THE WIT AND WISDOM OF GREAT CANADIAN WRITER MARGARET ATWOOD, AHEAD OF HER AUSTRALIAN VISIT
PUBLISHING thrives on hype but even so I don’t think it is overdoing things to say the writer on the phone from her home in Toronto is the great Margaret Atwood. The prolific (though she will have something to say on this later) Canadian novelist, short-story writer, poet, children’s author, essayist, screenwriter, librettist, critic, editor and anthologist is one of the world’s most admired and awarded writers. She’s been nominated for the Booker Prize five times, winning in 2000 for The Blind Assassin.
Atwood, 73, is heading to Australia for next week’s Perth Writers Festival. She will also visit Brisbane for a ‘‘ performance’’ of her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, the second instalment in the dystopian trilogy that started with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and will conclude later this year with Maddaddam.
On the day we speak, much of Australia is experiencing extreme heat, bushfires are ravaging Tasmania and other parts of the country are on catastrophic fire alert. Atwood, a writer who has long warned of humankind’s capacity for self-destruction, greets this news with a mixture of alarm and grim conviction. ‘‘ Climate change,’’ she says flatly, as though there is no need to comment further.
But she is distressed to hear about the bushfires because she has a fondness for Australia that has its roots in a family connection. Her long-time partner, Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson, 78, had an Australian mother. He was born in London, Ontario, but spent time in Queensland as a boy and ‘‘ remembers all his uncles and aunts and cousins’’. Atwood explains: ‘‘ Graeme’s mother’s father was a doctor who had lung problems. He was told to go somewhere hot so he emigrated to Australia, where he met his wife — Graeme’s mother’s mother — who was an opera singer in Brisbane, named Bertie. When the father died, Bertie took her daughter, Mary, to Canada, to see her father’s birthplace, and on that trip Mary met Graeme’s father. What a story!’’
This Australian link shows up in Atwood’s work. ‘‘ Any chance we get, we go to Australia,’’ she says with enthusiasm. The mad-genius scientist Crake in Oryx and Crake is named after the red-necked crake, a bird Atwood first spotted during a visit to northern Australia. (Though it’s bad news for the rare bird if her powers of prophecy are to be believed: in the book it’s extinct.) In The Year of the Flood, one of the saints worshipped by the quasi-religious group at the centre of the novel, the Gardeners, is Australian Climate Commission boss Tim Flannery. Other saints include Karen Silkwood and Dian Fossey.
When Flannery’s name popped up like that late in the book, I laughed, and it was far from the first time. For all her seriousness, Atwood is a funny writer. The Year of the Flood is like The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s take on a postapocalyptic planet, except with jokes. Take this scene where one of the main characters, Toby, is living in fear of a bloodthirsty mob of superintelligent genetically engineered pigs:
They’ve been watching for her: it’s as if they want to witness her dismay. Moreover, they’re out of range: if she shoots at them she’ll waste the bullets. She wouldn’t put it past them to have figured that out. ‘‘ You f . . king pigs!’’ she yells at them, ‘‘ F . . kpigs! Pig-faces’’. Of course, for them none of these names would be insults.
‘‘ I don’t think people would lose their sense of humour at the end of the world,’’ Atwood says. ‘‘ They would still be who they are but just in a different situation.’’
She says the humour in her books — ‘‘ Even The Handmaid’s Tale [set in a Christian fundamentalist totalitarian state] has some quite funny bits in it, I believe’’ — just happens. ‘‘ I don’t write the book and then insert the humour. It’s part of the ongoing textual unrolling.’’ She adds that Franz Kafka, ‘‘ one of my heroes’’, would ‘‘ laugh his head off while reading his own work’’.
Atwood’s sense of fun is there for all to see on her Twitter account, which she opened to help promote The Year of the Flood and has taken to with gusto. At the time of writing she had more than 367,000 followers and was closing in on 15,000 tweets. Throughout our interview, I can hear the keyboard clicking in far off Toronto, as Atwood Googles books, articles and people we discuss. In late January, she marked the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns with this tweet: ‘‘ Happy # burnsnight ! (Late. Got mixed up w. a haggis + a surprise bagpiper. The wig wag wiggledy waggle wiggle o’ the kilts was out in force!)’’.
That wiggledy waggle recalls the courtship dance of the laboratory-created Crake’s Children, prototype perfect and possibly immortal humanoids, in The Year of the Flood. When a female is ready to mate, five men surround her and wave their erect, bright blue penises in the air until she chooses one. ‘‘ It’s a little startling but it’s very direct,’’ Atwood says with a laugh.
Not unrelated, surely, to this sense of humour is the fact Atwood is not a pessimist (it may be going too far to call her an optimist). Nor, despite her concerns about the corporate-scientific drive to reshape the natural world, is she anti-technology. Nor is the daughter of an eminent entomologist anti-science, far from it. ‘‘ It’s not a question of every technology being
I’M CONCERNED ABOUT THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF WHAT WE DO
bad — I’m not that kind of Luddite,’’ she says. She mentions ongoing efforts to grow ‘‘ animal-free’’ meat: ‘‘ People send me lots of tweets about lab meat — but lab meat would have its upside: No 1, a lot less methane in the atmosphere; No 2, no animal is harmed.’’
What Atwood is against, though, is ‘‘ not thinking things through thoroughly’’, and here she reaches for an Australian example: the introduction of the cane toad to control agricultural pests. ‘‘ That’s what I’m concerned about: the unintended consequences of what we do. It’s that . . . things bite back.’’ She cites
another example: the introduction of Australian possums into New Zealand. ‘‘ They are just wreaking havoc,’’ she says, ‘‘ though they make nice, warm socks.’’
On the climate-change question, Atwood says: ‘‘ I don’t like to say I’m pessimistic but people are going to have to snap out of their trance soon. Certainly there is no political will, so the movement has to be at a grassroots level.’’ And if we don’t snap out of our trance? Here Atwood has what could be called a perverse optimism: humankind may well become extinct but the planet will go on: ‘‘ I don’t think we’re capable of killing everything . . . we will go before it does.’’
Rightly or wrongly, it is this sort of cool vision for which Atwood is best known, articulated in works of speculative fiction, such as The Year of the Flood, which is set in a future in which a ‘‘ waterless flood’’ — an unidentified plague — has devastated humanity.
Maddaddam, due in September, will take the story to its conclusion. Will Atwood’s imagining of our possible future end with annihilation, salvation or something in between? The answer to that question is keenly awaited by her legion of fans and she’s not about to disappoint them by spilling the beans in a media interview. ‘‘ Maddaddam begins where The Year of the Flood finishes and goes on from there,’’ she says. ‘‘ It explores what happens when the conventional humans and the new creations find themselves in the same space. You can see that there might be some cultural misunderstandings.’’ The rest we will have to wait for, though not entirely passively. Atwood took to Twitter recently to ask her readers: ‘‘ What should be on # Maddaddam cover? a) Flowers b) Snakes c) Zeb d) Blue naked people e) Ring where I spilled coffee f) All of above g) Or?’’
Like so many writers, Atwood started as a poet and won her first serious prize, the Canadian Governor-General’s Award, for her second volume, The Circle Game, in 1966. She has since published another 20 books of poetry and says the greatest thrill of her career remains the publication of her first poem.
‘‘ Well, if I did nothing else then people would call me a poet,’’ she says. ‘‘ But the novel is the more widely read form, at least in our culture, so once you write a novel you become a novelist. It’s not that people don’t read the poetry . . . but if I’m asked to self-
describe, I just say I’m a writer.’’ When I ask if she’d like to be remembered for her poetry, the great writer of speculative fiction says: ‘‘ Guess what? I’m not going to be there!’’
Atwood’s lifelong engagement with science fiction and speculative fiction — she once distinguished between the two by saying the former was about ‘‘ talking squids in outer space’’ — comes to bear in her 2011 nonfiction work In Other Worlds: SF and the Human
Imagination. ‘‘ That book gives you an idea of what I think about dystopias: every dystopia contains a little utopia and every utopia contains a little dystopia.’’
She grew up reading the masters of the genre. ‘‘ Think how old I am,’’ she says in a way that suggests it’s an easily forgotten fact.
‘‘ I was a teenager in the 50s when Ray Bradbury was publishing his most central work and John Wyndham was publishing as well. I would have read Nineteen Eighty-Four right after it came out. Imagine that.
‘‘ Brave New World was around: it was a bit older but we had it in the house. I read all of HG Wells as a teenager. I think this sort of writing does leave a deep impression when you read it at that age.’’ She says of her own contribution to the field: ‘‘ I don’t put anything into my books for which we don’t have the technology already. In fact some of the things I postulated as not being quite true in Oryx and
Crake have since come into being.’’ Atwood published her first novel, The Edible
Woman, in 1969 and it seems barely a year has gone by in which she has not released a book across the genres she works in. However, she dismisses any comparison with her US contemporary Joyce Carol Oates, another genrestrider who published her first novel in 1964 and who frequently releases more than one book a year (this year she has three slated). When I suggest it looks as if the two writers made a bet 40 years ago about who could publish the most, and have been going for it ever since, Atwood says, quite seriously: ‘‘ Oh, I would never make a bet with her about that. She would win hands down.’’ Then she offers:
‘‘ But Beryl Bainbridge and I had a bet about which of us could be nominated more times for the Booker without winning it. She won.’’ (Bainbridge, shortlisted five times, was awarded a special Booker after her death in 2010.)
‘‘ If you take the time I’ve been writing and the number of books I have written and divide the one into the other, you’ll see that the rate of writing is not that prodigious,’’ Atwood says. ‘‘ I think I’m a rather slow writer — but of course my comparison is Joyce Carol Oates. I start things longhand, I edit longhand ... I would love to have a schedule but I never have, I’ve always just written more or less whenever there’s space.’’
We have been talking for more than an hour so I ask Atwood if she minds, to finish up, if I ask for her thoughts on a handful of big topics, like one of those ‘‘ Ten Minutes With . . .’’ interviews. She’s up for it.
We start at the top, with God. ‘‘ You think I know something about God? Anyone who says they know anything about God is lying! Being a rigid agnostic I make a strict distinction between belief and knowledge, so you can’t say you know something unless you can prove it. There’s never been any proof for God and there’s never been any disproof for God. Do I think there are things in the universe we can’t see? Absolutely.’’ OK, so how about organised religion?
‘‘ Which one? You can’t talk about them all in the same way any more than you can say all technology is bad. Are Quakers the same as Orthodox Russians? Not even remotely. So if you want instead to talk about the human tendency to clump together in groups around a shared ideal that is bigger than any one of them, then yes, that seems to be a human characteristic.’’
Thinking about human characteristics, how important is love?
‘‘ Oh God, give me a break. Do you mean I love my pussy cat, do you mean I love macaroni, do you mean sex, do you mean partner attachment, do you mean loving your children . . . what exactly do you have in mind? The problem is the language: we have one word and it’s supposed to cover all these different things.’’ Seeing you’ve mentioned sex, why has Fifty
Shades of Grey been such a huge success? ‘‘ No 1, the woman is the most important person in the book; No 2, they go shopping; No 3, the guy is absolutely devoted to her. What’s not to like? It appeals to everybody’s narcissism, and in a soft-porn way.’’ How do you feel when you get a bad review?
‘‘ It’s not the end of the world.’’ Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on death?
‘‘ It’s one of those subjects you can’t really talk about because you haven’t done it yet.’’
Stephen Romei is The Australian’s literary editor. His column A Pair of Ragged Claws returns next week.
Margaret Atwood will be a guest of the Perth Writers Festival, which starts on Friday (www.perthfestival.com.au). She will do an outof-season event for Brisbane Writers Festival at the Queensland Conservatorium on February 25 (www.brisbanewritersfestival.com.au).
Maddaddam will be published in September by Bloomsbury.
Margaret Atwood pictured during a trip to
Brisbane in 1997