ALICE MUNRO 1931– Not Bad Short Story Writer

ALICE MUNRO 1931– Not Bad Short Story Writer

My two Stratford shows – in the grand old City Hall building, right downtown, near the Avon theatre – were inspiring for me. The school show on Friday afternoon drew a crowd of adult friends, including Geoff Hancock , the former editor of Canadian Fiction (and photographer of Mavis Gallant), who now runs a B&B in Stratford, and the Stratford Festival’s David Prosser. But the main audience was a large group of high-school kids brought in by bus.

I was able to speak briefly about their home town to the kids from Exeter – home of the unique breed of all-white squirrels, and of the famous family of my Toronto  friend John MacNaughton, who died a few months ago.

I was, however, able to speak at much greater length to the Grade 12 kids from Clinton. This, of course, is the town where Alice Munro lives, and I was able to suggest to them how amazingly lucky they were to live in the same place as a world-famous writer who was putting their town on the literary map of the world, an internationally famous figure they might meet on the way to the Post Office. I talked about how her stories were set among people like their neighbours, and explained how famous Alice (“the living writer most likely to be read in 100 years time”, according to The Atlantic magazine) really was.

The next day word filtered back from a teacher that conversation among the kids on the bus home included the comment that this was the first time they had “ever felt proud about coming from Clinton”.

The next night’s show (part of Stratford’s Springworks Festival ) was for adults, and went fine. The sound man, who had worked at The Banff Centre and fallen under W.O. Mitchell’s spell, was hit hard by my final story about the unforgettable W.O.. After the show, our hosts, Lucille Roch and Warren Holmes, held a reception for us, and as we entered they kindly led a round of applause. It was a pleasant surreal moment (“I’m being applauded as I walk into a friend’s house!”), but it was nothing compared to the news of the impact on the kids from Clinton.

Stratford and Me

I’m getting more and more excited  about my show at the Stratford City Hall on Saturday, May 11, at 8 p.m.

It’s part of the famous SpringWorks festival, and I’ll also be giving a special show for schools on the Friday afternoon. This has set me wondering just how well a young audience will react to stories from behind the scenes in the world of books, a world that alarmists warn is increasingly remote from their own world. Maybe a Harry Potter comparison or two would be helpful . . . especially the story of idiot publishers turning down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript!

I’m spending some time recalling my own Stratford connections. As a publisher I was proud to bring out the official  Festival history, Stratford: The First Thirty Years by John Pettigrew and Jamie Portman in 1985. That handsome two-volume edition was published by me at Macmillan of Canada, with a Foreword by Robertson Davies. I note with pleasure that he dated his Foreword “March 1, St. David’s Day,” and we, sparing no expense, ran his distinctive signature in blue ink. I forget why blue was regarded as the ideal colour for the signature of this avid supporter of the festival from its earliest years. Blue?

Later, the link between Robertson Davies and the festival was made clear, in the saddest of settings. Along with John Fraser, RD’s successor as the Master of Massey College, I was involved in arranging the Celebration of the Life of Robertson Davies at Convocation Hall in Toronto in 1995. I asked Richard Monette, then the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, to join the group of speakers paying tribute to the Master’s life, and Richard did a superb job, speaking of RD as a Stratford supporter, and as a man of the theatre. That memorable evening had two other speakers with Stratford links: Timothy Findley, a festival alumnus, and Jane Urquhart, for many years a Stratford resident.

Like most Ontarians I have warm memories of many fine visits to Stratford, usually theatrical, but sometimes involving visits to friends like Geoff Hancock, Lynn Schellenberg, or Lucille Roch. I have even met Alice Munro for lunch there. But usually my meetings with Alice were at her home in Clinton or in Goderich. This meant that to follow the old Huron Line I would take a right turn at Stratford City Hall, and head west into Alice Munro Country. It’s appropriate that the building I used as my landmark for that turn to visit Alice will now house my show, with its tribute to Alice and her achievements . . . although the caricature of Alice bears the mischievous subtitle  “Not Bad Short Story Writer.”

Alice Munro Rules Scottish Rugby

Alice Munro is renowned around the world for her superb short stories, and she has the prizes and the reviews to show why many claim her as the world’s best. An American reviewer for The Atlantic magazine said simply, “She is the living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years.”

To my delight, Alice wrote the introduction to my memoirs, Stories About Storytellers. In the book I talk proudly about our long association as author and editor, now amounting to fourteen story collections. I note that one of the happy coincidences that brought us together was the fact that Alice grew up in Huron County, Ontario, which is a landscape dominated by many branches of one river, the Maitland. Thanks to my mother, I bear that fairly uncommon family title as my middle name, as in Douglas Maitland Gibson.

Alice’s own semi-fictional memoir, The View From Castle Rock, begins with the story of her own family, the Laidlaws, in the Scottish Borders. The earliest ancestor she found, Will Laidlaw, was born around 1700, and gained such local fame that his tombstone epitaph in Ettrick Kirkyard reads: “Here lyeth William Laidlaw, the far-fam’d  Will o’ Phaup, who for feats of frolic, agility and strength, had no equal in his day.”

That epitaph was written by his prominent literary grandson, James Hogg.

Yes, yes, you say. We know that Alice’s wonderfully perceptive short stories may range beyond her usual Huron County settings, sometimes as far as Australia, Albania, or even the world of a 19th century Russian female mathematician, as in “Too Much Happiness.” But what on earth does she have to do with the manly sporting world of Scottish rugby in 2013?

Last week the Scottish national rugby team played their annual grudge match against the English rugby team. They lost heavily. But every single Scottish point was scored by three men.

Their names were Maitland, Laidlaw and Hogg.

Alice Munro Is Not Often Associated with Disappointment

As many of you will know, this year’s Toronto International Festival of Authors was supposed to feature an appearance by Alice Munro on October 19. To be more precise, it was supposed to be an on-stage conversation between Alice and me. All of the tickets were sold, the media were panting, the excitement was building . . . and then Alice’s health meant that we had to cancel it.

I tried very hard to make it possible.

But there were warnings. For example, Alice was unable to come, as planned, to my stage show at the Blyth Festival on September 28th.  And can you imagine my anticipated pleasure at presenting my section on “ALICE MUNRO: Not Bad Short Story Writer,” in Blyth, the heart of Alice Munro Country, with Alice herself in the audience?

Blyth, I should explain, played a major role in Alice’s life. Her father, Robert Laidlaw, was born on a Blyth farm, went to school there, and eventually set up his  trap-line along Blyth Creek, to augment his role as a young Huron County farm boy. He went after muskrats, weasels, mink and even foxes, which led him to his life raising foxes for their fur, in nearby Wingham, where Alice grew up.

Alice, too, has strong links with the Blyth Festival Theatre. In the 1990s (as Robert Thacker recounts in his classic biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives) she acted in two theatrical fundraisers there. In her words, quoted by an interviewing journalist, “In one  play – both of them were murder mysteries – I was an aging but still sexually voracious professor of English . . . And in another I played a lady writer who comes into the library and demands to know if any of her books are available. I loved it.”

Thacker continues, “When the journalist asked her why she would do this since she was well known for avoiding publicity connected with her writing, Munro’s response was interesting. “Well, that’s because I have to be me,” she says to explain her dislike of such self-promotion. “With acting, I love the mask.”

It was at a Blyth Theatre fundraising chicken supper that Alice played the mischievous waitressing role recounted by Val Ross in my book, and repeated in my stage show . . . the one that Alice was unable to attend.

But our Alice Munro Country weekend didn’t end after the show, which later featured a very interesting and informative panel discussion of Alice’s work. After spending the night with friends in Stratford, we headed back west to attend an event in Alice’s honour at the Wingham Golf Club, where the winners of a local writing competition were celebrated. The former Bayfield bookseller, Mary Wolfe, gave a fine account of Alice and her work, and Jane and I returned to spend the night at the Ben Miller Inn, on the Maitland River (always a source of unearned pride to a man with my middle name).

Later that week, to leave no stone unturned, I headed back from Toronto to Huron County to chat with Alice, to see if there was any way to salvage the Harbourfront event. I drove west from Stratford, on Highway 8, the old Huron Line that the settlers followed. As usual I found myself contentedly ticking off the familiar towns . . . Sebringville, Mitchell, Dublin (celebrated in my book for the realism of the settlers who named the majestic local waterway, “the Liffey Drain”), Seaforth, Clinton (Alice’s town, though tourists seeking directions to her house will encounter a veil of protective ignorance) and Goderich, where we were to meet for lunch.

I had not seen Goderich since last summer’s tornado tore through, and was shocked by the damage. When Alice and Gerry met me for lunch at the restaurant at the top of the hill going down to the Goderich harbour, I noted that Baillie’s, the restaurant on the “square” where Alice usually liked to meet friends, and where her books were displayed, had been wiped out, almost as if it had been the target of the storm. Alice chose to consider the gloomy possibility that this was the sign of a jealous God at work.

So she was her usual amusing self, but it soon became clear that all of my plans to make her Toronto stage appearance as undemanding — and as untiring — as possible for this 81-year-old were simply not going to work. So we had a nice lunch, and both of her arms remained untwisted. When we hugged goodbye, she noted fondly that we had been through “some interesting times over the years.” I was able to reply that I didn’t regret a moment of those, let’s see, 35 years.

But I do regret the Harbourfront show that we never gave. Speaking selfishly, it would have been a type of pinnacle for me. Speaking for the audience, and for Alice Munro admirers everywhere, I’m convinced it would have been a very memorable evening.

The Embedded Biographer

The recent travails of David Petraeus and “the other woman,” his biographer, Paula Broadwell (no jokes, please, and stay away from jokes about the book title, All In) remind me of the perils of close literary association. I have been involved in many projects that worked, with the author and the subject getting along well, and others that almost produced violence.

I remember, for example, when a ghost writer for Garth Drabinsky’s book, Closer to the Sun, had a crisis meeting with him in his office one Sunday.

While Avie Bennett (the Chairman of McClelland & Stewart) and I watched glumly, the writer and Garth stood nose to nose, screaming at each other. Avie whispered to me that we were wasting our time. I counselled patience, that maybe they could work this out.

Avie was right.

On occasion the relationship between the ghost writer and the author of record, or the writer and the biographee, produces such strains that the luckless editor or publisher has to step in as referee, almost wrapping his arms around one of the combatants like a hockey linesman. The strains can extend far beyond the romantic. I remember the wife of a prominent man whose biography was in the works who came to my office to threaten suicide if the book was not to her liking.

Sometimes, as with David Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell, a dangerously close relationship develops between author and subject. Interestingly, Ms. Broadwell had a co-author on the Petraeus book named Vernon Loeb, who was “dumbfounded” by the news of the romantic liaison. But then, Mr. Loeb’s wife has described him as “the most clueless person in America.”

Sometimes, instead of an attraction developing, the opposite happens — a husband and wife author team split up in the course of writing the book. This was the case with George Jonas and Barbara Amiel, who were in the thick of writing their true-crime book about Peter Demeter, By Persons Unknown, when they broke up. They courteously came to my office to inform me of this development. Taken aback, I said predictable things about being sorry to hear it. When I politely offered to do whatever I could to help in this situation, George (an old-fashioned man with a quick wit) mentioned that he now would have a problem with his laundry.

There is a Canadian angle to all this. When Jill Kelley (suspected by Ms. Broadwell of being the other “other woman”) started to receive threatening e-mails (which brought in the FBI, and then the world), they included the words “Who do you think you are?”

It’s clear that all of the best stories prove to have links with Alice Munro.

Cambodia Is Close to Canada (and not just in U.N. seating)

Almost three weeks in Cambodia brought some unexpected links with Canada. We were visiting my daughter Katie, who has turned her back on a high-flying legal career in Toronto (she was a clerk at both the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in Ottawa) to do good work among struggling NGO’s in Phnom Penh. Katie took us around the country, including an evening performance of a circus in Battambang that helps to give street kids a profession.

Fresh from my being mistaken as the starter at the Deer Creek Golf Club, I was standing around in my Tilley hat while the milling crowds waited to be told to head for the big top . At this point a French gentleman approached me, the authority figure, to ask loudly if I was in charge. I’m afraid that I missed the opportunity to take charge of a circus, with jugglers, acrobats and tightrope walkers . . . surely the perfect career for a retired publisher.

Later, down in the southwest corner of Cambodia, in a forested natural area with road signs warning of elephants, a more direct Canadian link appeared. We were visiting the Four Rivers Hotel , which consists of private tents set on top of floating docks on a tidal river 15 kilometres in from the Gulf of Thailand. The manager, Francois Lamontagne, revealed himself as a man from Lennoxville!

Excited conversations about Sherbrooke and North Hatley ensued. Yes, he knew Hugh MacLennan! From a later career in film in Montreal he knew my friends who worked on the Trudeau documentary, and he had great tales of Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin, another Eastern Townships man. How on earth did Francois end up running a lodge on a warm Cambodian river, where we could swim to an island where fruit grew wild on every tree? Ah, he told us, it was a long story.

When we were half an hour from departing on the boat (an African Queen lookalike, minus Humphrey Bogart) I strolled into the little library, where previous visitors had bequeathed worthy books to later guests. There, to my delight, among a smorgasbord of books in various languages, I found Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro, with its dedication to her Port Hope son-in-law. To hold Alice’s book — even if it was the U.K. edition – while the sound of the jungle clicked and whirred around us, was almost too much happiness.

Editing Tips from Douglas Gibson (#13)

In this recurring feature, we’re sharing tips for editors from the desk of Douglas Gibson. Good for those starting out or old hands who need a reminder, these reminders form an engaging guide for sharp-eyed wordsmiths.

Tip #13
Recent experience with Alice Munro’s new collection, Dear Life, reminds me that the editor of a short story collection has the advantage of seeing a collection of stories in “real time,” the present, while they may have been created years apart. Links and contrasts between stories may leap out to the reader/editor, while they come from different years, perhaps even different eras, in the writer’s life.

Missed the previous tips? Check out Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3Tip #4, Tip #5, Tip #6, Tip #7, Tip #8Tip #9Tip #10, Tip #11, and Tip #12.

To Ottawa, Once Again

A very different trip, this time, from the literary pleasures of the Writers’ Festival. Here I had two missions. First, to deliver a (very speculative) speech to a group assembled at the U. of Ottawa by the Canadian Conference of The Arts (a pro-arts lobby group that I volunteered for in the mid-’80s). The Exec. Director, Alain Pineau, spoke about the situation for Quebec publishers, and I talked about the scene in English Canada, for publishers and writers, and the dangers of prediction. To stress the uncertain climate I quoted both the Book of Proverbs (“the movement of a lizard on a rock”) and October’s Vanity Fair (“half of New York’s publishing companies will be out of business within five years.”) About a dozen of my books were sold, perhaps as a result of panic buying.

The second speech wrapped up the ACSUS Conference, of teachers of Canadian Studies at U.S. universities, with over 500 people in attendance. I roamed around the sessions for a couple of days (intervening once to say that, no, I didn’t believe that Canadian newspapers would systematically decide not to review a novel because it was critical of the oil industry). I then learned that, plenary or no plenary, it is not good to be the final Saturday speaker at a four-day conference. So my host-interviewer Robert Thacker and I simply moved down from the remote speaker’s platform onstage and produced a very informal session at floor-level for the die-hards remaining, some of whom had found copies in Ottawa bookstores for me to sign. Best of all, the session allowed me to spend time with Bob Thacker, the world’s greatest authority on Alice Munro, and her biographer, and a man very complimentary about my book – which benefits greatly from his work on the amazing Alice.

— Douglas Gibson

An excerpt on Alice Munro on the Canadian Encyclopedia blog

Want another sample of Stories About Storytellers? Every Friday for eight weeks the Canadian Encyclopedia will be running an excerpt on a different Canadian icon. The first excerpt is from the chapter one of Canada’s most celebrated writers of short fiction, the one and only Alice Munro. To read the excerpt, head over to the Canadian Encyclopedia.