Douglas Gibson on Alice Munro Stories

Date posted: March 29, 2017

When Michael Shamata first contacted me about his hopes for an Alice Munro show at The Belfry, I was delighted, and very keen to help. There were two reasons for this.

First, my editorial career with Alice Munro goes back a very long way. So far back, in fact, that it was 1974 that we met in London, Ontario, when Alice had left Victoria and her marriage. I was a young, beardless boy, an editor who sat in trembling awe across the lunch table from the pleasant author of three superb books of short stories. I knew that her career was bound for great success. To my astonishment, I learned that Alice did not know this. Everyone in the book world – other writers, booksellers, reviewers, and even publishers – was telling her that if she was ever going to get anywhere, she had to stop wasting time on short stories, and become a novelist. So she was trying. And she was finding that novels didn’t come easily to her. So she was “blocked”, unable to write at all.

I stepped in and told her. “Alice, if they’re all telling you to stop writing short stories….they’re all wrong. You’re a great short story writer. You must keep on writing them. I’m a publisher, and I’d be very pleased if you came with me, and went on writing short stories for the rest of your career. And you’d never, ever, find me asking you for a novel.”

Well, since our first book together WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?, in 1978 there have been 12 collections of short stories, and the results have been, as Alice might put it, ”not bad.” That, I recall, was the low-key joke Alice and I shared when I phoned her in Victoria about her Nobel Prize. “Not bad at all,” she agreed, laughing. “Really quite good.”

The second reason for my support for Michael Shamata’s idea was that I had seen the fascinating version of two Munro stories put on in Toronto by the Word For Word group from San Francisco. This imaginative group, under Susan Harloe, had invented the new form of drama that Michael wanted to start in Canada, in Victoria.

I say that I had “seen” the show in Toronto. In fact, I was more actively involved. At the end of each performance, there was a break, when many people in the audience chose to leave. Many others chose to stay, to follow the after-show discussion, which I chaired, which I found exciting and new every single night.

What members of The Belfry’s audience are going to find – no doubt to their surprise – is that they are watching an entirely new art form. Everyone knows, to take another example, that Opera is not just a play where some of the actors sometimes sing. In the same way, this is not like the simple reading aloud of a bed-time story, although it shares some of those deep, long-forgotten pleasures. Nor is it a simple, on-stage series of scenes, or sketches that amount to a play. It is something in between, a fascinating new, blended art form that you’ll enjoy describing to your friends.

I was glad to do what I could to help Michael and his group bring this off. I was also glad to give my advice on which Alice Munro stories would work best here, in combination. I knew from my work producing tapes of Alice’s own readings from her work, that listeners were regularly surprised by how funny so much of her dialogue is. Great art is not always linked with solemnity. This is Alice Munro.

DOUGLAS GIBSON was Alice Munro’s Editor and Publisher. She wrote the Introduction to his book of memoirs, Stories About Storytellers (2011). He also writes about her in his Across Canada By Story (2015). She is the final author in his 2017 Sesquicentennial show celebrating Canada’s greatest fiction writers between 1867 and 2017. The touring show will run in Victoria on May 29. For details, contact Munro’s Books or Bolen’s close to the event.