Kicking down fences with Margaret Atwood

The distinguished Canadian writer has pushed herself to work in a variety of genres, dramatizing issues of gender, power and society.
By Gabriel Packard | Published: September 28, 2015


margaret atwoodEven though Booker Prize-winner Margaret Atwood has published more than 60 books, including novels, short-story collections, children’s fiction, poetry and literary criticism, has edited five fiction anthologies, and has even written television scripts and a couple of librettos—she does not consider herself a prolific writer. “I consider myself a person who’s written quite a  few books simply because I’ve managed to stay alive,” says Atwood, 72. “If the road is a hundred miles, and you’ve got a hundred years to cover that road, you’re going to be walking a mile a year. Which is not very fast.”

One of Canada’s most celebrated authors, Atwood has covered a tremendous amount of literary territory in her 50-odd years as a writer and is the recipient of at least 50 awards in addition to the Booker, including the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize, and twice the Governor General’s Award, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary honors.

Atwood’s best-known novel is The Handmaid’s Tale, which won multiple awards both as science fiction and literary fiction—including the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General’s Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Set in a dystopian version of the United States that is controlled by a theocratic dictatorship and where pollution has rendered nearly all women sterile, The Handmaid’s Tale details the life of a young woman who is assigned as a “handmaid” to bear a child for a male commander in the ruling elite. She manages to subvert her proscribed role through her natural resilience and also by means of an illicit relationship with the commander’s driver, who, it emerges, may be a part of an underground resistance movement.

The novel was later adapted into a movie, based on a screenplay by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter and starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. And both the book and film display many of the major currents that are notable in much of Atwood’s work: dystopian societies; passionate but nuanced love affairs; compelling, high-stakes plots; and the intricate and intertwining relationships between gender, power and societal structures. The novel also displays Atwood’s surgically precise use of language and her knack for deft characterization.

blind assassinNot all of Atwood’s fiction, it should be noted, is dystopian, and she has written many critically acclaimed works in other genres, including the historical fiction novels The Blind Assassin, which won her the Booker Prize in 2000, and Alias Grace. Even so, she has returned once again to a dystopian setting in her latest publication, “I’m Starved for You,” a short story published as a stand-alone work by digital publisher Byliner, which specializes in short works of fiction and nonfiction that can be read in one sitting.

“I’m Starved for You” is set in a society in which the economy is so bad and unemployment so high that the government decides to make all citizens part-time prisoners, alternating between one month working as a jailor—or in some prison-supporting industry—and the following month being held as an inmate, locked up by the very people they had themselves kept under lock and key the previous month.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Atwood wrote this story of extreme economic crisis at a time when much of the world is struggling out of one of the most severe economic downturns in decades. And the story itself can easily be read as a critique of a free market that turned on its keepers, of the rapid expansion of prison populations in the U.S., or of the state’s heavy-handed intervention in the lives of its citizens.

This kind of social commentary is par for the course in Atwood’s fiction, nonfiction and poetry. But it is not confined merely to the pages of her books. Atwood has made headlines for being a bold and outspoken advocate on behalf of a range of causes, including rare birds and Internet freedoms.

She recently was center stage in the so-called “War of the Toronto Library System,” in which she took on the mayor of Toronto and retweeted a petition to halt his slashing of the library system’s budget. That prompted her followers to visit the petition’s website in such great numbers that it crashed the server. Later, a crowd of her supporters descended upon Toronto’s City Hall, wearing masks bearing a likeness of Atwood’s face, in order to ridicule an influential city councillor who had tried to marginalize Atwood’s involvement in the discourse by saying, “If she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” The protesters wanted to show him what one of his country’s greatest living writers looked like, before he helped defund the city’s libraries.

You’ll notice in our interview that Atwood is a wonderfully unruly interviewee, frequently interrupting the interviewer mid-question to expand upon previous answers, often reframing the conversation in her own terms, declining to offer advice to aspiring writers, shrugging off the description of “prolific,” drawing on a newspaper article about Somali pirates published the day before the interview to illustrate a point about the centuries-old genre of dystopian fiction. This apparently natural inclination to casually kick down fences and wander outside the boundaries is characteristic of Atwood’s writing and, it would seem, her life.

starved for youYour new publication, the short story “I’m Starved for You,” is the latest of several dystopias you’ve written. What attracts you to the dystopian form?
Well, it’s a very old one, of course. And I suppose you could say I’ve been reading them for 60 years and writing them off and on. … A dystopian story is different from an apocalyptic one. An apocalyptic one is essentially one in which a lot of destruction goes on followed by revelation, but it need not be a dystopian book, as such, because dystopias are about organized bad society. So there’s still something to be organized in a dystopia, whereas in an apocalypse there can be a lot of fire and brimstone, whirlwinds, frogs, rains of blood, four horsemen, et cetera. But I think there is a difference, and I don’t write apocalypses.

I suppose your novel Oryx and Crake, for example, begins as a dystopia and then becomes rather apocalyptic.
It’s not an apocalypse, because the world’s not destroyed. Human beings are. But that’s different. It’s like the world is doing so much better after they’re gone. What attracts me to this form now, I think, is there are signs we’re heading in those directions of organized, undesirable societies—societies that are organized to be unpleasant for a lot of people.

Have you read In Other Worlds [Atwood’s book of essays subtitled SF and the Human Imagination]? … Look at the chapter called “The Road to Utopia.” You’ll find quite a lively discussion of this very subject, in which it is argued, among other things, that within every utopia is a dystopia, and that within every dystopia is a little utopia—a sort of yin-yang formation—because we can’t imagine what is undesirable without having some idea what is desirable. Nor can we imagine what is desirable without having some idea of what is undesirable.

So all of these kinds of books start with the question: Where do you want to live? What sort of world do you want to live in? And then they extrapolate usually from where we think we are now, or they proceed by contrast. So, for instance, Gulliver’s Travels, book four, postulates a utopia which is inhabited by talking horses.

Yes, the Houyhnhnms.
The dystopian part of the utopia is that the Yahoos turn out to be us. So it goes like that.

It seems that much of your fiction writing follows the traditional narrative structure of a protagonist—
We’ll get back to that thing we were just talking about, which is that in the 19th century, and you’ll find this in the book [In Other Worlds], there was a huge outpouring of utopias, of which we’ve remembered a few, but there were literally thousands. Then then that stopped at around World War I. And then dystopias came in, in an inpour.

How could that be? Well, a lot of utopian thinking led to things that then plummeted and crashed down those slippery slopes. I mean, a union was a utopian idea. So was Nazi Germany. So was [the genocide in] Cambodia. And there’s a whole list of them, of people who thought, “Well, we have to build the perfect society, and we know what it’s like, but there’s a catch—we have to eliminate a bunch of people first, because they’re getting in the way.”

Right, and that’s one of the very dark elements of Gulliver’s Travels as well—the Houyhnhnms have a regular discussion about whether to wipe out the Yahoos altogether, which is a very dark thing.
They certainly could.

It would seem that you’re saying there’s always been some relationship between what’s going on in contemporary society and—
—what sort of utopias or dystopias that society produces. Right. And we’re in a dystopia-producing segment of human history, now, because people looking ahead are not seeing a rosy future in which everything will be perfected; they’re seeing a future in which things might get quite a lot worse.

Unlike in the 19th century, where—
In the 19th century, they made all these improvements. They figured out cholera. They built the sewer system. Florence Nightingale made vast improvements to nursing. They discovered what causes smallpox. All of those medical improvements, and then all those other improvements, moving towards universal suffrage, and more available quantities of manufactured goods, thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

People didn’t see why that couldn’t go on for quite a long time, and there was of course a counter-Industrial-Revolution movement, that was also utopian; that would be William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement, those sorts of things, you know—why can’t we have something much more approaching paradise?

The Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Right. And here’s what we have to do to get there. The Christian Social movement and all of those kinds of things. And it was almost, I mean, the feeling then was: We can do better. And our view now is: We might be on the verge of doing worse.

Yes.
I saw [Toronto Globe and Mail columnist] Michael Kesterton in the paper today, writing about the fact that the pirates of Somalia have vastly improved the fish stock in those waters because nobody wants to fish there or dump industrial waste there because of the pirates.

And so I guess that could be interpreted as a small glimpse of a utopian—
Oh, irony. The small irony that piracy, which we obviously don’t approve of, is improving things for fish, and we do approve of that. So the utopian view is, how do you get the improvement in the fish stock without the pirates? And the dystopian view is: Let’s have more pirates.

It would seem your fiction tends to follow the classical narrative structure of a protagonist overcoming obstacles to reach an important goal. How much of your plot structure comes instinctively, and how much is planned in advance with some kind of structure in mind?
Now, which ones are protagonists overcoming obstacles to reach an important goal?

handmaid's taleFor example, The Handmaid’s Tale.
I don’t know whether she reaches an important goal or not.

Well, strives toward it.
All right, let’s picture the opposite of that, just for fun, and let’s pretend you’re not Samuel Beckett. Suppose you’re not Samuel Beckett, and you write a book about a protagonist that isn’t striving toward any particular goal and doesn’t achieve anything. You can do that. But you’re going to have to be awfully good at something, to keep people reading.

So, what would that book be? Well, it might be [Elizabeth Gaskell’s] Cranford, which is really a series of small episodes, or it might be, I don’t know, I mean, what would it be? You can have something like Pride and Prejudice, where it’s not Elizabeth who’s trying to reach an important goal, but the important goal sort of comes upon her, as it were.

I think some things are more or less intricate sagas. I suppose you could say that [in Wuthering Heights] Heathcliff is trying to reach an important goal, which is namely, where is Cathy? Treasure Island, that’s an important one, getting the treasure. The protagonist overcoming obstacles to reach an important goal is one of four classic plots. And it’s the one most typically associated with adventure romances. So some of those, you might say, are kind of like that.

So is that something you think about when you’re writing your own work, these classic plot structures?
I don’t think about it much.

And so would you say that the structure of the plot is more instinctive and unfolds as you’re writing?
That’s exactly what I would say, that it unfolds as I’m writing. Exactly right.

And then, would I be correct in saying that while you’re in the process of writing the book, your mind is more on the characters and the language and that kind of thing?
No, I think it’s also on what’s going to happen on the next page, but it’s not necessarily what’s going to happen on page 340. So you’re obviously thinking of a lot of different things, or a lot of different things are in play. But one of them is just propelling yourself forward to the next page.

And so you don’t necessarily know what the final resolution of the plot might be.
I don’t know. I might suspect, but I don’t know. I might be wrong.

Could you offer any advice for aspiring writers who are looking to build a career writing fiction?
No, because they’re all individuals. So, in order to give them any advice, you would have to know what they in particular are writing. So, apart from very general things—like, write something every day, figure out what you like, research the market—apart from those kinds of things, it’s very hard to tell them anything, because you don’t know what their problems are.

So if their problems are, “I can’t get started in the morning,” that’s one set of problems. If their problem is, “Well, I’m writing a lot, but I don’t know how to edit it,” that’s another set of problems. If it’s about, “How do I find an agent?,” that’s a whole other set of problems. If it’s, “Do I need an agent?,” that’s a whole other set of problems. So you really would have to know what their situation is.

So if what you’re asking is, can a person make a living doing this? The answer is, yes, many have, and many have not. So it’s going to be individual, and there is so much advice for people out there, and much of it is in The Writer magazine. The other thing is diets. You can read tons and tons about diets. But if you don’t actually follow the advice, all that reading won’t make any difference.

So much of writing is just sitting in the chair, and—
—it’s perseverance, quite a bit. It’s not the whole story, but unless you have that, nothing’s going to happen.

From the outside view, you make writing literary fiction look effortless. You’re very prolific, you’ve published something like 50 books. What, for you, is the most difficult element of writing?
Hmm. What is the most difficult? I think probably sitting in the chair long enough. Distractibility is an issue. Some people are quite easily distracted. I think even more so right now. What is the most difficult …? Again, it’s very specific. It’s: What was most difficult about a particular thing I was doing? It would have to be something like that.

Sometimes people have general failures of faith in which they think: What good is writing? Why am I doing it? Why aren’t I a real-estate salesperson or working on an assembly line? You know, they have those kinds of feelings. But of course, language is the oldest and most human thing about us. And, of course, writers are working in language.

On the subject of distractibility and sitting in the chair, do you have any techniques or things that you do to help you get through the sheer number of hours that it takes to write a book and to be as prolific as you are in terms of—
Well, you have to take that word “prolific” and spread it over a long time. It’s not that I’m actually that prolific. It’s just that I’m quite old. I’ve been doing it for a long time, so it looks like a lot when you see it on a shelf. But then when you take the number of years I’ve been on the planet and divide that pile of books by that number of years, you’ll see that actually it’s rather slow.

So you don’t consider yourself a particularly prolific writer?
No. I consider myself a person who’s written quite a few books simply because I’ve managed to stay alive. So, for instance, the rate of composition of Charles Dickens was much greater than mine. And there are other people who have been much better at completing things in short periods of time. If you look at when Ray Bradbury was writing, just for instance, at one point he decided to write a short story a week. You know, I could not do that. So, it’s not really prolific. I think it’s: If the road is a hundred miles, and you’ve got a hundred years to cover that road, you’re going to be walking a mile a year. Which is not very fast.

Looking at your bibliography now, it looks like you’ve averaged about a book maybe every two years?
Two to three.

Even retracting the term “prolific,” do you have any techniques that you’ve invented for yourself just to help you stay sitting in the chair, to organize your time around your other commitments, readings, visiting the AWP conference?
No, I’ve never worked that out. Not ever. It always seems like a mad rush. And as for sitting in the chair, if you do it too long, you’re going to get the most horrific back pain. So I don’t have any particular tips other than: If you’re waiting for the perfect moment, it will never arrive. So you do it when you can.


THE MARGARET ATWOOD FILE

  • Harvard University, Queens College in Toronto, and at least 15 other universities and colleges have bestowed honorary degrees on Margaret Atwood.
  • Atwood self-published her first book, a poetry collection, at the age of 21, printing 200 copies and then selling them herself at a price of 50 cents each, according to The New York Times. Surviving copies of this debut poetry collection now change hands for as much as $1,800.
  • Atwood lives in Toronto with her partner, Canadian novelist Graeme C. Gibson. They have a daughter together, who is now in her 30s.
  • Beyond literature and social activism, Atwood has extended her interest in speculation into how things could be, or should be, into
    actual technological innovation. She is credited as the inventor of the LongPen, a device that allows authors—and other people so inclined—to sign books and other documents from a remote location.
  • Find more writing advice from her in her book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.

Gabriel Packard is the associate director of the creative writing MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.

This article first appeared in the September 2012 issue of The Writer