An Adventure Like This | remembering Alice Munro

Photo: Alice Munro speaks at a 2009 PEN Canada event at the Toronto International Festival of Authors. 

Written by Bruce Walsh

“Smallest photo the Globe ever ran,” we laughed. But what a hoot of an evening.

When I started at M&S, I couldn’t get Alice’s number. She was a “recluse” and I was not to bother her. But, but, shouldn’t I touch base being the director of marketing and publicity?

After some effort, we spoke on the phone. “Why would I want to do publicity?” she asked. “Because sales would increase and you would make more money.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“But M&S does.” That conversation led to the runaway success of Runaway and the first profitable year in a decade.

It’s true, Alice had withdrawn from public life after a serious illness and an announced retirement. But life changed, she was feeling good and publishing again. When I called, she was ready for some excitement.

Besides a love of good writing, we shared other passions. Her books had always been attacked by the censors and publishing meant the loss of trees. I was on the boards of PEN Canada and Canopy, so our work together continued.

She did onstage events and media interviews, and she granted Canopy permission to do an experimental run of books printed on paper made from agricultural residue instead of trees (earlier, she famously stopped the presses to insist her books be published on post-recyclable paper; a first in Canada and now routine).

She became a beta tester for Longpen, Margaret Atwood’s long distance signing device where I had become VP Marketing. She laughed through the glitches—chilling out the team—and her final event, at the Edinburgh Festival, was made even sweeter when the great Zadie Smith acted like a fangirl, expressing the gratitude universally felt.

“I bet you never had an adventure like this,” she said on another eventful evening. Not even close.

I last saw Alice a few days after Gerry, her husband, died. He was a beautiful person, too.

A former publisher of House of Anansi Press and University of Regina Press, Bruce Walsh is a director of PEN Canada.

Alice Munro was a Canadian author, Nobel Laureate and master of the short story form. Her literary legacy and insight inspired generations of readers and writers, and shaped the landscape of Canadian literature. She was 92. 

The Nobel Prize, which she won in 2013, describes her short stories as able to “accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages….With subtle means, she is able to demonstrate the impact that seemingly trivial events can have on a person’s life.” Her stories illuminated rural Ontarian life and the fragility of relationships, as in the stories of Runaway (2004) which won her a Giller Prizeand Too Much Happiness (2009) which she spoke about with Diana Athill at a PEN Canada benefit.