Tonight was high Canadianism at its best. One of literature’s greatest writers, who was named by The Atlantic as the author most likely to be read in 100 years was praised tonight by a not-so-trifling line-up of international talent.
Alice Munro was unable to travel to the Writers and Readers Festival because of compromised health, but she sent an audio recording. Her warm, assured and ever-so frail voice told us she once spent hours in a Vancouver public library on West 4th only to write and write and write. “I was working at it,” she said, “even though I never published anything I wrote there.”
The crowd swooned. Aah, we seemed to say, our city a stop-over in a biography of brilliance.
The women seated around me were telling tales of the many lives of Munro’s characters. “I read all the books back to back,” one voice said. Another, “You know these people, her characters. They’re an amalgamation of all the people we know.”
Later, Elisabeth Strout said as much. In a comical and exceptionally confessional tribute to Munro, the Pulizer Prize winning novelist thanked the Canadian short story writer for having written about the naked matriarch rising out of the lake to greet the family. Thank you, said Strout, for having already introduced me to my mother-in-law. I was slightly prepared, she said, having already been in the naked company of this person.
The message Strout took from Munro was this: Have courage in your writing. Go ahead. It’s only the truth.
Joseph Boyden capped off the evening with his shamelessly playful rebuke aimed at Munro. “Some people are just effin’ gifted,” he bemoaned. “It just isn’t fair. And it pisses me off.”
The international panel, including Amit Chaudhuri, Joan London, Alistair MacLeod as well as Boyden and Strout then sat down with the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel – oh, I am weak under the weight of my girl crush! – to tape a discussion about Munro’s themes, the burden of being a regional writer, her ability to capture the human condition and her gifts of humour, insight and sensuality. They also discussed the evolution of her voice and the life’s experience that informs her most recent collection of short stories, Too Much Happiness.
As Boyden bitched so eloquently, “I’m pissed off. You’re only getting better with time.”
The Writers and Readers Festival began on Sunday continues through this week.