Canadian writer Alice Munro, a thorough, but forgiving documenter of the human spirit, won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday for being a “master of the contemporary short story,” the Swedish Academy said.

Ms. Munro is the first Canadian writer to receive the prestigious $1.2 million award since Saul Bellow, who left for the U.S. as a boy and won it in 1976.

She is regarded as a modern Chekhov for her warmth, insight and compassion, and for capturing a wide range of lives and personalities without passing judgment on her characters.

“I knew I was in the running, yes, but I never thought I would win,” Ms. Munro said by telephone when contacted by The Canadian Press in Victoria, British Columbia.

The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, said he had not managed to get hold of her but left a message on her answer machine.

“She has taken an art form, the short story, which has tended to come a little bit in the shadow behind the novel, and she has cultivated it almost to perfection,” Mr. Englund told The Associated Press.

Ms. Munro is the 13th female literature laureate in the 112-year history of the Nobel Prizes.

In an interview with AP in 2003, she described the 1960s as “wonderful”.

It was “because, having been born in 1931, I was a little old, but not too old, and women like me after a couple of years were wearing miniskirts and prancing around,” she said.

Ms. Munro, the daughter of a fox farmer and a teacher, was born Alice Anne Laidlaw. She was a literary person in a nonliterary town, concealing her ambition like a forbidden passion.

“It was glory I was after... walking the streets like an exile or a spy,” recalls the narrator of Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women,” a novel published in 1971.

She received a scholarship to study at the University of Western Ontario, majoring in journalism, and was still an undergraduate when she sold a story to CBC radio in Canada.

She dropped out of college to marry a fellow student, James Munro, had three children and became a full-time housewife. By her early 30s, she was so frightened and depressed she could barely write a full sentence.

She later married Gerald Fremlin, a geographer.

Last year’s Nobel literature award went to Mo Yan of China.

The 2013 Nobel announcements continue Friday with the Nobel Peace Prize, followed by the economics prize on Monday.