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She was ‘modest and shy to a fault,’ but her work won over readers and critics around the world and she became one of Canada’s most prominent writers, winning the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature

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Alice Munro enjoys a sunny day in her hometown of Wingham, Ont., in 2002, when the local horticultural society unveiled a garden in her name.Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

Her principal subject was sex, its power to sweep away reason and twist life out of shape, and she wrote of it better than any other Canadian writer, without mentioning any body parts. Sex, she wrote in Lives of Girls and Women “seemed to me all surrender,” not surrender of the woman to the man “but of the self to the body.” It was the engine driving the plot in much of her work.

The deft short stories she wrote over six decades, each one rich in incident and filled with vivid characters, had the amplitude of novels. The majority of them first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, then went on to be published in 16 story collections that caused critics to reach for superlatives. The Atlantic Monthly chose her as the living writer “most likely to be read in a hundred years.”

Her stories introduced U.S. readers to the folkways of rural Ontario, and as her fame grew, attracted fans to Ontario’s Huron County to visit Wingham, her birthplace. Readers relished her earthy humour and her ability to extend her sympathy to every character, even those who were slightly ridiculous, not very bright or had committed murder.

Ms. Munro’s deep humanism and skill with language earned her the Nobel Prize in 2013, the only Canadian to win for literature (aside from Saul Bellow, who was born in Lachine, Que., but left Canada at age 9).

Alice Munro died on Monday night at her care home in Ontario, according to her family. She had been suffering from dementia for at least a dozen years. She was 92.

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The former Laidlaw farm, shown in 2013, bordered on Wingham's Lower Town, which, in Ms. Munro's recollection, was a 'community of outcasts.'The Globe and Mail

She was born July 10, 1931, the eldest of three children of Anne Chamney Laidlaw, a former school teacher, and Robert Laidlaw, who ran a fox farm until fox fur went out of fashion and he switched to raising turkeys. Her parents were descended from pioneering 19th-century Scottish and Irish settlers, and family tales of hardship, poverty and fatal logging accidents later provided material for their daughter’s early stories such as A Wilderness Station.

Young Alice was raised in a house without indoor plumbing bordering on Wingham’s Lower Town, which she later described as a place “where all the bootleggers and prostitutes lived. It was a community of outcasts. I had that feeling about myself.” She walked six kilometres each day, to school in Wingham and back.

An old book she found of Tennyson’s poetry was her introduction to literature, according to Robert Thacker’s 2005 biography of the author. “I just went crazy about it,” she later said.

When Alice Laidlaw was about 11, her mother, Anne, developed Parkinson’s disease though it was misunderstood and undiagnosed for years. Ms. Munro recalled for interviewer Eleanor Wachtel: “It can seem like a neurotic self-chosen affliction. And it was seen so by some people in the family. Eating becomes difficult. There is no control over saliva.”

Young Alice had to become housekeeper and caregiver for her younger brother and sister. Determined to write and resisting the expectation that she stay home and devote herself to nursing her sick mother, she won a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in London with the highest marks in English of any applicant. But her escape from Wingham left her feeling conflicted and guilty.

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In the Western literary magazine Folio, a bio for Ms. Munro calls her 'overly modest about her talents, but hopes to write the Great Canadian Novel some day.'Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

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Gerald Fremlin and James Munro met Ms. Munro at Western and would be part of her life for many years.Supplied photo, The Globe and Mail

At Western, she met the two men who would shape her life.

One was James Munro, scion of an establishment family from Oakville, Ont. near Toronto, to whom she became engaged in late 1950. The other was Gerald Fremlin, a somewhat-older war veteran to whom she submitted her first story for publication, mistaking him for the editor of Folio, the UWO literary magazine. Mr. Fremlin sent her down the hall to another office, and the two did not meet again for 25 years.

She married Mr. Munro and dropped out of Western without a degree. The couple left Ontario immediately for Vancouver, where he had a job waiting at Eaton’s department store. They lived in a rented house in Kitsilano, and she found a part-time job at the Kitsilano library. Two of her most memorable stories, Cortes Island and Chaddeleys and Flemings grew out of this period.

Faced with the choice of “marriage and motherhood or the black life of an artist,” as she later wrote, Ms. Munro tried to do both. The family grew to include three daughters: Sheila, Jenny and Andrea. (Another daughter, Catherine, was stillborn in 1955.)

She described her sojourn in British Columbia as “the bumbling years.” She was sustained by a single literary lifeline to Robert Weaver, a CBC arts producer and founder of The Tamarack Review, who commissioned stories for his radio program Anthology and championed her work. She had gotten in touch with him when she was just 19.

A scheduled broadcast of The Strangers, a story for which Mr. Weaver paid Ms. Munro $50, was pre-empted by the release of the Massey Report on the arts, which led to the creation of the Canada Council. Ms. Munro subsequently applied to the council for a grant to pay babysitters while she wrote, but was turned down.

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Munro's Books in Victoria, shown in 2007, is still in business since the Munros opened it in 1963.Deddeda Stemler/The Globe and Mail

Unsure of her voice and revising her work obsessively, Ms. Munro described her writing process as one of “constant despair.” Her confidence, however, got a boost in 1968 with the publication of her first story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, by Ryerson Press. It won the first of her three Governor-General’s Awards and drew her into a literary circle that included Margaret Atwood, Audrey Thomas and John Metcalf, who became lifelong friends.

In 1963, she and Mr. Munro moved to Victoria and opened Munro’s Books. Though the work at the store left her less time to write, the successful joint project marked the best period of their increasingly rocky marriage.

Class differences between them intruded. They clashed over the large, Tudor-style house Mr. Munro moved the family into that they could not afford to heat. The decor included a fake suit of armour, furniture upholstered in crushed velvet and a chandelier that was a copy of one in a baronial mansion in Scotland.

Alice Munro Country: Madeleine Thien's short story about a young Cambodian refugee's move to Goderich, Ont.

Ms. Munro hated the cold, pretentious house but found she could set up her typewriter in the laundry room, and write there warmed by the clothes dryer.

Here she produced Lives of Girls and Women, a series of linked stories about the fictional Del Jordan, a lively, curious girl, and her decision to become a writer once she realizes that there is material scattered all around her hometown (named Jubilee in the book): “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum,” she wrote near the end of that book.

Not all her neighbours, however, wanted to be literary characters. One family recognized details about their clan in The Time of Death, from her 1968 collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, in which a toddler dies by scalding when left in the care of his nine-year-old sister. There was so much anger that one family member showed up at the Laidlaw farm threatening Robert Laidlaw with a gun and demanding that he make his daughter stop writing about them.

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As a divorcee in the early 1970s, Ms. Munro moved from B.C. to her native Ontario to start fresh.Supplied

In the early 1970s, with her marriage ending amid domestic discord, Ms. Munro left the Tudor mansion and took her daughters – the youngest, Andrea, was then just 7 – back to Ontario.

Needing to support herself, she took a post as writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario and arranged joint custody. She supported herself briefly by teaching creative writing at two other institutions but disliked the job; she did not believe creative writing could be taught. The pressure from publishers to write novels was so paralyzing that she considered ending her writing career.

A subsequent romance with Mr. Metcalf gave way when Mr. Fremlin, hearing Ms. Munro on CBC radio and learning she had moved back, tracked her down.

“My life has gone rosy, again,” Ms. Munro wrote Audrey Thomas in 1975. “This time it’s real …. He’s 50, free, a good man if ever I saw one, tough and gentle like the old tire ads.”

Ms. Munro began living with Mr. Fremlin, a physical geographer, and his aged mother in Clinton, 25 kilometres southwest of Wingham, and stayed there with him until his death in 2013.

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Clinton, Ont., would be Ms. Munro's home base for decades after she and Mr. Fremlin moved in together.Ian Willms/the New York Times

Back in Huron County after 20 years in B.C., her talent blossomed. “This ordinary place is sufficient; everything here is touchable and mysterious,” she wrote.

To this point she had no agent, and had failed to ask her publisher for advance royalties. When the savvy New York agent Virginia Barber offered in 1974 to represent her, she found the ally she needed to navigate the world of American publishing, where Ms. Barber knew she would find a larger audience.

Ms. Barber aimed Ms. Munro’s production at The New Yorker, the foremost market for short fiction in English, and succeeded so well that by 1978 the magazine agreed to pay for the initial right of refusal to all her stories. After 1979, only two of her stories made their first appearance in Canadian publications.

The first of her stories the magazine’s daring young fiction editor Charles McGrath ran, was Royal Beatings.

“We didn’t want the old New Yorker story, about suburban ennui. We were looking for fresh writers, Canadian writers, and we were wildly enthusiastic about her,” he said in a phone interview.

The magazine’s founding editor, William Shawn, was well past retirement age but still at the helm, and found the language too rough, Mr. McGrath recalled. Mr. Shawn was troubled, for example, by the word “snot” in Ms. Munro’s story. “We had to tone Royal Beatings down. I was her editor for a decade, myself and Dan Menaker, but she was her own best editor. She would often send us a second version while we were working on the first.”

Her stories in the magazine became more racy after Mr. Shawn’s retirement.

She now had a top-notch team of editors, including the two from The New Yorker and Ms. Barber who, with Douglas Gibson at Macmillan and later at McClelland & Stewart in Canada, put together her story collections. Ms. Barber, also found her a high-quality U.S. publisher with deep pockets: Alfred A. Knopf.

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Farley Mowat is caught by surprise while congratulating Ms. Munro at 1979's Governor-General's Literary Award ceremony in Ottawa.Roger Arar/The Canadian Press

Ms. Munro’s international reputation took full flight with Who Do You Think You Are?, published in the U.S. as The Beggar Maid. Her stories are “composed with so sure an art it might be mistaken for artlessness,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote.

Who Do You Think You Are? is “the critical book of Munro’s career,” according to her biographer Mr. Thacker. “There is no question but that Munro burst forth in the late 1970s and into the 1980s with successive stories that create the feelings of being alive, that replicate for their readers the very sense of being itself,” he wrote.

The early pressure from publishers to produce a novel, “that big bright fish that slipped round and round in the depths of my mind,” Ms. Munro wrote, now abated. Mr. Gibson, her Canadian editor, promised never to say the word “novel.”

Ms. Munro “brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels,” the jury of the Man Booker International Prize declared in 2009, awarding her the prize for her overall contribution to fiction.

With her indefatigable New York agent steadily building international sales, Ms. Munro withdrew from the literary limelight, cutting out book tours and most interviews. She never published a book review in her entire career, never learned to drive and, in 1983, she turned down an invitation to join the Order of Canada. She agreed to only one honourary degree, from her alma mater, though several were offered.

“All this acceptance comes as rather a shock to someone so well schooled in surviving without it,” Ms. Munro said in 1986, responding to the rapturous reception given The Progress of Love.

Her New Yorker editor Mr. McGrath visited her in Clinton: “Her husband had a big study; she wrote at the dining room table,” he recalled. “She was modest and shy to a fault. Her last book, Dear Life, goes back to the material of the first book – the turkey farm, the sick mother. Her writing evolved. The late Munro is subtler, richer – that was the thrilling part.”

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Sarah Polley and two of the cast members of Away from Her, Kristen Thomson and Gordon Pinsent, celebrate their adaptation of Munro's short story at Toronto's Windsor Arms Hotel in 2008.Arantxa Cedillo/Veras

Given that so much of her art lies in depicting the inner life and emotions of her characters, successful film adaptations of Ms. Munro’s work have been rare. In 1984, Boys and Girls, based on her story about how children are shaped by a family’s expectations, won an Oscar in the Short Subject category. Of feature films, the most successful has been Sarah Polley’s Away from Her (2007), starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, an adaptation of Ms. Munro’s The Bear Went Over the Mountain. It’s the tale of an older woman, struggling with the onset of Alzheimer’s, who finds a new romance at her nursing home to the chagrin of her husband.

Ms. Munro’s A Wilderness Station, a mystery tale told in letters, was turned into a 2002 film with the same title directed by Anne Wheeler.

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar took Chance, Soon and Silence, three stories from her collection Runaway (2004) that revolved around a character named Juliet and her estranged daughter. Mr. Almodovar moved the tale to Spain for his 2016 film Julieta, which bore only a faint resemblance to the source material.

Ms. Munro twice won the Giller Prize, Canada’s top literary award, then disqualified herself in 2009, withdrawing Too Much Happiness from the contest to make way for younger writers.

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A pure silver five-dollar coin commemorates Ms. Munro's 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

Canadian English professors including University of Ottawa’s David Staines, William New at UBC and Western’s dean of arts, Michael Milde, had repeatedly proposed her to the Nobel committee over the years, but it was not until a substantial number of Scandinavian professors of Canadian studies also sponsored her candidacy that the committee became receptive.

When she won the Nobel Prize, she was deep in grief after Mr. Fremlin’s recent death and sent her daughter Jenny to accept it on her behalf from the King of Sweden.

“I am simply not able physically to do it,” Ms. Munro said about travelling to the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. She suffered from various illnesses over the years, including cancer and heart problems which led to bypass surgery.

Ms. Munro leaves her daughters Sheila, Jenny and Andrea. A complete list of her survivors was not immediately available.

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Julian Behal/PA Images via Reuters Connect

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