A life in quotes: Alice Munro

Alice Munro, the 2013 Nobel laureate considered one of the greatest short story writers in the English language, has died at the age of 92 at her care home in Ontario, after suffering dementia for more than a decade. Born and raised in south-western Ontario, the “Canadian Chekhov” captured the desire and darkness of ordinary life in rural Canada, particularly for women – subjects long out of focus for the mainstream, finally achieving recognition later in life.

A housewife and mother of four children, one of whom died in infancy, Munro would sneak in writing around naps and housework, publishing her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968, at age 37. Lives of Girls and Women, her only novel – really a collection of interlinked stories, as she called it – followed in 1971. A writer of what Jonathan Franzen called “pathological empathy”, Munro continued to write short story collections centered on the sublime and mundane in small-town Canada throughout her life, concluding with 2012’s Dear Life. Here are some of her most memorable quotes:

On people:

People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum. It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee … What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.
– Lives of Girls and Women, 1971

In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.
– Too Much Happiness, 2009

We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do – we do it all the time.
– Dear Life, 2012

The conversation of kisses. Subtle, engrossing, fearless, transforming.
– Runaway, 2004

On south-western Ontario, her home for most of her life:

I am intoxicated by this landscape, by the almost flat fields, the swamps, the hardwood bush, by the continental climate with its extravagant winters. I am at home with the brick houses, the falling-down barns, the occasional farms that have swimming pools and airplanes, the trailer parks, burdensome old churches, Walmart, and Canadian Tire. I speak the language.
– introduction to Selected Stories, 1996

To live in a place like Wingham you have a very narrow opportunity to get out. If you wait until you are 30 you become too timid and know too little about the world and it never happens. So I got out. I got married and it was a very lucky thing.
– to the Guardian, 2013

Everybody in the community is on stage for all the other people. There’s a constant awareness of people watching and listening. And – and this may be particularly Canadian – the less you reveal, the more highly thought of you are.
– to the New York Times, 1986

On narratives of the self:

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.
– to Knopf Doubleday, 2010

Self-deception seems almost like something that’s a big mistake, that we should learn not to do. But I’m not sure if we can. Everybody’s doing their own novel of their own lives. The novel changes – at first we have a romance, a very satisfying novel that has a rather simple technique, and then we grow out of that and we end up with a very discontinuous, discordant, very contemporary kind of novel. I think that what happens to a lot of us in middle age is that we can’t really hang on to our fiction any more.
– to The New York Times, 1986

Photograph: Andrew Testa/Shutterstock

On becoming a writer:

Books seem to me to be magic, and I wanted to be part of the magic … And after a while it wasn’t enough, and I started making up a very imitative type of story, set in Canada – which was kind of odd, but it didn’t bother me. It was a kind of recompense for not being able to get right into the world of the book. Books were so important to me.
– to the Guardian, 2003

On not writing novels:

I never intended to be a short-story writer, I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else – I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.
– to the New York Times, 1986

I’m sad that I haven’t written a lot of things, but I’m incredibly happy that I’ve written as much as I have. Because there was a point when I was younger where there was a very good chance that I wouldn’t write anything – I was just too frightened.
– to the Guardian, 2013

On a bout of depression in her late 20s:

I would write part of a sentence and then would have to stop. I had simply lost hope, lost faith in myself. Maybe it was just something I had to go through. I guess it was because I still wanted to do something great – great the way men do.
– to the Guardian, 2013

On her storytelling:

I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody – but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.
– to the New York Times, 1986

The Guardian

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