Reposted from Northampton Magazine, Summer 2018
TALKING FAME, FAKE NEWS, FAVORITE PEOPLE AND MUCH MUCH MORE WITH LITERARY LEGEND MARGARET ATWOOD
Shortly before her sold-out spring annual National Endowment for the Humanities lecture at Northampton Community College, internationally acclaimed author Margaret Atwood spoke with NCC magazine’s longtime editor Heidi Butler, now retired, for a candid and frank interview. “Atwood’s brilliance takes your breath away, and her sense of humor is no less keen,” Butler said. We hope you enjoy these excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Many read “The Handmaid’s Tale” in preparation for your visit. If they have time for one other novel or book of your poetry or short fiction, what would you recommend?
A: They would probably like “Alias Grace,” which has a very well-done TV miniseries that you can get on Netflix. It just won about five of the top Canadian screen awards, including best lead actress. The actress’s name is Sarah Gadon, and she does an amazing job. It was based on a real double murder that took place in 1843 and became one of what passed in those days for an international sensation because it involved two people being murdered – the landholder and his housekeeper, who also happened to have been his mistress.
Two servants ran away to the United States on a paddle wheel steamer — a manservant and the maidservant called Grace Marks, who was barely 16 years old. They both got apprehended and hauled back and put on trial. Of course, with any case like that, opinion split, so either Grace was an innocent victim, afraid for her life and forced to do these things, or she was the cause of all the trouble and egged the manservant on.
Q: No parallels to current times there!
A: A lot! It also split politically. For the conservatives, because the murdered man was a conservative landholder, Grace was the female demon incarnate — deceptive and dissembling and manipulative. For the reformers, she was the put-upon, possibly rather simpleminded, pawn in the game. I went through this case with a fine-tooth comb, and I still couldn’t decide at the end of it what the truth was. Even the eyewitness accounts were conflicting. People could not even agree on what Grace looked like.
Q: How did you become aware of the story?
A: I learned of the case through another woman writer whom I was reading called Susanna Moodie. She has two books set in the middle of the 19th century. In “Life in the Clearing,” she goes to visit the newly built Kingston penitentiary. In those days, you could go and visit those institutions and get a look at famous prisoners. Grace Marks was a famous prisoner. Susanna Moodie wrote it from memory and, as it turns out, got a lot of things wrong. Later, she goes to visit the newly constructed Toronto Lunatic Asylum, of which they were very proud. Unfortunately, they had forgotten to put an outlet for sewage in the cellar, but never mind, they were very proud of it. There Grace Marks was again — out of her mind. Susanna Moody was of the opinion that this was what was the matter all along, but little did Susanna Moody know that after her visit, Grace was sent back to the penitentiary as not being insane.
“Alias Grace” lets the reader decide. You can see how hard that would be to act, because you did not know at any given moment whether the person telling the story is telling you the truth of not. The actress does a remarkable job.
Q: You researched the case thoroughly and did not come to a firm conclusion. That leads to another question. One of the skills we try to help students develop is critical thinking. You seem to be the epitome of an independent thinker, and you’ve taken some heat for that.
A: Yes, I have! (with a chuckle)
Q: How did you develop the intellectual muscle and courage to question assumptions and popular positions?
A: Probably through growing up with scientists, not that science in itself is exempt. There have been some pretty loony scientific theories over the years, but science is self-questioning. If somebody has a theory, they need to prove it. And people need to question their methods of proof. Why do we think we know what we think we know? On what are we basing our assumptions? We are now living in the age of fake news, and that makes things quite difficult because people don’t know where to turn for facts and truth.
Q: Do you have any recommendations on where to turn?
A: It’s so hard. The thing about mainstream media is that if they have made a mistake, they are obliged to correct it because they can be sued. If an entity can be sued, it has some skin in the game to actually try to tell the truth. Not that mainstream media are without their biases, and not that they do not decide which particular truth they wish to tell, but if they’ve made a factual error, they are obliged to correct it. If somebody tells a factual lie, they can get away with it on social media, because who are these people anyway? It’s a picture of a cat, but if they are reputable journalists working for a reputable publication, and you call them on the factual error, they have to correct it. They have a reputation to defend.
Q: Speaking of fake news, with all that has been written about you, are there any pervasive misperceptions about you or your work that annoy you?
A: My advent as a novelist coincided with the second-wave women’s movement, which hit around 1969 or 70. Again, opinions split. Either I was a champion of something or other, or I was an evil, bad person who hated men. That got going, and then we had several incarnations of that. People are sometimes annoyed when they say, “Are you a feminist?” and I say, “What kind of feminist are you talking about?” But you have to say that, because if you look it up on your web browser, you’ll find there are at least 50 types of feminism, so which kind are you asking me that I am?
Q: Which kind would you say you are?
A: I would say that I am the kind that is interested in structural change. The kind that would, for instance, support AfterMeToo. It is in Canada, and it is working for structural changes in the area of sexual assault. How are things reported? How are they treated? How is procedural fairness built in? If you don’t have procedural fairness for all, you are going to lose your credibility pretty quickly. AfterMeToo was started by people in the entertainment business, just like #TimesUp. Go on their website and have a look. They don’t intend to stop with the entertainment business. Like #TimesUp, they intend to make it much broader, which is where it needs to be.
Q: You have thought and written a lot about Canadian identity and culture. If you hadn’t been born in Canada, where would you have chosen to be born and why?
A: Oh, boy, that’s a hard one. Do I get to pick the gender? And what about the social class? Do we want to go for easy life or absence of moral culpability? I’ve met a lot of people who claim to have been Cleopatra in their past lives, but they haven’t read the book. I haven’t met very many who said that they were ditchdiggers in ancient Egypt. One of my friends said she wanted to be a courtesan in the 18th century. That would have been quite a different life. I don’t know. Could I be an animal? There are a lot of choices out there!
Something before the first World War would have been a more idealistic period in which to be alive. There are a couple of interesting books out there. One of them is called “How to Be a Victorian.” And one of them is called “How to be a Tudor.” If you were not a rich person, it would have been better to have been a Tudor. You would have had better things to eat. In the Victorian era, you would have been quite malnourished, especially in the south of England.
In Scotland, you would have had oats which are much more complete. What you’re really looking at is practical daily life. Not just what were your rights, but also what would you wear, what would you eat, where would you live, what sort of help, care and resources would have been available to you? Did they know about germs yet? I was a Victorianist in my past life. That’s why there were some things I didn’t need to research when writing “Alias Grace,” such as everyone was afraid of doctors. Every time the doctor turned up somebody died, so naturally you were afraid of doctors.
Q: You are a literary rock star, but you also seem like a fairly private person. How has it affected your work and your personal life?
A: It’s a balancing act. You need a lot of private time to do any writing, but when you’re in that position, the line goes around the block for people who want you to help them out with things. And being Canadian, of course, you’re expected to do that! There are a lot of “help me with this, and help me with that” [requests], and they’re all very worthy causes, but there are a lot of them.
Q: You’ve done some of that with your Twitter account.
A: Yes, I put out [tweets] about the environment, art, women’s [issues], other people’s books and things like that.
Q: Have you paid a price in your personal life for fame?
A: Not the kind you might expect me to have paid. That is, my relatives are all still speaking to me. I haven’t had 16 divorces, and I am not an alcoholic.
A: Thank you. There’s still time!
Q: Out of all your accomplishments as a thinker, a writer, an inventor, a crusader for environmental responsibility and as a person, which brings you the greatest satisfaction?
A: They would bring me satisfaction if we were actually getting anywhere! I shouldn’t say that. We are getting some places. I would have to say environmental because if we trash the planet, no more people. No more people means no more readers.
Q: That will make a great headline: Ms. Atwood’s interest in the environment is driven by pure self-interest in having future readers.
A: You’re right. If you’re going to be a writer, you want readers, so having them all die is not good! You probably know about the Future Library of Norway project. One reason that that got so much attention was it’s a very hopeful thing to be doing. It says that in 100 years there will be people. There will be Norway. There will be a future library of Norway, and people will still be reading and will still want to read. All of those things are pretty hopeful.
Q: Much of your work has been described as dark or dystopian, but your website says that the MaddAddam trilogy has a “conclusion that points to the ultimate endurance of community and love.” Are you optimistic about the future?
A: I think anybody who writes anything is optimistic about the future. The mere act of writing supposes a future. There is always a time gap between you writing and somebody else reading. So projecting that on, for instance, 100 years, it is obviously an optimistic act just to write anything, even if the content may seem quite dire. You will notice that I have never killed everybody off at the end of the book.
Q: That says something. Last question: Who are the people you admire the most or who have had the greatest influence on you as a writer?
A: That’s a whole book. I had good parents. Some writers have bad parents, so definitely my parents. My high school English teachers. My grade 11 teacher, called Miss Florence Smedley, told the truth when the documentary filmmaker showed up. She said “she showed no particular ability in my class.” But another teacher, Miss Bessie Billings, you can read about in one of my short stories. “My Last Duchess” is about Miss Bessie Billings and about how we used to get taught English through very, very detailed analyses of works of art and nothing about the person who wrote them.
It was the old school. You’d have to minutely analyze each text. The teachers I had in college were just very good teachers, too. In those days, there was a course called Honors English and you started in Anglo-Saxon [times] and you went all the way through to T.S. Eliot, so by the time you were through, you had it covered. Then I went on to Harvard graduate school. “Alias Grace” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are dedicated to Perry Miller who was the man that brought the study of American Puritans into the Academy. No Perry Miller, no “Handmaid’s Tale”!