Alice Munro wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Canadian woman to take the award since its launch in 1901.  

Munro, 82, only the 13th woman given the award, was lauded by the Swedish Academy during the Nobel announcement in Stockholm as the "master of the contemporary short story." 

"We're not saying just that she can say a lot in just 20 pages — more than an average novel writer can — but also that she can cover ground. She can have a single short story that covers decades, and it works," said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

Reached in British Columbia by CBC News on Thursday morning, Munro said she always viewed her chances of winning the Nobel as "one of those pipe dreams" that "might happen, but it probably wouldn't."

Munro's daughter woke her up to tell her the news. 

"It's the middle of the night here and I had forgotten about it all, of course," she told the CBC's Heather Hiscox early Thursday.

"It just seems impossible. A splendid thing to happen ... More than I can say," she said, overcome with emotion.

"My stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories. I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not something you play around with until you got a novel written.

Munro said her husband, Gerald Fremlin, a geographer/cartographer who died in April, would have been very happy, as would her previous husband, James Munro, with whom she has three children, and her family.

Known as Canada's Chekhov

Born in Ontario in 1931, Alice Anne Laidlaw studied journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London before dropping out to marry James Munro, a fellow student. She became a full-time housewife and mother of their children. The family's decision to open a bookstore in 1963 helped revive her interest in writing.

Munro, who had moved to Victoria with her first husband, returned to Ontario following their divorce. She married Fremlin in 1976.

Three years ago, in an interview at Toronto's International Festival of Authors, Munro revealed she had battled cancer, but did not provide specifics. In June, she told the National Post she was "probably not going to write anymore."

Asked on Thursday whether she would reconsider that statement, Munro said she didn't think so, "because I am getting rather old."

I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy too that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.'- Alice Munro, Ontario-born Nobel Prize in Literature winner

Munro, originally from Wingham in southwestern Ontario, has been called Canada's Chekhov. Similar to the work of the Russian short-story master, plot is usually secondary.

Munro's stories focus on striking portraits of women living in small-town Ontario. They revolve around small epiphanies encountered by her characters, often when current events illuminate something that happened in the past.

"Her work is very provincial in that it's based in small towns and rural parts of Canada for the most part. At the same time, what she does with the characters in those places is show us their universality, their humanity." New Yorker magazine fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who has edited Munro's short stories for more than a decade, told Jian Ghomeshi on CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

"She takes a specific case and makes it feel so universal."

Munro's dedication to the short story genre and to Canadian settings has set a powerful example for writers, said John Degen, executive director of the Writers' Union of Canada.

"For a long time, it was a struggle for Canadian writers to write about Canadian topics and to be small-townish. We've been told forever that that doesn't sell out in the wider market, and Alice Munro blazed that trail for all of us and let us know we could write about where we are and who we are. That's the secret of her success," he told CBC News.

The short story form "is really coming back as a result of people like Alice Munro legitimizing it and keeping it legitimate," Degen added. 

"What's interesting about Alice Munro is that she never really moved on to novels, she is a really committed short story writer."

Her best-known works include the novel/story collection The Lives of Girls and Women, which charts a young girl's coming of age in rural Ontario during the 1940s, and the short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, about an elderly couple grappling with infidelity — both the husband's in the past and that of the wife, who is losing her memory and has fallen for another man at her nursing home.

The latter story inspired Away From Her, the acclaimed 2006 film adaptation directed by Sarah Polley and starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as the married couple. Munro's story Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage was also adapted for film. Starring Kristen Wiig, it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

"She’s very good at capturing different modes in people, not sitting on the fence. No one has better deconstructed the central modern myth of romantic love, not just saying that it means this or it means that, but showing that people can feel very, very different things," Englund said in an interview just after Thursday's announcement.

"She is a fantastic portrayer of human beings"

Munro's last series of stories is the 2012 collection Dear Life, and her excellence has been recognized with numerous awards, including:

  • The Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for a body of work.
  • The Giller Prize twice, for The Love of a Good Woman in 1998 and Runaway in 2004.
  • Three-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award, for her debut collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Who Do You Think You Are (1978) and The Progress of Love (1986).

Munro is beloved among her peers, from Lorrie Moore and George Saunders, to Jonathan Frazen and Margaret Atwood, who tweeted a "Hooray!" at the news of Munro's award. 

'All of Canada is just delighted'

Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime publisher, spoke about her Nobel triumph on CBC Radio’s morning show in Toronto, Metro Morning.

Gibson told host Matt Galloway that the award is an acknowledgment of Munro’s place in world literature.

“All of Canada is just delighted by this news,” said Gibson. He said it's as if "all of Canada" has won the award.

Gibson also quoted a statement issued by Munro in which she says she’s “amazed and very grateful” about the award.

“I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy too that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

Gibson said Munro’s gift is to weave magic into stories about ordinary people.

“They’re not set in dramatic landscapes. They’re set in everyday life and yet she turns them into magic, and that’s what attracts people around the world.

“They all say, ‘I don’t know how she does it' and I’ve been her editor since 1976 and I don’t know how she does it either.”

A who's who of past winners

Munro's name is among authors commonly mentioned when the Nobel committee considers the annual literature prize.

Past winners include literature luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Hesse, T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison, with the last three prizes awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan, Sweden's Tomas Transtromer and Peruvian-Spanish scribe Mario Vargas Llosa.

Canadian-born, American-raised writer Saul Bellow won in 1976.

Munro — widely read, accessible, popular and respected — is not as politicized a choice as other recent Nobel laureates, including Doris Lessing, Orhan Pamuk and Harold Pinter.

"In ordinary life I am a fairly active, political person. I have opinions and join clubs. But I always want to see what happens with people underneath; it interests me more," she said in a 2003 interview.

The award money fluctuates, but in 2012, it was 8,000,000 Swedish krona (roughly $1.3 million Cdn).

The 2013 Nobel Prize laureates will be celebrated in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

Corrections

  • We originally reported that Alice Munro was the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In, fact she is the first Canadian-based author. Canadian-born, U.S.-raised Saul Bellow won in 1976.
    Oct 10, 2013 7:45 AM ET
With files from The Canadian Press