90 things to know about master short story writer Alice Munro

Alice Munro celebrates her 90th birthday on July 10, 2021.
Alice Munro (Derek Shapton/McClelland & Stewart)

Literary legend Alice Munro celebrates her 90th birthday on July 10, 2021. The Canadian writer is revered worldwide as a master of the short story, with 14 acclaimed collections and a Nobel Prize to prove it.

Here are 90 facts about her remarkable life and writing career.

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

2. Munro turned to short stories when she started writing because, 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.

3. 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.

4. 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."

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

Image: Helen Stratton [public domain]. Published on page 130 of The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen circa 1899. Fact: Alice Munro in conversation with Diana Athill⁴ (Helen Stratton/Wikimedia Commons)

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

8. 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 out a copy and 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.

9. 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."

10. Dickens's A Child's History of England 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."

Fact: Remember Roger Mortimer by Alice Munro⁵ (Cambridge University Press)

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

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

14. 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.

15. Acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar based his film Julieta on a trio of Alice Munro stories — ChanceSoon and Silence from her 2004 collection Runaway.

16. According to Munro, no one in Clinton, Ont., 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 said. "It allows me to feel quite free."

17. 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!" 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 into town."

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

19. 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."

20. Out of high school, Munro won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario (now Western University), 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."

21. Going to university instead of staying home to look after her mother is something 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."

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

23. The Royal Canadian Mint issued a commemorative Alice Munro coin in 2014 to celebrate her Nobel Prize win. The coin's design includes a passage from her short story Messenger.

Canadian author Alice Munro reads from her book The View From Castle Rock at a ceremony held by the Royal Canadian Mint to celebrate her Nobel Prize win where they unveiled a 99.99% pure silver five-dollar coin at the Great Victoria Public Library in Victoria, B.C., Monday, March 24, 2014. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

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

25. 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."

26. 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.

27. 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."

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

Alice Munro challenges censorship

44 years ago
Duration 8:27
The author speaks out against a Huron County school board that seeks to remove certain books from reading lists.

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

30. 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.

31. In 1963, she and her husband James opened a bookstore in Victoria. 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.

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

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

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

35. She originally met her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, during university. Alice used to ride the bus with Fremlin's girlfriend, who would tell Alice all about him. Based on the stories, Alice thought the girlfriend was "the most fortunate girl in the world."

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

37. 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 the interview, Munro said she was divorced and living in London. 

The Ontario-born author talks to broadcaster Harry Boyle about her memories of a small-town childhood. Credit: <em>Something I've been Meaning to Tell You</em>, Alice Munro, Penguin Canada

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

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

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

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

42. She's thrown stories away and said she's never regretted doing it.

43. In her early story The Office, a woman rents an office to write and is so bothered by her landlord that she has to move out. This is autobiographical: Munro has never been able to write in an office, even when the landlords aren't bothersome.

44. 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."

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

46. Munro was the 13th woman — and second Canadian, after Saul Bellows — to win the Nobel Prize in literature. She was 82 when she won it.

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

48. 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.

49. 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.

From left to right: Jane Urquhart, Miriam Toews and Alistair MacLeod. (Elsa Trillat/Carol Loewen/Ted Rhodes/Canadian Press)

51. 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.

52. Munro was very fond of a restaurant called Bailey's Fine Dining in Goderich, Ont.² The restaurant was decimated by a tornado that hit the town in 2011 and it never re-opened.³

53. 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?"

54. 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

A photo of the Alice Munro Literary Garden in Wingham, Ont. (Courtesy of North Huron Museum⁷)

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

57. 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."

58. 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

59. Two reporters from the Paris Review visited Munro in Clinton in 1994 and asked if she knew of any other local writers. She drove them past a tumbledown house where a bare-chested man sat 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."

A rare conversation with Canada’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In this interview from 2004, Eleanor speaks with Munro about her Giller Prize-winning collection of short stories, Runaway.

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

61. While she was writing The Lives of Girls and Women, Munro was looking after her 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.

62. She named Audrey Atkinson, the nurse character in her story Friend of My Youthafter 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. The honour cost Ms. Atkinson $400.

63. 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."

64. 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.

Fact: Live hangout with Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro⁸ (Signet Classics)

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

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

68. 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.

69. 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."

Fact: Global News⁹

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

72. 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.

73. 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."

74. She said she finally "came out of the closet" as a writer at about 40 years of age.

Alice Munro in 1979. (Roger Arar/Canadian Press)

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

77. The Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story was launched in 2015 in Wingham, Ont.

78. Her story Dear Life was re-imagined as an orchestral work and performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 2015.

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

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

Short story master Alice Munro muses about writing and her new collection.

81. Munro is known to her editors and agents as a ruthless revisionist. In his memoir, Douglas Gibson, Munro's long-time publisher, recalled the time she wanted to add a new story to Who Do You Think You Are? and change the voice from the first to third person. Though the book was already being printed, Munro prevailed and she paid a financial penalty for the extra costs.

82. The Day of the Butterfly was her first story written for her first collectionDance of the Happy ShadesShe was 21 years old and the book published more than a decade later.

83. Munro once described doing a public reading of an early story, and trying to amend sentences as she read on-stage: "I kept editing as I read, catching all the tricks I used at that time, which now seemed very dated... When I read an early story I can see things I wouldn't do now, things people were doing in the '50s."

84. Munro is a descendent of Scottish writer James Hogg, who anonymously published the novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in 1824. The novel was a flop at first, but gained critical attention a century later and is thought of as a possible early example of modern crime fiction.

85. In university, Munro earned money by selling her blood, working at the library and in tobacco fields.

Alice Munro on her book "Who Do You Think You Are?" in 1979

44 years ago
Duration 22:12
Short story writer Alice Munro is interviewed by CBC host Joyce Davidson. Aired June 8, 1979 on CBC Television's Authors.

86. Munro received the Man Booker International Prize in 2009, in honour of her body of work. The jury panel's citation read, "Alice Munro is mostly known as a short story writer and yet she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels.  To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before."

87. Munro's ancestors on her father's side, the Laidlaws, began emigrating to Canada from Scotland in 1818.

88. In 1951, Munro's story The Strangers was purchased to broadcast on the CBC program AnthologyProduced by Robert Weaver, the show is credited with championing the work of Canadian writers.

89. The University of Calgary Archives hosts a collection of Munro's literature, as well as her personal correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks and "untitled fragments."

90. A reviewer once wrote that Munro's characters, often civil servants and nurses, don't have extraordinary experiences. Munro responded on the CBC saying, "Everyone is extraordinary to themselves. Nurses have about the most dramatic life I can think of... I never consider these people ordinary. But then I never meet anybody that I consider ordinary."

This list was first published in 2016, to celebrate Alice Munro's 85th birthday.

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.

⁴ Alice Munro in conversation with Diana Athill

⁵ "Remember Roger Mortimer" by Alice Munro in The New Yorker

​⁶ Jim Munro retiring, four employees will take over Munro's Books by Amy Smart, Times Colonist

⁷ Creative Huron

⁸ Live hangout on air with Alice Munro in conversation with Margaret Atwood

Alice Munro wins Nobel Prize

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