Stylish, charming and as sharp as the proverbial tack, Alice Munro sat down on Friday in the lobby of her Victoria hotel with Globe photographer John Lehmann for her first video interview since winning the Nobel Prize for literature the day before. Ms. Munro is the first Canadian citizen and only the 13th woman to win the world’s most prestigious literary prize for lifetime achievement.
Elegant, with her softly waved silver hair framing her face, she defied her publisher’s “no interviews” edict in a brief exchange in which she talked about the excitement of winning, thanked the Nobel committee and urged her fans to “keep reading.”
Looking as frail as eggshells, she deflected questions with a hint of asperity, as any woman of her upbringing might have done, when asked her age and what she planned to do with the million-dollar purse that accompanies the prize. Far more than the money, she seemed touched by the recognition, which she said was “totally unexpected” but which “means that you have a lot of appreciation out there, and to a writer this is always a bit of a surprise.”
She wouldn’t commit to another book, but she didn’t deny the possibility. And, practical as ever, she announced that the most immediate plan on her horizon was to “have lunch.”
Hearing the news that she had won the Nobel Prize while staying in Victoria was the completion of a literary circle for Ms. Munro, the author of 14 books and the winner of a bevy of other literary laurels, including the Giller (twice) and the international Man Booker Prize for a body of work in 2009. It was while she was living in Victoria with her first husband, James Munro, raising their three daughters and working in their bookstore, that she published her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968.
Indeed, Mr. Munro still remembers how “surprised” people were when his former wife not only wrote a book, but had it published and saw it earn literary plaudits. “When she won the Governor-General’s award for Dance,” he said earlier this week, some of “the university types” laughed. Even the local newspaper ran a picture of her answering the phone, “supposedly receiving the word.” They called her a “shy housewife,” he recalled, and “boy was she ever mad.”
Describing Ms. Munro as a “feminist before feminism was invented,” he said he always believed in her talent. That’s why he wasn’t surprised to be woken by a Globe reporter Thursday morning and told that she had won the Nobel.
Mr. Munro and Alice Laidlaw met at the University of Western Ontario, married in 1951 and moved to Vancouver, his hometown, before relocating to Victoria, where he still lives with his second wife, fabric artist Carole Sabiston. He continues to own and operate Munro’s Books, a prominent independent bookstore now located in a former bank in the heart of the provincial capital.
“In terms of the quality of her writing, it is as good as any of the people who have won the Nobel and better than some,” he said. “She was always writing stories,” he recalled. “Way back in the 1950s she wrote a story called Thanks for the Ride. It was in her first collection. I read that story and I thought this story is as good as any story I have read – I was a big fan of short stories – better than Updike or anybody.”
After the Munros divorced in 1972, she moved back to Ontario and settled with her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, in Clinton, near Wingham, the town where she had been born in 1931. Mr. Fremlin died in April. Earlier this fall, Ms. Munro travelled with her daughter Jenny Munro to Victoria, where she plans to spend the winter with her eldest daughter, writer Sheila Munro.
The only thing that surprises Mr. Munro is how long it took for his former wife’s work to be recognized. That’s different from the loneliness and insecurity of a writer staring at the blank page with nothing but her own imagination for solace that she referred to in The Globe video and in remarks she made earlier this year in accepting Ontario’s Trillium Prize for Dear Life. “When I began, there were fewer of us,” she told the crowd of well-wishers, and there was some doubt if there could be such a thing as “many” writers. But, she added, “we got together, and we proved that that was wrong. There could indeed be Canadian writers, and this room fills that to such perfection. I’m so proud of you all.”
That pride has been more than reciprocated with the excitement about her latest honour. Mr. Munro is not alone in thinking that the Nobel announcement has “put the country in a tizzy” and that Ms. Munro deserves the award. As for his own immediate plans, other than restocking her latest and possibly last book, the aforementioned Dear Life, in his store, he is celebrating like so many other blended families are doing this weekend: “Everybody is coming here for Thanksgiving.”