Writers & Company

Eleanor Wachtel on her first interview with Alice Munro

In September 1990, a starstruck Eleanor Wachtel asked Alice Munro to appear on the first season of the new CBC radio show Writers & Company. Over 25 years later, Eleanor reflects on that powerful first interview.

The Nobel laureate turns 85 on July 10, 2016.

Friend of My Youth is a short story collection by Alice Munro. (Kristin Ross, Penguin Canada)

In honour of Alice Munro's 85th birthday on July 10, Eleanor Wachtel reflects on her first interview with the Canadian literary giant. At the time, Writers & Company was just starting out and Munro was busy collecting accolades for her collection Friend of My YouthListen to the archive interview above, and read Eleanor's recollection of that meeting below:

It was September 1990: Alice Munro had recently won the $50,000 Molson Prize in honour of her work and the Trillium Award for her seventh collection, Friend of My Youth. We met in Toronto at the reading of a mutual friend and total fan that I was (and am), I asked her if she'd consider an interview for the new CBC literary program I'd launched, Writers & Company. She agreed for the next morning.

The title story of Friend of My Youth is about a woman who's thinking about her mother, who died young — about the "bitter lump of love" she has held in relation to her. I recalled that one of her earliest stories, "Peace of Utrecht," was inspired by the death of her mother and that this new collection was dedicated to her memory. So I asked about their relationship.

Munro replied, "It was a very difficult relationship. Mothers and daughters generally have fairly complex relationships, and ours was made much more so by Mother's illness. She had Parkinson's disease, which was not diagnosed for a long time... All that made me very self-protective, because for one thing I didn't want to get trapped. In​ families like ours it is the oldest daughter's job to stay home and look after people when they're in that situation, until they die. Instead, I got a scholarship and went to university. There is enormous guilt about doing that, but at the time you're so busy protecting yourself that you simply push it under, and then you suffer from it later."

She added, "I don't think that much about my relationship with my mother and what it did to me. I sometimes feel terrible regret about her, what her life must have been like. Often, when I'm enjoying something, I think of how meagre her rewards were and how much courage, in a way, she needed to go on living."

I followed up by asking Munro what she was trying to figure out in the story "Friend of My Youth." 

She said, "I was trying to figure out why I needed to write this story! … I knew I was struggling with the subject matter of my mother. I hadn't thought I'd tackle that part of my life again."

At the end of our conversation, I asked Alice Munro to read from the story and when she came to the phrase "the bitter lump of love I have carried all this time," her voice caught ever so slightly. Just a beat and she recovered; you couldn't hear it on the air. Afterwards she expressed surprise that it could affect her still.

I was so moved by her willingness to speak with such candour and insight about a profound relationship anyone can relate to. I remember a psychologist telling me she referred to those observations — the interview was published in my first book, Writers & Company — with her clients.

The conversation, the story, the collection were an inspiration to me.

— Eleanor Wachtel, July 2016

Writers & Company will broadcast Eleanor's 2004 conversation with Alice Munro on July 10, her 85th birthday.