Kicking Down the Door, Part 3

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music.

Alice Munro passed away in May at the age of 92, after a long career publishing fiction. The first unusual thing about her is that she only wrote short stories, never a novel. The even more unusual thing is what she did with her short stories. 

Reading Munro takes patience. The writing style and characters aren’t flashy, most of the stories about folks living in small Canadian towns, facing the kinds of things you face in life.

The stories seldom start with a hook. For example, here’s the opening line of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”:

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university.

Gosh, nothing terribly exciting there. Indeed, after reading the first few paragraphs of a Munro story, you might be tempted to set it aside. If you stick with it, however, you’ll soon find yourself inside a tunnel that keeps leading you deeper into something fascinating.

As in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Fiona and Grant are a married couple in their golden years. When Fiona discovers she has dementia, she consents to enter a “home” when it gets bad enough, which it does. One day Grant comes to visit and finds that Fiona has taken a beau at the home, something that happens when spouses forget that they’re married. But did Fiona really forget, or is she slyly chiding Grant for all those casual affairs he used to have? Either way, Fiona is genuinely upset when her beau’s wife removes him from the home. And then Grant begs the beau’s wife to bring her husband back, hoping to make his wife happy. And that tunnel keeps on deepening.

Did I mention that her short stories are long? A good deal longer than they’re supposed to be. When you’re inside them, though, they don’t feel long because they’re delivering the depth and complexity of a novel, leaping through time and evolutions so seamlessly you barely feel it until you’re done, dazed by what you’ve been through.

Though considered one of the best—if not the best—writer of contemporary short stories, Munro was a modest person. She led a quiet life and had no real interest in publicity or accolades (she won all the big awards). As she said, “I always got lunch for my children.”

If you forced me to pick my all-time favorite short story, I would tap Munro’s “Carried Away.” Don’t get me started on how wondrous I find it.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President


For your travels, I wish you well with the places you rent through Airbnb and such. Myself, I prefer hotels.

The way you leave your life behind, allowing others to cook and clean and point you in the right direction. Watching a TV that may take you to strange channels, especially overseas. Working out the labyrinthine layout of the place. Oh, yes, room service.

Most of all, hanging out among a collection of random strangers that could be anyone from an insurance salesperson to a serial killer, without you knowing which is which. Sometimes you chat with them, sometimes you just watch and wonder.

As the Gotham tagline says: Stories. Everywhere.

Three of my favorite hotels:

The Menger Hotel – San Antonio, Texas, next to the Alamo. (It’s in the pic.) You feel the complicated spirit of the Old West in these walls. Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders for the Spanish-American War here and they say his ghost still lingers at the bar.

Hotel Kempinski – Geneva, Switzerland, right on Lake Geneva in view of the Jet d’Eau. In the elevator, I was alone with a man unimaginably magnificent: a pilot for Egypt Air, tall and straight as an airplane with jet-black hair and mustache and the face of an eagle.

Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge – Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa. They offer game drives at dawn and dusk where you see lions and impalas and the like. You can also follow an underground tunnel into a “hide” to glimpse the animals without them knowing you’re around.

My life isn’t so grand as these places would lead you to believe, though I have stayed at each. I’m also drawn to the humbler places, even a low-slung motel along a strip of highway.

Hotels light up my imagination. I’m not alone; many great tales take place in these habitats:

The Shining – Stephen King’s horror novel and itsoffshoots,set at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. REDRUM!

Schitt’s Creek – The TV series (created by Daniel and Eugene Levy) about a fallen-from-grace family forced to live in a run-down motel in rural Canada.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles’s novel about a Russian aristocrat sentenced to spend his life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, forbidden to ever set foot outside.

“Hotel California” – A song by The Eagles about a metaphoric hotel that’s seductive for a while; though you can check out, you can never leave.

What is it that excites your imagination, causing you to buzz with delight or intrigue or trepidation? There must be a handful of things that do the trick for you. Find those things and make them your muses.

Alex Steele

Gotham President

Lifelong Learning

I don’t think of Gotham Writers Workshop as an educational institution or even as a school, though we are obviously both, considering our chief activity is offering classes. I just prefer something that sounds more entertaining, perhaps a laboratory of storytelling.

That name conjures mad scientists and fizzy potions and has a bit of pizazz to it.

Whatever we call it, we do help people learn. We’ve been doing that a long time (over 30 years) and we plan to keep on doing it, well, forever.

While re-reading T.H. White’s glorious telling of the King Arthur tale, I was struck by this quote from Merlin the wizard:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.”

In this version of the tale, Merlin lives backwards, growing younger every day, coming from a past/future where he has seen the ravages of the 20th century. Which gives him an interesting perspective on things. Having lived in the time of the atomic bomb is reason enough to convince King Arthur that might should not mean right.

And it strikes me that learning makes you both older and younger. Older because when you learn stuff your mind matures in a way. Younger because when you learn stuff you’re increasing the flexibility of your mind. It’s inspiring to watch a child learn something, like those first fumbling attempts at walking or reading, but it’s equally inspiring to watch someone who’s been around a while pick up new tricks, like writing a novel or baking a soufflé.

And that gets me thinking that learning is like a Möbius strip, one of those strips with a half twist that you can trace with your fingers for years and years and never reach the end or the beginning—the way learning makes you simultaneously older and younger. Which is kind of sensational, isn’t it?

What are you going to learn this week? Go on, be ambitious about it. If you fail, that’s fine. Even then, you learned something.

Alex Steele

Gotham President