‘There’s life spreading out behind the story’: Nobel Prize–winning former UBC writer–in–residence Alice Munro dies at 92

Not every piece of good literature is worth returning to. But in the case of Alice Munro’s short stories, there is always something that goes unnoticed, something the reader feels was missed the last time around that sheds further light on her characters.

On people.

Munro died on May 13 at 92 after a decade-long battle with dementia. She is survived by her three daughters.

Born in 1931 outside Wingham, Ontario, Munro was the oldest child of fox farmer Robert Eric Laidlaw and teacher Anne Clarke Chamney Laidlaw. Munro studied English and journalism at Western University for two years. When she married her first husband James Munro in 1951, the couple moved to Vancouver to start a family.

Munro began to write in the pockets of silence she found in her days as a stay-at-home mom while her children were asleep.
Munro began to write in the pockets of silence she found in her days as a stay-at-home mom while her children were asleep. Courtesy The Vancouver Sun

Munro began to write in the pockets of silence she found in her days as a stay-at-home mom while her children were asleep. Encouraged by her husband, Munro’s work was soon published in the Tamarack Review, The Montrealer and The Canadian Forum. By 1968, she had written enough to publish her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades. Munro received her first Governor General’s Award for it. She’d receive two more during the span of her career.

The recognition she received for her first anthology sparked a decade of change for Munro. In 1973, she divorced her husband and returned to Wingham, remarrying in 1976. By 1977, her first story published in The New Yorker, “Royal Beatings,” which was something of a fictional anecdote based on her father’s punishments, would spark a long and tenacious partnership with the publication.

Munro also achieved international acclaim. She was published in The Paris Review and The Atlantic Monthly.

Throughout her career, Munro never strayed far from themes of womanhood, such as in her collections Lives of Girls and Women and The Love of a Good Woman.

In the short story “Voices,” included in Munro’s Nobel Prize-winning collection Dear Life, a young girl at a community dance is fascinated by the comfort an older girl, Peggy, receives from some visiting air force soldiers.

“For a long time I remembered the voices. I pondered over the voices. Not Peggy’s. The men’s,” Munro’s narrator reflects. “So it wasn’t Peggy I was interested in, not her tears, her crumpled looks. She reminded me too much of myself. It was her comforters I marvelled at. How they seemed to bow down and declare themselves in front of her.”

When retired UBC English professor Dr. William H. New talked about Munro in an interview with The Ubyssey, he spoke of her as an old friend. He calls her Alice with warmth and care.

“She was lively. She had a lovely laugh,” New said. “She had a wonderful sense of humour.”

New and Munro were friends and colleagues. They, along with Saskatchewan writer Guy Vanderhaeghe, were the co-editors of the revitalized New Canadian Library in the 1980s. Munro had an acute eye for detail, according to New. He said Munro had a knack for remembering traits of the people she met and would then integrate them into her own characters. But she also noticed the small gestures that make us human that are often overshadowed by the more obvious.

This talent is what gave readers the sense that Munro was writing autobiographically. In writing adjacent to her own life, Munro transformed the mundane into the magical just by tugging at the right words to say it.

Munro’s Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2013 made her the first Canadian to receive the honour.

“It’s rare for someone to have achieved that kind of international fame,” New said.

New said Munro enjoyed the “absurdities of life because they told her about the lives that people were actually living.”

“It's rare for someone to have achieved that kind of international fame,” New said.
“It's rare for someone to have achieved that kind of international fame,” New said. Courtesy The Guardian

“She was always aware that people are living a public life but then behind that public life are all the fascinations, all the delights, all the loves, all the sadnesses … that are in everybody’s life,” said New.

New said it was Munro’s talent to be able to tell the story of a person who was experiencing life’s woes in a way that we understood the complexities that were shaping the story.

“That sense of always wanting to find another way to say even better than you did last time, what you understand about the people in the world in which [you] live,” New said. “That’s a gift.”