An Open Letter to Alice Munro
by Elliott Holt
[Editor’s note: the following is reposted from Literary Mothers, a website devoted to short essays on female literary influence. Previous entries include Deb Olin Unferth on Gertrude Stein, Matt Bell on Christine Schutt, Alissa Nutting on Lynda Barry, and many more. ]
It seems impossible that you don’t know me. What I mean is that I know your work so well — intimate, is the only way I can describe my relationship to your stories — that I feel like I know you. I consider you a kindred spirit and a teacher. I’ve reread your stories so many times that I know I’ve learned more from them than I have in any writing class. I once spent an entire day deconstructing “Friend of My Youth,” diagramming its structure, its story within a story within a story, to try to understand how you pulled it off. When you won the Nobel Prize, I actually cried with joy. And all day, after the Nobel committee made the announcement, friends emailed and called and texted: “You must be so happy that Alice Munro won!” My adoration of you is so well documented that people were congratulating me on your win, as if you were a member of my family.
But I suppose what I’m saying is that you are a member of my family. My literary family. You are my literary mother. You’re the writer I’ve turned to when I needed the solace that only great literature can provide. (When my actual mother was dying, of cancer, it was your stories I read beside her bed. My mother loved your work, too, and near the end, I often read your stories aloud to her.) You’re the writer who taught me how to move around in time in stories — flashing forward and back. You’re the writer who showed me how much can fit into one short story; how a whole life can be compressed and still feel expansive and lived in on the page. You’re the writer who showed me how complex the architecture of a story can be, and how the motif of storytelling can recur again and again and still feel new. How women and their relationships — to their own desires, and with men, with other women, with friends, lovers, and mothers — can be infinitely compelling. How stories set in small town Ontario (and sometimes in Vancouver) can feel universal. You make it look so easy, with your mastery of suspense, your wry humor, your psychological precision, your brilliant endings. And your stories are full of letters, so it seems fitting that I am writing to you. You’ve said that you think of stories as houses, with various rooms. I’ve entered those rooms and come out dazed. I always go back in. Your stories stick with me; they resonate as if they were actual memories. I know that a minister never slid a hand down my underwear on a train, but I’ve lived inside “Wild Swans” so many times that I feel like it happened to me.
Oh, Alice. If we met, I feel certain we would be friends. That sounds silly, I know. Last summer, when Charles McGrath profiled you in the New York Times, the article included a slideshow of your house in Ontario. I studied the picture of your humble writing desk. It was not unlike what I had imagined. And yet, I felt strange looking at it. Part of me didn’t want to know where you work — I just want the stories to speak for themselves; part of me was devastated to know that you’re retiring, that you won’t be sitting in that chair to write any new stories.
You and I were in the same room once. Deborah Triesman interviewed you on stage at the New Yorker festival a few years ago. I was in the audience at the Directors’ Guild on 57th Street, and I even got up the nerve to ask a question during the Q&A. I asked about your titles; I wondered at what stage in your process you come up with them. We made eye contact. You looked at me as you answered my question. To be honest, I don’t remember what you said. I was too excited and nervous in your presence.
I have copies of all your books. Actually, I have multiple copies of most of them. Sometimes, while traveling, I have an urge to reread a particular story of yours and will go and buy the collection that contains it, even though I already have the same book at home. I always travel with at least one of your books because you are the writer I most like to reread. Your stories have kept me company in places all over the world. The collections I’ve returned to most areFriend of My Youth; Open Secrets; The Love of a Good Woman; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; and Runaway.
I’m not in the habit of gushing. Friends rely on me for my critical eye, my cool intellect, not for my unbridled enthusiasm. I’m a reluctant user of exclamation points. But for years I’ve wanted to write to you, to say thank you. Thank you! Your stories, Alice, have meant so much to me. Cynthia Ozick once described you as “our Chekhov.” (I love Chekhov — I return to his work again and again, too.) When Ozick said “our,” I suppose she meant our era, our time. But I understand her impulse to use the possessive pronoun. Those of us who love your work do feel possessive of it. Your stories provide deeply private pleasures. You are our writer, part of our family. Now that you’ve won the Nobel, even more people have joined our ranks. And I’m glad to know that your work is finding new fans. But I also want you to know that some of us have loved you for a long time. Some of us are writing stories because of you.