Excerpted from The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Alice Munro is the author of twelve previous collections of stories—the most recent of which are Runaway, The View from Castle Rock, and Too Much Happiness—as well as a novel, Lives of Girls and Women. Among the many awards and prizes she has received are: three Governor General’s Literary Awards and two Giller Prizes in Canada; the Rea Award, the Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and other publications, and her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.
Q: What draws you to short stories as opposed to novels? What do you find that the shorter form enables you to do that a novel perhaps would not?
A: I seem to turn out stories that violate the discipline of the short story form and don't obey the rules of progression for novels. I don't think about a particular form, I think more about fiction, let's say a chunk of fiction. What do I want to do? I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way--what happens to somebody--but I want that 'what happens' to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing--not the 'what happens' but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.
Q: Where do you get the idea for a story or for a particular character?
A: Sometimes I get the start of a story from a memory, an anecdote, but that gets lost and is usually unrecognizable in the final story. Suppose you have--in memory--a young woman stepping off a train in an outfit so elegant her family is compelled to take her down a peg (as happened to me once), and it somehow becomes a wife who's been recovering from a mental breakdown, met by her husband and his mother and the mother's nurse whom the husband doesn't yet know he's in love with. How did that happen? I don't know.
Q: What are your writing habits--Do you use a computer? Do you write every day? In the morning or at night? How long does it take to complete a story?
A: I've been using a computer for a year--I'm a late convert to every technological offering and still don't own a microwave oven--but I do one or two drafts long hand before I go to the keyboard. A story might be done in two months, beginning to end, and ready to go, but that's rare. More likely six to eight months, many changes, some false directions, much fiddling and some despair. I write everyday unless it's impossible and start writing as soon as I get up and have made coffee and try to get two to three hours in before real life hauls me away.
Q: What advice would you give to young writers?
A: It's not possible to advise a young writer because every young writer is so different. You might say, "Read," but a writer can read too much and be paralyzed. Or, "Don't read, don't think, just write," and the result could be a mountain of drivel. If you're going to be a writer you'll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think "There must be something else people do" you won't quite be able to quit.
Q: What writers have most influenced you and who do you like to read?
A: When I was young it was Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, James Agee. Then Updike, Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Taylor, and especially and forever, William Maxwell. Also William Trevor, Edna O'Brien, Richard Ford. These I would say are influences. There are dozens of others I just like to read. My latest discovery is a Dutch writer, Cees Nooteboom. I hate doing lists like this because I'll be banging my head soon that I left somebody wonderful out. That's why I speak only of those who have influenced, not of all who have delighted me.
Q: Cynthia Ozick has called you "our Chekhov." How does that comparison make you feel?
A: I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it's a humbling experience. I don't even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light--there's no striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, wouldn't I love to do that!
Q: Many critics have praised you for being able to create an entire life in a page. How do you achieve such a feat?
A: I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth--what clothes they'd choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I'm dealing with. I can't see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.
Q: Most of your stories have not strayed very far from home--your native Ontario. What makes where you live such fertile ground for so many different stories?
A: I don't think of myself as being in any way an interpreter of rural Ontario, where I live. I think there's perhaps an advantage living here of knowing more different sorts of people than you would know in a larger community (where you'd be shut up, mostly, in your own income or educational or professional "class"). The physical setting is perhaps "real" to me, in a way no other is. I love the landscape, not as "scenery" but as something intimately known. Also the weather, the villages and towns, not in their picturesque aspects but in all phases. Human experience though doesn't seem to me to differ, except in fairly superficial ways, no matter what the customs and surroundings.
Q: Memory plays a key role in many of your stories. What is it about the power of memory and how it shapes our lives that most intrigues you?
A: Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories--and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What could be more interesting as a life's occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people's different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.
Q: Do you have a particular story or stories that are especially close to your heart?
A: I always like the story I'm trying to write at the moment the best, and the stories I've just published next best, In my new book, I'm very attached to "Save the Reaper" and "My Mother's Dream." Among the older ones, I like "Progress of Love" and "Labor Day Dinner" and "Carried Away" a lot. And actually many others.
1. In the first story, "The Love of a Good Woman," how has the town of Jutland, its way of life and its mores, affected Enid's character and desires and helped to mold her into the person she is? What does she want from life and what compromises has she made? Does she believe Mrs. Quinn's tale of murder? If so, does it make Rupert more, or less, attractive to her? What exactly does she want from Rupert?
2. What does the author accomplish by dividing "Jakarta" into two parts--the distant past and the present? In what essential way do the two marriages (Kath and Kent; Sonje and Cottar) differ? How are Kath's and Sonje's different attitudes to marriage borne out in the subsequent courses of their lives? Might Sonje's conviction that Cottar is still alive be true, or is it merely an attempt to hold on to a remnant of her former happiness?
3. In "Cortes Island," why did the narrator and her husband decide to marry, and how does the marriage evolve? Does the author imply that the same evolution occurs in many, or most, marriages? What sort of reflection do the Gorries and their rather grotesque marriage and menage cast upon that of their young lodgers? Why does Mr. Gorrie want the narrator to know about his past? Why is Mr. Gorrie, rather than any other man, featured in the narrator's erotic dreams? How does the narrator's sense of self change over the course of her story?
4. In what ways are Eve and Sophie in "Save the Reaper" similar in character, and in what ways are they different? Would you say that Sophie, either consciously or unconsciously, has modeled her life on her mother's? If so, is the situation changing? Why does Eve, in spite of her obvious fears, give the vagrant girl directions to her house? What might the title of the story (a quotation from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shallott") signify?
5. How does Pauline, in "The Children Stay," perceive marriage and family life? Does the author imply that the pretenses and the feeling of imprisonment that Pauline experiences are present, to some degree, in every marriage? Is the "bleakness" Pauline senses in herself and her father-in-law due to their situations, or their characters? Pauline says at the end that Jeffrey was not Orphée. Is she being honest? In what ways does "The Children Stay" echo or parallel the story of Orpheus and Eurydice? What role does the idea of fate play for the various characters?
6. How does Karin in "Rich As Stink" perceive the dynamic between Rosemary, Derek and Ann? How closely does her perception correspond with the reality? Would you agree with Karin that Derek has "given up on" both Rosemary and Ann (p. 236)? How much has Rosemary's wealth to do with her acceptance by Derek and Ann? Why doesn't Ann want Derek to see Karin in her wedding dress, and why is Karin determined to wear it to the dinner party? What sort of future do you envision for Rosemary? For Karin?
7. In "Before the Change," what do the narrator's experiences at home with her father tell her about her relationship with Robin, its illusions, and its unhappy end? Robin differentiates "ideas" and "life"; is he being cynical or simply realistic? How are the narrator's beliefs about abortion and parenthood affected by her own mother's death in childbirth, and how are these beliefs modified during the course of the story? How do her ideas about love, too, undergo changes? Might she have made different decisions about her love affair and pregnancy if she had it to do over again?
8. In "My Mother's Dream," what has the dream, described at the beginning of the story, to do with Jill's actual life and experiences? Has she known what it is to "leave" a baby? What relation does Jill's struggle with the baby have to her struggle with George's family and his memory? Would you say that this mother-child struggle is a universal one, extreme though it is in Jill's case?