Margaret Atwood

The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Margaret Atwood

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I kicked off the morning I was scheduled to interview Margaret Atwood with some Knob Creek bourbon, immediately following my morning coffee. My Facebook post that morning: So it’s okay to drink bourbon at 9:08 in the morning if you’re about to call Margaret Atwood, right? A surplus of 100 people quickly “liked” this, many leaving comments assuring me I was on the right—nay, mandatory—track, imbibing. Thankfully, I had the prescience of mind not to tweet my behavior since, among literary writers, Margaret Atwood is reigning queen of the Twittersphere, and her 370,000+ followers might not have appreciated that she was about to be interviewed by a starstruck fan who was drunk before breakfast.

The thing is, I was having an out-of-body experience. I have flat-out worshipped Atwood’s work since I was nineteen years old. In this, I am clearly not alone. The author of more than fifty books of poetry, children’s literature, nonfiction, and of course, fiction, she has been the recipient of dozens of awards, including the Booker Prize for my personal favorite of her novels, The Blind Assassin. Though the majority of her fiction would fall under a “literary realism” heading, she is perhaps better known as a speculative fiction (or even sci-fi, though she has disputed this term) writer by the general public, thanks to the immense popularity of novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake—the latter of which has spun into a trilogy, and the final volume of which, Madadam, is yet to be released.

It is into this speculative category that Atwood’s most recent fiction, the serialized novel Positron, falls. Published in episodes online by Byliner, at the time of this interview three segments had been released. As with her other speculative works, Positron centers on a futuristic dystopian United States, and explores myriad issues of invasive control over personal lives. In all her fiction (and much of her other writing, in fact), Atwood is a relentless interrogator of the many faces of oppression, manifested in misogyny and the control of women’s bodies and reproductive systems, in environmental destruction, in animal cruelty, in institutional corruption of insurance companies, governments and marketing, and in the quieter—yet at times, even more deadly—power struggles that exist in intimate relationship dyads: between lovers, friends, sisters.

Aside from being ambidextrous in terms of form—she was a poet first, and as a child even wrote and illustrated comic books—perhaps my favorite thing about the literary phenomenon that is Margaret Atwood is the way she both inspires yet utterly resists labels. While many groups may wish to “claim” her, her work is incapable of being pinned down and surmised merely by words such as “feminist” or “dystopian.”  An age-defying, genre-and-gender-bender, Atwood is now in her seventies, yet continues to write subversive, sexy thirty-somethings with as much credibility as she wrote traumatized little girls, sexually repressed male doctors, and wise-and-jaded crones when she herself was none of the above. With prose that cuts like a razor, at an age when writers like Philip Roth hang up the towel, or (another personal favorite) Milan Kundera is twenty years north of his strongest books, she continues to read as being at the top of her game, ceaselessly fresh and eager to learn new tricks in the brave new online universe.

To say it was an honor to interview Atwood would be a great understatement. It was, quite frankly, one of those experiences in which the Younger Version of myself would literally have fallen over with shock and excitement had I ever known this was coming my way. And I would be gravely remiss not to mention that my morning bourbon, while quite nice, was completely uncalled for: Atwood could not have been more gracious or less intimidating. She chatted for nearly twice the time we’d originally been allotted, asked me some fascinating questions about my twin daughters and Chinese adoption (I have spared the Rumpus readers from having to read scads about my personal life by trimming this part of the interview), and laughed so easily and frequently that I made the call to omit parenthetical remarks reading (laughs) so as not to be annoyingly repetitive. She was freaking delightful, people. Here she is.

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The Rumpus: So I heard you discuss in an interview the fact that you were drawn to writing Positron in the tradition of writers like Dickens, who would serialize novels and respond to fans as they went along, so that the readers could shape the text.  Do you have any examples, that wouldn’t be incredible spoilers, of how Byliner readers helped inform Positron?

Margaret Atwood: Let me see. Most of my reactions so far have come from Twitter. And on Twitter, most of the reactions—because it’s a self-selecting bunch, is it not?—I’m unlikely to get someone coming on saying, I really hate this. So what they’ve been doing mostly is saying, When’s the next? and OMG and such, so it’s been more of a general cheering than ideas about what should happen. But if I should ask them a question about what should happen, I would get a lot of answers…

Rumpus: That must have been different and cool—writing can be lonely, so it must have been exciting to have that response and connection as part of your process.

Atwood: Writing is alone, yes, but I don’t think it’s lonely…ask any writer if they feel lonely when they’re writing their book, and I think they’ll say no…

Rumpus: That’s true, because the characters are your friends during that period.

Atwood: The characters are your friends during that period, and plus you’re in a total megalomania control freak state.

Rumpus: One of the things I love about your work is your tendency to end on ambiguous, unsettled notes—from Surfacing onward, your novels rarely come to a complete tying-up of knots. But Positron, I thought, was the most extreme example I’ve seen of this in your books, where you actually leave characters, in a sense, at the very height of the drama. I was wondering if you do have any plans to revisit Stan and Charmaine in a longer, print version of the novel, and extend their stories further?

Atwood: That is exactly what I intend to do…

Rumpus: Oh, yay!

Atwood: On the other hand, I’m now writing chapter four, as it were, and as with any serial, as Charles Dickens will tell you, you have to end on a “what on earth is going to happen next?” moment. So if you close an episode with “now everything’s okay,” people will of course not be motivated to go on and see what’s going to happen to that person hanging off the cliff…which is why they are in fact called “cliff hangers.”

Rumpus: I didn’t know there would be a fourth section on Byliner.

Atwood: Yes, there will.

Rumpus: Excellent. So this is a question I’ve wanted to ask you for several years actually. It starts—well, when I met my husband in Europe in 1990, literally one of the things that made me fall in love with him was that he was reading, and raving about, Cat’s Eye, and I’ve always thought of your work as equally appealing to both genders. But a couple of years ago, I attended a reading you gave in Chicago celebrating The Year of the Flood, and I was shocked by the disproportionate number of women in the audience. You had packed an auditorium—there had to have been a thousand people there at least—but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that around eighty-five to ninety percent of them were female. This confused me. I mean, you’ve won a Booker Prize.  You’ve had numerous bestsellers. You often write speculative fiction, which tends to attract a heavily male audience. So if you’re still drawing a readership so dominated by women, what can this mean? Do men simply not read books by women, regardless of the honors conveyed on them? Or was that night in Chicago a fluke?

Atwood: Well, women turn out to events more than men do. Men are more likely to be secret readers, as it were—I don’t mean that they’re furtive about it, but they are less likely to go out to an event, and that’s across the board, even for male writers, too. And women are much more likely to stand in a line. Men do not like standing in a line.

Rumpus: There was quite a line…

Atwood: Yeah, so that’s one good reason for signing a bunch of books earlier and having them already signed, so that people who do not like to stand in lines can get theirs and then go away.  So you may have noticed that [gender bias] especially in the traffic-jam. Men just really don’t like standing in line, or being in a waiting position.

Rumpus: Do you think any of this is at all related to the way critics classify your work? Like, I’ve literally seen interviews with you in which you are asked, “Why do you hate men?” or other ridiculous questions that would seem to infer that any writer with a feminist sensibility is anti-male, which is incredibly reductive. In Positron, for example, Stan’s “crimes,” so to speak, are probably far lesser than Charmaine’s.

Atwood: So far, yes…

Rumpus: What do you think of this response to your work—is it something you’ve seen a lessening of it at all over time, as women’s roles in both society and publishing continue to evolve?

Atwood: I think that times have changed, yes. I got that a lot in the early ’70s, so just when the women’s movement was hitting. I’m pre-feminist, that is, I came of age before any of that happened. So my first twelve years of being a writer were not spent in that environment, and at that point I would get reviewers saying things like, “She has transcended being a woman.” And I’d be thinking, How exactly do you do that? But the “why do you hate men?” thing—I haven’t had that for a long time now, and it may have to do with my age, because I’m now in the granny position, and it may have to do with changing sensibilities, or even people thinking that, but not feeling it’s appropriate to say it.

But there are two trends going on: one is that women are becoming much more educated. In fact, a lot of universities will tell you they have sixty percent female enrollment as opposed to forty percent male, right now, and women are moving into…not the very, very top corporate jobs, but into a lot of middle-power jobs.  So that is a huge change since, say, 1956. And that influences some things. But on the other hand, you see a rise in certain kinds of violence towards women, as you just saw in Ohio and as you just saw in India, and a lot of people have been writing about that. And if you ask young women—women of say, ages twenty to twenty-five—what it’s like for them, I don’t think you would get a tippity-top rosy picture.

Rumpus: Absolutely not. In fact, it seems even within the publishing industry there are steps forward yet steps back. More women are publishing books, and more women are working in publishing, and yet women’s writing is perhaps more pigeonholed than it was twenty years ago, when I was first coming of age as a reader and writer in the ’90s.

Atwood: Yes. It depends on the genre quite a lot, and what area they’re writing in. For example, if they’re writing Five Millions Shades of Grey, that is a girl’s book—there’s no other way of putting it.  My next-door neighbor, Sam, was curious about it, and he’s a gentleman of a certain age, and the bookseller said to him, “How old are you?”  She asked, “How old’s your wife?”—like she wasn’t sure if she should sell it to him or not. But he bought it, and then he said, “I laughed my head off.”

Rumpus: Actually, somebody gave it to my mother for her eightieth birthday and she pretty much laughed her head off, too.

Atwood: Yes, I think it is a pipe dream for a certain segment of the young female population. But just as once upon a time there were very few women who read Louis L’Amour westerns, there are very few men who are going to read that except to have a few yuks. So there’s pigeonholing that way, yes. Though there are equally male types of things that women don’t tend to like, but mostly everything is in the middle. If you’re writing crime, for instance, being a woman is not detrimental at all. Think of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell and some of the queens of crime literature. If you’re writing thrillers, you probably have a slight edge if you’re a guy, but women do write them. And sci-fi, which used to be so exclusively male, there are women writing it…

Rumpus: It seems as though literary fiction still does have a gender bias towards men in terms of review coverage, which is interesting since it also seems as though most literary agents are women, and most editors at the trade houses, and even most marketing departments are comprised heavily of women, and women also consume more books. So it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly must be breaking down in that food chain, if media coverage still favors literary titles by men as dominantly as statistics and anecdotal evidence seem to indicate.

Atwood: Well, let me ask you this question: you’re a female writer, you put a lot of time into writing your book—and you also have a family. Then somebody asks you to write a review…

Rumpus: I’m familiar with that scenario, yeah.

Atwood: So are you more or less likely to say yes than a person who doesn’t have that particular structure to their life, and are you more or less likely to be interested in getting a place in the power line-up among people whose opinions are valued in the review sections?

Rumpus: You’re exactly right—many women have to pick and choose, prioritize.

Atwood: It may be that women are asked and say no a lot. I was at an event in Holland recently that was all men except for two women—myself and a Hungarian philosopher. I commented on the fact and they said, “We invite women, but they don’t come.” And again, women are less likely to take time out, travel, and go to something like that, than men are.

Rumpus: Of course because even today, many women can’t leave their children, they don’t have a back-up plan.

Atwood: Or else they may find that they distribute their time differently, and they have different power priorities, shall we say.

Rumpus: That sort of leads into how online media is impacting all this, because it’s also connected to who can afford to write, edit, or be a tastemaker in the changing media landscape. I’m really interested in the Byliner model. You made a big splash at the Tools of Change conference a couple of years ago with your keynote address, where you referred to writers as a “primary source” feeding the rest of the book industry, the way a dead moose feeds others in the food chain. Your message was that, while technology can be exciting and freeing, “change” isn’t always unilaterally positive. Authors make less money from e-books, in a climate where only ten percent of professional writers are able to earn a living exclusively from their craft anyway—and to extend this further, online media has all but replaced print journalism, and writers are rarely paid for work online, even at high profile sites like the Huffington Post or—case-in-point—The Rumpus, because free-access sites often simply don’t bring in the necessary revenue to make it possible. In recent years, cleaning toilets at McDonald’s has been more economically viable than being a publishing writer in the online media. Byliner seems to be specifically working to combat the trend of online literary culture existing outside of the economic market, and somehow it’s succeeding.  Do you have any insights into Byliner’s success?

Atwood: I think it’s filling a niche that used to exist—in fact, it used to be pretty major—and that was magazines, and indeed newspapers, that published fiction. That was what you used to do first, and it was why you put on first serial rights and that kind of stuff.  You saw that drying up long before there was an Internet—you saw that drying up in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and by the ’90s there were hardly any magazines doing it anymore except The New Yorker, which was known for it.  Other than that, people had to publish in literary magazines or university-run magazines, which have different editorial policies, and that influenced therefore what kind of things people were writing.

So that whole area just disappeared, and Byliner saw that, because they’re all magazine people by training, and experienced; so they saw that and they created an online platform that allows that kind of long-form investigative journalism, and long short-form fiction, to exist in what is, in fact, a possible analogy to magazines—to exist online. And for individual pieces that they commission or buy, they do indeed pay. And they royalty share with the writer. So I see it as opening up another market for writers that used to exist, and then disappeared, and now is back online.

Rumpus: It’s very exciting to think it could be happening again, because it’s been virtually impossible—I mean, writers want to get exposure, and online media gives you a great deal of exposure, surpassing all but the most elite print venues, but it’s given absolutely no financial compensation for most people, even those in enviable positions of influence or audience.

Atwood: You look at the Pando Daily and its trends for 2013, and online subscription is one of them, so I think you’ll see more of that. And another trend they pointed out was serialization, which, again, the internet facilitates, and is something that dropped out of print culture but was not caused by the internet—print culture did that to itself.

Rumpus: You’re clearly deeply concerned about both environmental crisis and also the way a governmental or private sector response to dealing with these problems could end up perpetuating excessive state control and the eradication of personal liberties. How much of your writing in works like Positron, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Madadam trilogy do you think resides in the symbolic imagination, versus actually foreshadowing where we’re really headed as a planet? Do you think this level of infringement on privacy and human rights is something that could really happen, and is in fact happening?

Atwood: It is in fact happening. And not just in countries like Iran, but also in our society. One thing that has to be said about online culture is that it’s very permeable—it’s very hackable. The Onion had a satirical piece about Facebook awhile back in which it said, “You know, the CIA has just come up with this great new tool for tracking people! They tell you who their friends are, they tell you where they are, they tell you what they’re doing—it’s called Facebook.”

Rumpus: It’s so sad but yes, we’re sheep to the slaughter if this is true…

Atwood: So one of the ways of thinking is that, If I’m not doing anything wrong, who cares? But I would say think again about that, because certain people may be redefining what they think is wrong.

Rumpus: I have friends who won’t go on Facebook because of this, and on the one hand it seems paranoid—

Atwood: It’s not paranoid, really. If you want to track this trend, you can go to Citizen Lab. It exists in Toronto, I know the people who run it. And what they do is track online civil liberties-limiting trends around the world. They were the people who, for instance, discovered that somebody from China was looking at people through the camera on their computer, and they also discovered that somebody had hacked the Indian military, which also means they had hacked anyone the Indian military was in bed with. So there is a huge cyber-war going on invisibly all around us, in which not only militaries and governments but also corporations are vigorously trying to hack their competitors.

Rumpus: It’s terrifying, because if you’re a technophobe and really not aware of all of that, it seems like a vague, implausible magic—but it affects even those of us who don’t understand it.

Atwood: It’s generally the law of improved weaponry, which you can trace back to flint arrowheads, and more specifically to the invention of the stirrup, and even more specifically, to the bows and arrows used by Genghis Kahn, which gave you a shot of about two feet longer than anybody else’s, and that’s how they won. So anytime somebody gets a piece of improved military technology, everyone else is going to want it. And this is why you should feel a little bit nervous about drones, especially tiny drones…that fly on the wall may soon be a fly on the wall, looking at you.

Rumpus: Well, look at the way Google or other search engines will scan your emails or other allegedly private materials, and churn out advertising efforts directed towards your perceived interests, in sidebar ads…it’s not that far afield from something like Minority Report, where the billboards change as you drive by…the billboards will change to cater to that individual person’s desires. Google, Amazon, they’re already doing that.

Atwood: [George] Saunders has a satirical piece in which you have to wear a special pair of shoes, and walk on a special sidewalk, and that changes all the advertising that gets beamed into your head. People are also developing headsets that will allow you to look through the eyeglasses on them and see invisible ads…well, why would you want that?

Rumpus: I don’t even want to see visible ads.

Atwood: Right. Plus, you’ll bump into things if you have this picture going on in front of you! I think it’d be quite a hazard.

Rumpus:  So I have one final question. One of the frequent psychological threads in your novels has been the way one woman is haunted by the absent presence of another. We see this in Cat’s Eye, Robber Bride, and The Blind Assassin—also Alias Grace, now that I’m thinking of it. The haunting is often tied up intensely with traumas and betrayals, and at times the potential for cruelty in female friendships…but also love. What compels you about this theme that’s prompted you to explore it from so many various angles?

Atwood: I think it’s a very strong thread in people’s actual lives. But also, when you’re thinking of characters in a book and the possible combinations of them, there aren’t really very many. Some are familial: father-son, mother-daughter, mother-son, father-daughter. Brothers. Men, best friends, companions and partners in crime or otherwise. Females similarly, but I think that girls act differently from the way boys act, particularly between the ages of, say, eight to twelve. Boys are much more likely to make overt power plays involving either physical violence or better knowledge of something, like who has the most baseball scores in their head.

Rumpus: With girls, it’s all psychological.

Atwood: It’s psychological and it’s Byzantine, in that you cannot tell when the next palace coup will take place. Somebody who thought they were quite jolly with their little friends and companions, and having great fun whispering about somebody else, or in this age sending text messages, suddenly wakes up one morning to find that they’ve been excluded and they don’t know why. And this is such a recurring theme.  When I published Cat’s Eye, I got a lot of mail about it, even back then. And it seems to be universal, so a lot of the mail came from other countries—it was interesting. At that age, the friendships and alliances are very important to a child. So I think those sorts of thing, and sister-sister, leave their traces one way or another. Good sisters, bad sisters. Good friends, bad friends. They’re very important in women’s lives.

Rumpus: Absolutely—I have twelve-year-old identical twin girls, so I’m revisiting all that from my own past now.

Atwood: Oh, lucky you! How much fun is that?

Rumpus: They’re pretty fabulous, but it’s a high drama quotient over here.

Atwood: I imagine it can get pretty competitive. Now do they love each other, or do they have fights?

Rumpus: They absolutely do both. They have an incredibly intense, symbiotic relationship—they speak to each other the way your worst and best self would speak to you while you’re looking in a mirror. If anyone attacks from the outside, they’ll immediately close ranks, no questions asked.  But then they’ll also just look at each other in the middle of a harmonious moment and suddenly say, “I don’t like your face.” If someone said that to me, I’d be cowering under the dining room table crying, but the other one will just be like, “Yeah.” And then they carry on. It’s like acting out your interior monologue with yourself, except with another person.

Atwood: Wow—of course if they say, “I don’t like your face,” it’s the same as saying they don’t like their own face…

Rumpus: Exactly!  Which, well, don’t we all think at times, looking at ourselves? It’s fascinating. So—wow, I think I’ve gone way over the time limit your publicist gave me—thank you so much, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you.

Atwood: And a great pleasure talking to you. And yes, I do look at The Rumpus! So let me know when I’m up and I’ll put it on Twitter.

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Featured image of Margaret Atwood © 2013 by George Whiteside.


Gina Frangello is the Sunday Editor of The Rumpus. She is also the Fiction Editor of The Nervous Breakdown and the co-founder and Executive Editor of Other Voices Books, an imprint of Dzanc Books. Her third book of fiction, A Life in Men, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in February 2014. She is also the author Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She lives in Chicago and can be found at www.ginafrangello.com. More from this author →