At home in a world of ideas

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Controversy and Margaret Atwood have never been strangers. As former president of Pen Canada, she has been a long-time champion of writer's rights. As one of the most-acclaimed writers alive, awards are an everyday affair. But her decision to accept the million-dollar Dan David prize, along with Amitav Ghosh, has landed her in the eye of a veritable typhoon! In her widely-publicised response to the outcry from activists urging her to refuse the award (whose earlier recipients include Tom Stoppard, Peter Brook, Al Gore, Zubin Mehta and Tony Blair), Atwood decried cultural boycotts as a “form of censorship”. But after returning from Tel Aviv she wrote a piece in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz lamenting the ‘Shadow over Israel' — one that would remain until “Palestine has its own legitimised state within its internationally recognised borders”. Meanwhile, despite the storm that raged without, between television interviews and on the eve of yet another journey, Margaret Atwood made time for a long conversation.

Margaret Atwood looks up from the book she is signing, her mischievous blue eyes sparkling with good humour, and urges me to ask her questions as she multi-tasks!

At the moment, the grand dame of Canadian literature couldn't be busier. Fuelled by rave reviews of her dystopian masterpiece, The Year of the Flood, and the chart-busting success of Payback and its uncanny foretelling of the financial meltdown, she is in serious demand. She is short on time but has agreed to a meeting at the office of the publishing company she helped set up, the House of Anansi Press, in downtown Toronto. She breezes in, dressed in black, long pink scarf flapping, and launches straight into a book-signing spree. I am struck by how small and frail, how delicately chiselled and feminine she is. Somehow this comes as a surprise, although I am uncertain about what I was expecting. I recall the chillingly brilliant opening lines of her Power Politics, “you fit into me like a hook into an eye; a fish hook, an open eye”, but before I can delve deeper into the apparent contradiction between the writer and her craft, a cup of coffee interrupts my brief reverie and I find myself, unsurprisingly, addressing a well-spring of quotable quotes: Atwood's conversation is witty, exceptionally intelligent and interspersed with a ready, infectious laugh.

And now, the Nobel?

My dear. Writers don't write in order to win prizes. They write for their unknown readers. One should live without any expectations in the prize department, just as one should not get too set on winning when gambling, a thing I sometimes do…

Do your readers in India get to meet you in person sometime soon?

We've been to India three times… each time was wonderful in a different way, and there are so many parts of that exceptionally varied land that I've never seen. But realistically, I am now over 70, and will have to cut down on activities that are becoming too strenuous. However, there are now new technologies… perhaps by video conference? Norman Mailer appeared in Edinburgh from his New England living room…

When you look back at your extraordinary life and career, what impresses you most?

I'm Canadian, and we're not supposed to find ourselves impressive. Any “famous” Canadian who starts putting on airs will be quickly punctured. But I suppose it's a little astonishing to me that a country that appeared to be such a cultural backwater in the 50s, when I was starting out, is now so active, and has produced so many writers of international stature.

What about your life do you most fondly recollect?

Like most people who had good childhoods, it's my childhood that I recall most fondly. I think I was very lucky to grow up the way I did — in unusual and isolated circumstances, with not many “material” things; but these circumstances actually fostered reading and writing, and I had a family that valued story-telling and books.

Any major regrets?

We all have lives we might have lived had things been a little different. I do regret not being taller, or an opera singer, but there wasn't much I could do about either.

Let's go back a bit to the beginning…what made you take up writing as a career?

My first novel was about ants! There wasn't much action in it, but it was a good writing exercise… the reader must want a reason to read on! My aunt tells me I wanted to be a writer when I was five... When I was about six or seven, I stopped writing and started painting, and then around 16 started to write again.

Did success come early? If not, what gave you the confidence to keep at it?

My first book of poems got rejected and rightly so. I think they were very bad. I used to do a lot of writing — poetry, fiction, non-fiction. I did a lot, actually. Puppet shows, high school skits, acted in Ben Johnson's “The Silent Woman”. I designed the programme, printed the posters — a lot like the old Mickey Rooney shows. I kept writing. My first published book of poems, Circle Game, won the Governor General's Award for poetry. Four hundred and twenty copies were initially printed, which was quite good for poetry.

Confidence wasn't my problem; stupidity was! My expectations were quite low — if you don't see the dangers coming towards you, you don't get depressed! If I'd known how difficult it was to be a writer, I wouldn't have tried it. I was too ignorant!

In Payback, you've dealt with felicity with such a wide range of issues: did a lot of research go into the book? Were you worried about experts questioning some of what you have talked about?

I've been around for quite a bit now; one picks up a lot as you go along. The older you get, the more things accumulate. I got a research assistant to check out some stuff for me, but the ideas were already there. This was for a public broadcasting series and of general interest to people. Writers are great generalists — its amazing how much you can pull out of the attic. This is not a book on economics, it's about human behaviour. About getting the balance even. Children constantly say ‘that's not fair'… I think that's very fundamental to human nature.

Payback: how was the idea born?

When I was first asked to do the Massey Lecture Series, I said ‘no'. I was looking at two other literary lecture series for Oxford and Cambridge universities. And then an interesting incident happened. The publishing company I've long been associated with was about to lose the series, and I told CBC they couldn't take it away from Anansi. When Payback was published, it became a phenomenon. There have been four reprints since October 2009. It has consistently been the number one bestseller, with about 2,500 to 3,000 copies sold in North America alone.

One never really knows where ideas come from ... in high school tests there were these geometric drawings one attempted to view from different angles. I had been noticing these advertisements in the subway on debt that set me thinking….. Even in the 19 {+t} {+h} century historical novel, money was important. In Jane Austen debt features consistently. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff goes away poor and comes back having earned a fortune to extract the house from its previous owner. Mill On The Floss is about money. I used the 19 {+t} {+h} century novel for my illustrations because more people know them. That was a time of great social movement. Male fortunes were made in an instant. American wealth would marry English aristocracy to move upwards on the social ladder. There was no social safety net. The consequences of debt failures could be extreme. In Flaubert's Madame Bovary, the defence in court saying that she was punished for her behaviour was a red herring. What happened was that she overspent. Had Emma Bovary learnt double-entry book-keeping and drawn up a budget, she could easily have gone on with her hobby of adultery! There was so much material I could have used… the German or Russian novel … I didn't even go there. I used Scrooge because everybody knows him. Scrooge and Dr. Faustus. For Faustus free-spending is damnation, for Scrooge it's salvation.

You are often described as a feminist writer. Do you see yourself as a feminist?

Do you know what that means? What would a feminist voice be like? Betty Friedman? Do you think women are better than men? Society is a pyramid — people at the top do better. Men and women, both. In the 1960s and 1970s, any woman who had done anything was thought to be a feminist. I don't think people really know what they mean by ‘feminist'.

You've been so prolific — fiction and non-fiction both. Do you work concurrently on several things? How do you decide what to work on and when?

Compared to Joyce Carol Oates, I'm slow. When I was growing up, there was no electricity. You worked with a kerosene lamp at night. The cone of concentration, that's the secret of everything. I don't have a routine although I would love to have one. Were I to have a ‘don't interrupt' sign on the door, no one would pay any attention. There are these Henry James-like images of a writer…. When I start to think, I clear out the junk. “Oh-oh”, the family is wont to say, “she is in-between books. She is going to redecorate!” It's nice — the world of ideas: the real world is too difficult. The end of a book is always hard. The separation anxiety. The author saying goodbye to the book and the reader. That moment between the writer, reader and the book — that's important.

The Blind Assassin had a prophetic element to it. And now, Payback and The Year of the Flood. Where do these clairvoyant instincts come from?

It's happened four times. In Nature, there are early indications of happenings. When earthquakes happen, snakes come out of their holes…. you can feel the vibrations if you pay attention to these things. I am very nosey and curious. I also read a lot. In fact, I read anything. Hello, People magazines. I start with the back pages of newspapers and often watch stories migrate from the back to the front. The little things — there's a lot there. Right now I can tell you about several things that will happen. Solar panelling that isn't even visible will be commercialised. Clothes lines will come back, as well inside drying-racks. Why should anyone spend money to dry clothes when the air can?

If the prophecies are ignored — yours, and others' — when and how do you think payback time will come?

For one, oil will diminish by 2022. Travel, food — it'll affect the way we live. Earthquakes happen when tectonic plates readjust themselves. We ought to choose the gradual, less painful way. As a species we are approaching the magic moment.... you know the little conundrum about the test tube full of amoeba food? You put one amoeba in at noon. The amoeba divides in two every minute. At midnight, the test tube is full of amoebas and there's no food left. At what moment in time is the tube half full? At one minute to midnight! That's when the amoebae are saying, ‘We are fine, there's half a tube of food left'. That's the magic moment we're at, and if we don't take care of it ourselves, it will be taken care of for us!

What are you working on now? What is your next book about?

I never tell.

Any new projects?

I don't like to reveal what's inside the egg before it hatches. I've had too much experience with eggs for that. But I am working on a series of lectures — the Ellman Lectures, for Emory, this October — on the subject of science fiction. They will appear as a book, to be called In Other Worlds.

Writer, poet, activist: Is there anything else that you still look forward to doing?

Planning the perfect funeral. (Sorry. I couldn't resist. But people have started offering their seats to me on the subway, so one must face the fact that sooner or later one will topple over.)

A footnote: I'm not really an “activist”. Like any Scorpio (Western horoscope) or Rabbit (Eastern horoscope), I prefer a quiet life in a cosy burrow. But I get dragged in because things that seem extreme to others often just look like common sense to me.

I've been listening mesmerised and I have so much more to ask, but she has a flight to catch. Margaret Atwood — iconic author, inventor (of the Longpen), mother, visionary..... but the most haunting image that she leaves me with is that of a soft- strong woman who suddenly whirls around as she is led to a waiting car to ask “and how will you get back home?”

Society is a pyramid — people at the top do better. Men and women, both.



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