The award-winning author talks to Time Out before her turn at Dubai's first festival of Literature…
‘Right now I’m looking out the window and what I see is a snow-covered street and that street is roughly, let me see, it’s roughly near Bloor Street and Avenue Road, so it’s somewhat north of the parliament buildings and the university, more or less in the middle of the old Toronto, but of course now there are huge suburbs all around.’
This reply, from author Margaret Atwood, comes five minutes into our phone interview, a response to a general query about where she is now, while we’re talking. All we know, from an interview that’s been arranged between a trio of international PRs and assistants, is that the star of Dubai’s inaugural Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EAIFL) is currently in Canada, where she was born and lives. And her reply, slightly leftfield yet intimately detailed, calling to mind as it does an understated yet thoroughly evocative sense of history as well as place, of grand ideas and subtle, yet insistent change, feels fitting for an author whose work has always managed to do the same. (A simple, ‘I’m at home/in my office in Toronto,’ would surely have been the more conventional response?)
Atwood, who turns 70 in November, is universally acclaimed in literary circles. She has been awarded – or at least nominated for – pretty much every major literary prize going and is widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest living authors. Along with being credited – and condemned – as one of the most important feminist writers of the past 50 years, she is a strong campaigner for green issues, renowned for her strong opinions and sharp insight. For all that, Atwood’s writings are never polemical. ‘Well I hope they’re not,’ she responds. ‘If I wanted to do that, I’d rent a billboard’. On the contrary, Atwood has managed to swing effortlessly between genre, place and roles – among the 40-plus published works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry credited to her is the odd opera libretto and patented invention.
We talk as Atwood is in ‘deep edit’. Her latest novel, God’s Gardeners, is due to be published in September and she says she has ‘about 40 pages of my thing to go’ before she hands it over to her copy editor for final proofing (you would be amazed, she says, at the things that readers pick up on – she has received disgruntled comments on everything from her description of how (not) to pluck a chicken to the best way to make butter).
Prolific is a word that’s frequently used to describe a writer who hasn’t looked back since self-publishing a collection of seven poems in 1961 (‘I handset it and did the cover out of a lino block and stapled it together’). But Atwood herself isn’t having any of it. ‘People say, “Why are you so prolific? How come you’ve written so many books?” I say, “Because look at the time I’ve been on the planet.”’ Charles Dickens, she notes, by way of contrast (oh that we could all so effortlessly – and without a trace of ego – align ourselves to Charles Dickens), had ‘completed, by the age of 31, six major novels. Compared to somebody like that,’ she says, warming to her theme with cheerful outrage, ‘I’m a sluggard.’
But Dickens, we protest, wrote in an entirely different way, much of it a serial format – printed in weekly instalments – which Atwood likens, rather neatly, to be ‘sort of like TV scriptwriting’ today.’ Atwood, on the other hand, works slowly, in a process that involves writing everything in longhand, before transcribing it to computer and then revising (‘there’s a lot of revision’) on screen. ‘So Charles Dickens I am not,’ she reiterates. ‘It doesn’t just flow out and get printed that way.’
Perhaps not. But Atwood’s trick is that it reads as if it does. She has an easy writing style that is clever without ever feeling forced. Whereas many of literature’s greatest writers succeed in part because their style is so distinctive – they move in the same landscapes and develop a singular voice, as unique to them as a thumbprint – Atwood, for all her stylistic lyricism, moves across time and genre with ease.
We tell her we are currently rereading, The Blind Assassin, the novel that won her the UK’s Booker Prize in 2000. While telling a family tale – at once epic and intimate – of two sisters’ very different fates, the book also manages to span the history of North America in the 20th century with effortless accuracy. Atwood brings each era to life with references (newspaper reports, a description of clothing or ads in magazines) that feel properly authentic and, crucially, unforced. How does she manage that?
‘Well, I write first and research afterwards,’ comes the reply. ‘It’s like Alice In Wonderland –verdict first and evidence afterwards.’
Writing into the future, as she did in novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Oryx And Crake (2003) is in some ways easier, she says, because ‘It is what you say it is. But then, you have to be consistent… I think it’s the same problem either way – you can slip into anachronism in the past quite easily. People do: they may have the right dress, but they’ve got the wrong underwear on underneath.’ Atwood’s underwear, need you ask, is always present and correct.
For all her time and genre hopping, however, the author’s fiction does contain common themes. From the publication of her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969, Atwood has been pegged as a feminist author, even if she’s never really applied that label to herself. ‘I’m of the school that believes that [women are] individuals,’ she says, ‘and there’s a lot of variety and they come in many different versions, good and bad, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very radical position.’
‘It’s like the hats and hairs,’ she continues cryptically. ‘Men never get their hats and hair mentioned much at all, women always do.’ That people focus on the fact that her writing features women whose situations are as much about their sex as their circumstance, then, is a reflection of the world we live in.
The argument that Atwood is not writing feminist stories about individual women, but individual stories that happen to most commonly feature female protagonists is a valid one, but we suspect the ‘F’ label isn’t going to be leaving her any time soon. In 1999, almost 15 years after it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women and other ‘minority’ social groups are robbed of their basic rights in a dystopian, but frighteningly recognisable future, was listed by the American Library Association as one of the ‘10 most challenged books of 1999’, due to the number of complaints it received over its content.
Atwood’s involvement with EAIFL threatened to be overshadowed by controversy, and she may now only appear via video link. Still, the recent turn of events makes her words to us strangely prescient: ‘You don’t know what’s going to happen, how it will be received,’ she tells us, ‘whether some of the material will be too extreme for some people, whether it will be well- attended. You just don’t know any of these things, and therefore it’s a gamble.’
The future according to Atwood
Margaret Atwood, sometime sci-fi writer, spends ‘quite a lot of time figuring out what people will invent because they’ll have to’ and is, she says, quite often right. Indeed, at a recent fundraiser for Canadian magazine The Walrus, the author wrote down ‘five areas of prediction’, put them in a sealed bottle and auctioned it for CN$8,000. And it isn’t all theoretical. Her remote signature device, the LongPen, was first developed so the author could undertake book signings remotely.
So what does she make of Dubai? Atwood is intrigued that the emirate has become such a tourist hotspot, noting that ‘when the oil really runs out’ people will not be able to travel the same way. ‘Oh for the return of the airship,’ she exclaims, adding that the commercial return of a craft that’s ‘a brilliant way of transporting freight because it has a brilliant lift for very little energy expenditure’ is one of her ‘future predictions’. Dubai airspace filled with the transport equivalent of giant balloons? Only time will tell.