Scholarly Roadkill

Mitch’s Blog

Who is Alice?

Friday, June 28, 2024

The question of the day was supposed to be archaeological, not literary. Who built Stonehenge, not who is Alice?

A Stonehenge exhibit at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria seemed a good excuse for a day trip on one of our last few days on Vancouver Island before returning to the Bay Area. The exhibit had been organized by some archaeologists in London, a couple of whom I had published in a previous life, who had been excavating at Stonehenge in the past few years. So we took the two hour drive through Ladysmith, Duncan, and over the Malahat Pass to the southern tip of the Island.

The exhibit didn’t disappoint. There were no 8 meter tall Saracen stones, just facsimiles, but lots of broken chips from the pillars along with rooms full of tools and domestic objects from the recent excavations. Notable were the racks of antlers that were used as shovels and picks in the English Bronze Age. Reconstructions of how the stones were moved, lots of brief videos on everything from Durrington Walls to strontium analysis to remote sensing techniques made my archaeological heart proud. Yes, they talked about the celestial alignments of the stones, but spent more time explaining how those enormous blue stones could have been quarried and moved from Wales to Sussex without the use of alien space ships.

After several hours there, it was time for a break. The food trucks outside the museum came first, then the forest of carved First Nation poles on the slope below, then downtown Victoria, which begins just across the street from the museum.

My single downtown mission was to hit one of the bookstores to find a new novel by a young up-and-coming Canadian Metis author who is a friend of ours. No copy could be found in Parksville, but there was bound to be one here. Russell Books, two vast floors of titles, didn’t disappoint. There were three copies of Prairie Edge, two of them signed, on the New Fiction shelf. I picked the third one, knowing I could get Conor to personalize it for me when I next saw him.

But being a publisher and getting out of a bookstore quickly is not so easy. When I saw that Vida had discovered an entire wall of cookbooks, I knew we would be there a while. I began grazing in other sections. No more Canadian fiction today. Stay away from the archaeology shelf. Too dangerous. But  the store had section on books about writing and publishing.

I have a modest collection of books by writers about writing. I use quotes from them when I conduct publishing and writing seminars, so it was worth a browse. I don’t like Stephen King’s novels, but his book about writing is superb. So is Ann Lamott’s. On the other hand, James Michener tried to write a novel called, cleverly, The Novel. It includes the worst description of process of publishing a book that I’ve ever read.

On the shelf, there was a slim volume on writing by the brilliant Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Just the right purchase from a Canadian bookstore and costing under $10, it accompanied Prairie Edge to the checkout counter after I was able to drag Vida away from Modern Italian Recipes and Secrets of Baking Perfect Breads.  

In the rush to pack for returning to the US, I didn’t open Atwood’s book until we had been back in California a few days, and I was desperate for a break from the Sasanian section of the ceramics chapter on my Afghanistan writing agenda.

Publishers don’t automatically head for Page 1 when they open a book. There’s a ton of information in the front matter that often give revealing clues to its publishing history. It was when I hit the title page that the hand-scrawled words jumped out.

Dear Alice-

Hope you get a few laughs out of this




Peggy was easy to figure out—Margaret Atwood had inscribed the title page. But who was Alice?  A copy editor? Neighbor? House cleaner? Literary agent? Given the tone of the inscription, it was someone Atwood knew well, not a fan in a long line at a book store signing.  Using my Hercule Poirot skills, I headed straight for the book’s Acknowledgements section. This was the most likely place to find an Alice to whom Peggy wanted to send a copy of the book.

There was only one Alice listed there. Alice Munro.

Margaret Atwood is the most famous living Canadian writer. She has won the Booker Prize twice and a host of other awards for her 18 novels. She has honorary degrees from two dozen universities. Her The Handmaid’s Tale has gone beyond literature to be a universal metaphor for the challenge of securing women’s rights.

The Most Famous Living Canadian Writer claim could have been challenged by one person, Alice Munro. That changed a month ago, when the 92 year old writer passed away in Ontario. She suffered through her final decade with dementia. Master of the short story, she also had a Booker Prize on her shelf accompanied by an equally long list of other writing awards, including being the only Canadian ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Munro lived on Vancouver Island for much of her life. 

The two women were good friends for over half a century.

Could I have accidentally fallen upon a copy of Peggy’s book on writing given to her good friend Alice? A book that would be certain to elicit a few chuckles from the latter. True, other possibilities exist, but this is the most likely one. If this is Alice’s copy, it doesn’t look like she ever pored over the pages of it. No coffee stains, torn pages, or little notes in the margin. I wonder if they discussed it over tea at the Empress Hotel.

How this book ended up on a random shelf in a Victoria bookstore is a mystery I won’t be able to solve. Had anyone in the bookstore recognized what they had, it would have been under lock and key and for sale for far beyond my modest book budget.

Negotiating with the Dead is not going on eBay any time soon, though I could probably get a good price for it. It will go back to Canada where it belongs and likely to be a surprise birthday present to a Canadian friend who owns, and has read multiple times, every book these two literary greats ever wrote. She’ll appreciate this book far more than I ever could.

I still haven’t read a word of the book in fear of damaging the pristine pages. I’ll have to buy another copy next time at Russell Books to find out what Atwood thinks about writing.

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