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Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature: Margaret Atwood Interview, In Which She Talks About "A Handmaid's Tale", "The Year Of The Flood" And Having Fun

08/26/2011 10:38 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2011

From Narrative Magazine: Canadian author Margaret Atwood has published more than fifty works of fiction and criticism, including her well-known dystopian novel of sexual power and politics, "The Handmaid’s Tale."

This excerpt from our interview, following the publication of her 2009 novel, "The Year of the Flood", reveals not only seventy-one-year-old Atwood’s lively intellect and moral engagement but also her pleasure in pop culture, palm reading, and “fun as a survival tool.” To read the full interview, please visit Narrative Magazine.

by Jo Scott-Coe

Margaret Atwood is a complex writer who, not unlike Mary Webster, her legendary ancestor accused of witchcraft, finds herself easily misread. Hasty critics who react to Atwood’s interrogations of gender, politics, religion, and science—pegging her as “antiprogress” or “antimale”—overlook the compassion with which she draws character failings and human suffering, not to mention the wry, winking layers of humor found in even her most biting social critiques. Atwood tests the boundaries between whimsy and social commentary, parody and seriousness, the beautiful and the grim. While the timing of her subject matter is often called prescient, it would be more accurate to say that the author is simply attuned to the world around her.

When we finally talked by phone during the eleventh week of her "The Year of the Flood" tour, Atwood had arrived in New York City at the Helmsley Park Hotel, and I was in Southern California. Atwood admitted that she had been getting “maybe six hours of sleep a night” but maintained momentum with vitamin B-12 packets and shade-grown coffee (an ethical imperative, she told me) or tea. In her blog, she also referred to practicing Pilates to maintain core strength.

Famously contrary in interviews, Atwood seemed least comfortable when asked about herself—memoir is the single genre she has avoided as a writer—and she was most at ease discussing weighty and controversial subjects: religion, political power, the purposes of literature, environmental catastrophe. While she brought a sardonic levity to our discussion, her comments were peppered with references to scientific phenomena, and her approach to questions was highly analytic. Occasionally she rebuffed lines of inquiry with rhetorical questions.

SCOTT-COE
You’ve been tweeting and blogging on the current tour. I’m wondering how you think the new electronic technologies affect writing and what’s happening with writing. With genre, for example. Will Kindle, will Amazon, open up our idea of genre or close it down more?

ATWOOD
I’ve got no idea. Genres, anyway, are inventions of people who need to rank things on bookshelves. Genres aren’t closed boxes. Stuff flows back and forth across the borders all the time. You know that part on the back of the book where it says “Romance,” for example? That’s so somebody knows what shelf to put it on. It has nothing to do with anything else, really.

SCOTT-COE
But sometimes the shelving makes it difficult to find a book.

ATWOOD
Exactly. For instance, you could put Jane Austen in among the chick lit if you wanted to, because that’s where chick lit came from.

SCOTT-COE
You wrote a piece about the idea of national literature, the idea of categories. You wrote about being asked, “So, are you a Canadian, or a woman, or . . . ?”

ATWOOD
(laughs) Yes. Pick one.

SCOTT-COE
Right—check a box. The end of that essay reminds me of Whitman’s line “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Your way of putting it is, “All. And much more than that.” Your work constantly seems to transcend compartmentalization, and yet I wonder if your efforts to that end have always been matched by where you’ve been placed on the shelf? Obviously you keep being asked these questions about categories.

ATWOOD
I’m usually placed under A for Atwood. For a long time I was right next to Jean M. Auel, who wrote all those mastodon books. (laughs)

SCOTT-COE
Working with complex identities and layers of voices in your work is something you’ve done your entire career. At the moment, "Robber Bride" and "Life Before Man" come to mind, even "Alias Grace" to some degree. Voice itself seems to be the key to the narrative for many of the stories that you’re telling. How do you know when you have the right voice for the story you want to tell?

ATWOOD
“Would this person say that?” It’s pretty much that simple. Or, on the other hand, “Yes, this person would say this, but they’ve gone on about it in a way that is quite irritating, so let’s cut them down a bit.”

SCOTT-COE
This need to express, to tell stories, seems universal. Talking with Patt Morrison a while ago, you referred to storytelling as part of an “ancient human tool kit.” You have also talked extensively with Bill Moyers about human impulses toward religion, which seems to be related.

ATWOOD
It’s actually part of the same kit, or very close.

SCOTT-COE
Can you talk about that?

ATWOOD
Let’s talk about language and what happens when human language comes into existence, with a complex grammar that we must’ve spent millennia working on. Once you have a past tense that can infinitely regress, you’re always going to come to the question, “What happened at the beginning?” And once you have a future tense that can recede indefinitely into the future, you’re going to come eventually to, “What happens next?” Then, after that, “What happens to me?” (laughs) And you’re going to get to a place where you’re going to get either happily ever after or fry in hell forever. (laughs)

SCOTT-COE
You’re agnostic, is that right?

ATWOOD
I’m a strict, strict agnostic. It’s very different from a casual, “I don’t know.” It’s that you cannot present as knowledge something that is not knowledge. You can present it as faith, you can present it as belief, but you can’t present it as fact.

SCOTT-COE
What do you make of the stridency of certain popular atheisms right now? I’m thinking of Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher.

ATWOOD
They’re a belief system. (laughs)

SCOTT-COE
It feels very Puritan at times.

ATWOOD
It’s a belief system. It’s not knowledge. So they’re presenting a belief system as if it were knowledge. And to us strict agnostics, that’s a no-no.

SCOTT-COE
It’s interesting how they present their measure of atheism as definitive, as the last word.

ATWOOD
As we’ve said, religion is probably part of the tool kit, or at least the ingredients for religion are, and I don’t necessarily mean formal religion, like one must belong to this one or that one, but I mean the sense of awe, the feeling that there’s something bigger than you, the feeling that this bigger-than-you entity could be on your side and be helpful to you. This sense of awe was probably selected during the eighty thousand generations we spent in the Pleistocene because those who had it would have a better edge than those who didn’t, just as those who had narrative would have a much better edge than those who did not. If you can say, “Here’s how we caught the giraffe last year, and Uncle George got eaten by a crocodile right there, so don’t go swimming there,” you’d be giving survival tools to young people who haven’t yet experienced those things: Look out for the crocodile place. Catch the giraffe this way.

We came out of the Pleistocene with a tendency toward narrative that is so inbuilt that small kids start understanding stories when they’re about fourteen months old: Now the cow runs up the hill. Here comes the dog. All that. It’s very early.

So the religion gene, or the religion complex, if you want to call it that, is probably part of all that, which means that even people who say other people shouldn’t have religion or who proclaim that they haven’t got a religion, probably do in fact have something. Maybe they read the horoscope.

(laughs) Maybe they’re superstitious. Maybe they think their Aunt Maude appeared to them even though she’s dead, and they had a visit last night. You always find something. There’s quite a lot of it wafting around.

SCOTT-COE
It seems that we could even read certain strict codes of political correctness as a kind of heretical standard.

ATWOOD
There’s no question. We’re always imposing new norms—of dress, number one; speech, number two; behavior, number three. What goes; what doesn’t go? What’s considered good; what’s considered bad? That’s going on all the time, regardless of what you say that you quote-unquote believe in. Even with people who have a proclaimed religion, what you really need to look at is how they live, see how sincere they are about that. Yes, I’m an absolutely devoted Christian, one might say, so I’m going to go out tonight and burn down a bunch of other people and their church. (laughs) What is it about those two things that don’t go together?

SCOTT-COE
(laughs) Hmm. . . . Let me see.

ATWOOD
Right. Let me see. What is your real religion? Your real religion is burning down other people. That’s what you actually do.

SCOTT-COE
I think of the Gardeners [in "The Year of the Flood"] again, who have restrictions on using the computer—except we find out that they do use one computer, kept under heavy guard—but in general they are very protective about using technology, and about writing too.

ATWOOD
That is like every religious hierarchy that has ever existed. (laughs) It’s in the Vatican that all the porno books are kept. The Gardeners evade technology because they don’t want to be spied on by it.

SCOTT-COE
It’s a practical, protective move.

ATWOOD
You betcha.

SCOTT-COE
The Gardeners have their theology and their cultural rules, and they also have their own saints. We see some traditional names—St. Francis of Assisi—but we also find Al Gore.

ATWOOD
You usually get to be made a saint for reasons having to do with the religion. You could have been quite a bad person in other respects. (laughs) But if you then got converted and did this and that, and then led an exemplary life—a lot of the traditional saints did start out that way. So you may not approve of every facet of the life of some of these people in my book, for example, but they’ve been selected for their sainthood by the Gardeners because of the things they did in relation to the environment and other species.

SCOTT-COE
Do you think that a secular society can have its saints?

ATWOOD
Absolutely. We do already. We just don’t call them saints.

SCOTT-COE
For example?

ATWOOD
Gandhi. Also Princess Diana—definitely elevated to sainthood at the moment. (laughs) Saint and martyr, though what she’s the saint of we’re not sure, but we know she was a saint. Michael Jackson just became one. These are people who inspire those feelings of “this is a magic person.” Sometimes we’re not entirely sure why we think so, and if you examine the logic, it often quite falls apart. Nonetheless, that aura is there.

SCOTT-COE
The apocalypse or end-of-the-world scenarios are addressed by most faith systems. Your last two novels depict characters struggling to survive postapocalypse. You’re asking the reader to go in another direction, one that portrays cataclysm as very real. Humans are even complicit in their own disaster. Can you talk about why that’s important to you?

ATWOOD
Isn’t it important to you?

SCOTT-COE
Yes.

ATWOOD
It’s important to me for the same reason it’s important to you. (laughs)

SCOTT-COE
Well, some people might just say, “This is so depressing,” that a corporation, for example, would actually send a virus through the world through sex pills. Oh no! It can’t happen here!

ATWOOD
What about that little anthrax story that got buried at the time of 9/11? Those letters had milled spores of anthrax and got delivered through the mail. Five people were killed. Just imagine that on a larger scale, if the disease had been more spreadable. That was an inside job.

SCOTT-COE
Whether it’s epidemics or Martians or meteors: Do you think there’s a reason audiences are more drawn to implausible disasters?

ATWOOD
You don’t have to believe it. It’s complete fantasy. I don’t know whether or not they prefer it, though. "1984" has had a very long shelf life, and so has "Brave New World," as far as that goes. It’s not a question of preference. If all you want is pure escape, of course you’re going to go to something like that. It’s always more worrisome to think that this is the kind of thing you, John Smith and Mary Doe, might actually be involved in and live through.

SCOTT-COE
But your approach also seems a bit more hopeful, because it doesn’t put the solutions out of reach, out of some realm of participation. If I’m responsible, even accountable, then maybe I can do something.

ATWOOD
Remember Planet of the Apes? That was actually very popular and spawned a lot of sequels. What it was merely asking us to do was to look at our attitudes toward animals, in which we are, in fact, all complicit. Yes, it had a lot of adventure and fantasy in it, but that other theme was at its core.

SCOTT-COE
Your newest novel also questions the relationship between humans and animals, but you posed similar questions very early in your work, almost forty years ago, in your novel Surfacing, for example. What are the challenges of exploring these problems through art?

ATWOOD
It’s always the same tug-of-war between those two old things that people have always talked about in relation to literature—the tug-of-war between entertainment and instruction. If it’s all instruction you get annoyed with it and bored, and you stop reading. If it’s all entertainment you read it quite quickly, your heart going pitty-pat, pitty-pat. But when you finish, that’s it. You’re not going to think about it much afterward, apart from the odd nightmare. You’re not going to read that book again. So what is the right mix? If you’re interested in making something more than making people’s hearts go pitty-pat, pitty-pat, then you have to think about how to do it.

SCOTT-COE
One of the genres that you have not worked in is memoir—straight-up, book-length memoir. We live in a culture that encourages so much exhibitionism, and there’s no line between private and public, or else people forget to draw any line. Then they put something on Facebook and are shocked that others see it. What are the benefits of keeping something in reserve as an artist?

ATWOOD
I think there are huge benefits.

SCOTT-COE
Can you describe some of them?

ATWOOD
No. (laughs) I’m keeping them in reserve.

SCOTT-COE
Can you talk about why you think people are nosey or why people share so much so readily? You once told an interviewer that people will tell you more in a few seconds on a bus about themselves, yet they are, in a sense, hiding behind a performance of “self.” They haven’t really revealed anything, but they’re still exhibiting in a weird way.

ATWOOD
You quickly find, when you are a hand-reader as I am, that nothing interests people so much as themselves. (laughs) That’s as it should be, because if they were interested in lots of other things, they probably wouldn’t survive very long.

SCOTT-COE
The sense of wordplay and word association is compelling in your writing—it enables you to wink at some of people’s sacred cows, whether they’re religion or class or gender or politics or national identity. Whatever they are. You’ve also mentioned your deep distrust in language as a “perfect” tool—that is, again, your skepticism coming out. I’m interested in what you see as the role of play in discovery—or even survival.

ATWOOD
Ah, that’s another thing that comes with the human tool kit. No question about that. Young mammals all play. The older ones don’t usually play as much, although some of them do. It’s very typical of a lot of animals. Otters do a lot of play. The carnivorous parrots of New Zealand are extremely playful. They’re social animals, and they’ll play by ripping the insulation off your car. (laughs) You can see photographs of them rolling hubcaps down the hill, and having a fine old time, and sliding down snow slopes—on purpose.

A lot of the flying that you see birds do is, in fact, play. They’re just having a good time. And it makes sense that animals would be having a good time and full of high spirits and playfulness because if it were grim seriousness all the time, it probably wouldn’t be much fun and there probably wouldn’t be a big impetus to stay alive. Having fun is another survival tool.

SCOTT-COE
Especially if you might be dealing with a situation that might be very grave or serious, right?

ATWOOD
It’s pretty essential. We had a good example last night at the concert hall in New York City. Things were pretty dire when we arrived and discovered that nothing had been done to publicize our event. (laughs) We were concerned about the turnout. And I said to Phoebe, my agent, “You know, there’s only one thing we can do with this. We can make it into a big joke.” Viewed as hilarious, that situation is pretty good. I went on the website of the promoter, who’s used to organizing rock concerts, and the disjunction was enormous. It was just a scream. Play helps you get through moments like that.

Jo Scott-Coe is an assistant professor of English at Riverside Community College in Southern California. She is the author of a memoir, "Teacher at Point Blank" (Aunt Lute Books, 2010).

To read the full interview, visit NarrativeMagazine.com. Bringing great literature to the world. Online. Free.

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