“I'm too old to do things I don't enjoy”: An interview with Margaret Atwood

Marta Iwanek/Toronto Star via Getty Images
04 February, 2016

At 76, there are few genres Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has not worked in. Author of seventeen volumes of poetry, eight collections of short fiction, and fifteen novels, she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once for The Blind Assassin in 2000. Atwood was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in both 2005 and 2007.

Her work ranges from incisive realist writing to speculative fiction. The writer and critic Trisha Gupta caught up with Atwood on 30 January, a few days after Atwood's conversation with writer Patrick French at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. Gupta and Atwood discussed genre, parental approval and the place of realistic fiction in the digital age.

Trisha Gupta: You have a longstanding interest in the environment. Where does it come from?

Margaret Atwood: I was what they call an early adopter. Because I did grow up in it. My dad was a biologist.

My parents were conscious very early, of things like pesticides, DDT, things that affected biological populations. They were early Sierra Club, Federation of Ontario naturalists, conservationists, birdwatchers, back in the day when it was thought to be kind of nutty. My brother turned into a biologist... So I know the plot... It made it easy for me to write a book like Oryx and Crake [the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that looks at rebuilding the world after a chemical fallout]. And I knew if I didn't talk the talk correctly, I was going to get a critique from my brother. He said (switches to a voice lower than her own): “I think you did quite a good job on the sex. But I'm not so sure about the cats.” But science has borne me out since! Turns out that the purring of cats does have a neurologically soothing effect and is akin to the ultrasound that we use to heal bones.

TG: I believe your father wanted you to be a botanist.

MA: Yes, I was very good at botany. Better than at English, because in English they took half-marks off for spelling mistakes.

TG: Education—especially in India—divides the scientific and the literary or artistic into such starkly separate spheres.

MA: We divide things in order to teach them. But it's a false division. People with creative minds are frequently creative across a range: Leonardo da Vinci was a wonderful painter but he was also trying to invent an airplane.

TG: But there seems more and more a sense that you must specialise.

MA: I think that was true in the twentieth century. We're now seeing a movement back the other way.

Say, in medicine, once, if you were a toe doctor, toes was all you'd do. Now they're trying to get back to looking at the whole person. And all of these things have a narrative component.“Tell me your medical history.” It's a story: “First I felt this lump on my toe, then I got a terrible headache.” The eastern idea that parts of the body are connected with other parts is gaining a lot more credibility now.

TG: You were somewhat scathing about genres in your conversation with Patrick French.

MA: Genres are useful for bookstores. And for certain kinds of readers who want to read nothing but science fiction, or nothing but fantasy. They know exactly where to go in the bookstore—there'll be something with a dragon on it, that's for them. But just like in literary fiction, some books with dragons on them will be of higher quality than others. So you shouldn't dismiss a book just because it has a dragon on it. Some will have a meditative, philosophical element in addition to the adventure—just like a classical Indian epic poem. But I've had people say to me, I never read books by men. Or I never read books by women. Or I never read sci-fi. Or anything that isn't sci-fi. Why such insecurity? Why not expose yourself to something else? It may not be a good experience, but it'll be different.

TG: Did you have a writing community?

MA: It was small. It was the fifties. You were supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, in business.

TG: In many ways, we're still in the fifties, here.

MA: No, we're not. You have quite a lively art scene.

TG: But everyone is fighting their parents to get to that.

MA: That will always be universally true. When I announced at 16 that I was going to be a writer, you could see them blanch. Being them, they bit their tongues and tried to discourage me in indirect ways. My mother said, “If you're going to be a writer, you'd better learn to spell.”

But my idea was, I'd write “True Romance” stories to make a living, and in the evenings, I'd write my cross between [the writers] Katherine Mansfield and Ernest Hemingway, with some [William] Faulkner thrown in. I tried, but I wasn't any good at them—you have to believe. So I thought I'd go to journalism school. Then a second cousin, who was a journalist, said, if you're a woman you'll end up writing the fashion pages and the obituaries. I thought, I'll go to university after all: teach in fall, winter and spring, and write my deathless masterpiece...

TG: ...in the summer.

MA: Yes. After university in Toronto, I was going to run away to France: live in a garret, drink absinthe, be a waitress. I had those ideas... But my college advisor said, quite rightly, you'll probably get more writing done as a graduate student. So I went to Harvard and became a nineteenth century specialist. You get to read a lot of utopias. They thought everything was going to get better and better. We didn't get dystopias until the twentieth century.

TG: That's fascinating. Does that connect to what you said recently, that now isn't the time for realistic fiction?

MA: What I said was, it's hard to write really realistic fiction, unless you pretend that nobody watches TV, or is on the internet. To make it plausible, people would have phones. Things get arranged differently. It's not as easy as it was when reality was more static. Think of Dave Eggers' 2013 novel, The Circle—is it predictive, or is it of the moment in which he wrote it? It has to be the latter, because there isn't any “the future.” There's an infinite number of possible futures, and we don't know which one we're going to get. So I say, write plausible fiction. The reader has to believe it.

TG: Is this the key difference between science fiction and speculative fiction?

MA: Yes, it's the difference between something that could happen, and something that really couldn't. Sci-fi, especially sci-fi fantasy—we know it's not real. It's another world, not without its excitements and adrenalin bursts, but it's not going to happen to us tomorrow, or next year, or probably ever. It is a galaxy far, far away—though everybody looks like us, or Carrie Fisher [one of the stars of the Star Wars series of films].

Spec-fic is this world, this planet; it could happen, we're thinking of it now. [The writer George Orwell's] 1984, it had already happened. [The writer Aldous Huxley's] Brave New World, it was happening. My rule for The Handmaid's Tale [a dystopian novel set in a United States that has become totalitarian Christian theocracy, where women have lost their rights], was that I would not put anything into it that we had not already done.“People say, you've got such a twisted, dark imagination.” Actually, it's not my imagination.

TG: Starting out, did you find it difficult to get published because you were a woman?

MA: No, because I was Canadian. (laughs) There were only a couple of Canadian publishing companies in the 60s. There was also Oxford Canada, and Macmillan Canada, but your chances with them were slim. You could move to the United States, or to London. It was a post-colonial time. So we had men and women writers working together on the problem of being Canadian. Young writers started their own publishing companies, some of which are still going, and quite respectable. I was working in publishing, too, the way we did, basically unpaid: looking at each others' manuscripts, sitting on the board, looking at the slush pile.

TG: Does the Indian publishing industry look different from your last visit, 27 years ago?

MA: There's a lot more of it now. The landscape you see now didn't exist. There weren't any literary festivals. A lot of new publications have sprung up.

TG: Do you enjoy literature festivals?

MA: I'm too old to do things I don't enjoy.

TG: How was the Jaipur Literature Festival?

MA: Extremely filled with people! Everybody was extremely pleasant. I think it's because you're supposed to be nice to old people. If I were younger, I'd get more aggressive questions.

In the early days, people would say things like: “What makes you think you can write?” Or the radio guy would start off with “I haven't read your book and I'm not going to. But tell me, in 25 words or less, what's it about?”

One of my favourites was: “So, The Handmaid's Tale is autobiography.” I said, “No, it's not. It's set in the future.” He said, “That's no excuse.”

TG: Do you think there is resistance from men to reading books written by women?

MA: Books by young women? Yes. You don't want a girl that's smarter than you, if you're thinking of her as somebody you might date. Middle-aged women? It's your mom: run away. But Granny? Granny always gave you that cookie nobody else would give you. There's a lot of pushback in sci-fi and online gaming: those guys are afraid women will come in and tell them they can't have rape scenes in their video games. I seem to have a pretty large younger male readership for the MaddAddam trilogy. Less for the realistic fiction, but not none. Because I cover quite a large range, my readership has always been wide. Any age, any gender, any country.

TG: The idea that continues to plague us is that the things that women write about most often are seen as "domestic"which is apparently not universal.

MA: If a man writes a domestic novel about changing a baby: “Hero!!” If a woman writes it: “Why do we have read this shit, baby-diapers-crap?” But a lot more younger men are a lot more participatory in their families. And they seem to enjoy it. You never would have seen that in the 50s.

This interview has been edited and condensed.