Q&A

‘BOOKS FIND THEIR READERS’

The renowned writer rips into some big R words in her latest book for children

MARGARET ATWOOD October 20 2003
Q&A

‘BOOKS FIND THEIR READERS’

The renowned writer rips into some big R words in her latest book for children

MARGARET ATWOOD October 20 2003

‘BOOKS FIND THEIR READERS’

Q&A

MARGARET ATWOOD

The renowned writer rips into some big R words in her latest book for children

WITH Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood has another critically acclaimed, international best-seller on her hands. But the Canadian writer has never limited herself to novels alone. She writes poetry, literary criticism and children’s books. Her first was Up in the Tree (1978), a hand-lettered and -illustrated work now out of print. The latest is Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes, about a little boy and his friend, Ralph the rat, who go exploring along some ramparts.

Maclean’s Associate Editor Amy Cameron recently spoke with Atwood about reading, writing and the arithmetic of Canadian publishing.

Where did the idea for Rude Ramsay come from?

The same place Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut [1995] came from. I did it partly because Anna Porter, the publisher, is an old friend of mine and was saying “Help me!” I had this story that I used to amuse my child with when I was trying to comb her hair after having washed it. Her hair being somewhat like mine, it would take a long time, so I used to tell her the story about Princess Prunella. I just wrote some of it down for Anna. Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes was generated partly because Anna was saying “Help me!” again, due to the Stoddart fiasco.

Was alliteration part of the original stories that you told your daughter?

The Princess Prunella was a P story, yeah. Had lots of them. What she ate was peppermint and pie. You never know why you do these things, it’s not fathomable.

How long does it take you to write a children’s book?

A few days, for the first draft. It’s like poetry.

You have to do it all in one go, and then you can twiddle with it.

There are definitely some words that children might find difficult in Rude Ramsay. Are you concerned this might turn some young readers off?

Books find their own readers. Always have, always will. And sometimes you read a book

and you’re not ready for it, and then a year later, you are. That’s just what happens in life. I read Moby Dick at far too early an age, but it had great illustrations by Rockwell Kent, so I got stuck on it. I read it later and knew what it was about.

I read Animal Farm when I was way too young. I thought it was going to be a fun book, like The Wind in the Willows, about animals having adventures, and the tragedy, the ending and horror and grief and disappointment and disillusionment, oh, it was awful. So unfair. It is not a children’s book. But I was never told not to read a book, so I just read whatever was around.

What books did you enjoy as a child?

Beatrix Potter, things like The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, the Alice books, then going into E. Nesbitt, the Mary Poppins books, all of the Andrew Lang fairy tales, the Grimm fairy tales—got those at an early age. And then around 11,12,1 was into science fiction of various kinds. And then I was given Pride and Prejudice as a public school reading prize of some sort. We all got stuck on Mr. Darcy, and it was very bad for us. It drew a false impression that badly behaved, surly, rude men are actually very nice and rich underneath.

I read about a book of poetry you published yourself in 1961, and you made only 200 copies. Do you have a copy?

Yes, I have one. I should have actually kept lots more. But I still have the original lino block they made the cover out of. A lot of people did that in those days, because the publishing scene itself was so small. Gwendolyn MacEwen, I think, did her first book in mimeo. There was something called offset printing. You could make little books, and if they were short, they were cheap. The bookstores were such then that you could actually go around to sell your books, and people actually bought copies.

It’s clear you have a serious interest in the visual arts. Are you tempted to do illustrations again for your children’s books?

I did the first one, Up in the Tree. But I don’t think I would be really quite good enough.

Working on children’s stories, is there something in particular that you like?

I’m exploring my inner nitwit. Inside every take-me-serious person, there’s a silly person just dying to get out. PI