[Editor’s note: This is the first of eight excerpts from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. They will run every Friday for the next eight weeks. The following is an excerpt from a chapter on Alice Munro.]
When people ask me what Alice Munro is really like, I try to deal with the two halves of the complete Alice. One is the frowning, concerned good citizen, determined to do The Right Thing, and worrying her way towards it. That’s the Alice who some years ago quietly put me under pressure to make sure that her next book was printed on recycled environmentally friendly (and more expensive) paper. And this, I should note, was at a time when using recycled paper in books was still rare, and associated with new fringe books by small publishers, not major bestsellers by major writers published by major houses. So her choice had a huge impact.
That’s the same Alice who travelled for hours to appear onstage at Massey Hall in Toronto at a rally supporting cbc workers who had been, in effect, locked out. Alice spoke simply and directly about what cbc radio had meant to her as a young girl with ideas growing up in a small town. Then she spoke affectionately about what the support of Robert Weaver, the producer of cbc’s Anthology, had meant to her in the early, lonely years. Echoes of the ovation she received still ring around the corners of the old hall.
And that, of course, is the same Alice Munro who in 2009 withdrew her new book from the Giller Prize competition, on the grounds that she had won the prize twice already, so she wanted to step aside to make room for a younger writer. This selfless decision — which in the role of selfish, greedy publisher I fought against for weeks, until I saw that Alice’s mind was made up — meant that the book lost not only potential prize money, but potential sales and publicity worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. With an earlier book Alice had put herself out of the running for these rewards by agreeing to become a Giller Prize juror that year. “Alice,” I said, aghast, “why didn’t you ask me about this?”
“Because I knew what you’d say,” she replied, and laughed happily. That’s the other side of the complete Alice: she is very funny, and we spend a lot of our time together, on the phone or in person, laughing. I think people catch that when they hear her read her stories, in person or on tape; the stories are much funnier than expected and attract a lot of laughter when she reads them with all the right Huron County emphasis. But Alice in person is also very good company, and it’s significant that in the fractious world of Canadian writing she has no enemies. W.P. Kinsella, reviewing Too Much Happiness in BC Bookworld, described that world as “rife with jealousies, feuds and petty backbiting.” Yet he notes that “I have never heard anyone say anything unkind about Alice Munro, personally or professionally. When Alice wins a prize, other writers and critics are not lined up to name ten books that should have won.” Even her famous reluctance to tour to promote a new book is based not on a reluctance to meet, and enjoy meeting, new people. On the contrary, it’s because her frail health makes travel hard on her, especially when her day involves her in, say, solving the marital problems of the taxi driver who takes her to the radio station.
Our relationship is based on a long-running joke, to see who can “understate” the other, by being more dramatically low key. For example, when she wins another prize, I’ll pass on the news as “not bad,” and she’ll agree, saying, “I suppose it’s all right.” A wiser head than mine might see this as significant, allowing this woman who grew up from birth believing that “showing off,” to use Philip Marchand’s phrase, was the ultimate sin (“Who Do You Think You Are?”), to cope with her success. Because, except in the rare case of the writer whose work is torn away from them, and published against their will, writers are indeed in the business of “showing off.” They’re all saying. “Look at me! Here’s what I’ve written, I think you should pay attention to it!”
I’m the right partner for the low-key game. When Alice won a Giller Prize, I was sitting beside her. When the winner was announced — “alice munro!” — there was a blare of triumphant music (possibly the theme from Rocky), searchlights caught and held us at the table, and everyone expected the usual Oscar-style ritual of publisher and author and agent hugging and air-kissing interminably for the cameras before the dazed winner ascends the stage. What Alice got from me was “Up you go,” and she was on her way to the stage.
A sort of pinnacle of understatement was reached when Alice was nominated for a prize along with several other writers, and told me that she hoped that her friend X would be the one to win. When I heard the results, I phoned her to say that I had good news and bad news. The good news was that her friend X had won the prize. This was greeted with great pleasure on the Clinton end of the line. The bad news was that he had to share the prize . . . with you, Alice. “Oh well,” she said, “if he has to share it with someone, I guess it might as well be me.”
It’s hard to beat her at this game. She even plays it, for fun, in her stories. In “Fiction,” for example, in her 2009 collection, Too Much Happiness, the central character is horrified to find that she appears as a manipulative adult in a former pupil’s new book: “A collection of stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like some body who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”
On the subject of disappointment, I have developed a flourishing career as the man who disappoints audiences by standing in for Alice when she wins awards. This has happened so often that at any event when I hear the words, “Unfortunately, Alice Munro . . .” I start to move towards the stage. It’s a terrible thing to see a roomful of heads slump in sorrow, even something approaching disgust, as you approach the microphone. Sometimes it’s more personal. Once at a Royal York Hotel event for the nation’s booksellers, Stuart McLean, the mc, excitedly announced Alice as the winner. When I emerged out of the bright lights to mount the stage, Stuart said nothing about “my old friend Doug Gibson,” although I had provided him with weekly movie reviews for three years on the cbc program, Sunday Morning, that he produced. Instead, with obvious dismay, he said, in sinking tones, “Awww . . . it’s Doug.”
Visit ECW Press to learn more about Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others.