Alice Munro Wins Nobel Prize In Literature

Oct 10, 2013

This morning, Canadian author Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Known for her short stories, her 14th collection “Dear Life” was published almost a year ago.

The Swedish Academy that gives out the award called Munro “master of the contemporary short story.”


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It's HERE AND NOW, and a moment now for literature. And would you like fries with your reading? McDonald's has announced that for the first two weeks of November, it will replace the toys in its Happy Meals with books.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What can you spy? Oh, hi.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Discover the wonderful world we live in with DK Books and McDonald's. Some fun, some food, it's all inside this Happy Meal.

YOUNG: That ad comes from a similar campaign that ran in Britain earlier this year. McDonald's plans to hand out 20 million books during the two-week period, which will make it the largest children's publisher for the month of November. They have four titles to choose from, all focused on eating smart. One book is called "The Goat Who Ate Everything," about a goat with a huge appetite who eventually learned to eat healthier fare.

These books won't be for sale, but McDonald's plans to release a series of eBooks in 2014 with the goal of releasing new content every month. So move over, Random House. Here comes Ronald McDonald.


YOUNG: The Canadian writer Alice Munro has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in so doing the Swedish Academy has cast a spotlight on the short story because this is Munro's canvas. She's considered a master of the form. Many of the stories in her 14 collections take place in rural Canada, and the central character is often a woman.

NPR's Lynn Neary joins us to talk about Alice Munro and her work. Lynn, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Well, it's good to be with you.

YOUNG: And what would you want us to know?

NEARY: Well, before we begin talking, let's listen to some tape. This is from an interview that Alice Munro did this morning after she had learned that she had won the Nobel Prize. She was asked if she had ever imagined that she could win such an honor when she was first published in 1968, and here's how she responded.

ALICE MUNRO: I was always thrilled at just whatever came along. Like if I got published, I was thrilled. I still am, in a way. It all seems like a kind of miracle that you get your work, your thoughts out to other people in a sufficient way for this to happen.

NEARY: That was Alice Munro on the CBC this morning, and again, after she had learned that she'd won the Nobel Prize. And I just love that tape, because I'm a big fan of Alice Munro. And I feel like that tape sort of distills Alice Munro to her essence, because I don't think that's false modesty. This is a very Canadian woman. She entered adulthood in the 1950s and in many ways lived a very traditional life. And she mined that territory for all it was worth. And in doing so she revealed the nooks and crannies and often the dark corners and the brave gestures of people who were living ordinary lives.

YOUNG: Yeah, people who may think, well, I'm not sure I know Alice Munro, may actually conjure up the image of her because you know her face - a shock of pretty white hair, and you know, she is an older woman. But what do you mean by that, the dark corners and brave gestures of ordinary lives?

NEARY: Well, many of the stories in her 14 short story collections take place in rural Canada. But, you know, her characters are often well-educated, they're living comfortable middle-class lives, and she, as I mentioned, focuses often on a woman, a woman who's kind of bumping up against or trying to break free and maybe breaking free of the confines of her life. And sometimes she focuses on something that happened to someone in the past.

I'll give you an example. This is from a story called "Amundsen," and it was in her most recent collection, "Dear Life." It's a story of a young woman who falls in love with a much older man. He's very cold and distant, and he breaks off their engagement in an incredibly brusk way. And then at the end of the story, years - years later, she bumps into him in the street. He says: Hi. How are you? He's very offhand with her, assuming she's had a very nice life. And she doesn't really reveal much to him, but it's very clear that he devastated her and that that devastation is still with her.

And the way that Munro describes that moment is literally a few seconds in this woman's life, it tells you so much about her, who she was and who she's become. I think it's Munro's ability to focus in on details like that that makes her writing so compelling.

YOUNG: That's NPR's Lynn Neary on Alice Munro, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature today. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

Would you say, in writing about women, she's a feminist writer?

NEARY: I don't think so, and I don't think that Munro would call herself that. But I do think in her stories, you can kind of track what's happened to women over, you know, the last, say, 50 years, because she herself lived a very conventional life. And these women, you know, they start out, at the beginnings of stories, often seeming to be very traditional. But they're trying - they sort of break free of a situation that they're in.

And it might be - they might make very unconventional choices or even sometimes dangerous choices - from a young woman losing her virginity before marriage at a time when such things were not done, to a wife getting involved in an affair, to a college student getting involved in a kinky relationship with a much older man.

These are women that they kind of slip the bonds of their conventional lives that they seem to be living when the story begins. And so where they are at the beginning of the story and where they are at the end is in a very different place sometimes.

YOUNG: Well, as you say, this is - this award is shining a light on short stories. Has she ever written a novel?

NEARY: She wrote one novel, "Lives of Girls and Women." And she's told interviewers that she didn't really set out to be a short story writer, that she kind of fell into it. Well, I think we're very lucky she did. I happen to like the short story form. And it's a form that hasn't gotten a lot of attention over the years. But when it is done right, and she really does it right, it's so satisfying. To me, when an author can get a reader to fully enter into a fictional world in the length of a short story in a way that feels complete, that you're satisfied at the end, I'm in awe with that kind of talent. And that's what she can do.

It's interesting that in her writing, the way she reveals her characters' lives so thoroughly in that short space of time, it's sort of like taking off a layer of an onion, you know, an onion - and they always seem to go through some kind of psychological journey. And even though you really don't always know how things are going to turn out for them, the endings can be very ambiguous sometimes, and yet at the same time the story seems to end right where it should.

YOUNG: Well, obviously, Lynn Neary, if you are giving out the Nobel, you would have also given it to Alice Munro. You obviously love her work. Is she the first Canadian to win it, by the way?

NEARY: You know, I have to tell you that I kind of predicted she was going to get it.


YOUNG: Did you really? Was there an office pool?

NEARY: There wasn't an office pool, but you know, there is this gambling - this betting agency in Britain, Ladbrokes. And Alice Munro this year was pretty high up on the list. And I said, well, I want her to get it. I hope she's going to get it. And so I'm taking credit for having predicted her.

But you know, she's the first Canadian woman to win the prize. Saul Bellow was born in Canada, but we really think of him as an American writer. And she's only the 13th woman ever to win the award. And you know, she really is the first writer whose work has been set so completely in Canada. And I kind of think that her Canadianness really come through both in her writing and in her public persona.

We always talk about Canadians as being so low key, and they really are. But I happen to know a lot of Canadians. And I think they also have a bit of a subversive streak. And I think that's a good way to describe her. She's low key, she's smart, she's kind of subversive and unconventional, in a very Canadian way.

YOUNG: That's Lynn Neary, arts correspondent for NPR. Very happy at the Swede's pick of Alice Munro, that she won this year's Nobel in Literature.

And by the way, Lynn, we are sort of putting together something of an office pool, although no betting, on who might win the Nobel Peace Prize. And some have mentioned Malala, who's the young Pakistani girl who, of course, was shot by the Taliban and who's written her own memoir.

NEARY: Well, I've been hearing that name too. And I would be thrilled also to hear that Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize. I think that she's amazing and one of my heroes, my heroines.

YOUNG: Well, listeners, let us know your pick ahead of the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Let us know at Lynn Neary, thanks so much.

NEARY: It was good being with you.


YOUNG: And we want to thank our friends for hosting Jeremy Hobson today at KJZZ in Phoenix, especially Chris Furphy, David Atkins, Mark Nehrbass, Peter O'Dowd, Jude Joffe-Block and Joe Hoban(ph). And for Jeremy, last seen driving with a top down into the desert, and from NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.