Alice Munro unlikely to come out of retirement following Nobel win
Books of Canadian writer Alice Munro who won the Nobel Prize for literature are presented at the Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. (AP / Michael Probst)
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, October 11, 2013 4:16PM EDT
TORONTO -- When Ontario-raised short story master Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, she told a representative from the award committee that the honour may change her mind about her decision to retire from writing.
But her longtime editor and publisher, Douglas Gibson, says he doesn't think that will happen.
"It's not going to change. Certainly it's not going to change her," Gibson said in an interview from his Toronto home.
"She's 82 ... she lost her husband in April and that was very hard for her, her health is frail, she hasn't been writing and I don't think this is going to change.
"And that's sad, of course, but the point to celebrate is that in her 82 years she's given us more than a dozen great books to read, and they're all out there."
Gibson has been working with Munro since 1976, when he was a "young, impecunious editor" and author Harry J. Boyle encouraged him to meet with the "genius" short story writer from Wingham, Ont.
Gibson took the bus to London, Ont., and lunched with Munro at a Holiday Inn hotel, where she confided she was facing pressure from some to "get serious" and write a novel, but that she "was blocked" and unable to do so.
"I said, 'Alice, they're all telling you that? They're all wrong. You're a great short story writer: You're a sprinter, you're not a marathon runner, so if you want to go on writing short stories to the end of your life, I'll go on publishing them and you'll never ever hear me ask you for a novel,"' recalled the Scottish native.
"We've kept that bargain and there have been 14 collections of short stories ever since, and the world has got on just fine without a novel from Alice Munro. It seems to have worked out."
With the Nobel now achieved, Gibson is now hoping his work with Munro will pay off in another way.
"I have the joke that if I make it to the pearly gates and St. Peter is in a grumpy mood and says, 'Oh, what have you ever done in your miserable, selfish life to deserve to get in here?' I can say, 'I kept Alice Munro writing short stories,"' he said.
"And St. Peter, if his English is any good, will say, 'Holy smokes, Alice Munro? Come on in!"'
Munro and Gibson are clearly as good friends as they are collaborators.
In his living room, he has a hanged caricature drawing of Munro done by artist Anthony Jenkins for Gibson's book "Stories About Storytellers," for which she wrote the introduction.
He also has a bookshelf with all of her works, including "The View from Castle Rock," which is dedicated to Gibson. In his copy, Munro wrote in pen underneath her dedication: "For Doug, who is even more loyal & admirable & funny than this indicates. Alice (Munro) Sept 2006."
Their first publication together was the Governor General's Literary Award-winning "Who Do You Think You Are?" in '78 and their last was her most recent book, 2012's "Dear Life," which contains four stories she feels are her most personal.
Getting personal is something that's rare for the notoriously private and media-shy Munro, who is "very funny" behind the scenes, said Gibson.
In the '90s, she even acted onstage in two theatrical fundraisers -- including a comedy -- at the Blyth Festival Theatre near her home in southwestern Ontario.
"I said, 'What, what?"' Gibson said with a laugh, recalling the time he learned of her acting debut.
"This is the shy Alice Munro, and she said ... she had great fun doing it and she said, 'It's different, because when you're acting, you're in a role,' and so she didn't feel that this was invading her own privacy in any way."
Gibson said Munro has been a great supporter of the Blyth theatre in other ways as well, including the time she helped with a fundraiser chicken dinner.
As Gibson tells it, an American tourist was at the dinner and said to a grey-haired waitress who was collecting the dirty dishes: "'I hear there's a very famous author who lives around here. Could that be her over there?"'
"He pointed at a very elegant-looking woman who was framed against the window, and the hard-working waitress was sort of brushing her hair and stacking up the dishes saying, 'I'm not sure. Yes, it might be,"' said Gibson.
"Then Alice Munro, the waitress, gathers up all the dirty dishes and goes back to the kitchen and dumps them with the rest of the volunteers. And that's Alice: hard-working, getting her hands dirty, part of the community and this wicked sense of humour."
Some artists can be "hell to deal with, and Alice is absolutely the opposite," said Gibson, former publisher of Macmillan as well as McClelland & Stewart, who started Douglas Gibson Books.
"She's decent and modest and helpful, and that's why if you talk to Canadians about Alice Munro -- 'How do you feel about her?' -- it's very clear that they admire her work and they're very fond of her, and that's an amazing combination."
Gibson said he's never had to do "heavy editing" with Munro because any version of her work he's seen "has always started off very, very strong."
"She will tell you she's a bad speller, but that's OK, we can handle that," he said, chuckling. "But everything else, she always brought in really polished versions."
Gibson's main problem in the past few years has been to get Munro to stop rewriting.
"I'd say, 'Alice, it's perfect. Don't change it. Just give it to me. Let me publish this. You've finished it. It's done,' because she's such a perfectionist."
Gibson said he's already started looking into airfares for Stockholm, where the Nobel committee will present this year's awards on Dec. 10.
He's not sure if the "frail" Munro will be able to travel to the ceremony, though, noting it would be a long trip from her winter residence in Victoria.
"I can't go into any detail, but she is frail and that's why I say I very much hope that she'll be able to go to Stockholm."