Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro Photo credit to Derek Shapton Alice Munro Photo credit to Derek Shapton

Born in 1931 to working class parents in Wingham, Ontario Alice Munro was raised in an environment where men did the “important” work leaving her free to read and explore writing. Critics largely consider Munro a master of the short story. Her works have focused on small town life from the female perspective and are often compared to the Rural Literary Tradition of the American south with a Canadian point of view.  Living a simple yet eclectic life she left university after only a couple of years to marry. Throughout her life she has owned a bookstore, raised three children, been a writer in residence, married again and eventually won multiple literary prizes, culminating in the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature.

While she published 14 short story collections, individual short stories and multiple versions of stories, Alice never wrote a novel. In an interview with The Atlantic, Munro says, “I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up.” In 2002 she told the New Yorker, “For years and years, I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel, Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that. I suppose that my trying to get so much into stories has been a compensation.”

By accepting and putting away the idea of striving toward the novel, she managed to create the complexity of the novel within short fiction. This complexity or Novel in Miniature, as it’s been called, is indeed what she is known for. As I read interview after interview, and several articles, I was left wondering if she would be our last, “Master of the Short Story.” Writers don’t have the luxury to purely focus on the short story. “They don’t sell”, publishers say. “When are you finishing your novel?” I hope for art’s sake the gut sadness I felt is untrue.

She is easy to laugh, humble, with quick wit, and a simple honestly. When George Stroumboulopoulos asked what people should know about Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood replied, “she’s a really really wonderful person.” Soon after winning the Nobel Prize Munro retired from writing to focus on being with her friends and letting more of life in. She has stated that she wants any unpublished works destroyed upon her death; so whether we will hear more from her pen remains to be seen, but the work she produced over 6 decades is impressive both in volume and focus. I highly recommend listening to her Nobel Prize interview posted below. She reminds me of many women I have known in my life. When she spoke of being intimidated by academic literary writers or her own avoidance of re-reading her work, I chuckled. In every interview I was struck by how likable and normal she is which made me even more excited to read her work. Please join us in discussing her story Amundsen on this week’s podcast and in the comments after the show.

You Can Read Better Despite a Low Attention Span

When I tell people that I’m a slow reader, I imagine they assume I’m not smart or well read. None of this is true. In fact, I was a fast and voracious reader until college. After that, my reading of fiction took a nose dive and the type of reading I did changed. Instead of reading stories, I was reading non-fiction and scientific journals. When college ended and I first picked up a novel, I found reading extremely difficult.

I wondered if my brain was broken, as it jumped all over the page. I set aside my well-loved classics, and read young adult fiction. Not because it was lesser, but rather, the fast pace of the plots, constant action and simple sentence structure allowed me to read faster. I actually think this is part of the popularity of YA for adults. Lots of story to keep a TV, Internet and cellphone-trained mind focused; Michael Bay on paper has its benefits. The problem was: I didn’t actually like most of those books so eventually I stopped reading all together.

I’d discovered the first truth in reading and comprehension. It was a truth I would understand more fully when selling reading programs to families of kids who were either slow readers or had ADD. Often when you read something and the words make no sense, it’s because you are reading too slowly for your brain to process the ideas behind the words. If you’ve ever helped a kid sound out a word, you’ll understand this idea. If the word is really hard and takes too long to sound out, the kid will often have no idea what the word meant after spending all their energy trying to make it sound right. So, if you are reading each individual word independently and slowly, then the words don’t link up right in our brains and bam… a paragraph goes by and you have no idea what you read. This goes for everyday people, people who sub-vocalize and yes, people with ADD.

Here are the tools I used to enjoy fiction again

Read every day – Reading is like a muscle and the more you read the better reader you will be. This is why many attorneys or new grads suddenly struggle with fiction. They are just out of practice after years of reading detailed non-fiction which is a very different type of reading. The best way to fix this is to read a lot of fiction, but reading six hours on Saturday will have a much smaller effect than reading an hour a day. It is the constant flexing both of the reading skill and the skill of focusing that will improve your comprehension and ability to stay sitting with a book in hand.

Start small – So you want to read an hour a day but you haven’t read fiction for weeks or maybe months. Setting that timer for an hour may be a quick road to failure. When I began running, I used a program that took me from walking to running in tiny increments. In my opinion, becoming a better reader is best approached the same way. Start with ten minutes if you have to, then move it to 15 when that feels easy and like a daily habit. Then 20 and so on. Starting small also goes with the material you choose. If you are only able to focus for 15 minutes a day, Middlesex is going to feel like drudgery and it may take months to feel that first taste of success. This is one of the reasons, Literary Roadhouse focuses on short stories. They are complex and interesting for seasoned readers of literary fiction, while being accessible and non-threatening for people who haven’t read literary fiction for a long time if at all.

Finish what you read – Abandoning books works well for seasoned readers but if you have a hard time focusing, you may find great books… boring. Eventually abandoning an irritating book will be fine, but at first… choose shorter books and finish them. Train your brain to look forward to the end of a good book. When I read Orlando, the first two chapters were pure torture, the language was hard. I had to read much of it aloud but about halfway through my head adjusted to the word jazz on the page and I had one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life. Had I set the book down during the first two chapters, my life would be less rich for it.

Quiet but not too quiet – Mama was right. Our brains can’t focus well will lots of noise, but she was too strict. If a room is too quiet, I often find my brain jumping all over the place and antsy. We have trained our brains to focus on many things at once. It needs stimulation or it just bounces. ADD makes that even more pronounced. Same with folks who play a lot of videos games or watch a lot of TV. So while you need quiet, you also need something to keep your brain humming. My solution is to play music without lyrics, classical concerto’s, movie scores and the like. Hans Zimmerman is great for reading. So is Chopin, Tchaikovsky and the rest. Find suites that aren’t overly intense (cello concertos are for the win) and you may find it easier to focus on the page.

Read aloud – Yep, remember what I said about the first time I read Orlando by Virginia Woolf? This is how I solved the problem of language that is too difficult to read fast enough to process. By reading aloud, I am allowing more parts of my brain to do some heavy lifting. In addition, for some pieces, I can enjoy the musicality of language better. There is a reason many people say that poetry must be read aloud. For some books, there is nothing better.

Train your eyes – Stop looking back… no seriously! Try this for a moment, time yourself reading a page. Then time yourself again while putting paper over the lines you’ve already read. We spend a lot of time re-reading without actually realizing it. It’s fine to go back if you need to, but train yourself to make it a choice rather than letting your subconscious drive your eyes around all willy nilly.

Audio Books – Audio books are still books. I hate this idea that they are somehow less than “reading.” They actually take longer to finish and they are great for drives to work or a good walk. I love audiobooks, but in addition to fun, they are a great tool if you are out of the habit of reading. Audiobooks get you used to absorbing stories that aren’t attached to a screen. I find that when I listen to a lot of audiobooks, I actually pick up paper books more often. So don’t belittle or feel embarrassed, audio books rule and no one can tell me otherwise.

Acceptance – There is nothing wrong with being a slower reader. Sure, we may see friends or Booktubers reading 5 books a week, but are they better? No. What is best is learning to enjoy reading and embracing a long lost love of the story. I am glad that I slowed down. Between Middle school and my 20’s I’d read Anna Karenina at least six times. I read it fast and enjoyed the story more than anything else to that point. Then I read it years later, as a slower reader and found that the book changed. The language felt richer and I saw things in the story I hadn’t seen earlier just because I had more time with the book. Just as Mortimer J Adler teaches in his opus, How to Read A Book, there are different types and levels of reading. The truly great reader can perform at all levels and will read differently depending on the type of reading they are doing. Your goal should never be just to read more or faster… the goal in my opinion should be to read better.

Why I Started Literary Roadhouse

I wasn’t a short story reader. During high school I was busy being seduced by poetry and classic novels. The first time I remember reading a short story was for an assignment for a class at the local community college. We were reading Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From. As a high school student with genius test scores, I only read two stories. After all, I was too busy reading Angela Davis to do more than I needed to.

Yet, after dozens of moves, often cross country, I still had the book. Periodically, I would pick it up and roll its pages through my hands. Then, I began to write my first novel.

One day while staring at my thick manuscript, I realized I didn’t have a clue as to what the hell I was doing. So I wrote a short story for practice, and then another. I found them natural and difficult at the same time, like poetry. The power was in the details and those details called to me. They were a testing ground and I slowly fell in love. I was sleeping beauty waking up to a world of short stories just waiting to be read.

Short stories don’t seem to be something people naturally pick up to read anymore. I think they are something you come to on accident or… after writing a story and falling in love. That is the main reason I founded this podcast and website. I’ll admit it; I am selfish. Learning, obsession, and community were needs I had and after listening to dozens of podcasts, the gap was clear.

My vision is ambitious and I don’t apologize for it. I toss around sentences like, “I want to create more literary readers,” “let’s kill the impression that literary fiction is stuffy,” and “I want people to rediscover the fun of literary short stories.” But my deepest darkest goal is to become a better reader, become a better writer, make good friends and explore this art that I crave.

I am beyond excited and a little intimidated. Surrounding myself with great co-hosts helps to calm my nerves. The excitement is growing and I can smell a storm rising. It’s a strong storm full of surprises and it whispers, “go ahead, close your eyes and jump.”

~ Maya

The Logo Has Landed

This morning my email box buzzed next to my floor and I rolled over with a groan. The minute I tapped the screen, my eyes shot open with excitement. We have a logo and it is a much better than any thing I imagined. For that, I have an entire community to thank.

I met our logo designer, Anita Sølver, over the summer when Johnny, Sean and Dave from the Sterling and Stone held their fiction unboxed event. For a month, a great group of people watched the Self Publishing Podcast guys write and we learned from their meetings and rough drafts. By the end, I’d gotten to know Anita as a strong and supportive member of the indie publishing scene. But, I had no idea she was an illustrator!

Months later, she designed a great logo for the To Be Read podcast. It was cute and fun, and fit a podcast of writer dad’s perfectly. I ran to her portfolio and her page was covered in amazing fantasy that reminded me of my childhood sticker collection. Yet when it came time to look for a designer for Literary Roadhouse, I hesitated. I’d only seen her fun and youthful work. For this grand adventure, I wanted strong and sophisticated. I took a deep breath and tossed it to her. Honestly, I just didn’t know who to ask and something in my gut kept whispering her name. I did a first draft website to give her tone and feel. Then I waited.

The first draft blew us away, but this morning I knew that Anita was the perfect designer for us. She was professional, talented and responsive to our many questions. I’ve re-designed the entire website around the new logo and know that it will take us from baby podcast to convention T-shirts. I hope you enjoy the new site and cannot possibly thank her enough. If you are looking for a great freelance illustrator, you can find Anita at