When the call came, Alice Munro, LLD’76, was nowhere to be found.
“The Swedish Academy has not been able to get a hold of Alice Munro,” tweeted the arbiter of the Nobel Prize at 7:04 a.m. EST Oct. 10. “Left a phone message. #NobelPrize #Literature.”
Moments earlier, the Western alumna and former writer-in-residence was announced as the winner of 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Canadian woman to take the award since its launch in 1901. Munro, 82, is only the 13th woman given the award.
News quickly made its way around the world. Only problem, the winner had yet to be officially notified by the academy. “@Nobelprize.org is trying to reach #AliceMunro for our traditional phone interview, still voice mail. #NobelPrize,” tweeted the academy at 8:47 a.m.
The search continued until noon when, finally, a connection was made. “We reached #Alice Munro, phone interview soon to follow! #NobelPrize in #Literature.”
To be fair, Munro wasn’t completely in the dark about her career-defining award. She clued into the news earlier in the day as media started calling her home.
“Unbelief. I really couldn’t believe it; I was so happy,” Munro said of the news. “I haven’t gotten over the delight yet. Because I work, generally, in the short story form, this is a special thing to get this recognition.”
Munro, originally from Wingham, Ont., has been called ‘Canada’s Chekhov.’ Similar to the work of the Russian short-story master, plot is usually secondary. Her stories revolve around small epiphanies encountered by her characters, often when current events illuminate something that happened in the past.
“Alice Munro is Canada’s finest writer,” said Western professor David Bentley, a Distinguished University Professor and Carl F. Klinck Professor in Canadian Literature. “We can take special pleasure in the fact that her extraordinary career began here.”
Munro’s first connection to Western’s Department of English came while she was an undergraduate student pursuing an English major. As a student, she published three short stories in Western’s undergraduate English magazine, Folio, from 1949-51.
She returned to Western in 1974-75, when she held the post of writer-in-residence. During that time she was working on her collection, Who Do You Think You Are?, which won the Governor’s General’s Award.
“This is the 40th anniversary of the start of our writer-in-residence program, the oldest program in Canada, so we are especially thrilled that Ms. Munro’s Nobel Prize came through this year,” said Bryce Traister, English and Writing Studies chair. “We are privileged and humbled to be able to play even this small part in her storied career.”
Munro is beloved by readers around the world for her striking portraits of women living in small-town Ontario. Her last series of stories is the 2012 collection Dear Life, and her excellence has been recognized with numerous writing awards, including the Man International Booker Prize in 2009, Giller Prize in 1998 and 2004 and Governor General’s Literary Award.
“Most writers and critics agree that she is probably the most important living practitioner of the short story in the Anglophone world,” Traister said. “And the same would agree that she is probably one of the most accomplished prose stylists in any genre. Her work brings out the complexities of inner-life. She finds the extraordinary and the wondrous residing in the most ordinary and everyday events, and writes about those things in a way that finds the graceful, the beautiful, the terrible, and the tragic in all of us.”
Munro’s name is among authors commonly mentioned when the Nobel committee considers the annual literature prize. Past winners include literature luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Hesse, T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison, with the last three prizes awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan, Sweden’s Tomas Transtromer and Spanish scribe Mario Vargas Llosa.
Canadian-born, American-raised writer Saul Bellow won in 1976.
In 2005, Munro sat down for an interview with the Alumni Gazette. During that intimate conversation, she discussed her time at the university, and how it shaped her career and life.
Born in 1931, Munro did not graduate from Western. But, she was very quick to note, she did not drop out either.
“I’ve read time and time again in stories about myself that I dropped out of Western,” she said. “I did not drop out. I was on a two-year scholarship that paid half my tuition and I could make up the rest. I also had an Ontario bursary and a part-time job all the time I was in school and I sold my blood; I could make it. But scholarships in the arts were only two years long and I don’t know what you were expected to do after that. So, I would like that fact to be made known. I wish I’d have graduated and I wish there was more money available for the arts. I don’t see why that can’t happen.”
At Western, she met her future husband, Gerry Fremlin, BA’50, a geographer/cartographer, who died in April. “But just very briefly because he was a senior. I had written a story that I wanted to publish in Folio, which was their literary magazine, and he had some poetry in Folio so I wanted to meet him,” she said. “Also, I rather liked his looks.”
She continued, “Isn’t that why girls used to go to school, to meet guys and to get a diamond ring before you graduated, which I never expected to happen to me because I was not wildly popular in my youth. I was very weird. I was very, very weird. I wasn’t eccentric in appearance or in manner, I don’t think, but all my interests were just off the map.”
Months after that one brief meeting, Munro remembers getting a letter from Fremlin. “It was a fan letter, a real fan letter, which was nice but what I really wanted was for him to ask me out!”
He didn’t and within a year, she married James Munro and moved to British Columbia. Shortly after that, she had the first of her three daughters, an event she admits “quite amazed me.”
Munro didn’t see Fremlin again for more than 20 years until, in 1974, she left her marriage and with daughters in tow, returned to London where she accepted an academic appointment as writer-in-residence at Western. The rest, as they say, is history.
She and Fremlin became reacquainted, eventually married and moved into the Fremlin family home on this quiet street in Clinton. And she went on to become a literary giant of international renown, a dream she first remembers forming when she was a farm girl growing up in Wingham.
“I planned on being a writer at an early age,” she said, recalling her primary school days. “I was so involved in just hoping to be a writer and planning what I would write. That started when I was about 11 years old. The most important thing in my life was to do that.”
When asked if her public persona, the person we read about and hear about and see on TV, is the ‘Real Alice.’
“Not quite, no,” she said. “You have to be more up to be that person. A Huron County person hasn’t been trained to be very up. You train to be very down; sort of, oh, very down to earth. And I find people in the great world can interpret this as being sort of off-putting. We may have big egos, but we have, early on, learned to hide them.”
When Munro does indulge in her ego, she does it playfully and with frugality. Instead, it is modesty that she uses as a shield to skillfully protect her secret. One of the many honours that have been bestowed upon her is an honorary degree from Western in 1976, the only such degree she has ever accepted.
“They’re honours that people like to give you but I only took the one from Western because it was my undergraduate school,” she said. “I haven’t taken one from anywhere else, because often they like to get a speaker and I’m not into doing speeches.”
She continued, “I don’t want to bad mouth honours, they’re fine. For people who see a writing career in those terms, I think they work very well. But I always feel I’ve got to really protect my energy because the writing is still what I should be doing and, well, maybe not now, because I’m so old. I may not write another book. But up until now my whole thing has been protecting my time and my energy.”
The CBC and Alumni Gazette contributed to this report.
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