4 February 2016

"I’m too old to do things I don’t enjoy."-- An Interview with Margaret Atwood

I had the privilege of interviewing the writer Margaret Atwood during her recent visit to India.

The published interview, for Vantage, is here.

For anyone interested, a [much] longer version of the conversation is below.

At 76, there are few genres Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has not worked in. Author of seventeen volumes of poetry, eight collections of short fiction, and fifteen novels, she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once for 
The Blind Assassin in 2000. Atwood was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in both 2005 and 2007.
Her work ranges from incisive realist writing to speculative fiction. The writer and critic Trisha Gupta caught up with Atwood on 30 January, a few days after Atwood’s conversation with writer Patrick French at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. Gupta and Atwood discussed genre, parental approval and the place of realistic fiction in the digital age.
Trisha Gupta: You have a longstanding interest in the environment. Where does it come from?
Margaret Atwood
: I was what they call an early adopter. Because I did grow up in it. My dad was a biologist.

That last story in Moral Disorder, about the backwoods and this Indian gentleman arriving with his tennis racket is true. I think he thought he was going to the English countryside. I was very young at the time, but my mother and my aunts told me about this. And it was during the war, so he must have been from quite a well-to-do family, even to have such an education. He must have been at a Canadian university and spending summer at a research station up in the woods. And those research stations really were up in the woods. Far, far up: no electricity, no tennis court. [laughs]
TG: You've described some of that world in Surfacing, earlier.
MA: Yes. So my parents were conscious very early, of things like pesticides, DDT, things that affected biological populations. They were early Sierra Club, Federation of Ontario naturalists, conservationists, birdwatchers, back in the day when it was thought to be kind of nutty. My brother turned into a biologist…

So I know the plot… It made it easy for me to write a book like
 Oryx and Crake [the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that looks at rebuilding the world after a chemical fallout]. Because I can talk the talk. And I knew if I didn’t talk the talk correctly, I was going to get a critique from my brother. He said (switches to a voice lower than her own): “I think you did quite a good job on the sex. But I’m not so sure about the cats.” But science has borne me out since! Turns out that the purring of cats does have a neurologically soothing effect and is akin to the ultrasound that we use to heal bones.

TG: I believe your father wanted you to be a botanist.
: Yes, I was very good at botany. Better than at English, because in English they took half-marks off for spelling mistakes.
TG: Education—especially in India—divides the scientific and the literary or artistic into such starkly separate spheres.
: We divide things in order to teach them. But it’s a false division. People with creative minds are frequently creative across a range: Leonardo da Vinci was a wonderful painter but he was also trying to invent an airplane.
TG: But there seems more and more a sense that you must specialise.
: I think that was true in the twentieth century. We’re now seeing a movement back the other way.

Say, in medicine, once, if you were a toe doctor, toes was all you’d do. Now they’re trying to get back to looking at the whole person. And all of these things have a narrative component.“Tell me your medical history.” It’s a story: “First I felt this lump on my toe, then I got a terrible headache.” The eastern idea that parts of the body are connected with other parts is gaining a lot more credibility now.
TG: You were somewhat scathing about genres in your conversation with Patrick French.
: Genres are useful for bookstores. And for certain kinds of readers who want to read nothing but science fiction, or nothing but fantasy. They know exactly where to go in the bookstore—there’ll be something with a dragon on it, that’s for them. But just like in literary fiction, some books with dragons on them will be of higher quality than others. So you shouldn’t dismiss a book just because it has a dragon on it. Some will have a meditative, philosophical element in addition to the adventure—just like a classical Indian epic poem. But I’ve had people say to me, I never read books by men. Or I never read books by women. Or I never read sci-fi. Or anything that isn’t sci-fi. Why such insecurity? Why not expose yourself to something else? It may not be a good experience, but it’ll be different.
TG: You yourself began by writing poetry.
MA: Actually I began by writing comic books. At seven. Then I wrote a novel. About an ant. It had some narrative problems. But I was an early reader and writer. Nothing else to do in the woods. Also, my brother was a prolific writer at that age. He was older. So of course I imitated him. People say who was your earliest influence, I either say, 'My brother' or 'Beatrix Potter'. 

TG: Have your choices of form been determined by age?
MA: Okay, so when I started in high school, I wrote all the things I presently write, and more. I wrote a newsletter, I wrote fiction, non-fiction – essays, that's what we learnt to do in school – and poetry. In the early days in Canada, it was much easier to get the poetry published. First of all, there were little magazines devoted to it. Second, it was short. In fact, I hand-typeset my first book of poems on a flatbed press. I made the cover out of a lino-block. It was seven poems, we sold them for 50 cents. I wish I'd kept more of them. 

TG: You have some, though?
MA: One. 

TG: How old were you then?
MA: 21.

TG: Did you have a writing community?
: It was small. It was the fifties. You were supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, in business.
TG: In many ways, we’re still in the fifties, here.
: No, we’re not. You have quite a lively art scene.
TG: But everyone is fighting their parents to get to that.
: That will always be universally true. When I announced at 16 that I was going to be a writer, you could see them blanch. Being them, they bit their tongues and tried to discourage me in indirect ways. My mother said, “If you’re going to be a writer, you’d better learn to spell.”

I said, others will do that for me. But what I really thought – and I really did think this – was you could make quite a lot of money by writing 'True Romance' stories, for 'True Romance' magazines -- with the tear coming out the girl's eye, and in the background, another girl embracing a young man. [Fakes a sniffle] You could tell what the plot was going to be.
My idea was, I’d write those to make a living, and in the evenings, I’d write my cross between Katherine Mansfield and Ernest Hemingway, with some Faulkner thrown in. I tried, but I wasn’t any good at them—you have to believe.

So I thought I’d go to journalism school. Then a second cousin, who was a journalist, said, if you’re a woman you’ll end up writing the fashion pages and the obituaries. I thought, I’ll go to university after all: teach in fall, winter and spring, and write my deathless masterpiece…
TG: …in the summer.
: Yes. After university in Toronto, I was going to run away to France: live in a garret, drink absinthe, be a waitress. I had those ideas. Existentialists, we were in those days. But my college advisor said, quite rightly, you’ll probably get more writing done as a graduate student. So I went to Harvard and became a nineteenth century specialist. You get to read a lot of utopias. They thought everything was going to get better and better. We didn’t get dystopias until the twentieth century.
TG: That’s fascinating. Does that connect to what you said recently, that now isn’t the time for realistic fiction?
: What I said was, it’s hard to write really realistic fiction, unless you pretend that nobody watches TV, or is on the internet. To make it plausible, people would have phones. Things get arranged differently. It’s not as easy as it was when reality was more static.

Even some of the realistic fiction of the past was set in the past – Vanity Fair, or A Tale of Two Cities. So you took a reality that wasn't going to change...
TG: One of my favourites of your books is Alias Grace [a novel about a woman who was jailed for murder, in 19th century Canada]. 
MA: The problem with writing a fiction like that is we know quite a lot, but some things are hard to find out: daily life that everybody took for granted. People tend not to write them in their diaries. 

TG: Do you think that has changed now, with our documenting everything we do?
MA: Except how are we documenting it? Digital information is unstable. You remember floppy discs. I have some, I can't read them. The first novel I wrote on them was The Robber Bride. Four chapters a disk.

Think of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, The Circle—is it predictive, or is it of the moment in which he wrote it? It has to be the latter, because there isn’t any “the future.” There’s an infinite number of possible futures, and we don’t know which one we’re going to get. So I say, write plausible fiction. The reader has to believe it.
TG: Is this the key difference between science fiction and speculative fiction?
: Yes, it’s the difference between something that could happen, and something that really couldn’t. Sci-fi, especially sci-fi fantasy—we know it’s not real. It’s another world, not without its excitements and adrenalin bursts, but it’s not going to happen to us tomorrow, or next year, or probably ever. It is a galaxy far, far away—though everybody looks like us, or Carrie Fisher [one of the stars of the Star Wars series of films].
Spec-fic is this world, this planet; it could happen, we’re thinking of it now. [The writer George Orwell’s] 1984, it had already happened. [The writer Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World, it was happening. My rule for The Handmaid’s Tale [a dystopian novel set in a United States that has become totalitarian Christian theocracy, where women have lost their rights], was that I would not put anything into it that we had not already done.“People say, you’ve got such a twisted, dark imagination.” Actually, it’s not my imagination.
TG: I noticed that you like to use voice as performance. Have you ever been attracted to oral storytelling, being an actor?
MA: Absolutely. One of my first businesses, because I was an entrepreneurial little child, was a puppet show for 5-year-olds' birthday parties. We were 14, 15, 16. We ended up with an agent, we were pretty good! We did the voices, we made the hand-puppets. We did the classics: Hansel and Gretel, The Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood. You'll notice that they all involve what little children at that age are fascinated by, which is cannibalism.

I've written a play. I've written an opera libretto. You can go online and see my hockey goalee video. In the seventies, I did a lot of film scripts.

TG: Does the spoken word give you more control than the written word?
MA: Not more. A different kind of control. You can read more about what is it that makes writing different from the other arts in my book called Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.

TG: Is the way we live now making writing and reading very different from what it used to be?
MA: There are different platforms. For instance, Wattpad. Young kids, but also other people, are using it to story-share, and disguise their real identities. 

TG: You seem to enjoy Twitter. 
MA: I enjoy it. The rules for Twitter are the same as being the host of a radio station -- or conversation at a party. Some authors are told by their publishers to use Twitter to promote themselves. No, wrong idea: you can use twitter to promote other people. You can invite guests. You can retweet. You can share information. There's humour. 

TG: Is there anything about Twitter that annoys you?
MA: I think other people's experience of Twitter is not the same as mine. It's self-selecting. You attract people interested in your radio station. And they know by now that if they're rude, I'll block them. 

TG: But though you like it, I believe you limit your tweeting time to ten minutes a day. 
MA: That's my story [grins].

TG: So it's not true?
MA: Tweeting time, yes, but the internet is very handy for things that are well-known within a culture. Like I'm reading this [fishes out a copy of Mahasweta Devi's After Kurukshetra, set after the battle of the Mahabharata] – and I had to look up the back story, so I could understand what she was retelling. 

TG: But you don't think the internet has changed us?
MA: The platform does alter how we perceive, but only alters how we perceive within that window. It alters how we narrate. So before the jumpcut in film, you would have to have a paragraph of explanation every time you change the scene. In the 19th century novel, it'd be: 'While Oliver was learning to pick pockets, in another part of the city...'

TG: We assume simultaneity now. 
MA: Yes. It's the meanwhile part. It's what I did with the MaddAddam Trilogy. I have Oryx and Crake and then simultaneously, The Year of the Flood. Then I connect them in the third book. 

TG: Starting out, did you find it difficult to get published because you were a woman?
: No, because I was Canadian. (laughs) There were only a couple of Canadian publishing companies in the 60s. There was also Oxford Canada, and Macmillan Canada, but your chances with them were slim. You could move to the United States and become pseudo-American, or to London. It was a post-colonial time. So we had men and women writers working together on the problem of being Canadian. Young writers started their own publishing companies, some of which are still going, and quite respectable. I was working in publishing, too, the way we did, basically unpaid: looking at each others’ manuscripts, sitting on the board, looking at the slush pile.
TG: Does the Indian publishing industry look different from your last visit, 27 years ago?
: There’s a lot more of it now. The landscape you see now didn’t exist. There weren’t any literary festivals. A lot of new publications have sprung up.
TG: Do you enjoy literature festivals?
: I’m too old to do things I don’t enjoy.
TG: How was the Jaipur Literature Festival?
: Extremely filled with people! 
I think it was a third of a million attendance this time. They have to be congratulated on handling that, they've got a system which more or less works. 
Everybody was extremely pleasant. I think it’s because you’re supposed to be nice to old people. If I were younger, I’d get more aggressive questions. 

TG: And you didn't at JLF?
MA: I got one by a guy that said, well, the women's movement has been a failure. So I said, think of all these things that were once hotly debated, such as are women human beings, should they be allowed to attend university, have jobs. I think we're in the third wave, where the hot button issues are violence, rape and murder. 
In the early days, people would say things like: “What makes you think you can write?” Or the radio guy would start off with “I haven’t read your book and I’m not going to. But tell me, in 25 words or less, what’s it about?”

One of my favourites was: “So, 
The Handmaid’s Tale is autobiography.” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s set in the future.” He said, “That’s no excuse.”
TG: Do you think there is resistance from men to reading books written by women?
: Books by young women? Yes. You don’t want a girl that’s smarter than you, if you’re thinking of her as somebody you might date. Middle-aged women? It’s your mom: run away. But Granny? Granny always gave you that cookie nobody else would give you. There’s a lot of pushback in sci-fi and online gaming: those guys are afraid women will come in and tell them they can’t have rape scenes in their video games. I seem to have a pretty large younger male readership for the MaddAddam trilogy. Less for the realistic fiction, but not none. Because I cover quite a large range, my readership has always been wide. Any age, any gender, any country.
TG: The idea that continues to plague us is that the things that women write about most often are seen as “domestic”which is apparently not universal.
: If a man writes a domestic novel about changing a baby: “Hero!!” If a woman writes it: “Why do we have read this shit, baby-diapers-crap?” But a lot more younger men are a lot more participatory in their families. And they seem to enjoy it. You never would have seen that in the 50s.

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