Margaret Atwood Asks: Is This The Path We Want To Be On? Margaret Atwood by Irene D'Souza
In this feature interview from Herizons arachives from Spring 2004, contributor Irene D'Souza spoke to Margaret Atwood about her childhood, her prescient gifts and her research into the trajectory that marks women's progress.
Herizons: What arouses your interest in reading?
Margaret Atwood: I am interested in laws as they pertain to women, and in tracing the advent of laws that disenfranchised women and took away the things they already had. The trajectory goes gradually up. Is it always a learning experience? Margaret Atwood: Yes-what women are entitled to throughout the years in different societies, ancient China and Russia, for instance. The Russian Revolution was nice for men but it was really bad for women. All unmarried women had to be registered on a sex registry, and any man who wanted could have sex with them. Sexuality was considered the property of the state.
In The Blind Assassin, Iris and Laura were sold to the highest bidder. Is this based on fact?
Margaret Atwood: It is completely historical. It was what the crown heads of Europe did with their children. They formed political alliances. The further up the social scale, the more creative the deal-making. Women have more freedom when there is no exchange of property-who is going to bother? If there is property to exchange, you have to lock them up and make sure they get traded in an alliance you want to make.
What attracted you to the sibling relationship in The Blind Assassin?
Margaret Atwood: I had never written about sisters. I started out wanting to write about my mother's and grandmother's generations, the two world wars and the Depression-it was the period that interested me. I couldn't really use their lives because they are far too good to be in novels. I did use my grandmother's World War I knitting group. If you were really bad, you knitted washcloths, and then you could knit your way up to scarves and socks. My grandmother was actually really bad-she never graduated from knitting washcloths. The women in the book are better knitters.
Who were the storytellers in your family?
Margaret Atwood: My mother told stories about her family. My father told stories about the adventures he had. He was a great woodsman-a forest entomologist. His adventures involved getting encircled by forest fires. What about storybooks? Margaret Atwood: I was not confined to storybooks. I could read anything. No one ever told me not to read. We didn't have television; in fact, nobody had television then. We weren't in range of a movie theatre or live theatre. We could sometimes get the radio, but unclearly. So it was books. In the winters, we were in the city. I do remember being traumatized by Snow White at an early age. We got taken to see Henry V during the war because my parents couldn't find a babysitter. I remember the arrow scene.
Are you born a reader?
Margaret Atwood: To make a child a reader is to read to them when they are small. It provides a nice space and a relationship with the parent. Even if the story is very scary, you can handle it because you are protected. My mother was such a great reader that when we moved to Sault Ste. Marie the neighbourhood children came to our house to listen to her read. Wonderful memories!
Speaking of your mother, in an NFB documentary I saw, I was taken by your mother's sensitivity to your piemaking endeavours.
Margaret Atwood: I wasn't micromanaged. Her idea was to let the children-as long as it wasn't dangerous -experiment and make their mistakes. I do remember the cake into which I failed to put the baking powder;-it was very flat. We ate some of it anyway. Nor did she criticize the horrible yellow short coat I sewed when I was in grade nine. She had to bite her tongue quite hard. Her idea, even when we were quite small, was to give us the crayons and the paper and then leave us alone. She was quite smart in that she was also truthful. She said, "I can't draw. You have to draw those pictures because I can't do it."
Do you pay homage to your mother in your work?
Margaret Atwood: My own mother would not make a very good fictional character unless she died young. She does get into my fiction in some ways-she is some way in Cat's Eye. But everybody's strengths are also their weaknesses. She was a very non-interfering mother who did not interfere in the bad unhappy parts of my life any more than she interfered in the joyous creation of my horrible dramas. She thought that children should develop on their own.
And your own daughter?
Margaret Atwood: My daughter is a dragon (in the Chinese horoscope). She had a sign on her door that said, "Keep out-that means you." (Peals of laughter) I never went in there. My mother also did not mess with my stuff, even though I usually had my room just lined with projects I was doing-paintings and so on. She never cleaned it up. That's very good for a mother. I think micromanaging children's rooms discourages their creativity.
When did you start writing?
Margaret Atwood: I first started writing in 1956 (I was 16). There was no feminist movement in sight. It was below the point of any such thing, so much so that I just looked at a Maclean's magazine for 1955. There is a story by June Callwood about a female shot putter-tall, blonde, good-looking, hefty-training for the Olympics in a park at night so nobody would see her, because they would think she was weird. She really wanted boys to open the car door for her, even though she was quite capable of doing it herself.
That was how you were supposed to be in that era. To be a female shot putter was a complete violation-to be that strong and female. So the whole story was framed as, "Yes, she is very strong, she can tear your head off. But she is really dainty and feminine, too. She is the girl who wants to put the meatloaf in the oven, just for you." I would like to horrify your readers by saying that when I was in Harvard graduate school we did a two-hour seminar: at the one hour mark, the girls would make tea and cookies and serve them to the boys.
Did you do it?
Margaret Atwood: Of course.
Did you ever think not to?
Margaret Atwood: Didn't even think not to do it-it was just what was done. That's what you did. And usually, within any period of time, there are things people take for granted. You do not think about them because that's how it is. It is only on the cusp of change that you think, "Why are we doing this?"That was 1962. The women's movement did not happen until 1968 or '69.
I wrote The Edible Woman in 1964. The publisher misplaced it and then published it in 1969.
I can remember that the first inklings of the feminist movement were Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. The Feminine Mystique was really about the generation before mine, and de Beauvoir's a couple of generations before that, in France. All of the things that were happening to little French girls did not happen to me. I was not forced into the wearing of frilly dresses. I was deprived of frilly dresses (laughter)-I would have liked to have had some, but my mother was a tomboy and did not go for them. I had a North American northern upbringing in which being a girl was not an excuse.
Then, when the women's movement came around, I got a letter from a friend of mine who was living in New York, enclosing that article "House Work is Work." I was in Edmonton, where there was no women's movement, and there was not to be one for years.
And why do you think that is?
Margaret Atwood: Things ripple outwards; things never start simultaneously all over the place. Some event becomes a symbol and it triggers. But often it is a very long ripple effect. I can remember being in England in the early 70s. It was not there then. It took a while to get there, but it split into class forms.
In the States, it often divided along race, as well as class lines. It was a very tumultuous period, but I had started writing long before it. So although it was interesting, it was not formative at a deep level. I think role models and my family were formative. It was typical of Canada at that time, partly because we were poorer. Women were expected to be industrious. The idea of lying around in a frilly negligee and eating chocolates was not part of the culture. It was also influenced by the two wars.
Canada was much more involved in both wars and sent a lot of wealth to Britain. So the recovery from the war was slower in Canada-rationing was longer. The feeling of austerity and not having things persisted. There was not the idea in the family that women were either stupid or weak.
Do you cringe at the portrayal of women in reality television?
Margaret Atwood: There are always all levels of those kinds of things. People who watch those shows are perfectly aware they are shows. They know it is a pageant and a game. It is interesting, the way all bizarre things are interesting. Your portrayal of women in The Handmaid's Tale was futuristic, but it eerily echoed the Afghanistan's experience.
Could you comment on this phenomenon?
Margaret Atwood: People don't usually pay attention to things unless they are affecting them directly. I set The Handmaid's Tale in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University, a place where such things are unlikely to happen.
And what is the message?
Anything can happen anywhere, given the circumstances. Nobody is exempt or immune. There is no rule that says it won't happen to you.
Did you like the film version of The Handmaid's Tale?
Margaret Atwood: The end was weird. I think the acting was good. I wouldn't have had her in a red trailer on top of a hill hiding out from people in helicopters.
Do you consider Oryx and Crake a socio-political book?
Margaret Atwood: I consider the book in the tradition of 1984 and A Brave New World. Those books have a long line of descent going back to Gulliver's Travels and More's Utopia. My books often have a political element, in that they are concerned with the forms of society and the nature of human beings.
When you were writing Oryx and Crake, 9-11 occurred. Did you switch tracks?
Margaret Atwood: I did not change tracks, but I changed a couple of the video games. I stopped for about three weeks. Like everybody else, I wanted to see what was going to happen next. But I did not change the book, because what had happened did not have any direct bearing on what I was writing.
But Oryx and Crake is so realistic- the experience of a mad scientist whose experiments have gone awry. Do you think this could ever happen?
Margaret Atwood: The reason the person in my book does it is not, in his mind, evil. His motivations are the best-an improvement on society-but he knows that improvement will not survive unless he gets rid of the bad 'us.' And the problem is, we are very close to being able to do that.
So, Oryx and Crake could be conceived as art imitating life?
Margaret Atwood: To a certain extent a book like this is like Jonathan Swift's book, which is an invention-it is fiction.
You cannot predict the future, but you say something like this: "Here's the path. Do we want to go along that path? Is that the path we want to be on?" In Oryx and Crake, society is divided into those who have it all and those who do not.
You really build the case for a bleak and uninhabitable world.
Margaret Atwood: Things can go awry very fast. We are going to have 10 billion people in the world by the year 2050, and we are using up natural resources at a galloping clip. Sooner or later, there is going to be a crunch. There already is a crunch in poorer countries-big starvation, big drought and big epidemics.
We watch it on TV, but how are we going to respond to all of this? At this point it is anybody's guess. There are moments in history when all of the pieces are suddenly in play. This is one of those moments. Now is the time to turn to alternate energies-we better do it fast.
People are making an effort. A Day Without Cars….
Margaret Atwood: We had a week without electricity in Ontario. I think a lot of people are going to be ready with solar-powered batteries.
Were you prepared?
Margaret Atwood: I was up north, where there is no electricity, anyway. I am used to living without. We have a wind-up radio and flashlight; we can no longer depend on just turning on the light. And we have a hybrid car.
In Oryx and Crake, the rebellion is thwarted.
Are we too complacent? Where are we going?
Margaret Atwood: We cannot predict the future because there are too many variables. I have a certain amount of faith in people, in their ability to eventually figure out that things are not beneficial. For instance, right after 9-11, all those (anti-terrorist) laws got going, but now there's quite a movement against them.
People have woken up and realized that it is not going to make them immortal, or keep them safe forever. On the other hand, it may remove many democratic liberties that they have taken for granted. There is a lot of opposition, and you have to always be on the watch.What's being handed to you in a box? What is inside the box? Who is being targeted? What is the hidden agenda? In Oryx and Crake, we empathize with Snowman's reluctance to believe in human goodness.
Does goodness exist?
Margaret Atwood: We are a social species. Part of our survival and success has come from the fact that we do help. Every culture has the idea that you have to help, so much so that strangers will leap into the river to help another human being.
Thank you very much.
Margaret Atwood: And thank you very much.