There is so much in this interview with Alice Munro, from 1994 in The Paris Review, that I want to go on quoting and quoting from it. Here is a sample. I urge you to read the whole thing (pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy the length, depth, and breadth of the conversation). And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction.
MUNRO I was like a Victorian daughter—the pressure to marry was so great, one felt it was something to get out of the way: Well, I’ll get that done, and they can’t bug me about it, and then I’ll be a real person and my life will begin. I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I’m a far more conventional woman now than I was then.
INTERVIEWER Doesn’t any young artist, on some level, have to be hard-hearted?
MUNRO It’s worse if you’re a woman. I want to keep ringing up my children and saying, Are you sure you’re all right? I didn’t mean to be such a . . . Which of course would make them furious because it implies that they’re some kind of damaged goods. Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that. Not that I neglected them, but I wasn’t wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I’ve done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.
And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction. After a while, Munro took us to Goderich, a bigger town, the county seat, where she installed us in the Bedford Hotel on the square across from the courthouse. The hotel is a nineteenth-century building with comfortable rooms (twin beds and no air-conditioning) that would seem to lodge a librarian or a frontier schoolteacher in one of Munro’s stories. Over the next three days, we talked in her home, but never with the tape recorder on. We conducted the interview in our small room at the hotel, as Munro wanted to keep “the business out of the house.” Both Munro and her husband grew up within twenty miles of where they now live; they knew the history of almost every building we passed, admired, or ate inside. We asked what sort of literary community was available in the immediate area. Although there is a library in Goderich, we were told the nearest good bookstore was in Stratford, some thirty miles away. When we asked whether there were any other local writers, she drove us past a ramshackle house where a man sat bare chested on the back stoop, crouched over a typewriter, surrounded by cats. “He’s out there every day,” she said. “Rain or shine. I don’t know him, but I’m dying of curiosity to find out what he’s up to.”
This is excerpted from a long interview called “The Art of Fiction” with Lorrie Moore in the Paris Review, from 2001. You can read the whole thing here. (With thanks to Anakana Schofield for pointing me to it.)
INTERVIEWER Could you talk about the moment you decided to become a writer, if there was one that you can put your finger on? Or was it always obvious?
MOORE It’s never always obvious.
INTERVIEWER Some writers seem to think it was inevitable—they were writing poems when they were five and never stopped.
MOORE Does that mean it’s obvious? I’d like to see some of those poems.
INTERVIEWER So you don’t feel you were destined to it, that you had no other choice but to be a writer?
MOORE Well, that’s all very romantic, and I can be as romantic as the next person. (I swear.) But the more crucial point is the moment you give yourself permission to do it, which is a decision that is both romantic and bloody-minded—it involves desire and foolish hope, but also a deep involvement with one’s art, some sort of useful self-confidence, and some kind of economic plan. One’s life, especially one’s artistic life, is an interplay of many things and the timing of encouragement—from teachers or parents—is also one of the most important elements. Although both my parents are creative people in their way, I was not especially encouraged by them, which might have been good. I certainly don’t blame them. I think they believed you threw things at your children—lessons, books, music—and then let the children sort it out, that if you were too present or too committed to a child’s accomplishment in any area, the child would run away. This, of course, is not really true. Or rather it’s not extremely true. But I received most of my initial encouragement in college, from professors, and by then I was ready to absorb it. I didn’t have the financial freedom to be a writer and have always struggled with that, but I also knew I didn’t want to find myself sixty-five years old and ruing the moment in my youth when I became prematurely practical. I wasn’t at all sure whether I would be able to survive as a writer for the rest of my life. But I decided to keep going for as long as I could and let someone else lock me up for incurable insanity.
Summer is here. And I am not, so much, here.
I keep taking photos of everywhere we go, and everything we do, but my photo computer is dying a long slow death (probably caused by the photos), making processing next to impossible. And time is of the essence. I wonder who first expressed that phrase. Time is of the essence. Could it have been Shakespeare? AppleApple and I listened to Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare on our long drive this weekend. We both got a kick out of it.
She and I were in Ottawa all weekend for provincials. She won a silver medal with her relay team, and achieved personal bests in all of her swims, making for a happy time at the pool. (I watched World Cup matches on a TV hung on the wall just outside the pool deck doors, which, I won’t lie, was an awesome way to see the games — instant community.) Out of the pool, we walked to Parliament Hill, spent time with family, and I went for early morning runs along the Rideau Canal. “You should have brought your running shoes!” I said on the first evening, picturing a mother-daughter jog beside the still waters, and she said, “Mom, do you remember why we’re here? My coach said I’m not supposed to run before races!” Oh, right. Swimming. Not holidaying. I’m glad I forgot for a bit. I’m glad it felt like a holiday.
While we were away, my baby went off to camp for the first time. Two nights. And I wasn’t even there. I miss him in a way that I can’t even express so I’m trying instead to suppress. Know what I mean? “Mom, I think he’s handling this better than you are.”
School is out. It’s hot.
I need more alone time. I’m wearing ear plugs. We have a lost library book to deal with and a wrong-sized swim suit to return and swim lessons starting today. I have no idea how I will get any work done this summer; or more specifically, today, or on any day this coming week. I’m feeling slightly afraid; also overwhelmed. With everyone around it seems like there is less time to be writer-me. I can figure this out, right?
I’m on the cover of the summer edition of Quill & Quire. It may be out, in fact, but I haven’t seen it yet, I’ve only seen this, posted on Twitter by Stacey May Fowles: Wrote about the charming and insightful @carrieasnyder and Girl Runner for @quillandquire. cc @HouseofAnansihttp://instagram.com/p/pyqO1djjyz/
Kevin mopped the house while we were away. It looks incredibly clean.
He also decided we should teach the kids LIFE SKILLS this summer. How to clip your own nails. How to poach an egg. How to make a smoothie and clean the counter afterwards. Etc. Things they should probably already know, but perhaps don’t, that we expect them to know intuitively, but they just don’t. He should be in charge more often.
We don’t always have a ton of luck with the vegetables we plant in our raised beds, but every spring we give it another go. One year we scored with a broccoli plant that was still producing in November, but that never happened again. Cherry tomatoes work best, and herbs grow well, but any squash or zucchini that’s sprung forth has been quickly gnawed by our ravenous population of squirrels, which even the dogs can’t keep away all the time, though they relish the battle.
Fooey brought home a very healthy bean plant from school, which she planted with the beans that we’d started for AppleApple’s science fair project. Fooey’s teacher told her she had a green thumb, and it seemed that Fooey took that idea to heart. She’s planting two eggplants in the photos above. Good luck, eggplants! And beans! (I’m already stir-frying you in my imagination.)
This morning I am more tired than I’d like to be, and perhaps slightly more emotional too. I’m in the kind of mood where I’m practically weeping over a story in the newspaper (this one — about a kindergarten teacher in Toronto, who died tragically young). I’m hoping no one turns up at the door. I love stories about people who live outside the box. And I love stories about people who care deeply for the well-being and dignity of children; my son’s kindergarten teachers are amazing, and we’re constantly impressed at the ambitious yet simple events and outings being planned on the kids’ behalf. Life is so much richer when it’s blessed by people who care.
I’ve been to Toronto and back two days in a row, contributing to the tiredness of today.
Last night, I went in for the National Magazine Awards gala, and did not win in my category (the prize went to Liz Windhorst Harmer, who was radiant in her excitement). I went mostly to be a fly on the wall, having never been before, and to celebrate the career of Kim Jernigan of The New Quarterly, who was being honoured with a special prize. It was an odd experience, made pleasant by the company; but in truth I’m not sure I entirely understand award galas. I understand the value of awards themselves, to those whose careers are lifted by recognition, but I don’t understand the gala part. These must be expensive to produce, and as a writer, were I to win an award, I’d much prefer a cheque to a flashy ceremony. This is probably an heretical opinion to express, and I will now be karmically banned from ever being nominated ever again, but I guess I would wish for a celebration of writing to be more, well, celebratory, less American Idol, less winner v losers. What is our mania for making winners and losers out of individual creative efforts? I can honestly say that being nominated was a gift and a complete surprise, but that “losing” last night had an equally surprising effect of making me feel, well, like a loser, at least temporarily. That may say more about me than it does about award ceremonies, but it did get me thinking about the double-edged sword of recognition. One wants recognition, as a writer, and if one wants a viable career, one may in fact need it, but it comes at a cost we’re not so willing to discuss, attached as it is to corrosive emotions of envy and greed. Shake hands with the devil.
I can think of only one response to counteract corrosive emotions: get grounded.
Like Fooey’s doing in the photos above: Get into the earth. Dig in. Get dirty. Plant. Hope for harvest.
So, on this bright fresh beautiful morning in June, I’m going to be thankful for this bright fresh beautiful morning in June, for being here and alive, and for the way things have worked out to bring me right here, right now. I’m going to think about the short life of a teacher who did what he seemed born to do. And I’m going to keep doing what I am so very fortunate to get to do, too.
This photo is essentially unrelated to our weekend. What I like about it is the small picture within the bigger picture: the mirror looking backward at a scene that appears to be rendered in black and white, while the almost colourless landscape whooshes past out the window. It’s like a metaphor for a blog post.
I haven’t had a lot to say this week, here in Blogland. I think my thoughts have turned to subjects too large to be confined to this space. It isn’t the medium for the long-form essay; nor is it Twitter-sized. It’s like a scrapbook: photos, captions, a snapshot capturing a fragment of the here and now. I’ve been thinking about renovating my blog so that it can display photos more prominently and text more colourfully, but that’s a big project for a solo artist who can’t seem to keep the counters clean in her actual abode, though she did just fold several days’ worth of laundry, leaving it in yet another basket for her children to put away in their drawers, which they may someday do, someday. One lives in hope.
I ran 23 kilometres yesterday. It was about two kilometres more than my legs wished to go, but I’d planned my route slightly ambitiously. I was aiming for a two-hour run, and it took me slightly more than two hours. I’m oddly un-achy today. Yet oddly grumpy, it must be confessed. I’ve run the vacuum cleaner down the stairs, threatened to give away one child’s computer (as in, physically picked up said computer and carted it toward the great outdoors where I promised to hand it to any stranger passing by), and now I’ve wisely barricaded myself into my office. One of my goals for today is to plan out the summer: last summer I paid the older children to babysit the younger children, including making lunches, and not using video games as entertainment, an entirely successful experiment we intend to recreate this summer.
It’s Victoria Day, and a holiday here in Canada, so I’m getting a taste of the summer that must not happen: everyone underfoot and bored and sulking about the paucity of electronic time and asking for snacks and ignoring the simplest instructions whilst I fold laundry and howl about wasted opportunities and my envy of Mordecai Richler, whose biography still haunts me several years after reading it. (I’m not making this up. The howl of “I wish I were Mordecai Richler!” arises surprisingly frequently when I’m in a self-pitying mood: imagine having someone to cook you fine meals and take your children to their appointments and keep the daily annoyances at bay while you work your ass off doing the only thing you really want to do).
Except take a small step back, Carrie. Do you really want to wallow in envy?
And another small step, please. Mordecai Richler was making a killer living doing the only thing he wanted to do, and while I’m doing fine as far as these things go, basically Kevin and I must share the domestic and professional tasks between us to keep our family afloat. In short, we both have to: cook the meals (some of the time), take the children to their appointments (some of the time), and make space for the things we really want to do (some of the time).
And, hey. Would I really want it any other way? I appear to be feeling better, suddenly. It must be the barricade. And the writing. The writing always helps. I can hear, through my ear plugs, children gathering to make their own lunches (ramen noodles) and the vacuum running (Kevin). And now the piano is being practiced. And the sun is shining. Here are some flowers from our backyard:
Let me leave you with a few of the wonderful things I’ve read this weekend:
* Ian Brown’s essay on the mulberry tree that once stood in his back yard (aside: I harbour a deeply held fantasy of becoming the female version of Ian Brown)
* Anakana Schofield’s books Q&A in The Irish Times, which is as enormously amusing as one could ever imagine a books Q&A being
* Oy! Feh! So! by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Gary Clement, a children’s picture book that is CJ’s absolute favourite right now, and which is quite a lot of fun to read out loud, especially if you, like me, enjoy doing voices at great volume right before bedtime
* All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, which is kind of wrecking me even while it opens me, like all great books do, taking you apart and putting you back together, emotionally and morally, without telling you what to think. I love Miriam Toews.
I sponsored the two older kids’ rep soccer teams this season by “buying a sleeve.” We decided to add “A NOVEL” to the title GIRL RUNNER, thinking that a team of 13-year-old boys might not appreciate having to wear that label during games.
This was our dining-room table, Monday afternoon. Two sets of page proofs, one galley, one sharp red pencil, and one mother announcing to all who entered after school, “There will be no eating or drinking on or near this table until I AM DONE!”
I am done.
All may eat and drink here again.
Last night’s reading at DVLB was really fun. I even indulged in a scotch, thanks to the kindness of a friend who treated. Imbibe ye scotches while ye may. Life’s too short not to enjoy the pleasures that arrive. Even if that happens to be on a Tuesday night and you’re running the next morning. And so I did. (And I ran this morning too: Run ye many kilometres while ye may.)
No scotches tonight, however. I’ll be driving to and from Hamilton, where I’m reading at Bryan Price Bookseller, 7pm, with other M Word contributors. (Note to self: look up directions!)
Tomorrow I’ll be at the Anansi offices working on publicity plans for Girl Runner. (Note to self: more directions! Look up!)
Can you read the above? I can’t. File this under Strange Opportunities that Arrive via the Internet. Last month I was contacted by an editor at Unitas, a Chinese-language literary magazine in Taiwan, who wanted to interview me for a special issue they were planning on Alice Munro. (They’d found and loved my review of Alice Munro’s Dear Love in the National Post.) I agreed. And this month, two copies of the beautifully produced magazine arrived in my mailbox, in an envelope covered in fancy stamps. Sometimes the world seems very very small.
I’ve never met Alice Munro, and can’t imagine what I would say to her if we were to meet. It’s an entirely one-sided relationship based purely on my reading of her stories over many years. I’m immersed in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH right now, a truly wonderful book that combines biography with memoir, and in some way I feel like my relationship with Alice Munro is similar to Rebecca Mead’s with George Eliot; but Mead has the benefit of distance and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable exploring Alice Munro’s life and work in quite the same way, given that she’s still living, and that our worlds literally overlap in time and space. It wouldn’t be historical exploration. There’s a freedom to digging back into the past, way back. I’m aiming to do it now, in my next novel. Nothing can be perfectly recovered from the deep past, and so one may imagine quite freely.
Yet I’m so admiring and relishing this memoir/biography mash-up on George Eliot — I would do it, if I could figure out my relationship with non-fiction, a form I’m still learning. I’m thinking out loud here, brainstorming as I type. Perhaps not the best way to compose a blog post on which one is about to press “publish.” But if I could figure out how, yes, I would write about Alice Munro.
I think the NMA nomination was especially thrilling (and perhaps seductive) because it was earned for “personal journalism,” aka non-fiction. It’s a form that interests me more and more, that I find myself devouring more and more, and that I want to learn how to master.