Alistair MacLeod: Remembering one of Canada’s great writers

MacLeod speaking about his friend Alice Munro at IFOA 2013

This past weekend, we lost one of Canada’s greatest short story writers. Beloved 77-year-old author Alistair MacLeod passed away on Sunday in Windsor, Ontario. Alistair was the author of two internationally acclaimed collections of stories and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awardwinning novel No Great Mischief. In 2008, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for his commitment to Canadian literature and influence on Canadian authors.

MacLeod signing a book for a fan following the Tribute to Alice Munro

Before his retirement, Alistair taught literature and creative writing at the University of Windsor. Each summer, he would return to Inverness County, where he wrote in a cabin that looked towards Prince Edward Island.

Alistair was a frequent guest at the IFOA. During our 2013 Festival, he appeared onstage for our Journey Prize Celebration and our special tribute to Alice Munro, eliciting great applause and laughter from the audience. This wonderful man will be greatly missed by all of us here at IFOA and by the rest of the literary community.

Alistair’s funeral will be held on Saturday at St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Broad Cove.


A Tribute to Alice Munro

By Janet Somerville

The Fleck Dance Theatre was packed to the gills on Saturday, November 2, and the evening’s warm-hearted playfulness was established with IFOA Director Geoffrey Taylor quipping, “through the magic of prerecorded voiceover, I just got to introduce myself.” He celebrated Alice Munro as this year’s Harbourfront Festival Prize recipient, “who has made a substantial contribution to Canadian letters,” noting how delighted he was “that the Nobel Foundation agreed with us about a month after our announcement.” Avie Bennett, former Chair of IFOA and President of McClelland & Stewart, accepted the prize on Munro’s behalf and said, “Please settle for my assurances that I’ll convey both the cheque and your good wishes to Alice.”

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime editor, who made her feel “that short stories were worthy fiction” decades ago, hosted the evening. About the Nobel nod this year, Gibson recounted how he sat by the phone for the past five years, awaiting THE call in the wee hours of the morning. This year, as soon as the news spread, he was invited to do several “interviews of exaltation” that went like this: “How great is it?” “It’s really, really, really great!” Well, it IS. Since a video of the evening was being sent to Alice, Gibson encouraged the audience to show its appreciation for her work, and we roared to our feet, cheering and clapping, absolutely chuffed for her.

Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart

The first to pay tribute was Alice’s longtime friend Jane Urquhart, who claimed Alice’s stories, grounded as they are in small town life, “gave me permission to play with the notion of writing myself.” She unfurled the tale of their first meeting in 1987, when Urquhart retrieved Munro from the bus depot in New Hamburg, “practically incoherent with excitement.” In her diary at the time, Urquhart mused about the number of exclamation marks: “Yesterday I spent the day with Alice Munro!!!! She sat in precisely the right chair at the kitchen table!!!!! She told me about her father’s book and she cried.” Urquhart then read an excerpt from Robert Laidlaw’s book and from Alice’s story “Working for a Living,” collected in The View From Castle Rock. She concluded with another piece from her own diary, where she recorded, “Alice told me that the Clinton librarian had been captured by Albanian bandits. She wondered if she could write a story about it. I hope she does!!!!!!!”

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, who Gibson noted, “grew up in the shadow of Alice and found the shade not depressing, but inspiring,” spoke next. Toews remembered that when she was twelve, her sister went away to university and told her to “stay out of my room,” a plea she ignored and therein found a copy of Lives of Girls and Women on the bookshelf, its cover image “like looking out my window.” Between its pages she began her “own course of study on life with Del Jordan. Serious. Badass. Hardcore adult literature.” And, after reading an excerpt from that coming-of-age collection, she noted, “Alice Munro initiated me into the world of literature and I am grateful for her exquisite company.”

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Novelist Colum McCann took the stage after Toews, noting “literature is an intimate form of admiration. The short story is an imploding universe, a white star with hot language and beautifully defined singularities. I see Alice Munro as the absolute antidote to despair.” And, then he read a heartbreaking, exquisite excerpt from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the piece that Sarah Polley adapted into her Oscar-nominated screenplay Away from Her.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod

Celebrated short story writer and fellow IMPAC winner Alistair MacLeod waxed on about how “Alice notices everything and that is one of her great strengths.” Consider the details of the washing on the line, the Rhode Island red hens, the velvet paintings of Niagara Falls in the kitchen and other bits of what might be observed in Jubilee: “deep caves paved with linoleum.” With his rumbling East Coast cadence, MacLeod read from “Passion,” one of the stories in Runaway.

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble

As Gibson introduced the final speaker, Margaret Drabble, he noted she had “a grandparent called Bloor and loves to return to Toronto where there is a subway line named after her family.” Who knew? Drabble began by delighting in carrying Munro’s complete work on her Kindle and her thrill in re-reading Alice, which is equally rewarding to discovering her for the first time. “She is a virtuoso, but with none of the self-conscious showmanship. She writes with insight, sympathy and great wit. Her stories turn ‘round on themselves, and come back to where they began. When I think of her work, I think of landscape and long journeys. Settings are described with poetic precision. Alice has such a powerful sense of the way landscape shapes our lives.”

Alice Munro’s stories reflect the narratives in our own lives. What, in fiction, is more powerful than that?

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Five Questions with… Marjorie Celona

© Sherri Barber

Marjorie Celona will read from her debut novel, Y, and participate in an IFOA round table discussion called Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content.

IFOA: What was your favourite book as a child?

Celona: The Ant and Bee books by Angela Banner, particularly the ones featuring ‘Kind Dog.’

IFOA: You grew up in Victoria, where Y is set, but you wrote the book while living in upstate New York. Does putting distance between you and the place you’re writing about make things easier, or more difficult?

Celona: People sometimes ask whether I write at home, or in a coffee shop, or at the beach. And whether my surroundings matter—and whether I need to be in a beautiful space. I have to say that none of these things matter when I write. There was a certain similarity to the landscape, believe it or not, in the woods of central New York State and Vancouver Island, and this was at times helpful, but, really, I’d be lying if I said that where I am has any kind of bearing on what I write.  

IFOA: What time of day do you usually write, and why?

Celona: For the most part, it doesn’t matter—if I’m working on something, I can work on it any time. When I wrote Y, I wrote every other day, sometimes all day.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Celona: Alice Munro.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If I could change one thing…

Celona: . . . about what? If it were up to me, I’d change something about everything.

For more about Celona and her appearance at IFOA, visit