A sit-down with Canada's finest
Margaret Atwood has cemented her reputation as one of the foremost authors of our time. From her riveting fictions, exceptional poetry and biting criticism, her list of accomplishments is equal only to her consistency as an artist. Ms. Atwood sat down with The Spectrum before her speech and answered a few questions about her distinguished career.
The Spectrum: The Year of the Flood, your newest novel, is a sequel to your 2003 dystopia, Oryx and Crake. What made you want to revisit that world?
Margaret Atwood: It's not a sequel or a prequel, it takes place at the same time. So it's a simultanean. It's what would have been the 'meanwhile chapter' in a Victorian novel. So it's meanwhile, you know that what you're going to read is taking place at the same time as what you've just read. Characters that are glimpsed through train windows or briefly or out of the corners of Jimmy's eyes in the first book are now in the center of this book. Jimmy has moved to the peripheral. It's a different viewpoint, quite a different viewpoint, even though it ends up on the same day as the first book did. I think what made me want to go back was two things. Number one, what happened right after the end of this first book? And those things that are glimpsed just peripherally, I got quite interested in them. I wanted to see who … who did Jimmy's mother run off to join? What was the opposing voice? I wanted to go into that one. Jimmy is viewing [the world] as a person of privilege. The people in Year of the Flood are an extremely unprivileged group of people. I wanted to see what life was like for them in a society that has abandoned public space, although not the public motive.
S: Speaking of fictional dystopias, how do you feel about The Handmaid's Tale being your most famous work?
MA: What it means, simply, is that it hit a nerve. That's why Brave New World and 1984 are both well known. People keep wondering which one we're going to get and the answer is … [none] or both. So, in a way, the interest in such books is extra-literary. That is, they may be well written, but that's not the main thing about them that the people find of interest. In England, this book was reviewed as a 'jolly good yarn' because they had a religious war in the 17th century. They've had their religious war and they're not going to have another one anytime soon. If you wanted to take over England and set up a tyrannical totalitarianism, they would not do it that way, because they already did it under Oliver Cromwell. They did it a couple of other times under the archbishops, as that turns out. In Canada, they asked nervously, 'Could it happen here?' and in the United States in 1985 they asked, 'How long have we got?' So it felt very close to a number of people in [the U.S.]. In fact, that kind of possibility became more apparent. Other countries, such as Canada and England, revised their views somewhat. In other words, England stopped saying 'jolly good yarn' and saying, 'Well, maybe it couldn't happen here, but it could happen over there.' The thing about the United States is that it started as a theocracy and even though it had a civil war, it never had a religious war because the constitution was [written by people who were] aware of these possibilities because they'd seen so many wars in Europe about religion. They put the separation of church and state in the constitution for a very good reason. If they're not separate, then you get religious wars. So they saw that happening, not just in England but in continental Europe a lot, and they wished to avoid it. It's never actually happened, but people don't know how bad it can get. So The Handmaid's Tale is that answer to the question: If you're going to set up totalitarianism in the United States, how would you do it? People then get blinded to the fact that the central character in the book is a woman, they get blinded to the fact that there are other people in that book who are getting suppressed, as well as men, because you can't change the position of women without changing the position of men. And that's the nerve that hit and that's why it's the most famous.
S: What are your suggestions for young writers and aspiring novelists in such a technology-driven age?
MA: [The technology] really [has] nothing to do with [books]. They might have something to do with how books are published, but they don't have anything to do with what makes a good story. The fundamental essentials are pretty much the same in that you have to hold the attention of your audience. Unless you do that, it's game over right away or else no one's going to read to your brilliant page 50.
S: Your book of criticism, 1972's Survival: a Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, introduced Canada to the world's literary canon. While its considered outdated in the Great White North now, it's still the cornerstone introductory piece for those interested in Canadian lit. How do you feel about such a distinction?
MA: It was a touchstone moment. The books it's talking about, of course people have added a lot to, and certain things have changed. It wasn't intended to introduce Canada to the world, it was intended to introduce Canada to Canada. It is the book that everyone has to disprove if they can, [and] they're welcome to have a go. It set out to establish two things: that there was a Canadian literature and that it was different from American or English literature. Things have shifted within those categories, but you're still going to find a lot of those things around. The amount of Canadian literature written before that time was nil; now there's a lot. The role of nature has shifted precipitously. Nature as the monster you have to defeat is now nature the fragile creature you need to defend, no matter how much you continue to freeze to death. It's always indicative of the literature how the authors choose to polish their characters. Many more people die in car crashes, but that's not a usual literary death, yet.
S: Speaking of the U.S. and Canada, what is your opinion on the relationship between our two countries today?
MA: Biggest trading partner. You're our biggest trading partner and we're yours. Not only that, but we've got one of the huge carbon sites in the world, namely, the boreal forest. We've also got this very debatable stash of oil, which is going to be very controversial in coming years. So, we used to be just your biggest trading partner; now we're also a country with oil, which is always a mixed blessing. It's all been complicated by the entry of China into the power position. Had the U.S. not dug itself a big hole of debt and filled it up with Chinese backed up bonds, things would be different. As it is, it's an unstable situation. The whole thing is quite unstable. China's getting into Canada now. How will that all end up? It's difficult to have been the person with the biggest hammer in the world and suddenly find there's another person with a big hammer. But that is not our problem, but it is your problem. And when you have a problem, we have a problem. It's what they say – 'When Washington has a cold, Ottawa sneezes.'
S: Your autobiography is a bit hard to follow. From what I can tell, you have lived in or taught at many places all over the world, including Alabama, New York, Berlin, Alberta and Montreal before settling in Toronto, where you live today. What has all of this been like, and what made you call Toronto home?
MA: I live in Toronto at the moment. I grew up there. Before that, I lived in Northern Quebec. My father was an entomologist in [northern Quebec], where he set up the insight lab. Toronto is where my parents settled, so I went to the University of Toronto, and then to Radcliffe at Harvard for a year before they melded the graduate schools. The other things were in the '60s (I think I moved 17 times); they were jobs, or going back to school. In the '70s I lived on a farm for nine years. While living on that farm, we also lived for a year in Scotland, then back to Toronto, really for school reasons because our daughter was at the age where, had we remained in the country, she would have been spending two hours a day on a school bus, which is way too much time to spend when you're five. That's like half your life. So we moved back and then we took years off to write now and again, so that's what all that was about. The teaching jobs I did were only every semester so I had time off, for the fun of it, partly. We lived in Alabama because of the bird life.