Munro’s Books, our appreciation night at the Tangent Café for Canada’s beloved Nobel Prize laureate, was a delightful evening.
There were heartfelt readings from favoured short stories by members of the city’s diverse writing community. For me at least, hearing her immaculate sentences read out loud added even more to Alice Munro’s wondrous ability to draw one in with just a few, memorable paragraphs. It made me want to re-read all her stories, and catch up on the ones I’ve missed.
I also found it interesting that most of the selections were from collections of some years ago. I’m not sure that was because the readers felt her later work was not quite as good, or whether it was the fact they were younger and maybe just starting out in the writing game, when they first encountered those wonderful, early short stories. Likely the latter. Nothing resonates so much as discovering great literature when one is young. It stays with you forever.
There were also some lovely anecdotes. Perhaps the best was told by novelist/forest company president/columnist Anne Giardini. One of five children of the late, great author Carol Shields, she recalled the time when they were all just kids, creating chaos in the house, while their mom was trying to have a conversation over the phone with, yes, Alice Munro. Of course, each household had only one phone in those pioneer days, so there was no escaping the noise. Finally, in exasperation, Carol Shields told her children: “Ssshhh, it’s Alice Munro.” The phrase became a family joke for years, repeated endlessly, in that irreverent, teasing way children have with their mother. “Ssshhh, it’s Alice Munro.” Cue the gales of laughter.
As part of my brief bit, I shared a treasured letter that Alice Munro sent to Barbara Gunn, now an editor at The Vancouver Sun, but then an English literature student at the University of B.C. Never really expecting a response, Barb had written to Munro with some questions about Lives of Girls and Women, a book she had read and re-read and hoped to do an essay on. Imagine her pleasure, several weeks later, when a reply came through the mail slot (ah, the days of letters and home delivery…)
Here’s what Alice Munro wrote. I think it’s quite illuminating.
“Dear Barbara Gunn:
Your letter delighted me. I’m always glad if Lives stands up to re-reading. When you present a book to the world, it’s not just a piece of work, but a whole attitude you present. It’s a way of seeing things and when people accept or reject it, that is really what they’re dealing with.
Now, to your questions. Lives is absolutely personal, autobiographical if you like, in feeling. Most incidents in it are invented. The other people, and what happens, are invented in a way best suited to bring out what the girl feels, discovers, etc.
eg, the scene at the dance-hall takes my own feeling and experience of such dances, and builds a scene to show that, using details both invented and remembered. It doesn’t matter what’s ‘real’ then. It’s what ‘works’. Do you see?
It took me a long time to write Lives – not the actual writing, but to get a perspective on the material. When I got a feeling of delight about it – about the material, a really shocking feeling of delight, then I could do it.
Best of luck,
At the top was: “Box 1139, Clinton, Ontario. Feb. 17, 1977. “
Thanks to the Globe’s Marsha Lederman, who provides the best regular arts coverage in the city, for rising from her sick bed to host, and to freelancer extraordinaire Kerry Gold, for getting the whole thing going.
And thanks, as well, to participants Caroline Adderson, Tom Scholte, Anne Giardini, Cynthia Flood, Shaena Lambert, Anakana Schofield, Hal Wake, Sandy Garossino and Aislinn Hunter. Kudso as well to the good folks at the Tangent Café, for providing such a warm, comfortable setting. As the evening wound down, I asked the manager how sales had been. “We’ve never sold so much wine,” he replied.
As a bonus, here’s the New Yorker’s take on Alice Munro’s “living room acceptance” of the Nobel Prize.