Allan Gould: Author, Journalist, Lecturer, Speechwriter
Magazines > Interviews > "Margaret Atwood: Write On!"
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Margaret AtwoodMargaret 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.

Q: You 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.

Q: Of course, winning the Booker tends to increase sales of a book...
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.

Q: In 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.

Q: You don't take many vacations, yet you once spent a year in France...
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.

Q: In 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.

Q: Have 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.

Q: You 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.

Q: You 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 any book!"

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 country.

Q: You've 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.

Q: You've 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.

Q: Which of your books is your favorite? Is it a fair question to ask you?
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.

Q: Mother 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].

Q: Fame 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 your shoelaces!"

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.

A book-signing? 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.

Q: May 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 and thriving.

Q: Do you believe in the ability of art to have an effect on the world?
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.

Q: Is 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.

Q: I 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!

Q: Do 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."

Q: Are 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].

Q: Will 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! [laughs wildly]

Q: How 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.

Q: Are 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!
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