Alice Munro on the wonder of daydreams

Maclean's archives: 'You sit around and half-think and half-dream ... It's very important to me,' the author told us in 1998

In December 1998, Alice Munro was named to the Maclean’s Honour Roll. At that time, she spoke to Patricia Hluchy about her work and dreams: 

Work for Alice Munro often means staring out the window.

Revered around the world for her short stories, Munro says that many characters and plot details come to her when she’s lolling about the house in a bathrobe and slippers. Later, she records those images in a scribbler, writing two drafts in longhand before turning to a word processor.

“I spend a lot of time in what looks like idleness,” says Munro. “Woolgathering is what we used to call it. It simply means that you sit around and half-think and half-dream. When my oldest daughter was going to university, she’d walk out of the house and I’d be sitting in an armchair with a cup of coffee, and she’d go and take her class, and she’d come home and I’d still be sitting in the armchair. She would say, ‘Oh, Mom.’ But that’s when the process is going on. It’s very important to me.”

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Munro’s daydreams have yielded what many regard as some of the finest short stories ever written. Over the years, sitting in a series of armchairs, she has imagined dozens of unforgettable tales, most of them involving girls and women, and many spiked with baroque secrets, blazing passions, even murder. Her nine collections of short fiction and one novel have won her three Governor General’s Awards, the PEN-Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and, in November, the $25,000 Giller Prize—for her latest collection, The Love of a Good Woman. She inspires such ardour in her readers that 1,500 of them turned up for a rare public reading held recently in Toronto.

Yet over lunch in the southwestern Ontario town of Goderich, just down the road from Munro’s birthplace of Wingham, she confesses that she still suffers from postpartum heebie-jeebies, and is studiously avoiding reviews of her new book.

“I always feel so tentative and frightened about my work,” says Munro, 67. “But still, I feel I have to do it.”

That compulsion to write has been a driving force since she was 13, one of three children born to a fox farmer and his wife. A warm, joyful and still-beautiful presence, she enthuses about her deep attachment to the gently rolling farmland, where most of her stories take place. She and her second husband, retired geographer Gerald Fremlin, live in the town of Clinton, near Goderich–in the house where he was born and raised (they spend their winters in Comox on Vancouver Island). “I love the landscape here,” she says. “We go for long walks; they’re the most wonderful walks you can imagine.”

Munro developed her craft while raising three daughters (now aged 45, 41 and 35) and helping her first husband, James Munro, establish a bookstore in Victoria. There were many dark periods of feeling pulled apart and being racked by self-doubt. “I remember someone in my family–not my husband, who was supportive of my writing–saying to me when I was about 31, ‘It’s time you recognized your limitations and quit this.’ But somehow I just had to ignore that and go on.”

Munro recalls that when her first book appeared in 1968 and she received free copies from the publisher, she hid them in a closet–“because I was just so scared. Did I think they were awful? I guess I was afraid they were.” Dance of the Happy Shades went on to win Munro her first Governor General’s Award.

Since then, Munro has proven her mastery of the short story over and over, offering works of greater complexity and texture with each new collection. What is she working on now? “More stories,” she replies.

Which means that Alice Munro is spending a lot of time staring out the window.

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