by Matthew J.X. Malady
People are always saying things on the Internet all the time. But they are such teases. We like details. So we have to ask.
No disrespect to the Nobel committee but one time I had to call Alice Munro about a fact checking issue and she answered on the first try.
— Lila Byock (@LByock) October 10, 2013
Lila! So what happened here?
From 2006 to 2010, I was a fact checker at The New Yorker. Famously, no section of the magazine is spared the scrutiny of the checker. Poetry, Shouts & Murmurs, cartoons: We do it all. Nobody likes to check the fiction, though. It can be tricky, wading through all those columns of prose with your red Uni-ball, in search of the one or two stray facts that might need attention. And then, on those scarce occasions when you have to call a writer about something, it’s always, “You’re calling why? It’s fiction, dummy.”
So I didn’t have much competition when I volunteered to check an Alice Munro story in June of 2006. I was a baby checker then, just a few months into the job, still dazzled by the glint of Tilley’s monocle. Of the many New Yorker contributors I admired, I was perhaps most in awe of Munro. The thought of actually working on one of her stories, playing some legitimate-if-microscopic role in transmitting Munro’s sentences from her brain into Caslon font… well, I was excited. All the more so when I stumbled onto a factual error in the very first graf.
The story is about a simple Ontario woman — a classic Munrovian protagonist — whose husband has been convicted of a grisly crime. The opening sentences describe the complicated journey the woman makes to visit her husband where he’s locked up:
Doree had to take three buses — one to Kincardine, where she waited for one to London, where she waited again, for the city bus out to the facility. She started the trip on a Sunday at nine in the morning. Because of the waiting times between buses, it took her until about two in the afternoon to travel the hundred-odd miles.
Except the draft I read didn’t say “hundred-odd.” Alice Munro, demigoddess, had understated the distance of the trip, as I quickly discerned from Google Maps. (I think she’d called it 80 miles, but I’d hate for anyone to fact check me on that.) On tenterhooks, I read through the rest of the story, failed to find any other errors, and walked down the hall to the office of Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor.
I expected Deborah to thank me curtly and send me on my way. Somehow, though, I left the office with Alice Munro’s home number and instructions to negotiate new wording with the author.
In retrospect, I think Deborah guessed what a thrill it would be for me to speak with Her Majesty. But she also thought Munro would get a kick out of the call.
I was nervous! In my nearly five years at the magazine I would go on to be yelled at, wept to, and cajoled by a whole spectrum of living legends. But the three-minute conversation I had with Munro that day remains among the highlights of my tenure. The line rang, and a male voice answered. I said, “Um, is Alice home?” (!!!). There was a pause, then footsteps, and then, finally, that affable, Canadian “Helloo?”
Deborah was right: She was amused and delighted, and apologized for the error. With a laugh, she said something like, “I suppose it’s been a while since I’ve traveled that route.” My memory flatters me by suggesting that I proposed the fudgey and quaint-sounding phrase “hundred-odd,” which she cheerfully accepted, but no doubt it was the other way around. In any event, we settled on an agreeable fix, exchanged thank yous, and that was sort of that.
What struck you most about Munro during and after your interactions with her?
A few years before I got to The New Yorker I’d done an MFA in fiction, and my classmates and I used to pore over the collected works of Alice Munro the way apprentice rabbis must study the Torah. After grad school I spent seven months on a writing fellowship, trying and failing to write a single satisfying short story. Every morning I would get up in the wintry dark and read a Munro story before starting in on my own work. People always say of their literary heroes, “So-and-so is the reason I became a writer.” In some fundamental way, Alice Munro is the reason I quit writing fiction. Toward the end of that fellowship I realized I would never be able to do what she did, so what was the point? I went and took a fact-checking gig instead.
All that is to say, Munro occupied a not-insignificant chunk of my headspace before I spoke to her. So I guess the thing that struck me most was just how unremarkable the whole interaction was. She was a little old lady from the provinces, passing the afternoon at home with her husband. She didn’t say anything exceptional, and my voice didn’t crack; we were just two normal people, doing our jobs. In a funny way, she’s the perfect embodiment of her own stories, in which the extraordinary is often disguised as mundane.
Lesson learned (if any)?
The distance from Kincardine, Ontario to London is just shy of a hundred miles.
Just one more thing.
The thing that keeps nagging at me is: Why not kilometers?
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York City.