All stories relating to Alice Munro
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.’”
Actors Kristen Wiig, Hailee Steinfeld, Guy Pearce, and Nick Nolte have signed on to star in the indie film Hateship, Friendship based on Alice Munro’s short story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” The screenplay was written by writer Mark Jude Poirier, who previously adapted his own novel Smart People in 2008. Liza Johnson, who wrote and directed the indie drama Return, is set to direct.
The film explores polarizing relationships between three generations. Wiig plays a nanny charged with the care of a rebellious teenager (Steinfeld), who in turn attempts to set up a romance between Wiig’s character and her absentee father (Pearce), who battles drugs and other demons. Further drama unfolds in the form of the girl’s grandfather (Nolte), who blames Pearce’s character for the death of his daughter, the girl’s mother.
This won’t be the first time a story from Munro’s 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship Courtship, Loveship, Marriage has been adapted for screen. In 2006, Sarah Polley turned the short story “A Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the film Away From Her, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Filming for Hateship, Friendship is set to begin in New Orleans next week.
Feature reviewer James Grainger writes:
Critics have been saying for so long that a typical Alice Munro story is as rich and textured as any novel that they seem not to have noticed that her recent stories don’t resemble novels much at all. Beginning (roughly) with Runaway (2004) and continuing through to Too Much Happiness (2009), Munro has gradually shifted away from the complex, oblique narratives and intricately layered portraiture of her mid-career work toward a pared-down, almost expressionist form of storytelling.
Alice Munro’s sold-out appearance at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors has been cancelled.
In a press release from the IFOA, Munro’s friend and editor, Douglas Gibson, says, “Alice is 81 years old now, and her health is frail, making it impossible for her to attend this IFOA event, although she would very much like to be able to do so.”
Munro’s new short-story collection, Dear Life, will be released next week on Gibson’s eponymous McClelland & Stewart imprint. Earlier this year the author was forced to cancel another Toronto appearance at the Luminato festival.
Event ticket holders will be notified by the Harbourfront Centre box office.
Mo Yan is arguably best known for his novel Red Sorghum, which was adapted as an internationally successful film by Zhang Yimou in 1987. The Swedish Academy, in announcing the winner, said the author’s “hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history, and the contemporary.”
Yan is the first Chinese national to win the Nobel in the prize’s 111-year history, and the only non-Western laureate in the past decade. (Gao Xingjian, who was born in China but emigrated to France in 1987, won the prize in 2000.)
According to his Nobel biography, Mo Yan is a pseudonym for Guan Moye. He was born in 1955 as the son of farmers and grew up in Shandong province in northeastern China.
During the Cultural Revolution, 12-year-old Yan left school to work and later joined the People’s Liberation Army, where he began to study literature and to write.
Through a mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives, Mo Yan has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition. In addition to his novels, Mo Yan has published many short stories and essays on various topics, and despite his social criticism is seen in his homeland as one of the foremost contemporary authors.
Yan’s works include The Garlic Ballads (1995), The Republic of Wine (2000), and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2008). His novel Sandalwood Death, published in China in 2004 and described as “a story of human cruelty in the crumbling Empire,” is forthcoming in 2013.
Yan’s win likely caught some Nobel watchers by surprise. Ladbrokes, the U.K. bookmakers, had listed Japanese author Haruki Murakami as the favourite to win this year’s prize, with Alice Munro also among the most likely.
A first look at the season’s most anticipated books
Fiction: Susan Swan’s long-awaited prequel to The Wives of Bath; Alice Munro’s new collection; Matthew Tierney’s science-inspired poetry; and more
Non-fiction: Neil Young’s rock ’n’ roll memoir; Andrew Nikiforuk’s oil-industry polemic; Julie Devaney’s unique medical memoir; and more
Books for young people: Orca’s adventure series debut; Margaret Atwood’s latest alliterative picture book; Susan Juby’s dystopian vision; and more
International books: Chinua Achebe’s civil war memoir; Ian McEwan’s literary spy novel; Zadie Smith’s new fictional direction; and more
FROM THE EDITOR
For Literary Press Group: the good news came just in time
The delicate art of the author photo
How metadata improves online visibility
Emily Schultz’s blonde ambition
Northern retailer Chat Noir Books’ community-oriented approach
Snapshot: Black Bond Books co-owner Cathy Jesson
Cover to cover: Fran Kimmel’s The Shore Girl
Inside by Alix Ohlin
Signs and Wonders by Alix Ohlin
People Park by Pasha Malla
Gay Dwarves of America by Ann Fleming
Y by Marjorie Celona
Mr. Churchill’s Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book that Defined the “Special Relationship” by Peter Clarke
PLUS more fiction, non-fiction, and poetry
BOOKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Uncle Wally’s Old Brown Shoe by Wallace Edwards
Old MacDonald Had Her Farm by JonArno Lawson; Tina Holdcroft, illus.
Hemlock by Kathleen Peacock
PLUS more fiction, non-fiction, and picture books
THE Q&Q/BOOKNET CANADA BESTSELLERS
THE LAST WORD Pasha Malla on why the most affecting literature thumbs its nose at the rules
Each issue of Her Royal Majesty is curated around a particular theme, and appears in print and online. Issue 12 focuses on “The Exotic,” and features the first short story ever published by Alice Munro. “The Dimensions of a Shadow” appeared in a 1950 issue of Folio (the University of Western Ontario’s undergraduate journal), when Munro was only 18.
HRM founder and editor-in-chief Harriet Alida Lye is a Toronto native who started the journal in 2008 while studying in Halifax. Lye, who now lives in Paris, speaks to Q&Q about Munro and the City of Lights’s influence on the journal.
How did you come across Alice Munro’s first short story?
I love Alice Munro’s work. I am from very near where she grew up in Southwestern Ontario. It’s not just the places that are familiar; it’s the tone, the stories themselves. I read on Wikipedia that her first short story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” was published in the University of Western Ontario’s undergraduate journal, but found that unless readers want to buy a copy of Folio Magazine, vol. 4, no. 2, for $750 on Amazon, the story remained inaccessible. So I started to dig for it.
How did you get the rights to publish “The Dimension of a Shadow?”
I got the idea to publish this story and got in touch with Munro’s agents and publishers. We communicated back and forth for months. I had lawyers and literary editors help me draw up contracts, but finally they just said no. A while later, after having more or less given up, I was talking to a friend about it and he suggested I try contacting the University of Western Ontario directly. Since the story was published there first, he informed me they hold the rights to it, not Alice Munro, not her agent, not her publisher. The university staff gave me the permission required to publish the story and I wrote Alice Munro a letter asking for her blessing.
How has Paris influenced Her Royal Majesty?
The community I found in Paris has been absolutely essential to the development of Her Royal Majesty. The people I’ve met – by this, I mean artists and writers, but also readers, thinkers, teachers, and friends – have been instrumental in the evolution of the magazine.
UPDATE: The Halifax launch party is cancelled. For more details on all the events, visit HRM’s website.
Organizers of Luminato, one of Toronto’s biggest cultural festivals, have announced that its high-profile event with CanLit icon Alice Munro has been cancelled, due to a “family commitment.”
Munro, who has not made an appearance on a public stage since a 2009 PEN Canada fundraiser at the International Festival of Authors, was to be interviewed by The New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman at an event on June 10. Instead, Treisman will chat with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annie Proulx.
Luminato, one of Toronto’s biggest annual cultural festivals, has announced a rare appearance by Alice Munro, who will be interviewed onstage June 10 by Deborah Treisman, fiction editor for The New Yorker.
Running from June 8 to 17, this year’s festival will explore the historical and contemporary relationship between Canada and the U.S., with a timely focus on the War of 1812.
In a press release, Devyani Saltzman, Luminato’s literary programming curator, says, “I’m very excited to explore what it means to write about revolution and transformation – whether political, personal, social, or artistic. Do borders simply exist to transcend, or do they enhance collaboration? We’re thrilled to host wonderful authors engaged in rich conversation about these ideas and more.”
Other writers appearing at the festival include Richard Ford, Vincent Lam, Chris Cleave, Irvine Welsh, Peter Carey, Nicole Krauss, Adam Gopnik, Ayad Akhtar, Jim Lynch, Hari Kunzru, Linden MacIntyre, Michael Ondaatje, and Kyo Maclear.
It’s been more than a decade since the iconic – and iconoclastic – Susan Musgrave published a new collection of poetry. In the April 2011 issue of Q&Q, Musgrave discusses her new collection, Origami Dove (McClelland & Stewart), with fellow B.C. poet Lorna Crozier, whose collection Small Mechanics also appears this spring with M&S. Also in April, a profile of overlooked short story author Clark Blaise, a special report on B.C. publishing, and a feature on the financial struggles facing Canadian literary journals. Plus reviews of new books by Julie Booker, John Furlong, Joe Ollmann, Chester Brown, Nicola Winstanley, Elisa Amado, Mélanie Watt, and more.
On poetry and prose
Two of B.C.’s leading poets – Susan Musgrave and Lorna Crozier – discuss writing, self-doubt, and Al Purdy’s birthday cake
Special report on B.C. publishing
Industry newcomer Randal Macnair brings new life to Oolichan Books; B.C. BookWorld’s Alan Twigg on surviving lean times; New Society carves out a distinctive niche in D&M’s growing eco-book empire; B.C. booksellers find solidarity at this year’s provincial book fair
A year after the Department of Canadian Heritage slashed funding for small-run periodicals, many venerable literary magazines are struggling to adapt
Clark Blaise’s return to form
An insider’s take on the collapse of H.B. Fenn and Company
Snapshot: Books for Business CEO Sean Neville
Best short stories: Alexander MacLeod on Alice Munro
Cover to cover: Gil Adamson’s Ashland
Guest opinion: Carmine Starnino on rebooting the CanLit canon
Kirstie McLellan Day’s hockey-book hat trick
Up Up Up by Julie Booker
Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics That Changed a Country by John Furlong with Gary Mason
Mid-Life by Joe Ollmann
Paying for It by Chester Brown
Touch by Alexi Zentner
Esther: The Remarkable True Story of Esther Wheelwright, Puritan Child, Native Daughter, Mother Superior by Julie Wheelwright
Underground by Anatanas Sileika
PLUS more fiction, non-fiction, and poetry
BOOKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
Cinnamon Boy by Nicola Winstanley; Janice Nadeau, illus.
What Are You Doing? by Elisa Amado; Manuel Monroy, illus.
You’re Finally Here! by Mélanie Watt
Banjo of Destiny by Cary Fagan
PLUS more fiction, non-fiction, and picture books
THE Q&Q/BOOKNET CANADA BESTSELLERS
THE LAST WORD
Cynthia Holz on a writer’s search for inspiration between novels