Alice Munro's publisher remembers when she stopped the presses — literally

Alice Munro’s longtime publisher Douglas Gibson joins Commotion to remember the lauded Canadian short story writer who died Monday.

Douglas Gibson tells Commotion about an unforgettable experience publishing Who Do You Think You Are?

Alice Munro holds one of her books up to her face, in a closeup still of the author.
(FILES) A photo taken on June 25, 2009 in Dublin, Ireland shows Canadian author Alice Munro who has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Literature Prize, the Royal Swedish Academy announced on October 10, 2013 in Stockholm. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)

Very few writers would or could get their presses to stop, once they'd begun printing. But then again, few writers have a reputation for being a ruthless revisionist like Alice Munro.

The celebrated short story writer has been known in the past to go so far as to decline readings of her work, because if she did she'd be tempted to revise everything she read.

But one time, she actually asked her publisher to halt printing on one of her books, Who Do You Think You Are?, in order to rewrite the second half of her work — a rare undertaking.

Her longtime publisher, Douglas Gibson, was there when it happened. He joined Commotion host Elamin Abdelmahmoud, as well as writers Heather O'Neill and Madeleine Thien, to remember his collaborator and friend.

For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

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"I will never forget this," Gibson says. "You can imagine this was a very big deal for us."

At the time, he was a publisher with Macmillan of Canada. Gibson remembers there was a lot of excitement around Munro's new book coming out soon.

"It was literally at the printer," he says.

But things took a dramatic turn when he received a call from her one weekend prior to launch.

"She began with her usual politeness — she described it as 'country manners.' We talked about this and that, and then she said, 'How is this new book coming along?' And I said, 'Oh, great news there, Alice. It's at the printers and we'll be getting finished copies next week.'

"And she said, 'Well, that's too bad because I'd like to revise the whole second half, and I wonder if we could do that and still bring the book out.' And I was horrified, as you can imagine," Gibson says.

Following that conversation, he invited Munro to come to the office from her home in Clinton, Ont. to discuss it with his bosses.

"It was an important event," Gibson says.

"To my horror, at the end of the morning, it was decided that I would read the new version plus a new story, and then we would meet early in the afternoon and make the decision."

That decision, if the publisher agreed to it, would entail redoing the whole second half of the book that had already begun printing — no small feat.

"So I read it over lunch. And then we all got together and I said, 'Alice is right. It is better this way.' And the typesetters were so thrilled by this historic high drama that in the end, we only lost about 10 days of selling time.

"The book indeed came out, with the second half entirely changed thanks to Alice and thanks to my bosses who thought it was great to have me as the troublemaking decision maker," Gibson says.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Panel produced by Jane van Koeverden, Ty Callender and Danielle Grogan.


Amelia Eqbal is a digital associate producer, writer and photographer for Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud and Q with Tom Power. Passionate about theatre, desserts, and all things pop culture, she can be found on Twitter @ameliaeqbal.