The author on politics, romance and humour — and painting her face green on Hallowe’en
WRITER and critic Margaret Atwood, 73, is the author of more than 30 books of fiction, essays and poetry, and won
the Booker Prize in 2000 for The
Blind Assassin. She lives in Toronto with her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson. The couple have one adult daughter. In the early ’70s, people reviewed my hair. With women writers it was always about some secondary feature: “She’s a woman writer; she can’t be any good.” I was right about some aspects of the future. Whatever instincts I had in
The Handmaid’s Tale came very much to the fore in the last presidential election. Republican candidates made some illadvised remarks about women’s reproductive rights. They also claimed that there is a difference between “real rape” and “not real rape” and that if it were “real rape” a woman couldn’t get pregnant because her body would shut down. The menopause has taught me
nothing. It made hardly any
impact. There are people who are now 62 who were deeply traumatised by me as children. My younger sister was born the day before Hallowe’en and I used to run her birthday parties. I would paint my face green, turn down the lights and tell stories. It had a big effect.
Creativity must be partly genetic. Part of it has to be, doesn’t it? I think that’s where I got mine from. Other kids are good at maths. People move through the world in cohorts. The year in which you were born and how many other people were born in that year has a big influence on what sorts of opportunities are available to you. I was born in 1939, right after World War 2 had begun — there weren’t very many people in that cohort so there were a lot of opportunities for those in that age group once we started looking for work. That didn’t happen 15 years later. You will always encounter people who are going to be
jealous of you. In 1972 I received some good advice: “Now you’re a target, people will shoot at you.” In other words: be ready, don’t take it personally, keep moving. It’s more difficult to hit a moving target. My father taught me that the first mark of a real scientist is they’re sceptical about science. If they’re given a study, they want to know who did it and whether it stands up. When I read a scientific claim, I always ask: “Is this real? Let’s look at the studies.” ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is No 37 in the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. It’s banned because there’s sex in it and it’s “anti-Christian”. What does that tell me about the US? Nothing I didn’t already know. Different generations of young people worry about different things. We worried about nuclear war. Now they worry about climate change: what is going to happen when the human race hits the wall. In its extreme form, romantic love is somewhat humourless. For Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend in high school gave me a real cow’s heart with an arrow through it. It made me laugh. The way to my heart has always been somebody who can make me laugh. So, Mr Gibson, you’d better keep on being funny.
I was a collaborative parent. I used to run murder parties for my daughter. It’s important to hire an actor to be the murderer. Nobody wants their child coming home saying: “I murdered someone today.” When you’re 73, things don’t dismay you in the same way they used to. Something happens to your biochemical make-up, number one. Number two: you know what your own personal plot is. You know how the story has worked out. — Stefanie Marsh © The Sunday Times, London • Margaret Atwood’s new novel
BULL’S EYE: Margaret Atwood and her cat Fluffy. Atwood says it is harder to hit a moving target