Interview With Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is an image-maker haunted by her own projected images. Canada's most-gossiped-about writer can list the various and, she would say, distorted images her public mirror gives her back. There’s the goddess, the bitch, the nationalist, the feminist, the Venus, the madwoman—and, now, the earthmother. The author of six books of poetry, three novels (the third and latest, Lady Oracle, is reviewed on page 68) and Survival (a survey of Canadian literature) has now given less literary birth. This summer Atwood, now 36, bore her first child, a girl, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson. Lucky, says father, writer Graeme Gibson, because had it been a boy the women’s movement in this country (which has chosen the often reluctant Atwood as a heroine) would have been set back 10 years. Atwood has said she never was a militant feminist because she didn’t choose an early ego-debilitating domestic phase. She always knew, she said in an interview last summer, that “that was a crock.’’ But to everything there may be a season, and for Margaret Atwood the season for motherhood comes now that her own powerful identity, as writer and person, is unassailable. She talked to television journalist Helen Slinger on the Atwood-Gibson farm near Alliston, Ontario.
Maclean’s: First things first: the baby. Why did you decide to do that? What kind of process did you go through to make up your mind?
Atwood: I’d always intended to do it. I think I saved up emotionally and financially to a point where I thought I could do it. I didn’t want to cram it into my life at a point where I wouldn’t be able to pay a lot of attention to the baby. So I tried to plan it for a time where I had a space cleared for it, enough time so that I could just sit around and be with the baby—and that, in fact, is what I’ve ended up doing.
Maclean’s: Fm sorry to bring old quotes back on you, but a few years ago you said something about male-female relationships being to some extent manipulation, and that we are locked into political roles. Did you feel you had to resolve that first, before you had a child?
Atwood: No. How could I solve the universe before having a child? If you mean personally, I don’t think you can completely solve anything personally as long as the situation in society remains the way it is. You can get to a point where you have worked out a compromise or a way of operating, but you can’t separate from your
environment completely. You can’t separate other people from it either. My personal situation is pretty good now, but that doesn’t mean all those bad things have gone away. They haven’t.
Maclean’s: What was it like being pregnant? Did it change you, or your life? Atwood: It’s always hard to remember what you were like before of course. That’s
PEOPLE EXPECT ME TO BE LIKE ONE OF MY CHARACTERS. WHEN I’M NOT, THEY FEEL THEY’VE BEEN HAD
the problem. And who really knows what they’re like anyway? I kept expecting to have all these things happening to me that I’d read about in books, all the things you’re supposed to get in pregnancy—varicose veins, sick to my stomach; but I never had any of them. I would look down the list of symptoms for early toxemia or mental dullness. I kept wondering if I had mental dullness. It’s very hard to tell. I got rather
large, in fact they were taking bets at the hospital ás to whether or not I was going to have twins. But that’s quite natural, one does do that. The only problem I had was some pressure on a nerve in my leg which meant it would collapse every once in a while. So I was going around with this quite impressive-looking cane for a time. Maclean’s: Pregnant lady, walking down the street going tap, tap.. .
Atwood: It certainly stops traffic when you’re tired. You can just walk across any old street at all, and everything just halts. Maclean’s: Has the baby changed your relationship [with Graeme]?
Atwood: I can’t tell. She’s just three weeks old. But I think relationships change no matter what, babies or not. But it’s a great addition: it’s not that it wasn’t nice before, it’s just that it’s a new thing.
Maclean’s: The childbirth itself, was it a primitive experience? Was it a joy? Atwood: It was indescribable. The fact is that it’s a cliché, and it’s very hard to describe a cliché in anything but cliché terms. That’s why I say it’s indescribable. It’s not sort of pink and blue and little angel faces or anything like that, not at all. The baby itself is a rather disturbing shade of mauve when it emerges. And I think the first thing everybody does—and I did it as well—is say: “Is the baby all right?” And especially at my age, that was the first thing I wanted to know. Because three months beforehand, three months before I actually had the baby, every magazine on earth was printing all those things about older mothers and Down’s syndrome [the incidence of Down’s syndrome, or mongolism, increases with the age of the mother, steeply after the age of 35] which was quite alarming. In fact, by that time I was completely freaked out, and asking myself: what have I gotten into?
Maclean’s: Does the baby mark a new phase in your life?
Atwood: Oh sure. So do a lot of things. It’s sort of like getting a dog. I hate to put it on that level—it’s very important to me, as I said. I had saved up for it for quite some time.
Maclean’s: Do you imagine her changing your perceptions?
Atwood: Oh yes, I don’t see how she could possibly not. But I have no conception as to how that will happen.
Maclean’s: Okay, let’s leave the baby for a while.
Atwood: That’s good. I think there’s a danger of talking about your child, because the child is a separate person and ought to have some say in whether or not it wants to
be talked about publicly. To me having a child is a private thing. On the other hand, everybody on the face of the earth appears to know that I’ve had one, although I never made an announcement to that effect, so it already seems to be in the public domain. Maclean’s: There is of course, a mythology about you, more than any other Canadian writer, a real fascination with what you’re like.
Atwood: It’s probably because I do think some things are private. Maybe I should do what Farley Mowat does—construct a public persona that has nothing really to do with him. But he sends it out and he does his number, dancing on tables and whatnot, and everybody takes that as what he’s really like. And he, himself, is therefore not bothered .. .
Maclean’s: And nobody attempts to push past that?
Atwood: Apparently not. They ought to, because it’s fascinating: the public figure is really sort of a clown, but the books themselves are profoundly pessimistic. Maclean’s: Back to you. Why do you think there is that need on the part of readers to identify so absolutely personally with you, and to identify you with the protagonists in your books?
Atwood: It’s not just me it happens to, it’s every writer to a greater or lesser extent. It tends to happen more with women writers than with men, partly because of the kind of readership they attract, and partly because they are regarded as “women writers.” There’s still something freakish about that. And also women tend to identify with a woman writer who is acting out something that maybe they want to do, or say something they want to say. Maclean’s: How do people react when they meet you? Do they expect the crazy—or should I say the mad—free-woman from Surfacing?
Atwood: It’s when people come up to me and say, “I’m terribly sorry to hear that your parents died,” and I say, “Well actually they’re alive and quite well”; or they ask, “Are you a vegetarian?” and if I say “No,” they feel they’ve been had. Apparently it’s a Canadian thing, because you don’t have the same thing in England at all. England is crawling with writers and has been for many years so they’re used to the idea of writers, and of writers of serious fiction—which mine seems to be classed as. If I were writing Harlequin romances, nobody would ever ask those questions. If I were writing murder mysteries, nobody would ever say, “Haven’t you ever committed a murder?” or “Are you a detective?” or “Was the murdered person your relative?” It just wouldn’t come up. But I think people just aren’t used to fiction as a form. And also there’s the thing about “Women, poor dears, all emotion and no brain and therefore everything they do is, of course, subjective—as we all know—so what they write has got to be autobiography, right?”
Maclean’s: A few years ago you said that in
Canada a poet has to be dead, that you just can’t be a poet while you’re alive—meaning that somehow serious literature couldn’t be part of our day-to-day. Is that still true? Atwood: It’s changed a lot. I was talking in the early Sixties, and the change began in the mid-Sixties and it’s been going on ever since. I think you can now say there is a literary world in Canada, whereas there wasn’t before. There was a number of isolated individuals in small groups, but there wasn’t, for instance, the kind of situation where you have a number of magazines like Books In Canada, or something like
THERE WAS AN IDEA THAT I HAD ALL THIS ENORMOUS POWER, AND THAT I WAS USING IT FOR DEVIOUS ENDS
The Canadian Forum, doing a huge literary section every half year. And now you have a number of people devoted to getting Canadian literature into schools. It’s not just one little group any more, it’s people of all different kinds.
Maclean’s: What was the turning point? Atwood: I don’t know. I know when I started to get interested in the subject, but at the time it was a private and personal kind of interest. However it turned out that at the same time other people were doing the same thing, separately, no contact with me at all. But they were doing similar things, and I think some of them came
through a similar kind of experience. It’s very interesting to count up the number of Canadian nationalists who went to school in the States: Robin Mathews did, Dave Godfrey did, Margaret Atwood did . . . Maclean’s: How much of an obligation do you feel you have to the politics around Canadian literature?
Atwood: The politics around Canadian literature are very involved. You must realize it is not just a question of saying, “Here I stand, loyal and true to the cause,” because as soon as you say that you’ll get sniped at by the people to the right and left of you, sort of like the Light Brigade. And sort of like left-splinter politics. The right attacks you for being a nationalist at all, and the left for being some kind of continentalist sellout. Everything is relative. There is a lot of paranoia in this country, and certain of it had to do with the idea that I had all this enormous power—I don’t know where I was supposed to have gotten it, or what I was supposed to be doing with it—and that I was using it for devious ends, like cornering the CanLit market, or putting the right people into power, or not paying enough attention to certain people, or too much attention to other people, or neglecting the west or neglecting the east, or whatever. You know ...
Maclean’s: But you appeared to be a much more out-front literary nationalist at one point.
Atwood: I am one.
Maclean’s: But you seem to be a much less public one now.
Atwood: That’s because of my life situation, and because I’ve been writing a novel for the past two years. You can’t write a novel and be whizzing about the country at the same time. But I feel that I made my statement, did my thing. I took a lot of bullets and arrows because of it and I’m quite happy to sit back now and watch other people attacking each other. Maclean’s: But do you think anything’s really changed?
Atwood: Let me call it cultural mobilization. I know that sounds pretentious but artists and people involved with the arts and writers and so on have become much more politically aware. And much more aware of their own situations as writers and artists in this particular country, and the kinds of things they’re up against—the government, the U.S. competition in its various forms. And they have mobilized. In four years I’ve seen the formation of several organizations and stepped-up activity on the part of others.
Maclean’s: So where do you see it going? Is this increase in awareness really doing anything?
Atwood: Where it may go, I can’t say. You may have a situation where the government is acting in a way that the bulk of the people does not believe to be right. That is simply cultural mobilization going the way it always has gone, spreading out and causing all those ripples. Right now, for example, I would say the public sensibility is
in favor of protecting the baby seals and the government is in favor of people killing them. I think we have a Canadian populace and a continentalist government. What may happen is that you may get a lot of people saying: “Why is the government doing this, and why aren’t they doing that?” So you may get a split between what the government is doing and what the people want, and that would be very interesting to observe.
Maclean’s: Do I hear you talking revolution here?
Atwood: I don’t know whether Canada will proceed in that way. I think it’s more likely to proceed the way it’s always proceeded: that is, the government will get panicky and behave in a different way. In other words, it will try to preempt whatever revolutionary feelings there may be, or dilute them, or have a report on them, or something. I don’t know, I really don’t know. It’s hard to say. But let me put it this way: I think a lot of things that are happening now have revolutionary implications. And whether or not that will result in something happening, I don’t know—but the implications are certainly there. Maclean’s: But do you sense a revolutionary atmosphere?
Atwood: It’s far off from anything like that. Canada just isn’t the kind of country where that sort of thing is going to happen easily at all. It may never happen. I mean, if you had declared the War Measures Act in the States, people would have been out on the streets. There would have been riots, and widespread indignation—not because the American society is more liberal than ours, but because they don’t want to have their sense of individualism interfered with; they don’t like anybody telling them who can have a gun or who can’t have a gun, where they can be at certain hours of the day and where they can’t, and especially who can be arrested and stuck in jail without charges being laid. That’s unheard of. But what did Canadians do? We sat around and said: “Gosh, do you really think there is a plot to overthrow the government?”
Maclean’s: That was six years ago. If it happened now, would the reaction be any different?
Atwood: There’s still this kind of screwy sense that government knows what it’s doing, and while that [the sense] may be less true right now I still don’t think you would have riots in the streets. I think you might have meetings. And possibly people writing outraged letters to the editor, or something like that. But it’s unpredictable. There have been revolutionary movements before, and it’s possible that they might happen again.
Maclean’s: But hasn’t the “awakening,” hasn’t the cultural nationalism, haven’t the writers changed the general mentality at all? Atwood: I don’t know about that, I don’t know whether writers do that or not—that is, I’m not sure that’s a thing that writing does. I think the mentality has changed
and that writers have been part of that change, but I don’t think they have been leading the end-guard.
Maclean’s: But we are, to some extent, what we read.
Atwood: Yes, of course we are what we read. But then you figure out who reads what, and you take a hard look at the mass market paperback business in this country and you look at the statistics—2% Canadian—and, well.. .
Maclean’s: Who reads you?
Atwood: A lot of quite strange people, people who initially I would not have ex-
I’D HATE TO BE READ JUST BECAUSE I’M A CANADIAN—OR TO END UP AS SOME KIND OF NATIONAL SYMBOL
pected to be reading me. I think some people first read me because they heard the name, and others resist me because they know the name, on the basis that “if a person is too popular, they can’t be very good.”
Maclean’s: Something that occurred to me while rereading Survival: does it ever bother you to be read as a Canadian, to be read as something that is good for us?
Atwood: Does that amount to the same thing? It used to equal something that was bad for us. Obviously, something has changed. However, I don’t like being treated like medicine.
Maclean’s: But you know what I mean, that there’s always a group of people who only read because they have to or feel they ought to.
Atwood: I don’t like to be read because people think they have to read me. I think that’s awfully depressing and boring. Maclean’s: What would you like to be read as?
Atwood: I’d like to be read by somebody because they enjoy it.
Maclean’s: Are you aware of the writing process, or are you simply aware of writing? Atwood: I like to enjoy what I’m writing, to have a good time when I’m writing something. And if I ever get to a point when I’m not having too much of a good time, I’ll probably stop. Now other writers say, “I suffer all this pain when I’m writing, I find it painful and agonizing.” And while I acknowledge there’s an element of that too, it must be pleasurable at some level or else you wouldn’t do it.
Maclean’s: To rephrase a previous question: does it bother you to be read as a Canadian?
Atwood: It depends on what people mean by that. “Canadian” is a very ambiguous word. If they think I’m supposed to embody something like beavers, or the RCMP, well... I mean I’d hate to end up being any kind of national symbol or, God forbid, a monument. I don’t think that’s what writing is for at all.
Maclean’s: But you do realize that you have become, at the ripe young age of 36, a monument.
Atwood: But this is Canada, so this year I’ll be a monument and next year I’ll be someone else. Monuments come and go quickly in this country.
Maclean’s: But how do you react when you’re put in that role, when little girls run up to you and say, “Ohh ...”
Atwood: Well, they usually say: “I thought you’d be a lot more frightening,” or that they’d thought in advance that I’d be superhuman, or at least not quite human. Maclean’s: Why is that? Is that a fairly prevalent image?
Atwood: I’d probably feel the same way about Elizabeth Taylor or Lauren Bacall. Maclean’s: But do you accept the “frightening image, ” that you project it more than, say, Marian Engel or Margaret Laurence? Atwood: Marian Engel is much more frightening than I am.
Maclean’s: Be that as it may, why don ’tyou accept the fact that you really do project a frightening image?
Atwood: I do accept that fact. But I don’t accept the fact that I am, in fact, frightening. They’re two different things ... I mean, I’m probably as frightening as everybody else, and most people are quite frightening under the right circumstances, when you get them in a situation with their backs to the wall. I think it’s probably harder to get me in that situation, because I’m always looking behind, over my shoulder; I know where the wall is. You’ll notice that it’s you who’s sitting in the corner.Cf