Mac Alice Munro expert talks Nobel laureate's 'timeless' appeal

In a Q & A with CBC Hamilton, Carol Mazur, a retired McMaster University librarian who compiled an anthology on Alice Munro, reacts to the Canadian novelist's Nobel win and recommends a couple of titles for people looking to discover Munro's work.

Canadian author's stories touch on 'universal' themes, say Carol Mazur

Bookseller Taliah Lundstrom and co-worker David Bird stack copies of Alice Munro's latest book "Dear Life," at Munro's Books in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, October 10, 2013 following the news that Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel prize for literature. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Canadian author Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win catapulted her back into the cultural spotlight and sparked booksellers to scramble to stock their shelves with volumes of her stories.

The 82-year-old Wingham, Ont., native’s back catalogue boasts more than a dozen anthologies and a host of other short stories, making it daunting for lay-readers looking to discover Munro’s work to know where to begin. 

To help get readers started, CBC Hamilton contacted Carol Mazur, a retired McMaster University librarian who, between 2000 and 2006, compiled Alice Munro: An Annotated Bibliography of Works and Criticism. The Grimbsy, Ont., resident told a reporter about her initial reaction to Munro’s win, why the scribe's work is relevant to audiences in 2013, and her recommendations for people looking to find out what the Nobel fuss is all about.

What was your initial reaction to Alice Munro’s Nobel win?

I was overjoyed. I thought she certainly deserved it and that her body of work has been consistent. She’s put out first-class stories for just about all of her writing career. So I think if anyone deserves it, she does.

She’s an incredible writer. What attracted me to her work was her style, and also the fact that she writes so well about human situations and how she can kind of pinpoint personalities so clearly in maybe a sentence or two. I don’t know too many other writers who can write so succinctly and with so much insight.

How did you end up spending six years of your retirement compiling an anthology on her work?

McMaster University has a series of letters between author Alice Munro and her longtime publisher Douglas Gibson in its William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections. (Courtesy of McMaster University)

I had a supervisor in the library who was a big Alice Munro fan, and his name was David Cook. He lived in Oakville and he lived on the same street as Alice Munro’s in-laws. So he knew her personally and he was a big admirer of her writing. 

Every time one of her new books came out, he’d be the first to buy it and read it. And then he’d pass it on to me and ask me what I thought about the stories after I read them.

Unfortunately, he passed away very young, when he was just about to retire. He had published a bibliography of Alice Munro up to a certain point. He was keeping track of her writing and articles about her. And he had this on his computer at work. It was passed on to me.

I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but I wanted to pay tribute to him somehow. He was such a wonderful person and he admired Alice Munro so much. I wanted to complete this bibliography, thinking it might take a year or so. Little did I know that six years later, it would be published.

What works would you recommend for people looking to get into Alice Munro’s work?

She only wrote one novel. It’s called Lives of Girls and Women. If anything, I think it would be good to start with that. Even though it’s not a short story, it’s one of her classic works. 

Why that novel?

It was a coming-of-age story, which is quite popular. She seems to capture the time in life of a young girl and what she’s going through — her feelings, how she matures in many respects. It’s a kind of story that keeps you interested.

Also, her stories are known for their abrupt and surprising endings, but the novel is more conventional in that way. I can’t remember the ending now, but I don’t think there was a big surprise at the end. 

She writes about human nature and about human lives in a way that most people can relate to.—Carol Mazur

Another story I personally liked was called “Boy and Girls.” Some of it is based on stories about her father’s fox farm and he mentioned these fox cages. There’s a brother and sister and they’re kind of up in their room. It’s almost like she’s setting cages around the genders as far what the roles for boys are and what the roles for girls are.

Why is Alice Munro still relevant in 2013?

She’s relevant because she writes about universal things. She writes about human nature and about human lives in a way that most people can relate to. The people she writes about aren’t always normal or even likeable people. But you can understand where they’re coming from because of the way she depicts either their thoughts or what they do. I think her stories are kind of timeless, even if some of them take place in the 1930s, ‘40s and right up to the present. 

Also, I think people today would appreciate the abrupt endings in her stories. Things are pretty open-ended these days. Nobody likes certainty. I think it appeals to a modern audience to have endings that are ambiguous.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.