85 fascinating Alice Munro facts for her 85th birthday

munro-banner.jpg

Literary legend Alice Munro turns 85 on July 10. The Canadian writer is revered worldwide as a master of the short story, with 14 acclaimed collections and a Nobel Prize to prove it.

Below, we've curated a list of 85 facts from her remarkable life and writing career.

am-fact1-22-prizes-final.pngThis includes the Nobel Prize, three Governor General's Literary Awards, two Scotiabank Giller Prizes, two Trillium Book Awards, the National Book Critics' Circle Award, three O.Henry Awards and the Man Booker International Prize. In the 1987 photo above, Alice (left) is accepting the Governor General's Literary Award from Governor General Jeanne Sauvé. (Blaise Edwards/Canadian Press)

2. She was born Alice Laidlaw on July 10, 1931, in Wingham, Ontario. Munro was raised on what she calls a "collapsing enterprise of a fox and mink farm."

3. Munro turned to short stories when she started writing as a housewife with three young daughters, she didn't have the time to devote to a novel. She thought she'd write short stories for a while, and found the form captivated her.

4. She would think about her stories during her babies' naps before she ever put pen to paper. But the problem with this scenario was that if another housewife knocked on the door, Munro couldn't really use "thinking" as an excuse to shoo the person away.

5. Despite her stratospheric success with the short story form, Munro often spoke of her wish to write a novel. "I'm always trying," she told the Guardian in 2003. "Between every book I think, well now, it's time to get down to the serious stuff."

am-fact6-mermaid-final.pngBy Helen Stratton [Public domain] published on page 130 in The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen circa 1899, sourced via Wikimedia Commons.

7. She knew she wanted to be a writer by the age of 14, "But back then you didn't go around announcing something like that," she says. "You didn't call attention. Maybe it was being Canadian, maybe it was being a woman. Maybe both."

8. Her first book of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, was written over a 15-year span.

9. When Munro got copies of the book from her publisher, she hid them in a closet so she wouldn't have to look at them. One night, she finally took a copy out, read it and thought "It's not as bad as I thought." This book went on to win the Governor General's Literary Award in 1968.

10. Margaret Atwood read Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968, the year it was published in Canada. Atwood remembers being curled up beside a bar heater in freezing cold Edmonton when she read it and thinking "This is the real thing - wow."

am-fact11-dickens-final.png

12. Dickens's Child's History was full of grisly beheadings. Munro would reframe the stories in the book with herself as the heroine, and change the endings: "If I really liked my heroine in the story I didn't get her head chopped off - I changed the story so that wouldn't happen."

13. Munro's childhood home was turned into a beauty parlour called Total Indulgence.

14. She graduated from Wingham District High School with the highest standing in her class in 1949.¹

15. She didn't attract much attention outside of Canada until her work began appearing in The New Yorker. Her first New Yorker story was "Royal Beatings" in 1977.

16. The acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar's new film, Julieta, is based on a trilogy of Alice Munro stories - "Chance," "Soon" and "Silence," from her 2004 collection Runaway. Watch the trailer below:

17. According to Munro, no one in Clinton, Ontario, where she's lived since the 1970s, knows who she is, "or if they do, they're a little embarrassed... I like that nobody here cares much about writing," she says. "It allows me to feel quite free."

18. Reading wasn't really encouraged in her family. Once it was obvious that Munro had turned into a serious reader, her mother referred to her as "another Emma McClure!" Emma McClure was a recluse relative of theirs who, according to Munro, "had been reading day and night for 35 years, with no time out to get married, learn the names of her nephews and nieces or comb her hair when she came in to town."

19. Munro's mother, Anne Laidlaw, started suffering the effects of Parkinson's disease when Munro was about 13. As the oldest child, Munro had to take over much of the housework, but says "It gave me a sense of responsibility, purpose, being important. It didn't bother me at all."

20. Even when Munro became a housewife herself, it wasn't the housework she resented: "Housework never really bothered me... what bothered me about it later was that it was expected to be your life... when you're a housewife you are constantly interrupted. You have no space in your life. It isn't the fact that you do the laundry."

wish alice munro happy birthday

21. Munro says that her own stories start in "almost any old way at all that I can get into it."

22. Out of high school, Munro won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, but there was no money to continue. She thinks that had she finished her university degree, "It might have made me a lot more cautious. It might have made me scared of being a writer."

23. Going to university, instead of staying at home and looking after her mother, is something that Munro still feels guilty about. She's called writing about her mother her "central material in life... If I just relax, that's what will come up."

24. Her first published story, "The Dimensions of a Shadow," appeared in the University of Western Ontario's undergraduate creative writing magazine, Folio, in the spring of 1950.

25. When the editor of the magazine read it, he ran down the hall waving his hands around, yelling "You've GOT to read this!"

26. The Royal Canadian Mint issued a commemorative Alice Munro coin in 2014, to celebrate her Nobel win. The coin includes a passage from her short story "Messenger."

am-fact26-coin.png(Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

27. One of Munro's early stories, published in university, ended with a character saying "Jesus Christ!" This was very hard for her family.

28. She met her first husband, James Munro, at the university library. She was always hungry in university because she had little money for food. He was eating Peps - peppermints coated in chocolate. He dropped one on the floor and looked around before picking it up and eating it, to make sure no one saw him eat something off the floor. Alice looked at him and said "I'll eat it."

29. They got married at Christmastime. Alice Munro was 20 years old. She couldn't afford a big white dress, so she wore a burgundy velvet dress.

30. After her first story collection won the Governor General's Literary Award in 1968, Munro felt a lot of pressure to write a novel. She tried, to no avail. Her publisher, Douglas Gibson, told her, "Alice, they're all wrong. You're a great short story writer. If you want to go on publishing short stories for the rest of your life, I'll go on publishing them."

31. She spoke out against banning books on CBC Television in 1979, after the school board in her native Huron County banned her book Lives of Girls and Women from the 12th grade syllabus.

media clip

32. Both of her husbands, James Munro and Gerald Fremlin, were understanding and supportive of her writing, which she has described as a "marvellous gift."

33. From the ages of 25 to 35, Munro feared she didn't have the talent to be a writer. During this time, she threw out more writing than she finished, and suffered from horrible writer's block and anxiety.

34. In 1963, she and her husband James opened a bookstore in Victoria, B.C. She credits working in Munro's Books with helping her overcome writer's block: "The writing ceased to be this all-important thing that I had to prove myself with. The pressure came off." She wrote two stories during her three years working in the store, and both were published.

35. The first day the bookstore opened they made $175, which they thought was "marvellous."

am-fact36-munros-books-jw.pngBookseller Taliah Lundstrom stacks copies of Alice Munro's Dear Life at Munro's Books in Victoria, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

37. Munro credits her success as a writer partly to not heeding something that was often repeated within her family: "You must recognize your limitations."

38. She admitted in an interview that she'd smoked marijuana before, but didn't say what she thought about it. 

39. She met her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, during university, as she did with her first husband, James Munro. Alice used to ride the bus with Fremlin's girlfriend, and would tell Alice all about him. Based on the stories, Alice thought the girlfriend was "the most fortunate girl in the world."

40. Fremlin sent Munro her first fan letter, about one of her stories published in the university magazine.

schoolbanner-620.jpg

41. After Munro moved back to Ontario in 1973 upon the dissolution of her first marriage, Fremlin saw her being interviewed on the CBC by Harry Boyle, in which she said she was now divorced and living in London. Listen to Munro's interview with Boyle here.

42. Fremlin phoned her up and told her he had one of her books, but then said, "Well, it was Book of the Month Club."

43. Canadian singer Measha Brueggergosman is such a big fan of Munro that she once wrote her a fan letter as a young person, urging Munro to keep writing. "I am so glad she followed my advice," Brueggergosman says, laughing. Brueggergosman defended Munro's The Love of a Good Woman on CBC's Canada Reads in 2004.

44. Munro says that she's drawn to writing about small towns because "the small town is like a stage for human lives."

45. After Munro won the Nobel Prize, 22 Minutes did this sketch in which Margaret Atwood (Cathy Jones) backhandedly compliments her:

46. She's thrown stories away and says she's never regretted doing it.

47. Munro wrote an early story called "The Office" in which a woman rents an office to write and is so bothered by her landlord that she has to move out. This is autobiographical. Munro's never found that she can write in an office, even when the landlords aren't bothersome.

48. Her grandmother used to read her stories when she was a young girl, and she remembers it being a wondrous experience - perhaps too good: "It was a great disappointment when I tried to read them myself."

49. Munro calls waiting around for reviews of her books "a dumb way to live."

am-fact50-urquhart-toews-macleod-final.pngFrom left to right: Jane Urquhart (Canadian Press), Miriam Toews (Carol Loewen/Canadian Press) and Alistair MacLeod (Ted Rhodes/Canadian Press).

51. Munro was the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for literature and the 13th woman to win. She was 82 when she won it.

52. In 2006, Margaret Atwood described Munro as having achieved "international literary sainthood."¹

53. She's been known to take her stories back from her publishers and re-work them after submitting them, even when the publishers don't agree that the story needs changing.

54. Sarah Polley adapted Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" into the acclaimed feature film Away from Her after reading it in The New Yorker on a plane.

am-fact55-literarygarden-final.pngPhoto courtesy of North Huron Museum.

56. Munro's editor at The New Yorker since 2001, Deborah Treisman, has said that when she's reading Munro's stories, she'll sometimes cross out a line or a paragraph that seems extraneous, only to discover 20 pages later that it was absolutely vital.

57. Munro was very fond a restaurant called Bailey's Fine Dining in Goderich, just up the road from Clinton.² The restaurant was decimated by a tornado that hit the town in 2011, and it never re-opened.³

58. As a young reader, she had a violent reaction to the misogyny in the work of Leo Tolstoy and D.H. Lawrence, saying it was "like claws trying to fasten [her] down."² It made her wonder, "How can I be a writer when I'm the object of other writers?"

59. One of the most popular games amongst Munro's friends at elementary school was "funerals," where one person got to be the corpse and the others would stage a mock funeral, complete with "flowers" (weeds) and a tearful viewing.²

60. When Munro's father, Robert Laidlaw, was dying, he wrote a book. Munro made sure that it was published posthumously.² The novel was about pioneer families in the Southwest Interior and Munro said, "he has real gifts as a writer."

controversialclassics-banner-620.jpg

61. Munro once told her father that Margaret Laurence was a friend of hers, and he said, "But Alice, she's a really good writer!"²

62. When two reporters from The Paris Review visited Munro in Clinton in 1994 and asked her if she knew of any other local writers, she drove them past a tumbledown house with a bare-chested man on the back stoop typing on a typewriter, surrounded by cats. "I don't know him," Munro told them, "but I'm dying of curiosity to find out what he's up to."

63. It typically takes her at least a month to write a story, and she doesn't show works in progress to anyone.

64. While she was writing The Lives of Girls and Women, Munro was looking after her three daughters as well as one of her daughter's friends. She also worked at Munro's Books two days a week. She would write until 1 a.m. and wake up at 6 a.m., and became concerned she would die of a heart attack.

am-fact65-wutheringheights-final.png

66. She named the nurse character in her story "Friend of My Youth," Audrey Atkinson, after a real person. There was an auction to raise money for the Blyth Theatre, near where she lives in Clinton, and one of the prizes was to have the winning bidder's name go into Munro's next story. (This cost Ms. Atkinson $400.)

67. Munro taught creative writing at York University in Toronto in 1973, but quit because she hated her class, which was all male except for "one girl who hardly got to speak." She called their writing "incomprehensible and trite; they seemed intolerant of anything else."

68. She credits the Southern writers Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers with validating her desire to write about small towns and rural people.

69. Munro sees herself as "a friendly person who is not very sociable."

am-fact70-toolshed-final.png

71. In her house in Clinton, Munro would write at a very small desk in the corner of the dining room, facing a window overlooking the driveway.

72. She acknowledges that she wrote a lot about people's clothes in her early stories, and credits that to not having the clothes she wanted when she was younger.

73. Munro fell in love with the stories of Anton Chekhov as a teenager, and was dazzled by the "extreme importance he'd give to ordinary life and ordinary people." She calls discovering his literary style a "revelation."

74. Of the autobiographical pieces in her collection Dear Life, Munro says "I never kept diaries. I just remember a lot and am more self-centred than most people."

am-fact-75-oscar-final.pngAlice Munro in 1979. (Roger Arar/Canadian Press)

76. Growing up, Munro was hounded by her aunts and grandparents to "master the arts of knitting and darning." She once shocked them by telling them she planned to actually throw things out when she grew up, rather than mend them.

77. She knows a lot about her characters: "what clothes they'd choose, what they were like at school, what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I'm dealing with."

78. Munro says she finally "came out of the closet" as a writer at about 40 years of age.

79. She is partial to white wine, particularly sauvignon blanc.

80. Joseph Boyden jokingly called Munro "the bane of every creative writing teacher's existence" because she breaks all the rules of the short story, "the end result being some of the most brilliant fiction I've ever read."

81. The Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story was launched in 2015 in Wingham, Ont. The 2016 festival was held in the first week of June and featured Vivek Shraya, Samuel Archibald, Mariko Tamaki and Lynn Coady.

82. Munro's story "Dear Life" was re-imagined as an orchestral work and performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 2015.

83. One of the things she hates about getting older is when people call her "dear." She finds it "absolutely dreadful."

84. One of the things she loves about getting older? "Humiliation vanishes."

am-fact85-retirement-jw.pngPhoto credit: Kristin Ross.


Footnotes

¹ From Carried Away: A Personal Selection of Stories by Alice Munro, introduction by Margaret Atwood ©2006. Published by Knopf.

² From The Best of Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel ©2016. Published by Biblioasis.

³ Goderich, Ont., town office.