Writers & Company

Alice Munro on writing about life, love, sex and secrets

In honour of Alice Munro's 85th birthday on July 10, Eleanor Wachtel revisits her 2004 interview with the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Alice Munro, pictured here in 2009. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Listen to the full episode52:46

Alice Munro has won virtually every prize available to a Canadian short story writer: three Governor General's Literary Awards, the American National Book Critics Circle Award, two Scotiabank Giller Prizes, the PEN/Malamud Award, the Man Booker International Prize and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Canadian to do so in 2013.

In 2004, Alice Munro was en route to winning her second Giller Prize for her short story collection Runaway when she sat down with Eleanor Wachtel. The two met at Bailey's Restaurant in Goderich, Ontario, near Alice's home in Clinton, to discuss her life and career, and she was remarkably candid, relaxed, thoughtful and forthcoming. On July 10, 2016, Alice Munro will turn 85 years old. To commemorate this occasion, we are bringing you this memorable conversation.

EMBRACING THE UNEXPECTED

I never start out with any kind of connecting theme or plan. Everything just falls the way it falls. I don't ever think about what kind of fiction I write, or what I am writing about, or what I am trying to write about. When I'm writing, what I do is I think about a story that I want to tell. I just thought, "What happens next?" I like when stories turn out in an unexpected way that doesn't seem too forced.

WHY SO MANY OF HER CHARACTERS RUN AWAY

They can look ahead and they can see what their whole life is going to be, and they run away from this. They wouldn't call it a prison, exactly. They run away from some kind or predictability, not just the things that will happen in their life, but the things that have happened in themselves. I don't think most of my characters plan to do this. I think often people who run away are people who got into things most enthusiastically, and then they want more. They just demand more of life than what is happening in the moment. Sometimes this is a great mistake, as it's always a good deal different than you expect it. That's the thing you find out about life, that on the road you take there are difficulties, there are problems and things you have to give up and things you'll miss.

WHY SHE WRITES ABOUT INFIDELITY

Writers are always writing about infidelity. It's so dramatic. The wickedness of it, the secrecy, the complications, the finding that you thought you were one person but you're also this other person. The innocent life and the guilty life. My God, it's just full of stuff for a writer. I doubt it will ever go out of fashion.

WHY SHE WRITES ABOUT SEX

I write about it with a great deal of interest, in trying to be as truthful as I can in a way, or to think about what people really go through and what they think and what they feel. I think every writer does that. It's just a main subject, and has been for a long time. Charlotte Brontë was writing about sex. I supposed Jane Austen was too. Where do you get a hero like Darcy unless you are writing about sex?

Alice Munro's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the episode: "Blue Skies" composed by Irving Berlin, performed by Art Tatum.