A biographer explores the life of a very private author
Coming-of-age with Atwood
A biographer explores the life of a very private author
When Rosemary Sullivan was a student at a Roman Catholic high school in Montreal in the 1960s, one of the nuns used to take her outside the classroom to chastise her for being outspoken. “She’d tell me, ‘I’m going to beat the pride out of you,’ ” recalls Sullivan. “Boy, if Protestants are hung up about sex, then Catholics have trouble with pride.” The issue of confidence in oneself, and the ability to express it, continues to fascinate the 51-year-old Sullivan, especially how it figures in the lives of women authors.
And it led her to write The Red Shoes, a biography of Margaret Atwood, Canada’s celebrated novelist and poet. That focus also led Sullivan to do something unusual. In an age of tell-all biographies, when a U.S. president’s sexual shenanigans are part of the daily newscast, she has written a biography of a famous person without delving deeply into her personal life and domestic relations. _
Instead, she explains, “it’s really a story of a female writer coming of age at a time when boundaries were opening up for women writers, and of a Canadian writer at a time of heady nationalism.” She expects to be criticized for treading lightly into Atwood’s personal life.
But, she says, “I’ve written the book I wanted to write.”
It is the University of Toronto professor’s third foray into biography: By Heart, her portrait of writer Elizabeth Smart, was published in 1991, and Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen, appeared in 1995, winning the Governor General’s Award for nonfiction and a sheaf of other prizes. The books form a loose trilogy about three very different female writers. Ottawa-born Smart wrote a widely hailed novel of romantic obsession called By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept at the age of 27, and then fell silent for 30 years. And MacEwen, who wrote over 20 books in 20 years, died at age 46 in 1987, while trying to give up alcohol. Smart, who supported her four children by poet George Barker, told Sullivan that she suffered a lack of confidence in a largely male literary
world. MacEwen, meanwhile, often felt that the price of art in Canada was loneliness, not to mention impoverishment. Atwood, by contrast, is at the peak of a threedecade career that has brought her international fame and wealth; she also has a stable family life with her partner of 25 years, writer Graeme Gibson, two stepsons and a daughter. After the first two biographies, Sullivan says, “I had begun to worry I’d inadvertently perpetuated the idea that the life of a woman writer has to be tragic.” Atwood was the intriguing alternative.
There was, of course, the daunting prospect of chronicling the life of a living subject (“I’m not dead,” was Atwood’s initial response when Sullivan approached her about the project) and one known for protecting her privacy. But Sullivan stressed that she was more interested in Atwood’s creative life than in gossip. In fact, Sullivan professes some ambivalence about biography itself. “I love that weird space where real life conflates with a fictional narrative style,” she says. “But I must admit I feel that the biographical form is a bit presumptuous. I mean, there is no way I’m going to speculate about the psyche of a subject who may be sitting at the next table.”
But Sullivan herself concedes that, had she wanted to do a more personally probing biography, it
would have been difficult. Some of Atwood’s friends, including novelist Jane Rule, declined to speak about her (“Damn it, there are justifiable loyalties to people,” says Sullivan). Others may have felt uneasy about discussing someone of Atwood’s stature. “Like it or not,” Sullivan notes, “certain people are perceived as off-limits within their field, and I think she is one of them. But that is not to say I think she goes around trying to censor people.” Sullivan herself makes clear that al-
though she interviewed Atwood several times and corresponded with her, she did not show her subject the manuscript. As Sullivan pursued the questions that intrigued her—what gave Atwood her strong belief in her artistic identity? how did she deal with the seemingly conflicting roles of wife, mother and writer?—the biographer discovered some parallels in her own life. Like Atwood, she considered herself an outsider at school, even though she earnestly participated in activities. “I always thought of myself as shy, camouflaged, a wallflower, even though I was president of the student council and was on the high-school debating team. I even wrote a fashion column in the
high-school paper,” she recalls. “But I wanted to be a bohemian, and that’s what I set out to do.” Attending university in the late-1960s and 70s, Sullivan was steeped in the political and sexual revolutions of the era. And after obtaining a BA from McGill University (1968), an MA from the University of Connecticut (1969) and a PhD from England’s University of Sussex (1972), she established a successful academic career. After two years of teaching in France, she returned to Canada to take up a post at the University of Victoria in 1974, and three years later moved east to begin teaching literature at the University of Toronto. Reflecting on those tumultuous times, Sullivan says it has taken her decades to admit that the sexual liberation of the 1960s and 70s had very little to do with feminism. “Our mothers had been taught that to say yes was a sin, but back then saying no would make you a pariah,” she says. “I’m sure a lot of us were pressured into a lot more yesses than we were comfortable with.” Like Atwood, Sullivan is now comfortably ensconced in a long-term relationship. After a nine-year marriage to poet Doug Beardsley ended in divorce, in 1979 she met Chileanborn musician Juan Opitz at the Trojan Horse, a famed coffeehouse co-founded by Gwendolyn MacEwen in Toronto’s Greek district. Once part of Los Campañeros, a band made up of Greek and Chilean exiles fleeing military juntas, Opitz now has a home recording studio where he produces CDs for independent artists. “Our house is always full of musicians coming and going. But I always wanted that kind of creative chaos around me.” She also always wanted children (“I was the second of five kids, and always assumed I’d have my own”), but like many women, had thought they could be delayed. In her mid30s, when she and Opitz tried to start a family, they were unsuccessful. It was difficult to accept, but she says she has a good life. “Atwood once said that you can do two of three things: that having a job and writing is manageable, that having a family and writing is manageable. But a job, a family and writing is not. So, I’m doing two of those three things.” Sullivan, who has also written two volumes of poetry and edited six literary anthologies, is changing gears dramatically for her next project, a playful look at the dynamics in malefemale relationships tentatively called “A Survivor’s Guide to Romantic Obsession.” She has come to believe that falling in love is essentially a form of autoeroticism, she says with a provocative laugh, a way to launch a new self. “Sometimes I think I married my first husband because he would tell me I was a good writer. I was falling in love with the person I could be. And in that way, I think that every love story is a ghost story.”
Sullivan says that she feels she owes it to interviewers to be candid about her own life. “Given what I do, I can hardly be otherwise, can I?” Wry, down-to-earth, the author wears the mantle of academic and writer lightly. And as for the perennial issue of artistic confidence, Sullivan seems to have weathered it very well. □
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