Brain Pickings

Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize Interview: Writing, Women, and the Rewards of Storytelling

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“I want my stories to move people … to feel some kind of reward from the writing.”

When Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature, she was too ill to travel and receive the prestigious accolade in person, so instead of delivering the customary Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm, she was interviewed by the Swedish Academy in her home. The conversation — a wide-ranging dance across the spectrum of literature and life — reveals Munro’s sharp, dimensional, highly self-ware mind driven by equal parts confidence and doubt, and above all by an unflinching faith in literature’s capacity to change us.

It’s rather unnerving and anachronistic — though befitting the Achilles heel of the Nobel Prize — that the interviewer seems so bent on asking Munro questions about “women writers” and what it’s like to be one, but she pushes back beautifully and touches on many other aspects of writing not encumbered by the dated and unnecessary gender narrative. Highlights below.

On receiving her first literary inspiration from the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and using walking as a creative prompt:

The Little Mermaid is dreadfully sad. . . . As soon as I had finished the story, I got outside and I walked around and around the house where we lived … and I made up a story with a happy ending — because I thought that was due to the Little Mermaid.

On being somewhat immune to literature’s women problem:

I never thought of myself as anything but a woman. . . . When I was a young girl, I had no feeling of inferiority at all for being a woman. And this may have been because I lived in a part of Ontario where … women did most of the reading, women did most of the telling of stories — the men were outside doing “important” things and they didn’t go in for the stories. So I felt quite at home.

On the gift of ignorance and growing up in a small town and using the seemingly mundane as material for literature:

I think any life can be interesting — I think any surrounds can be interesting. I don’t think I would’ve been nearly so bold as a writer if I had lived in a [bigger] town and if I had gone to school with other people who were interested in the same things I was … what you might call a “higher cultural level.” I didn’t have to cope with that — I was the only person I knew who wrote stories. . . . I was, as far as I knew, the only person who could do this in the world!

On the parallel universe of the writer’s life:

When you’re a writer, you’re never quite like other people — you’re doing a job that other people don’t know you’re doing and you can’t talk about it, really, and you’re just always finding your way in the secret world and then you’re doing something else in the “normal” world.

On her highest aspiration for her writing, echoing Tolkien’s notion that there are no special audiences in literature when the interviewer asks how she hopes her writing would impact “women especially”:

I want my stories to move people — I don’t care if they’re men or women or children. I want my stories to be something about life that causes people not to say, “Oh, isn’t that the truth,” but to feel some kind of reward from the writing. And that doesn’t mean that it was to have a happy ending or anything — but just that everything the story tells moves [you] in such a way that you feel you’re a different person when you finish.

Complement with Munro on writing, the Nobel Prize acceptance speeches of Ernest Hemingway and Seamus Heaney, and the collected advice of great writers.

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