Very soon after Alice Munro stepped out onstage at a literary reading in Dundee, Scotland, smiled and began to read one of her short stories, she understood that something was going wrong. This was more than two decades ago, yet she remembers this reading very well. "When I read, I usually get a laugh by the end of my first paragraph. But I didn't. Nor at the end of the second paragraph." Unconsciously, she gripped the lectern -- so hard that her shoulder started to ache. Throughout the reading, her audience sat in stony silence.
The next day, Munro gave a reading in Leeds, England. Nearing the end of her first paragraph, she heard a familiar swell of mirth. "The English were enjoying it. What's wrong with the Scots?" she asks.
She knows what's wrong. She has written about them in her 13th short-story collection, The View from Castle Rock. (The book may be her last: "I don't know if I have the energy to do this any more," she says.) The Scots, her people, are imaginative but mistrustful of imagination; passionate about literature -- they applauded in Dundee -- but convinced that something so worthy shouldn't be enjoyed openly. So Munro explains as we sit down for lunch at Bailey's Fine Dining in Goderich, Ont.
I am still fishing around for my reporter's notepad. "I'm sorry, I didn't write that bit down yet and I'm not taping this interview," I say.
"Not taping? So, well, we can just make stuff up," says Munro with a peal of laughter.
She's a slim, pretty and elegant lady of 75, with a wave of silver hair and a brilliant, claret-red sweater (this colour suggests the Bible's virtuous wife, she whose price is above rubies -- but also, deliciously, the Scarlet Woman). While I get organized, Carolyn Merritt, Bailey's owner, brings glasses of Munro's favourite white wine. The fun, the wine, the colourful and stylish clothes, and the invitation to "make stuff up" creates the impression that Munro has slipped the surly bonds of Scottishness for hedonism and high spirits.
Don't be fooled. Under a guise of sensuous and sometimes subversive storytelling, Munro's writing has always been truthful and loyal, after its fashion, to the values of her ancestors. Her stories are threaded with hard little sentences of judgment, twists that highlight the unfairness of life, a clear appraisal of the resentments of the poor, women, children.
Like the Jews, the Scots are a people of the book. After the 16th-century cleric John Knox declared all children should be able to read the Bible, they became, as Munro writes in Castle Rock, the most literate god-botherers in Europe. They took these qualities with them into their striving diaspora. But unlike the Jews, the Scots are stereotypically undemonstrative, their "Oy vey" signalled with just a slight hardening of the lips. "Self-dramatization got short shrift in our family," writes Munro. "Though now that I come to think of it, it wasn't exactly that word they used. They spoke of calling attention. Calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal. The refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story, either for other people or yourself."
Despite her scarlet raiment, the author is famous for refusing to let attention fall on her private sphere; she's been called reclusive, shuns book tours and never lets reporters come to her house. Munro's buffer zone between her fiction and her life runs through this Goderich restaurant. Like her stories, it's very near to where she actually lives (in Clinton, with her second husband, geographer Gerald Fremlin), but still far enough away to keep outsiders at bay. Bailey's is where reporters from New York and Los Angeles are permitted to interview the Ontario woman who has been hailed as North America's best fiction writer. It's the same place where I interviewed Munro for The Globe and Mail in 1994, and at the same table, too (loyalty is thought by Scots to be one of their finer traits).