Alice Munro Biography
Alice Munro is the voice of small-town Canada. While many authors from the United States portray small-town life through the lens of nostalgia and Americana, Munro’s Canadian depictions are decidedly leaner. One of the many aspects of her writing that has earned critical praise is her ability to create intensely moving characters and stories using simple, straightforward language. Hers is a writing style that focuses not on plot and incident, but character, place, and time. Her stories offer glimpses into the lives of everyday people, and she eschews high-octane melodrama and sentimentality. Nevertheless, Munro’s work continues to captivate readers because of its rich, emotional detail and honest reflections of real life.
Facts and Trivia
- Writer Cynthia Ozick once described Munro as "our Chekov."
- Munro’s daughter, Sheila, is also a writer. She published a memoir documenting her childhood and relationship with Alice. The result was Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro.
- Munro has won the Governor General’s Award, an extremely prestigious Canadian literary honor three times.
- In 2007, Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” was adapted by actress/writer/director Sarah Polley into the critically acclaimed film Away From Her.
- Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013 at the age of 82, the first Canadian to do so.
Alice Munro was born Alice Ann Laidlaw, the eldest of three children of Robert Laidlaw and Anne Chamney, on July 10, 1931. The family lived in a nineteenth century brick farmhouse at the edge of Wingham, Ontario, the small town usually disguised in her fiction as Walley, Jubilee, or Hanratty. Munro’s father, a descendant of Scottish pioneers, raised silver foxes and, later, mink. For the first two grades, Munro attended the rough Lowertown School modeled in “Privilege” (1978), where she was the only child in her class to pass first grade. At her mother’s insistence, she was transferred to the Wingham public schools where, living in imagination and books, she felt even more isolated. She worked on an unfinished gothic novel during high school, influenced by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847).
After World War II the popular demand for furs lessened, and eventually the fox farm failed; times were so hard that the Laidlaws had to burn sawdust for heat. In 1947 Robert Laidlaw took a job as night watchman at the local iron foundry, raising turkeys as a sideline. Anne Laidlaw, an elementary teacher of Irish descent, had been forced to abandon her career because married women were not allowed to teach. In her mid-forties she developed a devastating form of Parkinson’s disease contracted from the encephalitis virus. Munro had to do all the housework from the time she was twelve and as a teenager worked as a maid for a Toronto family. Her feelings toward her mother were intensely ambivalent, and there were frequent clashes.
Winning a two-year scholarship enabled Munro to attend the University of Western Ontario, where in 1949 she entered the journalism program, switching to English in her second year. At her boardinghouse she received a full breakfast but had a meager food allowance of thirty-five cents for the rest of the day. She held two library jobs and sold her blood for extra income. In the spring of 1950, she published her first story, “The Dimensions of a Shadow,” in Folio, the campus literary magazine. By then she was engaged to James Munro, a fellow student. When her scholarship expired in 1951, she was forced to leave school, returning home to care for her temporarily bedridden mother. She and James were married at her parents’ home in Wingham just after Christmas.
Munro’s eldest daughter, Sheila, has noted that her parents’ marriage paralleled in many respects the mismatched backgrounds of Patrick and Rose in Munro’s story “The Beggar Maid” (1977). While Munro’s circumstances were modest, James’s father was a well-to-do accountant for the Toronto branch of Eaton’s department store. James took a managerial job at Eaton’s in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Munro struggled to find a time and place for her writing, torn between her own needs and society’s expectations of her as a wife and mother. In 1953 she sold her first commercial story, “A Basket of Strawberries,” to Mayfair, which unfortunately went out of business. That same year her daughter Sheila was born; Jenny and Andrea would follow in 1957 and 1966. Munro began to publish in other magazines, including Chatelaine and McCall’s, while her stories were featured on the Canadian radio series Anthology. She remained an omnivorous reader, especially of American writers Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Working alone amid the clutter of daily life, she had little contact with other writers until much later. She battled not only the conformity of the 1950’s but also a general condescension toward women writers, visible in a 1961 newspaper article about her, headlined “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories.”
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She remained an omnivorous reader, especially of American writers Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Working alone amid the clutter of daily life, she had little contact with other writers until much later. She battled not only the conformity of the 1950’s but also a general condescension toward women writers, visible in a 1961 newspaper article about her, headlined “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories.”
Publishers warned Munro that they could not sell a short-story collection before she published a novel, considered a more prestigious literary form. Accordingly, she began a novel in 1959, the year her mother died, but her writing was soon blocked when she suffered an ulcer and panic attacks. Eventually she produced several stories for the largely autobiographical Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), among them “A Trip to the Coast,” with its distinct overtones of Flannery O’Connor, and the remarkable “The Peace of Utrecht.” This first collection, dedicated to her father, would win Canada’s most prestigious prize, the Governor General’s Award.
In 1963 James Munro left Eaton’s to open a bookstore in Victoria, British Columbia. There Munro wrote in the mornings and worked at the bookstore. She submitted “Boys and Girls” to a University of Victoria creative writing class, where it was dismissed by the professor as something a typical housewife would write, a comment that effectively paralyzed her for a year. The move to a finer home in 1966 exacerbated difficulties in her marriage. As James became increasingly prosperous and conservative, she grew more rebellious.
Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Munro’s second book, was published as a novel, winning the Canadian Booksellers’ Award and firmly establishing her reputation as a Canadian writer of note. By 1972 her twenty-year marriage was disintegrating. The following summer, with her two younger daughters in tow, she taught a creative writing class at the University of Notre Dame in British Columbia and then returned to the University of Western Ontario to become writer-in-residence. With her next collection, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: Thirteen Stories (1974), she broadened her subject matter, thereafter publishing a new book roughly every four years.
Munro married Gerald Fremlin, an urban geographer and former college friend, in 1976. That fall, after issuing twenty years of rejection slips, The New Yorker accepted several of her stories. The first, “Royal Beatings,” was published the following year and became the lead story for Munro’s fourth book, Who Do You Think You Are? (1978; published in the United States as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, 1979), which garnered another Governor General’s Award.
As the winner of the Canada-Australia Literary Prize (1978), Munro visited Australia and later traveled to China with a group of Canadian writers. The Moons of Jupiter appeared in 1982, followed by The Progress of Love (1986), for which she earned a third Governor’s General’s Award, and Friendof My Youth (1990), dedicated to her mother. Open Secrets (1994) received the W. H. Smith Award for the best book published in the United Kingdom in 1995. The Love of a Good Woman (1998) won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction as well as Canada’s esteemed Giller Prize of $25,000. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) was followed by Runaway in 2004, which was awarded a second Giller Prize. Munro and her husband divide their time between Clinton, Ontario, and Comox, British Columbia.