Atwood .... what memories,
what pleasures, what fine writing that name conjures up!
Born just a few weeks after the start of World War II, she
is now 61, looking radiant and as ageless as many of her
finest novels: The Edible Woman. Surfacing.
Lady Oracle. Life Before Man. The Handmaid's
Tale. Cat's Eye. The Robber Bride. The
Blind Assassin. And her collections of short stories!
And the poetry!
Fresh from a
book tour promoting her latest, best-selling, awardwinning
novel The Blind Assassin, Atwood talked with good
times' journalist Allan Gould at a little French bistro
not far from her mid-town Toronto home.
won a nice bit of cash that came with Britain's revered
Booker Prize recently, didn't you?
A: Twenty thousand pounds -- about $42,000 Canadian.
I gave it all: To the World Wildlife Fund. The Sierra Club.
The David Suzuki Foundation -- because I'm on the letterhead
but never actually gave them anything except my name. The
Long Point Bird Observatory. Graeme [Gibson, her partner
and father of her daughter Jess] is a birder
and I am somewhat. And to a wonderful group of women on
Saltspring Island who did a calendar for which they removed
all of their clothes, since this was the only way to get
the loggers to pay attention to them! I felt that they really
deserved to get some money for doing that.
course, winning the Booker tends to increase sales of a
A: Not just tends! One could say, "unequivocally!"
There was a real spike in sales right after the prize was
awarded, and Amazon.com put it on its Web site. I think
Amazon gets to a lot of people who live in smaller places
which lack bookstores.
the early 1980s, you said, "I go canoeing every summer
in Quebec. I used to sew a lot, paint a lot. I cook, but
only when Graeme lets me into the kitchen." Are these
things still true?
A: He doesn't let me in anymore. I used to do all
the desserts, but we don't eat desserts much anymore. He
does let me in, in December, because I make a lot of cookies.
We still go to Quebec, up North, but don't canoe as much;
it's a knee thing. We still canoe some, but not the epic
voyages we used to do. We do a lot of walking. We do not
jog -- it's bad for the knees. I don't sew or paint anymore;
this may come as a shock to you, but I've been writing a
lot! [laughing] It keeps me busy.
don't take many vacations, yet you once spent a year in
A: Let me see. We went to France in the beginning
of the 1990s, maybe '91, and spent the school year there,
essentially. I was writing Robber Bride at that time.
And whenever I go away, I'm writing something.
Bodily Harm, you described a Toronto couple we both
know, where the husband was a professor and his wife, a
judge. Do you slide in loved ones or dear friends as characters
in your novels?
A: If they've asked to be slid in, if they wish to
make an appearance. That friend once said to me, "Put
me in one of your books!" My sister-in-law once begged
me, "Put me into one of your books, only make me 21
and a blonde!" For a character of any length, they
are never real people anyway. They are composites, inventions,
all of those things; they are not real. What I did for my
friends was a joke.
you become a vegetarian?
A: I don't eat a lot of animal fat, because I have
a cholesterol problem, alas. So I had to cut down.
used to havesuperstitions, such as, "No one can use
MY typewriter," and that you didn't like talking about
your writing before you did it. Have you changed?
A: Now, nobody can use my computer. And I still don't
like talking about my writing before I do it.
once described "the worst Canadian trait" as:
"Mingy-mindedness. Grudging vindictiveness. It goes
way beyond smugness. That small, grudging envious nnyyaaaa."
Have we gotten better?
A: It's the same. I started being a big target in
1972. I got a "free get-out-of-jail card" as a
friend once put it, with my first Governor General's Award,
because it was also my first book [The Circle Game,
1966; a collection of poems]. So nobody was hiding in the
bushes with their popguns. The Australians say they "cut
down tall poppies." I think it's a human characteristic,
but in a country that essentially still thinks like a small
town, it is exaggerated. I get it more in Canada than in
any other country in the world. And I get it more in Toronto
than in any other city in Canada. It's the hometown syndrome.
Let's put this
in perspective. I got better reviews on this book than I
ever got on any book, ever-all together, over-all much better
reviews. But in Canada the story is, "What about that
one bad review?" Canada is the only place in the world
that remembers that. So the story in Canada is, "Margaret
Atwood got a bad review." Not: "Margaret Atwood
got the best reviews on this book than she's ever got on
That's why I
say "small-town:" But it's only a couple of journalists.
It's not the great public, which was thrilled when I got
the Booker. I got a huge in-pouring of letters from total
strangers. All those feelings of, "If she can do it,
why not l?" The feelings are so human. If you have
a very successful first novel, the second will attract a
certain kind of trashing. It happens every time, in any
described yourself as a "Red Tory." In what way?
A: I think that what's happened in politics is, the
people who used to be in the Conservative Party who had
made it quite interesting and humane, once upon a time,
have all been shoved out during the days of Mulroney. We
had Flora MacDonald for a while, but... And now what's happening
is, everybody has moved a lot further to the right-everybodythan
they used to be, even the Left. And there will be a reaction
to that -
there already is one.
Some people are waking up and saying, "A $200-tax credit
[from Premier Mike Harris's Ontario government] is no good
to you if you're dead:" And especially worth considering
by the readers of the magazine for which you are writing
this profile, is the running down the public health care
system, so people will say, "It's not working anymore,"
and then clamor for private health care. So then people
will be willing to pay whatever, and some people will make
a lot of money. Illness is not productive. It doesn't make
anything. What it does is, it transfers money from the ill
person to other people.
So we have to
ask ourselves, "To which other people do you want your
money transferred if you get sick?" Do you want it
transferred to private clinics which will charge you a lot
of money? Do you want your money transferred via the tax
system to the public health care system? People are saying
now, "It doesn't work! We must have these other things!"
Well, that situation has been manufactured to get you to
say those very things.
often been seen "on the Left," in your support
of David Suzuki and the CBC.
A: I don't see David Suzuki as the Left! I see him
and those who support the CBC as public advocates. That's
a very different thing. It's not a question of Left or Right.
It's a question of monopolies and power.
People who speak
up against monopolies and power -- in the CBC's case, the
monopoly of capital on opinion, and in David Suzuki's case,
the monopoly of corporations and what is done with the natural
environment -- those people are not Left. They are advocates
for the Public Good. And we are in a sad and sorry state
if everybody who does that is thought of as some kind of
left-wing crazy radical. It means that nobody will speak
out for the Public Good because they'd be too intimidated.
So let us just
throw away that terminology and look at what people are
actually doing, and not what the right-wing press says they
are doing. And the right wing in the United States [in terms
of a woman's right to choose] is dictating reproductive
events; it's the same as Romania. They want personal freedom
only for rapists.
of your books is your favorite? Is it a fair question to
A: You can ask it, but I won't answer it. There are
a couple of questions I never answer, along with that. I
never answer what are my favorite books by other people,
and where I get my ideas.
Jones Magazine once described your "wicked sense
of humor and caustic tongue." And critics have described
you as "Medusa," "amusing duchess" and
"quiet Mata Hari." How would you describe yourself
if you were a journalist or a critic?
A: [Voice dropping in a conspiratorial, bed-time-story
fashion] In fairy tales, the hero or the heroine sets
out on an adventure. Along the way, as they are going through
the forest, out from behind a tree comes a strange, unearthly
being! And this can either be a wise old woman who will
give you good advice, or it can be a wicked old witch who
will eat you up. I am that person!
Q: That's still an either/or!
A: [chuckling] That is for you to decide!
You have to make a snap judgment: Am I the wise old woman,
or the wicked old witch? I've had both [descriptions].
can be a pain. Is it still fun?
A: It depends on what you're doing at the time. I
think it's nice to be recognized once in a while. As a perennial
diet, it would be very boring. But it's not, in this country.
Why is that? Because Canadians are Canadians -- they're
not intrusive. They will look, they will smile, they will
wave, but they will not rush over and say, "Give me
Think of this
fact: I'm a writer, not a movie star, not a rock star. Writers
connect with people through their books, not through their
public performances, not through their clothing items. People
may thank you as the person who has "given them"
these books they like, but really, they like the books,
and not necessarily the person.
A book is what
people interact with while they are reading it, not with
the person who wrote it. With a rock star, they are interacting
with the person on the stage. The person
doing the performance and the experience they are having
are one and the same, at that moment.
That's a thank you for the book, usually. If they react
well to the experience they have when reading the book,
they say "thank you" to the person who has occasioned
that experience for them. Not because you have caused this
thing to appear which has paper and ink on it, but because
of the emotions that they have felt and the thoughts they
have had while reading it. And that's why they say "thank
you" to me.
I ask about your daughter Jess?
A: I don't like to put her in magazines. You can
talk to her if you want to, but you can't talk to me about
her. She's now 24 years old, and she is a private individual.
She is a graduate student, in Art History. She's very well
you believe in the ability of art to have an effect on the
A: It has the ability to affect individuals, and
individuals have the ability to affect the world. Uncle
Tom's Cabin was a good book, insofar as it affected
the world, we think for the better. Dickens, in his day,
also affected the world with certain of his books -- most
noticeably, Oliver Twist. It's a very open question
(that only "pamphlet-type books and not works of art"
can change the world); you can prove it and disprove it
ten different ways. One can debate these positions and have
a fine time, but they are both just positions.
there a longing to heal the world when you create a piece
of literature? I think of some of your very powerful poems...
A: I'm not that much of a megalomaniac fool as to
believe that is possible.
There are billions of people in the world and a lot of them
don't read English! [laughs] And even among the ones
that do... People sometimes ask me, "Who is your ideal
reader?" And I say, "Well, for one thing, that
person is a reader!" That narrows the field immediately!
A lot of people can't read. And among the ones who can read,
a lot of them don't read! And among the ones who do read,
a lot of them don't read what I write. This may come as
a shock to you, but it is true. So I write for the reader,
but more specifically, I write for the reader who likes
what I write. That narrows the field quite a bit.
feel that The Handmaid's Tale was the most overtly
political novel you've written; it was clearly based on
Romania's treatment of women at the time. I feel it will
never be dated in the way that Orwell's 1984 has
become dated in certain ways.
A: Handmaid will be dated on the day on which
none of these kinds of structures are any longer in place.
The only reason why 1984 is a little bit dated these
days is that the Soviet Union is no longer with us. Orwell
also said the following, which we should all keep in mind:
"They'll be back, but next time they'll be wearing
white shirts and smiles." Who did
he mean by "they?" The people who want to control
your life -- and they are already back!
you prefer the experience of writing a poem over the writing
of a novel, due to its brevity?
A: Is Paradise Lost a poem? It would make
a good movie, but it would look an awful lot like X-Men!
I don't think it's a question of length; it's a question
of intensity -- on both my part and on the part of the reader.
I was once told, "Surely you can whip off a book of
poems a lot faster than you can do a novel!" And I
replied, "Actually, it takes the same amount of time."
you pleased that you can work so well in different media
-- the novel, the short story, the poem? There are many
fine novelists who can't write poems and never attempt
a short story.
A: Nobody ever told me that I couldn't, and that's
why I do it. Had I grown up slightly later, and gone off
to `Creative Writing School,' they would have made me be
in either the Poetry part or the Prose part, and they would
have discouraged me from doing both. That is why there are
so many Canadians who do both; we didn't have any Creative
Writing classes in our life at that time. It just never
entered my head that I couldn't do both [poetry and prose].
you still be writing when you are 80 or 90?
A: Robertson Davies is my role model. He didn't start
in his later incarnation -- he had written the Salterton
books but then he hadn't written novels for years and
years and years. Then he did Fifth Business about
the age I am now, maybe a couple of years younger. And then
he did all those other books in his 60s and 70s. So the
bad news is --
for all those people who want me to fall off a cliff --
that I can be going for another 25 years! Just prepare yourself!
did you feel the moment you won the Booker Prize for
The Blind Assassin in England, or the Giller Prize [for
Alias Grace] in Canada a few years earlier?
A: Well, the Giller was really quite a surprise,
because I felt at that point that I was "un-awardable;'
like some politicians are un-electable. That means that
you're "too Big, too Old, you sell too many copies,
you've got it all, what do you need it for?" Those
are real factors, believe me. They do enter into the judgments
that judges make. That's part of human nature -- you feel
that you have to give the younger generation a little push
up the hill. I was so surprised, I hadn't even put my lipstick
on in preparation for the Magic Moment. You have to have
your "TV Look" on! But I was thrilled, of course.
If I'd known, I would have dressed up more.
The Booker mandate
is slippery -- something like, "To increase the public
visibility of works of literary art." The juries over
the years have been very divided as to what they
are supposed to be doing from year to year. So it's much
harder to call, much harder to get a clear idea of things,
for the jury as well as everyone else. That's why the bookies
make book on it. They are calling the odds on the jury more
than on the book - how the horses are running, the jockey,
and so on. I was the favorite this year - the only year
so far. The odds were 2 to 1. Graeme went down to place
a bet, but they had closed it by that time.
you troubled that you are turning into part of the canon
of Canadian Literature -- like the way everyone who was
a child in the 1950s had to read E.J. Pratt's poem Titanic?
A: Am I concerned that these poor high school students
will have to write exams on my work? Oh, the poor things!
Yes, it is deeply painful! We have this idea that there
is this "canon" and that it's this inflexible,
iron-clad castle type of thing. It's not like that at all.
We have never been in a more malleable age, in which this
year's canon is next year's discard. The canon changes every
minute. Not being in the canon is more canonical than being
in it. It's just one of those facts of life over which you
have no control.
It doesn't bother
me that kids are forced to read me; I give them all the
help I can. I have
a nice Web site for them, and I put factoids on it; we're
letting Cole's do some Cole's Notes!