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‘Depth of insight’ into human relations distinguishes Nobel-laureate Munro

October 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Alice Munro, the newest Nobel laureate in literature, is admired around the world for her masterful writing and dedication to the short story form. Jeffrey Brown talks to Deborah Treisman of The New Yorker for insight on the Canadian author's work and what it was like to be her editor.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the newest Nobel laureate for literature, Canadian author Alice Munro.

Widely admired as a master of the short story, Munro has published 14 collections, often drawing inspiration from her home in rural Ontario. At the age of 82, Munro announced earlier this year she was retiring. But she’s also suggested that she would put down her pen before and then continued to publish. That was the case back in 2006, as she accepted the MacDowell Colony Medal celebrating the creative arts from our own Robin MacNeil that summer.

She talked about she changed her mind about retiring.

ALICE MUNRO, author: I’m never quite satisfied. And, somehow, I’m always retreating a little bit, because I think I can do more next time.

And so the thing about stopping writing, I say it with perfect honesty. I believe in it.

(LAUGHTER)

ALICE MUNRO: You know, I believe that there’s such a thing as a normal life…

(LAUGHTER)

ALICE MUNRO: … And that I am going to find it someday.

(LAUGHTER)

ALICE MUNRO: So I got busy this summer reading books for the Giller Prize, which is very important literary prize in Canada. And I even brought a book with me.

And I read it while I was here. This morning after breakfast, I went upstairs to read some more of this book. And such is the effect of this place that I lay in the bed reading, and I got an idea.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fortunately, the ideas kept coming.

Jeffrey Brown looks at the totality of her career.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me for that is Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine. She’s worked closely with Alice Munro for the past 12 years.

Well, welcome to you.

First, for those not familiar with the work of Munro, what characterizes it? What makes it Nobel-worthy?

 DEBORAH TREISMAN, The New Yorker: Well, it’s just the depth of its insight on human relationships, on how we interact with each other, how we fall in love, how we betray each other, all sort of carried to us in this exquisite, perfect prose.

It’s not showy. It’s not sort of glossing over anything. It’s just — it goes straight to the point and it goes straight to the heart of what we do everyday of our lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Nobel Committee, of course, cited what all lovers of literature know, that she is the master of contemporary short stories.

Now, the short story is not always honored. It’s often admired, but not honored. And she’s helped change that, right?

DEBORAH TREISMAN: She certainly has.

I mean, she’s probably one of two or three people who’ve really dedicated their writing lives to the short story, and the only one to really attain the mastery that she has. You know, this award is not at all misguided. It was really time.

She’s been writing so solidly and steadily for so long. And every book gets better. You know, we heard the clip about her giving up writing. And, to me, that’s the biggest tragedy here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean that she said that she really will this time. Do you believe her this time?

DEBORAH TREISMAN: I think I do. She’s been convincing.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: I brought in a copy of one book of hers that I have just because it has such a wonderful title. I wanted to ask you about themes, but it’s the one called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Now, that’s a lot. That’s a playful title, but it’s some of the themes that she writes about.

DEBORAH TREISMAN: Yes, those are things — those are all things that come up in her stories. Other things come up, too, parenthood and death and aging, the loss of a child.

There are many things that — sort of events, life events that recur in her stories. But I don’t think that she would ever agree to the idea that she is trying to portray a particular theme. I think she’s working with characters, and I think she’s working with characters thrown together and how they interact.

And my guess is that, when she starts to write a story, when she gets an idea, she’s not saying, I’m going to write a story about courtship or about marriage. She’s saying, I’m going write a story about this person and see what this person does.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I wanted to ask you about the person, because it’s interesting to see that little clip of her speaking at MacDowell.

I know, because I have tried to ask — I have asked to interview her for this program and been turned down before. I know she doesn’t like to talk about herself in that public way. What is she like in your interaction?

DEBORAH TREISMAN: Yes, she is a very private person.

Our interaction has always been just wonderful. And I think that’s because, wherever we interact, we’re deep in the middle of a story and we’re thinking about the story and we’re thinking about how to make it better and what goes where and which word is going to have the right effect.

And that is what she loves to do, and that’s what she spent her life doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: What strikes you about her work, as an editor?

DEBORAH TREISMAN: As an editor, what strikes me is the precision of it.

It often happens while I’m working on one of her stories that I think something — I come across a line or a paragraph that seems sort of unnecessary to me or extraneous. I will put a little X. through it, and I move on. And I get about 20 pages later. And I say, oh, my goodness, that paragraph was absolutely needed.

There’s this sort of wonderful craft that she has. She’s so — everything feels very natural and everything — the movement of her stories feels natural. But, in fact, it’s very cleverly handled. She’s got it mapped out in her mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just about 30 seconds here. Is there a book or a — or even a story that you want to recommend to people?

DEBORAH TREISMAN: Well, there was a story from 1999 which we’re actually reprinting in The New Yorker next week called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which is a story about a couple where the wife develops Alzheimer’s.

And it turns into a love story of sorts, very twisted and complicated sorts, but it’s a fascinating story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I know that one well. And it is complicated, but very interesting.

DEBORAH TREISMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Deborah Treisman of The New Yorker on Alice Munro, thanks so much.

DEBORAH TREISMAN: Thank you.