Canada's Alice Munro Awarded Nobel In Literature

On Thursday, Alice Munro became the 110th winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and only the 13th woman to win the award in more than a century. The Canadian writer was hailed by the Swedish Academy as a "master of the contemporary short story." Over a four-decade career, Munro has written 14 collections of stories and one novel.

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And finally this hour, we celebrate the 110th winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Alice Munro. She is the 13th woman to win the award. The Canadian writer was hailed by the Swedish academy as a master of the contemporary short story. Over her career, Munro has written 14 story collections and one novel. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Munro began writing as a child in rural Western Ontario, raised in a family of tough Scottish Presbyterians.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: So much of Alice Munro's work is autobiographical, like the short story that begins when a little girl is given some terrible news by her aunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED CBC BROADCAST)

ALICE MUNRO: (Reading) Your mother has had a little stroke. She says not, but I've seen too many like her. She's had a little one and she might have another little one and another and another. And someday she might have the big one.

ULABY: That's Alice Munro reading her story "The Ottawa Valley" on the CBC - the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - in 1978. The aunt in the story then proceeds to comfort the little girl, if that's what you want to call it, with a story of her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED CBC BROADCAST)

MUNRO: (Reading) My mother took sick when I was only 10. She died when I was 15. In between, what a time I had with her. She was all swollen up. What she had was dropsy. They came one time and took it out of her by the pailful. Took quite out, fluid.

ULABY: Alice Munroe hates it when her stories are described as bleak. She told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1996 that she finds a range of emotions even in sicknesses or betrayals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MUNRO: Anything that surprises me, that makes me see anything differently, anything that gives me a gift is entertaining.

WAYSON CHOY: She startles me when I read her.

ULABY: That's fellow Canadian and novelist Wayson Choy.

CHOY: Because I think I'm settling in for a quiet story that will be well told, and then I'm realizing that there's a storm of emotion rising in the background.

ULABY: Alice Munro's first short story was published when she was 37. She was a college dropout squeezing in writing time around her children's naps. By the time she was in her 60s - and she's now 82 - she'd become one of the most celebrated short story writers in the world. But as a woman of her generation and modest background, she felt conflicted about taking time to work.

MUNRO: There tends not to be the feeling that this is what you deserve. I still find it hard to think that I deserve that time to this day. I can be made to feel guilty if a friend phones just to chat, also just about all the things that I could be doing to be a better homemaker as I was trained to be.

ULABY: Guilt and other submerged feelings simmer through a movie based on one of Munro's short stories. "Away from Her" came out in 2006. It starred Julie Christie as a woman in a home for people with Alzheimer's. When her husband of many years comes to visit, she doesn't recognize him. She thinks he's a new patient.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AWAY FROM HER")

JULIE CHRISTIE: (as Fiona Anderson) If you ask that grim-looking lady over there nicely, she'll get you a cup of tea.

GORDON PINSENT: (as Grant Anderson) I'm fine.

CHRISTIE: (as Fiona Anderson) I can leave you then? You can entertain yourself. Must all seem strange to you. But you'll be surprised how soon you get used to it.

ULABY: Then she introduces her husband to her new nursing home boyfriend. The film was directed and written by Sarah Polley. She told FRESH AIR she was drawn to Munro's exploration of unconditional love.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

SARAH POLLEY: He has not always been a saintly husband that, you know, there have been wounds that he's perpetrated in the past and affairs that he's had. And that there's this strange, almost poetic justice that he perceives in her forgetting him and seemingly falling in love with another man in front of his eyes.

ULABY: Alice Munro, so adroit in expressing complex emotions, was at a rare loss for words when a CBC interviewer asked her this morning what it meant to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

MUNRO: It just seems impossible. I can't describe it. It's more than I can say.

ULABY: Munro said she hopes her win will increase respect for short stories. Only a few months ago, Alice Munro announced plans to retire. Now thanks to the Nobel, she says she just might reconsider. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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