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Editing Alice Munro

photo: Derek Shapton

In the December issue of Q&Q, Scott MacDonald asks: how do you edit one of the most precise writers working in the English language? According to Alice Munro’s long-time U.S. and Canadian editors, even a master can sometimes use a helpful nudge (but not too often)

It’s hard to imagine anyone editing Alice Munro, possibly the most precise writer in the English language. Munro doesn’t build sentences by accretion in the manner of verbose writers like Norman Mailer or Salman Rushdie – she works by paring away, by deciding what words not to use.

And yet Munro has not one, not even two, but three editors, all of whom have a hand in guiding her work: Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker, where many of Munro’s stories first see the light of day; Douglas Gibson at McClelland & Stewart, who has been Munro’s Canadian editor since her 1978 collection, Who Do You Think You Are?; and Anne Close at Knopf, her long-time U.S. publisher.

Speaking to Close and Gibson prior to the publication of Munro’s 14th collection, Dear Life, I asked them a sincere but potentially rude question: exactly what is it the three of them do?

“We don’t have to do much,” laughs Close, the hint of a southern drawl in her voice. “With many of Alice’s stories, they come in and none of us touches a word. But every now and then there are stories she’s a little stuck on and one of us will give a suggestion that proves helpful.”

According to Close, every story follows one of two editorial paths. If it’s destined for The New Yorker, it goes to Treisman first. Close and Gibson may not even see it until it’s printed in the magazine. If it’s not a New Yorker piece (or slated for publication elsewhere), it goes directly to Close and Gibson, and Treisman doesn’t read it at all. In every case, the buck stops with the two book editors. “Doug and I kinda get the final say,” says Close.

Generally, Munro needs no assistance with character, word choice, or mechanics, but she does look to her editors for advice on structure and clarity. She mails a copy of the story to each of them, and they jot down their thoughts in the margins. Annotated copies are then sent to Munro and the other editors. Munro discusses the changes via phone, often a number of times, then hammers out the final version.

As Munro’s most dedicated fans know, The New Yorker stories can be noticeably different from the versions that appear in the collections. Many of them are shorter, due to the magazine’s space restrictions. Gibson sometimes makes “Canadian corrections” to The New Yorker pieces, such as restoring Munro’s original references to “university” rather than “college.”

Some stories, like “The Progress of Love,” which appeared in a 1986 volume of the same name, get drastically rethought. Originally written in the first person, the point-of-view changed to the third person for The New Yorker. Having read both versions, Close told Munro she thought the original was better, and that was what ultimately appeared in the book.

But that’s one of the more extreme examples. More commonly, only the story endings are significantly revised. As Close explains, Munro has an enormous appetite for revision, and she’s especially prone to rethinking her final passages.

“She’ll work on those endings for a long time,” says Close, adding that this is where she and Gibson tend to be most useful. “Most writers write very ambiguous endings because they don’t want to be too obvious. So I’ll say, ‘What’s this mean?’ or ‘What’s that mean?’ I’ll keep after her until she gets it a little clearer.”

When enough stories have been amassed for a collection – generally once every three years – the next step is to decide how to order them. In some cases, Munro determines this herself in advance. Other times, such as with Dear Life, she is open to suggestions.

According to Close, Munro knew she wanted the book to begin with the story “To Reach Japan,” and wanted it to end with four largely autobiographical “not-quite-stories,” but she was unsure of the rest. After “trying things around,” as Close puts it, Gibson came up with an order that worked for everyone.

Often, there’s at least one story they aren’t able to place, and it’ll be set aside for a future collection. The story “Wood,” for instance, was held back from three different collections before finally making it into 2009’s Too Much Happiness.

“It was in good enough shape to publish, but it just never seemed to fit,” says Close, adding that Munro reworked the story a little more each time. “It kept getting better, of course, so by the time it got published it was quite a wonderful, exceptional story.”

From there, all that’s left are the basics: typesetting the book, copy editing, and writing the flap copy. Thinking back on the process, both Gibson and Close agree their most valuable contribution is reassuring Munro that a story is done.

Close recalls how, a few years ago, when the 1990s story “The Love of a Good Woman” was being reprinted in a best-of collection, Munro mused aloud about shifting some of its elements again.

“I had to keep telling her, ‘No, it’s fine the way it is.’”

  • Alonna Shaw

    Scott, interesting–loved reading about Alice Munro’s process. Wow, to have her way with a sentence. She and her three talented editors make an intriguing team. Yes, I think reassuring even the best writers that a work is finished falls into the “valuable” category.

  • rehenazelreyhan

    What I would give to simply listen in on those phone conversations! As a relative neophyte to editing, I would love to breathe the same air as Alice Munro and these editors.

  • Pluckysod

    I’ve breathed their air, and it’s nothing special. They’re good people and very talented, but they are people not gods. Adulation for a writer isn’t a great way to approach working with him or her as an editor. Appreciation, yes, admiration, yes, but breathless adulation, no.

  • rehenazelreyhan

    Of course they’re not gods—this was more of a statement about my own wish to be around those more knowledgable than me for the sake of observation. I’m not experienced enough at this point to even think about that. Way to rain on a simple comment!

  • Pluckysod

    You’re right. It was a starry-eyed statement and to be forgiven in someone just starting out. But most of these conversations are the editor saying, “This isn’t quite clear. What do you mean by this?” and the author going away and fixing the problem. Nothing very rarified. You’ll learn more by doing than by any other means. Good luck, and stay passionate.

  • rehenazelreyhan

    Thanks, Pluckysod! I’ve been copyediting for just over a year now—mostly self-publishing authors of all genres. It’s required kid gloves and lots of diplomacy, but at the same time, I’ve learned to be firm, unemotional, and have made sure that I’ve been able to explain my choices or advice to someone who doesn’t want their “baby” tampered with at all. I agree with you: I wouldn’t be any good if all I did was blow smoke up their nether-regions. The most skilled and demanding authors—the ones who have made me sweat bullets after I’ve invoiced—have ended up being my favourite projects.

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