UN­IN­TENDED CON­SE­QUENCES

THE WIT AND WIS­DOM OF GREAT CANA­DIAN WRITER MAR­GARET AT­WOOD, AHEAD OF HER AUS­TRALIAN VISIT

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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

MAR­GARET AT­WOOD

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

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