Atwood à la Carte
Margaret Atwood’s career spans six decades—earning her a reputation as a powerful writer and a challenging interviewee. Undaunted, Geraldine Sweeney engaged her in conversation and discussion for an in-depth interview with the author, conducted in Prague.
Day One: Upon my arrival in Prague I was informed that an interview I’d very much been looking forward to had not made it on the official festival schedule. The situation reminded me of the introduction to Waltzing Again: New & Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood. In it the editor, Earl G. Ingersoll, had this to say: “Atwood still has an uneasy relationship with her public, and her interviewers quickly learn that she is likely to force them to define terms and consider the implications of their questions before they pose them.” In the same book, Atwood explains her own views about being interviewed: “I don’t mind being ‘interviewed’ any more than I mind Viennese waltzing—that is, my response will depend on the agility and grace and attitude and intelligence of the other person….’ With this in mind, I began my own quest for a conversation with Margaret Atwood at the 2008 Prague Writers’ Festival (PWF).
The first evening, in the Hotel Josef lobby—the players: Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (poet), Paul Auster (novelist), Graeme Gibson (novelist, environmentalist, avid birdwatcher), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (poet, political activist), Michael March (PWF President), Michael McClure (poet, playwright, novelist), Dimitris Nollas (author), and Elena Schwarz (poet). The agenda: a reception at the Mayor’s Residence to open the festival.
To my surprise the first person I saw up close was Margaret Atwood. We talk about transatlantic travel, the merits of name tags and passport control at JFK airport in New York City. Our conversation feels oddly familiar to me—an unexpected pleasure, off to a good start.
Soon, March leads the group through winding cobblestone streets, which open onto Prague’s Old Town Square. At the centre of the square we pause as March points out the “Meridianus line”, the demarcation of the centre of Europe. Here I was standing in the centre of Europe, surrounded by prominent contemporary writers from around the world, and I felt the giddy promise of the week to come.
The next day, I took the tram to the International Evening at the Theatre Minor just off Wencelas Square. Atwood and I exchanged a smile before joining the rest of the group. Onstage, Gary Younge asked the writers for their most searing memory of 1968. The Americans spoke of the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as the Vietnam War. Auster read from one of his earlier novels and a recent New York Times piece. Atwood cited a conversation with a good friend, who was dying of brain cancer in Canada at the time. “I’m writing the most extraordinary novel in my head but I don’t have time to write it down,” he told her, and admonished, “You have to get out of here…write the novel while you can, and number two don’t stay in Edmonton.” Atwood recounted how she’d taken his warnings to heart and chose 1968 to begin a new phase in her life.
Day Three. I cycle past beautiful churches and fantastic old buildings, and then through some more commercial sections of town. Logos seem to be the new blight on Prague, jutting out from nearly every shop and building. In Wencelas Square, where the rise and fall of Communism simmered, fast-food signs keep me informed about non-stop McCulture.
Later that afternoon Atwood enters the pressroom at Theatre Minor with her husband Graeme Gibson, Paul Auster and Gary Younge. Without hesitation I approach Atwood and ask if I may interview her for ONE Magazine. “Okay, let’s do it now,” she replies. Relieved, I find a quiet corner and we finally sit down together.
Thinking about 1968, the 60s, I ask for her perspectives on a woman’s point of view from that decade and how it affected her as a woman writer.
She tells me that she began writing in the 50s when there wasn’t a women’s movement proper, and that things actually got started in 1968 in New York, but nothing gathered momentum until the 70s. Atwood was living in Edmonton, Alberta, and explains, “Any woman who wrote anything was automatically enlisted [in the women’s movement] because of the mere fact of having written a book. And whether you liked it or not you were going to be reviewed that way whether pro or con.” An added twist at the time, for author as well as book reviewer, Atwood was only asked to review books by women because the editors were afraid to give them to men.
“Men were being accused from every side of being anti-female.” Whether they liked a book or not they were “condescending, patronizing, hostile, aggressive, misogynistic, or all of those adjectives.” She laughs as she recalls telling her bosses that she was capable of reviewing books by men too. At this, we both laugh, and I ask her about her typical response. “Well, how about both?” she replies.
“These categorizations were being insisted upon,” Atwood continues. “If you weren’t a writer first your prime loyalty wasn’t to your art or craft, then nobody would be awaiting your books or asking you these questions at all. People were obsessed with both; they were very worried about how to divide people into boxes. Boxes are essentially for storage; you put things in a box, and then you put it on a shelf, safely tucked away, that’s them done.” She laughs, adding that once you’d been “tucked into boxes” no one had to think about what you were writing so long as they could fit you back into the box. And woman she explains “is a much more comfortable box for a lot of people who were more interested in boxes than writing. Pro or con boxing: woman good check it off; woman bad check it off.”
She tells me that in the 70s, ironically, she got in trouble with that very women’s movement for putting women in her books who weren’t wise, pure, great, true, strong, virtuous and always better than men. “In other words, I got in trouble for doing what novelists do in books.”
In 1969 Atwood published The Edible Woman, her very first novel. Although the manuscript was lost in her publisher’s drawer for a few years, it resurfaced with a release coinciding with the women’s movement that was just getting underway. After publication of this novel, Atwood began to get what she described as “weird interviews”, with such questions as: How do you manage to write while doing the housework? and, Do men like you? To which she quips: “Yes, which men? One man is not equal to all men and one woman is not equal to all women. Women come in all different shapes, sizes, ages and modes of behavior. Or else fiction wouldn’t be interesting in any way, whatsoever.”
Our attention turns to present day Prague and our writers’ festival – 1968: Laughter and Forgetting. I mention the explosion of consumerism with commercial labels and logos appearing all over the Czech capital.
Atwood agrees but adds, “You don’t know who those logos are for. Are those for the local people or are they for the tourists? We actually don’t know. It would be very interesting to go into some shops and ask Who are your customers?” In a fragile, new, post-dictatorship country, it could be a prickly topic—who decides what for whom.
I ask Atwood if she ever needs to overcome an internal censor when she wants to put something potentially controversial on the page, or does she have a way of working through a given struggle in order to put her ideas out into the world.
“Well,” she says, “we’re assuming I have an aggression-filled, foul-mouthed, rage-filled alter-ego that I have to censor. What if I don’t?”
“Well, if you don’t then that’s great, but if you did?” I answer.
Aware that I am sitting with one of the most outspoken authors of our time, I decide to take a chance. “So, you don’t really need to censor?” She tells me that she chooses not to call it censoring, that she calls it “writing— which is a process.”
Then I bring up non-fiction, which she says is a different thing because “we’re supposed to be telling the truth. Is it true? How true is it? Have you done your homework? Have you checked your facts? Have you perhaps done an interview with someone you’ve edited quite a lot? Because you do have to edit interviews… How are you editing? What will you select… which is what you’ll do with this interview. Will you call it censorship or will you call it journalism?”
In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, Atwood addressed her concerns about the war and the unstable US economy in a piece entitled “Letter to America”.
In another piece at the time, entitled , Atwood identifies two major errors of the French emperor which she asserts are synonymous with the US invasion of Iraq.
The first mistake was Spain, which Napoleon got “treacherously.” Furthermore, he “underestimated the religious feelings in the staunchly Catholic Spain. He thought they’d embrace liberation,” but Atwood explains, “It seems they had a curious attachment to their own beliefs. As a result the Catholic population won. And when a whole population hates you, and hates you fanatically, it’s difficult to rule.” She advises present leaders to “never underestimate the power of religious fervor. Also: your version of what’s good for them may not match theirs.”
The second mistake was invading Russia; where she observes “Warfare at the time meant forcing your opponent to stand and fight, resulting in victory on one side or the other. But the Russians merely retreated, leading Neapoleon’s troops deeper and deeper in the same huge Russian landmass and awful Russian weather that also defeated Hitler. As others have learned since, it’s very hard to defeat an enemy who never turns up.”
Then we returned to the 1960s and the Vietnam War. I mention my research on the 60s –- the anti-war demonstrations, the young people who stood up, when Atwood interrupts me.
“It took ten years for that war to end… not because people demonstrated in the States. It was because they were losing on the ground. It’s the same with all wars, you run out of money or you’re losing. Why would you stop if you were winning?”
On another front, there’s a fight we very well may not be winning, but Atwood passionately refuses to quit—the environment. She says that every leader of every country should be asked, “Is it your religious belief that in a few short years from now, God is going to burn up your world and make a new one just for you? Is that your belief? Because if so, why would we vote for you?” She laughs adding, “If that isn’t your belief, why aren’t you protecting the world we have?”
“You know, why stop with Do you believe in God?, let’s go the whole way.”
Atwood has her own green initiative, the “LongPen”, which aims to bring people together without travel and its cost to the environment. According to her, the LongPen yields “big carbon savings, money savings, time savings, gasoline savings, and green technology”.
I mention that quite a few authors are using it now. But she says, “You know it’s not only about the authors; there aren’t enough authors… it’s about businesses being able to interact and do things that otherwise they’d have to get on planes to do. Businesses and governments…”
But what about the rest of us who just want to do our part? Atwood offers advice for people who feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start: “Pick one thing and do that, otherwise you’ll just fall over with the enormity of everything. Pick one thing, work on that.”
Suddenly we hear music coming from the auditorium—a signal that Atwood is up next. She concluded our interview, “We’re all going to have to really think about forests. Once people understand what’s producing their oxygen, then they’ll get it. You cut down all the trees; we’re going to suffocate to death. End of story, it’s very simple.”
Geraldine Sweeney is a photographer/writer in New York City. Originally from Ireland, she has travelled extensively throughout the world to photograph the beauty of the people and landscapes of faraway lands, including the Himalayans in Nepal and the temples of India. Her work has appeared at a number of group shows in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939, and grew up in northern Quebec and Ontario. “Always vital, powerful, and magnetically readable”, she has published more than forty works of fiction, poetry, and critical essays.
Margaret Atwood’s work includes: The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake, The Tent, Moral Disorder, Negotiating with the Dead and The Door. Her novel The Blind Assassin won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.
Margaret Atwood and her husband, novelist Graeme Gibson, live in Toronto.