actually don’t know about that, I would
hope that I have been. I think I went to other female writers when I was young, and that
was a great encouragement to me, but whether I have been important to others I don’t know.
I think women have a much, I wouldn’t say easier time, but it’s much more okay now for
women to be doing something important, not just fooling around with a little game that
she does while everybody else is out of the house, but to be really serious about writing,
as a man would write. What impact do you think that you have on
someone reading your stories, women especially? Oh, well, I want my stories to move people,
I don’t care if they are men or women or children. I want my stories to be something about life
that causes people to say, not, oh, isn’t that the truth, but to feel some kind of reward
from the writing, and that doesn’t mean that it has to be a happy ending or anything, but
just that everything the story tells moves the reader in such a way that you feel you
are a different person when you finish. Who do you think you are? What has that expression
meant to you? Well, I grew up in the countryside, I grew
up with people who were generally Scotch-Irish, and it was a very common idea not to try too
much, never to think you were smart. That was another image that was popular, “Ah,
you think you are smart.” And to do anything like writing you’d have to think you were
smart, for quite a while, but I was just a peculiar person. Were you an early feminist? I never knew about the word “feminism”,
but of course I was a feminist, because I actually grew up in a part of Canada where
women could write more easily than men. The big, important writers would be men, but knowing
that a woman wrote stories was probably less to her discredit than if a man wrote stories.
Because it was not a man’s occupation. Well, that was very much in my youth, it’s not that
way at all now. Would it have changed your writing if you
had finished your university studies? It might have indeed, it might have made me
a lot more cautious and a lot more scared about being a writer, because the more I knew
about what people had done, I was naturally rather daunted. I would perhaps have thought
I couldn’t do it, but I don’t think it would have happened, really, maybe for a while,
but then, I wanted to write so much that I would just have gone ahead and tried it anyway. Was the writing a gift, given to you? I don’t think the people around me would have
thought that, but I never thought about it as a gift, I just thought that it was something
that I could do, if I just tried hard enough. So if it was a gift, it certainly wasn’t an
easy gift, not after The Little Mermaid. Did you ever hesitate, did you ever think
that you were not good enough? All the time, all the time! I threw out more
stuff than I ever sent away or finished, and that went on all through my twenties something.
But I was still learning to write the way I wanted to write. So, no, it wasn’t an easy
thing. What did your mother mean to you? Oh, my feelings about my mother were very
complicated, because she was sick, she had Parkinson’s disease, she needed a lot of help,
and her speech was difficult, people couldn’t tell what she was saying, and yet she was
a very gregarious person, who wanted very much to be part of a social life, and of course
that wasn’t possible for her because of her speech problems. So I was embarrassed by her,
I loved her but in a way perhaps didn’t want to be identified with her, I didn’t want to
stand out and say the things she wanted me to say to people, it was difficult in the
same way that any adolescent would think of a person or a parent who was maimed in some
respect. You would want that time to be totally free of such things. Did she inspire you in any way? I think she probably did but not in ways I
could notice or understand. I can’t remember when I wasn’t writing stories, I mean, I didn’t
write them down, but I told them, not to her, to anybody. But the fact that she read, and
my father read too … My mother, I think, would have been more agreeable to someone
who wanted to be a writer. She would have thought that was an admirable thing to be,
but the people around me didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer, cause I didn’t let
them find out, it would have seemed to most people ridiculous. Because most people I knew
didn’t read, they took to life in a very practical way and my whole idea of life had to be rather
sheltered from people I knew. Has it been hard to tell a true story from
a woman’s perspective? No, not at all, because that’s the way I think,
being a woman and all, and it never bothered me. You know this is kind of a special thing
with growing up as I did, if anybody read, it was the women, if anybody had the education
it was often the woman; it would have been a school teacher or something like that, and
far from being closed to women, the world of reading and writing was widely more open
to women than it was to men, men being farmers or doing different kinds of work. And you were brought up in a working class
home? Yes. And that’s where your stories start as well? Yes. I didn’t realize it was a working class
home, I just looked at where I was and wrote about it. And did you like the fact always to write
at specific times, looking at a schedule, taking care of the kids, cooking dinner? Well, I wrote whenever I could, and my first
husband was very helpful, to him writing was an admirable thing to do. He didn’t think
of it as something that a woman couldn’t do, as many of the men that I met later did, he
took it as something that he wanted me to do and never wavered from that. It was great fun in the first place, because
we moved in here, determined to open a bookstore, and everybody thought we were crazy and would
starve to death, but we didn’t. We worked very hard. How important was the bookstore in the beginning
for the two of you, when it all started? It was our livelihood. It was all we had.
We didn’t have any other source of income. The first day when we opened we made 175 dollars.
– Which you thought was a lot. Well, it was, cause it took us a long time to get back
to that again. I used to sit behind the desk and find the
books for people and handle all the things you do in a bookstore, generally just by myself,
and people came in and talked about books a lot, it was very much a place for people
to get together rather than immediately buy things, and this was especially true at night,
when I’d be sitting here by myself, and I had these people come in every night, talking
to me about something, and it was great, it was a lot of fun. Up until this point I had
been a housewife, I was at home all the time, I was a writer as well, but this was a wonderful
chance to get into the world. I don’t think we made much money, possibly I talked to people
a little too much, you know, instead of getting them to the books, but it was a fantastic
time in my life. Visitor in the bookstore: Your books remind
me of home. – Yes, I live right south of Amsterdam. Thank you so much, goodbye. Think of that! Well, I love it when someone
just comes up to you like that, when it’s not only a matter of getting autographs, but
of telling you why. Do you want young women to be inspired by
your books and feel inspired to write? I don’t care what they feel as long as they
enjoy reading the book. I want people to find not so much inspiration as great enjoyment.
That’s what I want; I want people to enjoy my books, to think of them as related to their
own lives in ways. But that isn’t the major thing. I am trying to say that I am not, I
guess I am not a political person. Are you a cultural person? Probably. I am not quite sure what that means,
but I think I am. You seem to have a very simple view on things? Do I? Well, yes. Well, I read somewhere that you want things
to be explained in an easy way. Yes, I do. But I never think that I want to
explain things more easily, that’s just the way I write. I think I write naturally in
an easy way, without thinking that this was to be made more easy. Have you ever run into periods when you haven’t
been able to write? Yes, I have. Well, I gave up writing, when
was it, maybe a year ago, but that was a decision, that was not wanting to write and not being
able to, a decision that I wanted to behave like the rest of the world. Because when you
are writing you are doing something that other people don’t know you are doing, and you can’t
really talk about it, you are always finding your way in this secret world, and then you
are doing something else in the normal world. And I am sort of getting tired of that, I
have done it all my life, absolutely all my life. When I got in company with writers who
were in a way more academic, then I became a little flustered, because I knew I couldn’t
write that way, I didn’t have that gift. I guess it’s a different way of telling a
story? Yes, and I never worked on it in a, what shall
I say, conscious way, well, of course I was conscious, I worked in a way that comforted
and pleased myself more than in a way that followed some kind of idea. Did you ever see yourself win the Nobel Prize? Oh, no, no! I was a woman! But there are women
who have won it, I know. I just love the honour, I love it, but I just didn’t think that way,
because most writers probably underestimate their work, especially after it’s done. You
don’t go around and tell your friends that I will probably win the Nobel Prize. That
is not a common way of greeting one! Do you ever go back these days and read any
of your old books? No! No! I am afraid to! No, but then I would
probably get a terrific urge to change just a little bit here, a little bit there, and
I have even done that in certain copies of my books that I would take out of the cupboard,
but then I realize that it doesn’t matter if I change them, because it’s not changed
out there. Is there anything you want to say to the people
in Stockholm? Oh, I want to say that I am so grateful for
this great honour, that nothing, nothing in the world could make me so happy as this!
Thank you!

26 Replies to “Alice Munro, In Her Own Words: 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature

  1. What an awesome woman! I'm a brazillian writer and her life, her stories inspires me. This video is awesome. Thank you!

  2. she is an awesome person and a great writer. Her stories are so multi-dimensional and complex yet so easy to feel and relate.
    Also her smile is too cute.

  3. Ths interview is really insightful, she has honestly told how her journey was as a writer, and phases and situations a person faces when they want to be a writer.

  4. Munro is the best. The area of southern Ontario is a land I am well familiar with. In the 1970's, I spent much of my summers in Seaforth, Dublin and Goderich in the land that my 1840's Irish ancestors settled and chopped down all the trees, to plant and survive. Clinton is north of these towns. My grandfather was still alive, living in Dublin in a beautiful old farmhouse on the main street and attending Mass at St. Patrick's on Saturday afternoon.

  5. Great writer! How annoying that the interviewer only sees her as a "Women's Writer for Women". I doubt he's read anything she's written.

  6. The interviewer must think that he sounds thoroughly progressive by associating her gender with everything she writes, but he comes off as disrespectful and condescending…

  7. lol when he says "what's so interesting about small-town Canadian life?" and they show a montage of downtown waterfront Victoria BC. My Nobel dudes, that is not small town Canada. Victoria remains a metropolis to me coming from a resource town, population 2000, and yes, you would have to be there to understand. They don't lol. Alice though gives a voice to her own small towns. Thank you Alice.

  8. Nowadays when knowledge production is very much related to educational institutions like universities and when somebody talks about different experiences and becomes inspiration for so many people it gives satisfaction to people around that world that everyone can tell their experiences whatever they are……. thanks Alice for your writing and I will read all your books near future

  9. 2019: Here this guy—this ‘interviewer’ has a chance to speak to a great writer and he is asking asinine questions and riding the ‘you’re a woman writer train’ it’s so annoying and yet she is gracious. Would he ask these questions to man? And would a man put up with his attitude of beig put into a square hole? Probably, not–

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