Margaret Atwood: Wicked game


Margaret Atwood: Wicked game

Her icy wit has fired up imaginations for over 45 years, and she's planning for the next 100

By Deepanjana Pal  December 22nd, 2014

Age is supposed to mellow us, soften the rough edges, dull the sharpness. Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who turned 75 last month, doesn’t subscribe to this stereotype in either real life or fiction. In her new collection of nine short stories, Stone Mattress, two women are murderers, another is a werewolf, one man lusts after a young woman who comes to interview him, even though his body is far from able to keep up with his thoughts. No one in the book, regardless of how old and wrinkled they are, is going gently into the night. 

They’re just the kind of characters you would expect from Atwood, who may have gained wrinkles, but has lost none of the stiletto keenness of her intellect. “After a certain point, people tend to think ageing is hilarious,” Atwood says, when I ask her how it feels to grow old. “Especially hilarious is the fact that there are things young people think you don’t know. You know, [like] sex. They think you don’t know anything about that. Or you’re not supposed to know anything about it. You’re supposed to be sort of old, wise and sweet. My older characters are not like that.”

Interviewing Atwood is unusually difficult for me. When you’ve followed an author through her novels, short stories, essays, poetry, cartoons, inventions, speeches and interviews over 20 years, it takes some doing to surf past the waves of fandom. It’s also a struggle to figure out what questions to ask. I know she was born in 1939, in Ottawa, and spent her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. She went to school for the first time at the age of 12, and some of her experiences became the starting point for Cat’s Eye, her luminous book about how girls bully one another. 

I know she ate her first rattlesnake in 1957, and wrote her first novel, The Edible Woman, in exam booklets, on a card table in Vancouver. The book spent two years gathering dust in a publisher’s drawer, ignored until Atwood won Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award in 1966, for her second collection of poetry, The Circle Game. I know Atwood writes the first drafts of her books by hand and then has them typed up. While writing The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel set in a dystopian future in which fertile women are turned into breeding machines, she noted in her journal that she had found puffballs. She is the inventor of LongPen, a device that allows celebrities to sign autographs remotely. And the author may well be a prophet because the future she describes in her MaddAddam trilogy reads more like fact than speculative fantasy. Oh, and she got repetitive strain injury from signing too many autographs. That’s how popular and beloved she is.

In short, I’ve spent years virtually stalking Margaret Atwood. Consequently, I also know that she is not a chatty interviewee. There are horror stories about how she has politely chewed up interviewers who have asked her silly questions. 

Which is why, when I realised that we had been talking for half an hour and were now sharing stories about dead hands and phantom footprints, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief — not just because my questions hadn’t been slashed into ribbons, but also because writers can often turn out to be disappointing when you encounter them outside of their writing. But as it turns out, Atwood is delightful. Her mischievous, dry wit and treasure chest of experiences make her a joy to interview because every story she has written has another story behind it.

For instance, the title tale of the Stone Mattress came out of an Arctic cruise that Atwood had been on with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson. The heroine, Verna, goes on that same cruise and sees what Atwood had seen: a field of stromatolites, 1.9 billion-year-old fossils that could be fabulous murder weapons. That, however, is where the similarities end. “I have never killed anyone in the Arctic with a piece of rock,” Atwood assures me. “But I have been in the Arctic and I have the very piece of rock in the kitchen.” 

On the cruise, Verna encounters an old acquaintance, Bob. (There were many Bobs on the cruise with Atwood and they all survived the trip.) When in high school, Bob had raped Verna, but decades later, fails to recognise her. She, meanwhile, decides to avenge herself by killing him. Whether or not you think Verna is justified will depend on your personal sensibilities. Atwood keeps her tone non-committal and the ending open.

Verna isn’t the only murderess in Stone Mattress, belonging as she does to an illustrious line of Atwoodian women who break both stereotype and laws. There’s almost always an anti-heroine in her novels, usually the character who haunts the reader long after the book is read. Atwood is a feminist, one who has, over the years, created realistic women (and men) who live, rather than serve agendas. “I got some kickback in the ’70s for creating a female character who wasn’t virtuous,” she recalls. “But since that time, after people have reflected a bit, especially on their own experiences, we all know it’s not true that all women are angels of virtue, because we’ve known a lot of women. They come in all shapes and sizes, just like men, and all degrees of meanness or pleasantness, like men.” 

The equanimity in this statement belies the way Atwood savages misogyny in her stories, using her female characters to put certain men in their place and expose the stupidity of ‘mansplaining’. That said, her fiction is peopled with many fantastic male characters. She’s one of those authors who can talk smoothly in many voices, irrespective of gender.

Today, there’s a host of Canadian writers who feature in people’s reading lists: Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Douglas Coupland, Carol Shields, to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine now, but when Atwood started writing, there was no such thing as a Canadian literary scene. This emptiness worked to her advantage because Canada was hungry for storytellers and the rest of the world proved just as eager to sample the stories told by Atwood and those who followed in her footsteps. She explains it as a confluence of coincidences: “If I’d arrived at the very same mental faculties but it had been the middle of the 19th century in rural Canada, I doubt very much I would have become a writer. There wouldn’t have been a place for me to publish.” Being born in the right era, however, doesn’t entirely explain the way the author has put Canada on the literary map. She’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize five times (The Blind Assassin, not her best work, won the prize in 2000), and her novels are part of college syllabi in different parts of the English-reading world. That’s much more than time and place working in fortuitous tandem. 

Atwood’s plots and characters reel readers in quickly: femme fatales, twisted marriages, lost fathers, a young woman who may or may not have killed the two people who showed her kindness, a republic where women are cloistered and segregated according to their childbearing potential — most of the time, if you read the back of one of her books, it’s enough to make the question of what happens next start gnawing at you. Quickly, you discover her deadpan, cutting sense of humour surfacing unexpectedly across the terrain of her stories. Take this excerpt from ‘Torching The Dusties’, one of the stories in Stone Mattress

According to Tobias, it was more difficult to seduce a stupid woman than an intelligent one because stupid women could not understand innuendo or even connect cause with effect. The fact that a pricey dinner out to be followed, as the night the day, by the compliant opening of their peerless legs was lost on them.

Her characters are always real people, no matter how unreal their circumstances. They fall in love, leave scars, and tease both other characters and the reader. Every relationship is a tug of war that tenses and slackens in a power play that may be sly or obvious. “In the very, very broadest sense, interpersonal relationships require negotiations of various kinds, stated or unstated,” says Atwood, when I asked if she thought love was essentially a power struggle between two people. “Sometimes, these interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, are politically determined because they’re constrained by law, and laws are made by politicians. So who can do what to whom legally is a political matter. Who actually does what to whom, that can be outside the box. But it’s always playing against what is legally permissible and what society considers acceptable.”

Listening to her, I was reminded of something she’d written in Cat’s EyeWe are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.

Atwood’s language and her gift for both sensing and articulating suffering are unmatched. Beneath the delicious wit and clever plot twists that shoot through her writing, are flashes of pain. She torments her characters and then tells of their suffering with a simple, dazzling lyricism. Violence is written with morbid relish and even something as overwritten as heartbreak can become piercing in her hands. Her novels often feel like a record of something that we’ve experienced — or are just about to experience. 

The MaddAddam trilogy, for instance, was supposed to be science fiction about “things that have not been invented yet” — ranging from hybrid animals to human-like species called the Crackers — but we’re already taking steps in this direction. Genetic splicing is not speculative, and these novels offer a chilling (though not entirely hopeless) vision of where we, as a planet, appear to be headed. 

As fantastical creatures go, Atwood’s are rather human and relatable, which isn’t quite what you expect of a book that she has stressed is made of “tales” rather than stories. Stone Mattress has many kinds of fantasies, ranging from the apparitions that are a symptom of the Charles Bonnet syndrome to the alternative reality of Alphinland and the aforementioned werewolf. However, while none of these are mundane, neither are they entirely fantastical.

“I kind of shy at the jump,” admitted Atwood. “I didn’t go all the way to say a dead hand really is creeping about under your bed. I couldn’t quite get that far. But I’ve always wanted to write a dead hand story because I was so smitten by the beast with five fingers.” 

Considering how much she’s written — in long-hand, no less — and the variety in her writing, it’s not surprising that Atwood is smitten by the beast with five fingers. At present, her hand is occupied figuring out the novel she’s submitting to Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. A forest has been planted in Norway that will, 100 years later, provide the paper to publish an anthology of books that are being commissioned now. Authors have been asked to write works that will be sealed for the next 100 years. All that present-day readers will know is the title and the author’s name. After a century, the manuscript will be published.

It seems fitting that the last novel to be published in Atwood’s name will, like her first, sit unopened for a long time. At the moment though, her concerns are more technical. “I got some special archival paper because I didn’t want them to open the box and find a lot of oxidised scraps. That would be a disappointment,” she said drily. Unsurprisingly, she’s breaking the stereotype of ageing yet again with this project. Instead of looking back, as we expect the elderly to do, Atwood is looking ever forward. 

Stone Mattress (Bloomsbury India) is out now

Illustration: Zheliskoart.com/OKSANA ZHELISKO. This interview appeared in the December 2014 edition of ELLE India

Age is supposed to mellow us, soften the rough edges, dull the sharpness. Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who turned 75 last month, doesn’t subscribe to this stereotype in either real life or fiction. In her new collection of nine short stories, Stone Mattress, two women are murderers, another is a werewolf, one man lusts after a young woman who comes to interview him, even though his body is far from able to keep up with his thoughts. No one in the book, regardless of how old and wrinkled they are, is going gently into the night. 

They’re just the kind of characters you would expect from Atwood, who may have gained wrinkles, but has lost none of the stiletto keenness of her intellect. “After a certain point, people tend to think ageing is hilarious,” Atwood says, when I ask her how it feels to grow old. “Especially hilarious is the fact that there are things young people think you don’t know. You know, [like] sex. They think you don’t know anything about that. Or you’re not supposed to know anything about it. You’re supposed to be sort of old, wise and sweet. My older characters are not like that.”

Interviewing Atwood is unusually difficult for me. When you’ve followed an author through her novels, short stories, essays, poetry, cartoons, inventions, speeches and interviews over 20 years, it takes some doing to surf past the waves of fandom. It’s also a struggle to figure out what questions to ask. I know she was born in 1939, in Ottawa, and spent her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. She went to school for the first time at the age of 12, and some of her experiences became the starting point for Cat’s Eye, her luminous book about how girls bully one another. 

I know she ate her first rattlesnake in 1957, and wrote her first novel, The Edible Woman, in exam booklets, on a card table in Vancouver. The book spent two years gathering dust in a publisher’s drawer, ignored until Atwood won Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award in 1966, for her second collection of poetry, The Circle Game. I know Atwood writes the first drafts of her books by hand and then has them typed up. While writing The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel set in a dystopian future in which fertile women are turned into breeding machines, she noted in her journal that she had found puffballs. She is the inventor of LongPen, a device that allows celebrities to sign autographs remotely. And the author may well be a prophet because the future she describes in her MaddAddam trilogy reads more like fact than speculative fantasy. Oh, and she got repetitive strain injury from signing too many autographs. That’s how popular and beloved she is.

In short, I’ve spent years virtually stalking Margaret Atwood. Consequently, I also know that she is not a chatty interviewee. There are horror stories about how she has politely chewed up interviewers who have asked her silly questions. 

Which is why, when I realised that we had been talking for half an hour and were now sharing stories about dead hands and phantom footprints, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief — not just because my questions hadn’t been slashed into ribbons, but also because writers can often turn out to be disappointing when you encounter them outside of their writing. But as it turns out, Atwood is delightful. Her mischievous, dry wit and treasure chest of experiences make her a joy to interview because every story she has written has another story behind it.

For instance, the title tale of the Stone Mattress came out of an Arctic cruise that Atwood had been on with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson. The heroine, Verna, goes on that same cruise and sees what Atwood had seen: a field of stromatolites, 1.9 billion-year-old fossils that could be fabulous murder weapons. That, however, is where the similarities end. “I have never killed anyone in the Arctic with a piece of rock,” Atwood assures me. “But I have been in the Arctic and I have the very piece of rock in the kitchen.” 

On the cruise, Verna encounters an old acquaintance, Bob. (There were many Bobs on the cruise with Atwood and they all survived the trip.) When in high school, Bob had raped Verna, but decades later, fails to recognise her. She, meanwhile, decides to avenge herself by killing him. Whether or not you think Verna is justified will depend on your personal sensibilities. Atwood keeps her tone non-committal and the ending open.

Verna isn’t the only murderess in Stone Mattress, belonging as she does to an illustrious line of Atwoodian women who break both stereotype and laws. There’s almost always an anti-heroine in her novels, usually the character who haunts the reader long after the book is read. Atwood is a feminist, one who has, over the years, created realistic women (and men) who live, rather than serve agendas. “I got some kickback in the ’70s for creating a female character who wasn’t virtuous,” she recalls. “But since that time, after people have reflected a bit, especially on their own experiences, we all know it’s not true that all women are angels of virtue, because we’ve known a lot of women. They come in all shapes and sizes, just like men, and all degrees of meanness or pleasantness, like men.” 

The equanimity in this statement belies the way Atwood savages misogyny in her stories, using her female characters to put certain men in their place and expose the stupidity of ‘mansplaining’. That said, her fiction is peopled with many fantastic male characters. She’s one of those authors who can talk smoothly in many voices, irrespective of gender.

Today, there’s a host of Canadian writers who feature in people’s reading lists: Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Douglas Coupland, Carol Shields, to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine now, but when Atwood started writing, there was no such thing as a Canadian literary scene. This emptiness worked to her advantage because Canada was hungry for storytellers and the rest of the world proved just as eager to sample the stories told by Atwood and those who followed in her footsteps. She explains it as a confluence of coincidences: “If I’d arrived at the very same mental faculties but it had been the middle of the 19th century in rural Canada, I doubt very much I would have become a writer. There wouldn’t have been a place for me to publish.” Being born in the right era, however, doesn’t entirely explain the way the author has put Canada on the literary map. She’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize five times (The Blind Assassin, not her best work, won the prize in 2000), and her novels are part of college syllabi in different parts of the English-reading world. That’s much more than time and place working in fortuitous tandem. 

Atwood’s plots and characters reel readers in quickly: femme fatales, twisted marriages, lost fathers, a young woman who may or may not have killed the two people who showed her kindness, a republic where women are cloistered and segregated according to their childbearing potential — most of the time, if you read the back of one of her books, it’s enough to make the question of what happens next start gnawing at you. Quickly, you discover her deadpan, cutting sense of humour surfacing unexpectedly across the terrain of her stories. Take this excerpt from ‘Torching The Dusties’, one of the stories in Stone Mattress

According to Tobias, it was more difficult to seduce a stupid woman than an intelligent one because stupid women could not understand innuendo or even connect cause with effect. The fact that a pricey dinner out to be followed, as the night the day, by the compliant opening of their peerless legs was lost on them.

Her characters are always real people, no matter how unreal their circumstances. They fall in love, leave scars, and tease both other characters and the reader. Every relationship is a tug of war that tenses and slackens in a power play that may be sly or obvious. “In the very, very broadest sense, interpersonal relationships require negotiations of various kinds, stated or unstated,” says Atwood, when I asked if she thought love was essentially a power struggle between two people. “Sometimes, these interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, are politically determined because they’re constrained by law, and laws are made by politicians. So who can do what to whom legally is a political matter. Who actually does what to whom, that can be outside the box. But it’s always playing against what is legally permissible and what society considers acceptable.”

Listening to her, I was reminded of something she’d written in Cat’s EyeWe are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.

Atwood’s language and her gift for both sensing and articulating suffering are unmatched. Beneath the delicious wit and clever plot twists that shoot through her writing, are flashes of pain. She torments her characters and then tells of their suffering with a simple, dazzling lyricism. Violence is written with morbid relish and even something as overwritten as heartbreak can become piercing in her hands. Her novels often feel like a record of something that we’ve experienced — or are just about to experience. 

The MaddAddam trilogy, for instance, was supposed to be science fiction about “things that have not been invented yet” — ranging from hybrid animals to human-like species called the Crackers — but we’re already taking steps in this direction. Genetic splicing is not speculative, and these novels offer a chilling (though not entirely hopeless) vision of where we, as a planet, appear to be headed. 

As fantastical creatures go, Atwood’s are rather human and relatable, which isn’t quite what you expect of a book that she has stressed is made of “tales” rather than stories. Stone Mattress has many kinds of fantasies, ranging from the apparitions that are a symptom of the Charles Bonnet syndrome to the alternative reality of Alphinland and the aforementioned werewolf. However, while none of these are mundane, neither are they entirely fantastical.

“I kind of shy at the jump,” admitted Atwood. “I didn’t go all the way to say a dead hand really is creeping about under your bed. I couldn’t quite get that far. But I’ve always wanted to write a dead hand story because I was so smitten by the beast with five fingers.” 

Considering how much she’s written — in long-hand, no less — and the variety in her writing, it’s not surprising that Atwood is smitten by the beast with five fingers. At present, her hand is occupied figuring out the novel she’s submitting to Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. A forest has been planted in Norway that will, 100 years later, provide the paper to publish an anthology of books that are being commissioned now. Authors have been asked to write works that will be sealed for the next 100 years. All that present-day readers will know is the title and the author’s name. After a century, the manuscript will be published.

It seems fitting that the last novel to be published in Atwood’s name will, like her first, sit unopened for a long time. At the moment though, her concerns are more technical. “I got some special archival paper because I didn’t want them to open the box and find a lot of oxidised scraps. That would be a disappointment,” she said drily. Unsurprisingly, she’s breaking the stereotype of ageing yet again with this project. Instead of looking back, as we expect the elderly to do, Atwood is looking ever forward. 

Stone Mattress (Bloomsbury India) is out now

Illustration: Zheliskoart.com/OKSANA ZHELISKO. This interview appeared in the December 2014 edition of ELLE India