Northern Exposure: Alice Munro Goes Back to Canada, Offering a Glimpse at Her Childhood Home and Her Writing Process

Alice Munro.

Alice Munro has published 14 short story collections, but only three recent ones have come with accounts of their creation. The title story of Too Much Happiness (2009), which focuses on a Russian novelist and mathematician, prompted an acknowledgments page about the research that went into it. With disarming enthusiasm, Ms. Munro explains that she came across the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, who died in the late 19 century, while looking for something else in the encyclopedia. She was so taken by Kovalevsky’s story that she transformed her into one of the many eager, frustrated young women whose lives Ms. Munro has been narrating for decades.

Two other recent books have been similarly close enough to their sources that Ms. Munro felt obliged to describe how she wrote them, but in these cases the sources were personal, and the process more difficult to explain. The View from Castle Rock (2006), like all of Ms. Munro’s books, has been called a short story collection, but as she writes in her foreword, it verges in several ways on nonfiction. The first part, which recounts the lives of her ancestors in 18th-century Scotland, came out of genealogical research but was written with fidelity as much to the records as to Ms. Munro’s idea of how to shape them into stories. The second part, which concerns the life of a young woman in the Ottawa Valley—Ms. Munro lived there once, and has used the area extensively in her fiction—is something else entirely. These later stories “were not memoirs, but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person,” Ms. Munro tells us in her foreword. Their first intent is not to be stories, but rather to explore “a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality …”

It’s hard to imagine any other writer describing how she incorporates facts into fiction by speaking only of her own process. But this is characteristic of Ms. Munro, whose work has built so steadily on itself over the past 40 years that she seems to belong to a school of her own. The second part of The View from Castle Rock would not be unfamiliar to someone who has read even a handful of her previous stories. There is the childhood house on the outskirts of town, the adolescent affair with a local man, the few years of college, the early death of her mother, and the early marriage to a fellow student she always seems destined to leave. She has returned to these situations again and again. The circumstances and implications vary from story to story, but there is still far more repetition than most writers would allow themselves. If there has been a significant shift in the way Ms. Munro works with her source material, the words for describing it could only come from her own intuition.

In her latest collection, Dear Life (Knopf, 336 pp., $26.95), Ms. Munro once again works with personal history and describes the process of doing so. In an editorial note that draws a sort of curtain over the last part of the book, Ms. Munro writes, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and closest—things I have to say about my own life.” If we are to believe this, it suggests that Ms. Munro has now gone as far as she can with her central material. Certainly, she could not have done more to imply that these four works represent the end of her career, short of making an announcement. She has titled this final section “Finale.”

The story that closes the collection, “Dear Life,” has a feeling of culmination. It opens with a broad survey of the landscape of her childhood home, as though this were our last look at this place, as in fact it may be. The story also has a certain level of self-awareness and even self-importance: it alludes to all the other stories Ms. Munro has written about this place, hinting that this one alone has come from beyond the realm of invention. Describing the land that has been the background to so many of her stories, Ms. Munro writes, “even farther away, on another hillside, was another house, quite small at that distance, facing ours, that we would never visit or know and that was to me like a dwarf’s house in a story. But we knew the name of the man who lived there, or had lived there at one time, for he might have died by now. Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I’m writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only a life.”

This reflexive turn has been part of Ms. Munro’s work almost from the beginning of her career, but it was not until this most recent book that it came to seem the heart of her project. As early as her third collection, it appeared in the story “The Ottawa Valley,” when the narrator continued remembering a week spent with her mother but seemed to have lost the thread of the narrative. At this point in her story, Ms. Munro turned on her own work, in what felt less like a playful gesture than an authentic realization. She wrote, “If I had been making a proper story out of this, I would have ended it, I think, with my mother answering and going ahead of me across the pasture. That would have done. I didn’t stop there, I suppose, because I wanted to find out more, remember more. I wanted to bring back all I could.” Ms. Munro has described “The Ottawa Valley” as “a big turning-point story,” one that allowed her to write “all about dissatisfaction with art,” but since then she has rarely done so this directly.

When she has turned on her own work in this way, it has almost always been in relation to characters based on her mother. It’s hard to imagine that many muses have been as frustrating or as productive as the Ontario schoolteacher Anne Laidlaw, who began to suffer from Parkinson’s when her daughter was still very young. As Ms. Munro writes in “The Ottawa Valley,” “She is the one of course that I am trying to get; it is to reach her that this whole journey has been undertaken. With what purpose? To mark her off, to describe, to illumine, to celebrate, to get rid of her; and it does not work, for she looms too close, just as she always did.” Readers have been lucky, you could say, that for decades Ms. Munro has struggled to represent her mother, and that this struggle has animated her writing. Sixteen years after “The Ottawa Valley,” she started another of her most extraordinary stories, “Friend of My Youth,” with the words, “I used to dream about my mother.”

With “Dear Life,” it seems possible that Ms. Munro has found a way to solve the long-standing problem of being unable to render a satisfying portrayal of her mother. The story she eventually tells, which she claims is not a story at all, is about another mother and daughter who lived in their house before them, whose relationship strangely and almost miraculously mirrored Ms. Munro’s loss of her mother and obsession with recovering her. “Dear Life” nearly becomes a ghost story. It also claims, as Ms. Munro often has in recent years, to remarkable effect, that capturing life and creating fiction are somehow at odds with each other. Northern Exposure: Alice Munro Goes Back to Canada, Offering a Glimpse at Her Childhood Home and Her Writing Process