“What a Goddamn Writer She Was”: Remembering Alice Munro (1931–2024)


In Memoriam

Alice Munro. Photograph by Derek Shapton.

I reread “Family Furnishings” this morning because it is one of my favorite stories and because I will be discussing it soon with my students and because Alice Munro, possibly the greatest short-story writer there ever was and certainly the greatest in the English language, is dead. One of my teachers at the University of Montana introduced me to the story when I was an undergrad who had just begun to write and was utterly lost and did not know yet that these two things were one and the same. The story was so far beyond me I had almost no sense of what was going on except that by the end the narrator had been exposed to her own ignorance and arrogance and emotional irresponsibility in a way that was permanently imprinted on me, most likely because I understood it as a premonition of what was to come in my own life. But it is also a story about how the narrator becomes a fiction writer, about the ways a person from a small town might become such a thing, the ways high art will come into your life and separate you from the people who don’t live for art—this is most of them—and the things you must give up in order to commit yourself to the discipline of writing, the ways you will almost certainly piss people off back home when you finally find a way to fork the lightning of the sentence. Munro is one of the only writers whose work has haunted me not just on the first read but more and more as I’ve gotten older. A good story will hold your attention for a while, but a great story will open a new door in your head and then will change with you as you go and “Furnishings” is that kind of story. Each time I read it I see a thing I somehow did not before and understand something about life I did not before or had purposely forgotten; Munro’s best work is always a step past me and no matter what I do or how much older I get it remains that way and I hope it stays that way. What has not changed is my sense that the writer driving this story is clear-eyed to the point of cruelty but not unnecessarily so and that this way of seeing is extended to everyone in the story including the narrator herself and now that I have been reading and writing for some time I know this to be the mark of legitimate fiction. Otherwise the work is ersatz. When I was younger I tried to diagram the architecture of Munro’s stories because I believed this would help me get better as a writer; I gave up because I realized it was the architecture of her mind I was diagramming and that no one would ever do it like her again. It is revealing that when I think about how good she is, I have to go to the peak of literary Olympus to find her equals. I must go to Proust to find someone with her emotional and relational intelligence; I must go to Flannery O’Connor to find someone who so understands the shame and wry humor and darkness and strangeness of rural life; and I must go to Chekhov to find someone whose stories turn as strangely and by their close leave me as stripped and ragged and human. What a goddamn writer she was. Goodbye, Miss Munro. I am grateful to you forever.

—Sterling HolyWhiteMountain

I was a first-term M.F.A. student when I read “Differently,” the penultimate story in Munro’s Friend of My Youth. The story begins with the narrator, Georgia, giving us her writing instructor’s feedback on her stories: “Too many things,” the instructor had said. “Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to?”

Georgia revises the story to appease him, though she knows it’s now “a fake.” She turns it in along with an appendix listing all the things she left out. The instructor says that she’s expecting too much of herself and the process; furthermore, she’s wearing him out.

They end up living together, Georgia and the writing instructor (so “the course was not a total loss,” Georgia says). They sell raspberries and run a small publishing business; from time to time, Georgia goes to Vancouver to visit her sons from a previous marriage.

All of this in a little over two paragraphs.

Munro then begins “Differently” in earnest: “This fall Saturday she has taken the ferry across to Victoria, where she used to live.” In the next eight paragraphs we meet seven new characters: Raymond, Anne, Ben, Maya, an abortion doctor, Harvey, and Mme. Defarge. We enter three timelines: the present, “this fall Saturday”; the recent past, the day Georgia phoned Raymond to see if she might visit him in Victoria; and the more distant past, a memory told in parentheticals. We also get a death, a divorce, an affair, the abortion; a knitted sweater, a sinister brown-paper bag, the smell of an egg-and-onion sandwich on the doctor’s breath as he performs the abortion.

Too many things, too many people? Watch this.

For me, the story’s opening was a revelation. To watch Munro give us the fictional criticism, then go on to defy it in real time! And defy it in a way that, implausibly, impossibly, works. Munro’s collections should come with warning labels: Do not attempt this at home. It’s the locus of her genius, this too-many-things-ness, a compressed abundance that allows Munro to do in the story form what most of us dare not attempt in novels. The shattering of the space-time continuum. No moving from point A to point B in linear fashion. All times are now, all places and objects—all of it is now.

As I sit here and type, all pasts, the present, and all possible futures are here with me. I can remember, imagine, experience the moment. A Munro story operates the way the mind operates. To read a Munro story is to experience the mystery of consciousness itself.

And so I began to examine her structures, diagramming them on my yellow legal pad to get a dimensional sense of their individual architectures. I placed points on a line, representing moments in time, then connected them, backward and forward, tracing a character’s arc. I would do this for multiple characters within a single story, mapping a timeline for each. Sometimes I wound up with strands of diamond shapes curling back onto themselves; sometimes the drawings reminded me of the spirographs I used to play with as a kid: recursive circularity with forward momentum.

At the time, I was writing stories set in the South, where I live. Most were domestic stories. Others were downright weird. A marathon on a Civil War battlefield in the year 2026, with participants who are forced to run while carrying phallic sculptures; the congregation of a historic church descends into cultlike ritual, substituting oral sex for the Eucharist. What was I doing? Who would read this stuff? Then I read this, from Munro’s Paris Review interview: “The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me … all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. … Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.” My novel Two-Step Devil, coming out this fall, features an outsider artist living off the grid in the Alabama backwoods, a young sex trafficking victim, and, well, the Devil, dressed in cowboy boots and a bolo tie—a dude with a penchant for jigging in place and quoting the Bible, and Shakespeare. Freakish and marginal indeed. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t write the book in secret homage to Munro’s literary tastes.

Munro’s work wasn’t the only thing I needed back then. I was thirty-six, with four children under the age of twelve. Many of my Bennington peers were a decade younger than I was. Most didn’t have children. The guilt and self-doubt—how to see myself as something other than wife and mother?—was nearly crushing. Then I learned that Munro, too, wrote with small children at home. (“Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories,” read an early headline in the Vancouver Sun.) She didn’t publish her first book until she was in her late thirties. Munro’s life gave me hope: It’s possible to start later. It’s possible to make art about the kind of life you’ve had—to write about children and marriage, small towns and domestic interiors; about the experiences of women, and longings and desires that have nothing to do with being a wife or a mother.

I would soon come to need her work in a spiritual sense, too. Munro’s stories often center on female desires outside the bounds of marriage or long-term commitment—illicit attractions, temptations, and affairs. I was shortly to fall into—choose is a more accurate word, looking at it from this vantage, far into the future—an emotionally intense “friendship.” It wasn’t physical and yet it was all-consuming, and when it ended—as I’d known it would, as I’d longed for it to—the grief was unlike anything I’d experienced. Some days I sat with my forehead on my desk from the time I dropped the kids off until it was time to pick them up again. How dare I feel this? It was the kind of grief that should be reserved for the death of a child, the kind of grief you couldn’t talk about with anyone.

And so I went back to Munro, back to “Differently,” in which Georgia has an adulterous sexual relationship with a man named Miles. When the affair ends, Georgia “walked stiffly to the kitchen and put on the kettle and said to herself the words a paralysis of grief”:

A paralysis of grief. What was she thinking of? … She would not have bartered away an hour of her children’s lives to have had the phone ring at ten o’clock last night, to have heard Maya say, “Georgia, he’s desperate. He’s sorry; he loves you very much.”

No. But it seemed that such a phone call would have given her a happiness that no look or word from her children could give her.

It was all there: women, mothers, wives; friendship, longing, temptation, ecstasy. Grief, duplicity. Continuing on in the roles of mother and wife while also inhabiting this other, complex self. All of it deeply human; all of it, I told myself, worthy of the story form.

We are, after all, so many things.

—Jamie Quatro