WITH A NEW NOVEL AND INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM, MARGARET ATWOOD IS A WORLD CELEBRITY
In Margaret Atwood’s personally revealing new novel, Cat’s Eye, the protagonist is Elaine Risley, a middle-aged artist who has become a minor celebrity, especially revered by feminists. Early on in the book, she struggles to come to terms with her fame in a way that Margaret Atwood herself no longer needs to. On a downtown Toronto street, Elaine encounters a poster advertising a retrospective of her work. On the poster is a picture of her face. On her face, someone has drawn a moustache. The artist considers the moustache, first with mild alarm (“Is it just doodling or is it political commentary, an act of aggression?”); next with humor (“That looks sort of good”). Finally, she feels a sense of wonder that she has achieved “a public face. A face worth defacing. This is an accomplishment. I have made something of myself, something or other, after all.” In Margaret Atwood’s own life, that ironic something or other is called literary stardom.
Now middle-aged herself, the 48-year-old Atwood is orbiting in a galaxy all her own. As a poet, novelist and critic, she has long been a major cultural force in Canada, turning out volumes of wounding, intimate poetry, bestselling novels that offer a laconic, hard-edged framing of contemporary life, and hard-hitting literary and social criticism. But with the publi-
cation three years ago of her sixth novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a compelling fable about the lives of women in a futuristic, Christian fundamentalist society, she also became an international literary celebrity, the most prominent in a growing number of Canadian writers whose work is now recognized—and sold in everincreasing volumes—abroad (page 62).
Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has been published in more than 25 countries. There is even a fiveyear-old Margaret Atwood Society in the United States that keeps academics busy analysing her writing. In Britain, “she is by far the bestknown of Canadian writers,” said eminent British novelist and critic Margaret Drabble, editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. “She has a very bold intellect—she’s a
strong writer with a strong voice.”
In a country hungry for stars, Atwood— since the 1969 publication of her first novel, The Edible Woman—has always been more than just a writer. Like a ventriloquist with his dummy, the private “Peggy” Atwood has car-
ried around a public persona named Margaret, characterized in small literary journals as Medusa with snakes in her hair and metamorphosed into an unnaturally glossy cover girl for women’s magazines. Along with the extraordinary attention, there has been criticism of both her high media profile and, more importantly, her work. “There was a lot of ‘prove it to me’ stuff, ‘prove you’re a good writer,’ ” she said in a recent interview. On the eve of the publication of her seventh novel, it is criticism that she feels she no longer has to worry about or counter. “There’s no longer any answering chord in me,” she said. Her confidence and her serenity, says her British publisher, Liz Calder, even her “courage” in putting out a new novel that is deeply personal and that may well surprise her own feminist fans, are attributable to the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Until then, a common criticism of Atwood was that she was a finer poet than she was a novelist. Some critics said that her novels, from The Edible Woman to Bodily Harm, had a flatness of tone and smallness of scale that somehow trivialized her powerful voice. It was a voice that seemed to leap out of her poetry, whether it was about love (“you fit into me/like a hook into an eye/a fish hook/ an open eye”) or global inhumanity (“The facts of this world seen clearly/are seen through tears ;/why tell me then/there is something wrong with my eyes?”).
Compulsion: But there has been little dispute about the g fact that Atwood came of literis ary age with The Handmaid’s I Tale and found a way to blend ï her lyrical talents as a poet with § the art of storytelling. Not only 1 were the images hauntingly “ beautiful, but the story of Offred, a handmaid living in a not-so-distant society set in New England,whose sole function was to be a surrogate reproducer, had the narrative compulsion of a thriller.
The book became an instant best-seller in Canada and won the 1986 Governor General’s Award, which Atwood had last received 20
years earlier for her book of poetry The Circle Game. In the United States, The Handmaid’s Tale sold a million copies in paperback and remained on the best-seller list for 23 weeks, widely praised by major American writers. In Britain, it was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize; in France, it was nominated for the Ritz-Paris Hemingway Prize. Early next year, a movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale is scheduled to go into production. With a screenplay by British playwright Harold Pinter, the movie will be directed by talented German director Volker Schlöndorff, whose film The Tin Drum won an Academy Award, and will star Sigourney Weaver. Three other Atwood novels are also in varying stages of being adapted for film.
Visceral: But just as important to her reputation as the critical acclaim and the prospect of movie immortality was the visceral evidence that Atwood was being read everywhere. “She had always had a strong, devoted readership that was growing steadily, but it just sort of exploded,” said British publisher Calder. “Suddenly, on the tube, on buses, people were carrying her book. Her name became common currency.”
In Canada, any new Atwood novel is a major literary event. However, her publisher, Douglas Gibson, the newly appointed head of McClelland and Stewart, says that he was astonished last month by the 30,000 advance orders placed by booksellers for a text they had not seen. “These are extraordinary figures,” he said. “She is clearly in a class by herself.”
Even Atwood, in recounting that the Bookof-the-Month Club had chosen Cat’s Eye as its main selection in Canada and the United States, seemed a little surprised. “I had thought of it as a more personal, unpretentious book but it’s already very big,” she said.
Sitting in the solarium of her large, centuryold Victorian home in downtown Toronto, Atwood was recently beginning a series of promotional interviews for Cat’s Eye—“stepping into the media Mixmaster,” as she put it. While her latest heroine is obsessed with the physical ravages of middle age, Atwood seems to be holding up well: she is physically striking, with luminous skin and penetrating blue eyes. Dressed in watercolor pales, with a scarf wrapped around her neck, she was nursing a sore throat. And she seemed more concerned about the possibility of bad germs floating in the air than with what the critical reception would be to a book that is as radical a departure from Handmaid’s Tale as Handmaid’s Tale was from her previous works. “Come what may, I’m past caring,” she said. “It was important for me to write this book.”
Cruelty: In Cat’s Eye, Elaine Risley returns to Toronto, a city she loathes, from Vancouver, where she is happily ensconced in her second marriage. The occasion is a retrospective of her work. At the same time, she conducts her own personal retrospective of her childhood. Atwood’s vision of girlhood is anything but sugar and spice. The book is filled with examples of the treacherousness and duplicity of little girls, the emotional cruelty and betrayals
A VERY PUBLIC AUTHOR IS ABOUT TO RELEASE HER MOST PERSONAL NOVEL
that best friends practise on one another.
Elaine has spent her early childhood in the Ontario bush, playing rough with her brother while her entomologist father collected bugs. When the family moves to the city, she is forced, in effect, to learn the language of girlhood. In the late 1940s, the era in which much of the novel takes place, that means knowing what a twin set and cold wave are— Elaine does not—and coping with secret societies of little girls who carry out their brutalities free from parental intervention. Cat’s Eye captures a child’s terror at being bullied and the bleak discovery that parents cannot stop it. “You’ve got to remember,” said the author,
“this was the age of pre-shrinks, pre-relating, pre-group therapy, pre-phoning other mothers up to talk about what your child is doing.”
The book is grim, at times funny and, while offering none of the lyricism found in The Handmaid’s Tale, does leave some memorable if grisly images. Beset by anxiety, the young heroine sits in bed every night and secretly peels the skin off her feet. “I would begin with the big toes,” Elaine says. “I would pull the skin off in narrow strips... down as far as the blood.”
The image has a graphic air of reality to it. There once was a time when Atwood would visibly bristle at the suggestion of a strong autobiographical streak in her work, as if that insulted her talent as a fiction writer. Even now she says people who assume that what a writer
writes results from some pivotal childhood experience are going to have trouble with her. “I’m more Dickensian,” she maintained. “I go out and view slums and I then write about slums.” There is a streak of the journalist in her. “I like to get the facts right,” she said, “which in this case meant spending days determining whether there was tinfoil in the 1940s. There was, but it isn’t the kind they use today.” Alarming: But now she readily admits that there are many similarities between what happens in Cat’s Eye and the way she grew up— although she draws the line at the foot-peeling. Like Elaine, she too had an entomologist father, Carl Atwood, who was given to quirky
dinner-table monologues about the future of the human species. She too grew up in Toronto after spending her early childhood in the'bush. She too had a mother, Margaret, who was more interested in being a free spirit—who ice-skated and wore men’s shirts—than in being a 1940s-style housewife. And while she retains the disclaimer that the book, while reading like an autobiography, is fiction—even adding at the front of the novel that the opinions expressed are those of the characters and not the author—she is clearly more forgiving of people who blur the distinction, even people who should know better. Her paperback publisher, Anna Porter, called her after reading the book. Said Atwood: “She told me it had left her in tears. She said to me, ‘But I always thought you were happy!’ ”
Perhaps because her novels have always been about young women (the heroines do seem to be getting older, as the author is), readers have tended to assume that those characters were Atwood, although their cumulative idiosyncrasies would make for a strange psychological case study. There was Marian McAlpine, the eminently practical market researcher in The Edible Woman, who, faced with the alarming prospect of marrying the wrong man, became an anorexic before her time. Then there was Joan Foster, the perpetually dieting romance writer in Lady Oracle, who claimed that her books came about as a result of automatic writing. After the publication of Surfacing, which toward the end of the book depicted the emotionally disturbed heroine half-naked and covered in mud outside her cottage, a woman admirer sent Atwood a letter. “I loved Surfacing,” the fan wrote. “Now tell me what you did once you left the cabin.”
Such letters, as well as the long lineups at her book-signing sessions, make it clear that Atwood powerfully connects with a generation of women. Publisher Gibson says that Atwood “speaks very directly to an enormous number of Canadian readers who are mostly—we think—women, women who are mostly—we think—well-educated and thoughtful; women who think she is writing about them.”
One is actress Helen Shaver, who says that she is attracted to Atwood’s clear and unencumbered truths about relationships, as well as her humor. Shaver plans later this year to coproduce and star in the movie version of Atwood’s fourth novel, Life Before Man—a story about a quartet of people coping with love in the 1970s. She likens Atwood to a domestic scout, sniffing out dangerous emotional territory ahead of her readers. “She’s a kind of Tonto, you know,” Shaver said. “You can say to her,
‘ You go into town; I’D stay here.’ ”
Fame: Because of her heroines, because of her themes, because of her ironic detachment when she looks at the foibles of men and women, Atwood has always enjoyed the feminist seal of approval. In an often-quoted phrase, Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, once referred to her as one of the most important voices writing in English. Yet Cat’s Eye is very explicit about the potential women and girls have for cruelty, especially to each other. At least one of her publishers says that it is a little “nerve-racking” to contemplate how the feminist writing community will react to the book. Not Atwood. “I wanted to deal with the idea that women somehow are more morally wonderful than men,” she said. “There is no gene for moral wonderfulness. To buy into that is to be back in the 19th century.”
Atwood credits her newfound sense of serenity—or perhaps the word is immunity—in the face of criticism to the tremendous success of The Handmaid’s Tale. “It was a hard, hard book to write,” Atwood recalled, “and by that I don’t mean it caused me pain, but that it was tricky.” She succeeded—and now, she said: “I don’t even feel a twinge of having to prove myself. If somebody thinks I have to, they are
FAME IS AN ATWOOD SOCIETY AND TRANSLATION INTO 20 LANGUAGES
instantly dismissed. They’re just jerks.”
Most of the “jerks,” in her estimation, are from her own country. But, after promoting The Handmaid’s Tale in the United States in 1985 and 1986, she admitted that she has come to find the Canadian skepticism toward the success of one of their own “rather bracing.” She said, “Instant fame in the United States can ruin you.” Being well-known interests her in a practical sense—“It means I have more clout”—and also places her in more intellectually challenging situations.
“Fame is when it’s you who gets asked to write the introduction to one of the Paris Review series of interviews with famous writers,” she observed. The volume that she will introduce is one dealing exclusively with women writers. Atwood will herself be interviewed in it, by American writer Mary Morris.
Jeopardy: Fame is also the Margaret Atwood Society, a group of about 100 academics and Atwoodophiles who exchange information about her work and report on her whereabouts. Kathryn Van-
Spanckeren, an English professor at Florida’s University of Tampa and president of the society, first became aware of Atwood in the 1960s, when they were both young poets studying English at Harvard. “I read her poetry and I loved it,” VanSpanckeren said. “I thought, who is this woman?” By the mid1970s, VanSpanckeren was urging her own students and colleagues to pay attention to the name Margaret Atwood. Said VanSpanckeren: “I told them she would be the most important woman writer of the next 20 years.”
VanSpanckeren is also one of the editors of a book to be published this fall entitled Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, a collection of essays about her work with one chapter devoted to Atwood’s watercolors. Those works are another link between Elaine Risley and her creator.
One of the ironies in Cat’s m Eye is that Elaine’s paintings I are interpreted as angry so-
0 cial testaments, when in fact
1 they are intensely private. Alx though her new novel digs
deeply into her own life, Atwood is still a writer who maintains that the traditional function of the novelist is to “bear witness and not to bare one’s soul.” Sometimes, Atwood admits, she tires of the significance, real or imagined, that people attach to her work. “I can’t wait until I’m old and gaga and they wheel me into parties just to give them a little tone,” she said. But she instantly contradicted herself: “I take that back. If you’re not annoying somebody, you’re not really alive.”
American writer John Irving, author of The World According to Garp, has said that he appreciates Atwood’s “anger as a writer.” He added: “She has an interest in who gets hurt, who gets abused. She seems motivated to call attention to people who are in some kind of jeopardy.” It has been a compulsion in her writing and it is even more of a compulsion in her life. Indeed, Atwood’s causes and concerns are of so broad a nature, says her former publisher and longtime friend Adrienne Clarkson, that “whenever I get a call from her, I never know what it’s going to be about.”
Horror: She has always received high marks as a hardworking member of both the feminist and the writing communities. In the 1970s and early 1980s, she was very active in the Writers Union of Canada and was also a high-profile member of Amnesty International, a Londonbased organization fighting to free political prisoners around the world. She wrote letters on behalf of the prisoners profiled in Amnesty bulletins. At the same time, she composed poems to deal with the emotional horror of what she had read. Recently, she has chan-
‘SHE HAS ALWAYS HAD A DEVOTED READERSHIP, BUT IT JUST ’
nelled a lot of her energy into PEN International, the global organization committed to the civil and human rights of writers and to freeing those who are imprisoned. Last year, she was chairman of the Canadian English-speaking chapter of PEN.
Closer to home, she has lobbied against free
trade. At first, she declared that there was not enough information available about the deal. Then, she came to the conclusion that it threatened Canadian culture. Last summer, she went to Ottawa along with Karen Kain and Timothy Findley to press the Mulroney government to increase funding for the Canada Council. Young artists especially were suffering because of cutbacks, she said. She has even appeared before Toronto’s city council to protest the making of Yonge Street, a major thoroughfare, into a one-way street.
Perseverance: She has also gone to the provincial legislature to try to convince the Liberal government to save the Temagami wilderness area in Northern Ontario. Now, she says, the cause that she feels most strongly about is the environment: “I think the decisions that are made in the next 10 years are going to determine whether we survive as a species. The cockroaches are all right. They’ll do fine, but human life I’m not sure about.”
Writer M. T. Kelly, who worked along with Atwood on behalf of the Temagami Wilderness Society, says that her activism is distinguished by its practical nature. “We’ll sit down to a discussion of a problem,” he said,
“and the first thing she’ll say is, ‘All right, where do we send the letters?’ ”
Getting down to basics, Atwood will tell anyone who asks—and even those who do not—where to buy biodegradable garbage bags and how to build the perfect compost heap. “What I would like to do in the next couple of years,” she said, “is figure out a plan for living for each individual household.”
Unafraid to use her influence, she recently picked up the phone and convinced an editor at one of the country’s major newspapers to do a series on the environment, enticing the editor on two levels. “First I said, ‘Let’s have lunch,’ ” Atwood recalled. “Then, I offered to write something for them about the issue.”
There is, on her part, grudging acceptance of the demands that that kind of activism imposes on her time. “It’s a pain in the bum,” she said. Yet her friends and colleagues say that they are in awe of her perseverance. “I don’t know where she finds the strength to do
all this, to go on,” said Clarkson, who has known Atwood since they were both at the University of Toronto. “She is not a strong woman, physically. So where does it come from?”
Atwood’s close friends say that her family life sustains her. A few years ago, she wrote an
article confessing that when she graduated from the University of Toronto in the early 1960s, intent on becoming a writer, she assumed that she would have to live in a garret and forgo the dream of having a family or the kind of close relationship that her parents had—which included raking up leaves together in the backyard. A washing machine was also ruled out: “Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Kafka and Ionesco, I was sure, did not have major appliances,” she wrote, “and these were the writers I most admired.”
Priorities: But she seems to have acquired exactly that. After an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce, she has lived with novelist Graeme Gibson, the author of Communion and Perpetual Motion, for 18 years. They have a
12-year-old daughter, Jess, whom Atwood proudly describes as “very glam.” Their spacious, beautifully furnished house offers them privacy and at least one office apiece. It is the home of someone who has done very well financially. The standard Atwood answer to any and all questions about her financial affairs is a curt “NOYB—that means none of your business.” However, she does thank her stockbroker in the acknowledgments to Cat’s Eye.
Atwood is very much an involved mother. She curtailed touring to promote her books when her daughter reached school age. Instead, she flies back to Toronto between visits to other cities. The coming and going is exhausting, Atwood said. But that style of travel fits in with her priorities—family, writing and the environment. Her days consist primarily of writing, attending to the business of being a writer and dealing with her daughter’s needs. “There are endless conversations on the phone with other mothers,” she said. “They never had sleep-overs in my day.” Atwood wrote that she now lives a life “that is pretty close to the leaves-in-the-backyard model I thought would be out-ofbounds forever. I bake (dare I admit it) chocolate-chip cookies and I find that doing the laundry with the aid of my washer-dryer is one of the more relaxing parts of my week.”
Affirmation: While she and Gibson work very separately as writers, they operate very much as a team where their social interests are concerned. This year, Gibson assumed chairmanship of the Canadian English-speaking PEN chapter. And they have both been active in inviting international experts on the environment to visit Canada. Recently, she was trying to line up a dinner party for a person she de| scribed as “the bat man from Cuba”— \a scientist who she said is the world’s I leading expert on bat ecology. And it ^ was not just a dinner—“He’s staying 5 with us for two weeks.” o In a little more than a year, Margaret Atwood will be 50 and, like the character she created in Cat’s Eye, she has been thinking a lot about being middle-aged. The deaths of three of her writing colleagues—Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence and Gwendolyn MacEwen—over the past few years have left her with a feeling of “being all alone,” she said. “None of them should have died when they did. They should have been with me.” The loss of those friends has cast a shadow on what otherwise has been, for Atwood, a time of strength and affirmation. “When I think of how tensed up and fraught one is at 30,” she said, “or even in your 20s—you know what you want to be but you don’t know whether you can do it or not. Now the question is, can you do it again?” As Margaret Atwood herself says, “That’s not quite so horrible.”