In literary Canada, there is no person more central than Margaret Atwood. For more than 50 years, she has put her intellectual weight and passion behind Canadian literature and publishing, feminism and environmentalism. The 73-year-old has written dozens of works of fiction, as well as essays, poetry and children’s books, and is releasing a new novel: the final instalment of a trilogy set in a future when there are few humans left, genetic engineering is unregulated, and snuff films and porn provide the daily entertainment. The series began with Oryx and Crake, followed with The Year of the Flood and concludes now with MaddAddam.
When I arrived at the café on Bloor Street where we’d arranged to meet, Atwood was sitting by the window having her photo taken, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat (which she took off for our interview) and a red shirt tied in a knot over a black shirt. The effect was elegant and practical. When we spoke, we went into a private room. She sat on one of the soft chairs across from me, her legs draped over its arm, like a 16-year-old at the cottage. She said that by a certain age, everyone has a uniform. I had mentioned that her partner, the novelist Graeme Gibson, seemed stylish and like he cares about clothes. “He does care,” she said. “I mean, he has a box within which, those are his things, and he will not wear anything that isn’t in there.”
Wondering how she’d developed “her things,” I asked how her style had evolved over the years.
“When it really changed was 1970, ’71, when I spent time in France with Tony Richardson and he said, [British accent] ‘You shouldn’t wear your hair pinned back! You shouldn’t try to straighten your hair! You should just wear it natural, like a Nell Gwyn sort of woman!’”—referring to the ringletted actress-mistress of King Charles II of England.
It’s very hard to imagine Atwood with ironed-flat hair. Her natural curls are a part of what’s so iconic about her. It’s who she is. But it turns out it was also a choice. Which is significant. She has long chosen to remain true to herself: not suffering fools in interviews, not revealing more than she wishes, and—as she told the author Susan Swan in a 1975 interview in Communiqué—not compromising her calling for a relationship: “Either they could handle [me writing] or they couldn’t, and if they couldn’t, then that was the end of [it], because I wasn’t going to say, ‘Well, I’ve given up writing and now I’m just going to dedicate myself to you, dear.’ That would have been totally false.”
It’s not always easy to not be “totally false.” Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, conveys better than any book I’ve read the pressures on young women in the 1950s to lead totally false lives—either quit working, marry and raise children, or follow any other path, its prospects emptying out into a dark wilderness of who-knows-what.
Atwood knew she wanted to be a writer at 16 and has told The Paris Review she believes “the gift” is real. She wrote in Negotiating With the Dead what distinguishes someone who might write a book from a writer: “Everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. [It’s] … a deeply symbolic role … You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions.”
A good example is the 1984 documentary Once in August, in which the filmmaker grows deeply frustrated by Atwood’s refusal to accord to his romantic theories about her. “He thought there was a dark secret,” she told me. “He didn’t get it that people’s novels aren’t just their inner psyche—the novel is a very social form. Charles Dickens was writing about the slums of London. I’m interested in what’s ‘out there.’ I finally said to him, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘What I would want, if I had my fondest wish, would be that you’d have a nervous breakdown right on camera and I’d get to film it.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s not going to happen—I’m sorry.’”
Me: Do you think often about your own psychology, your self—
Atwood: I never ever think about it at all. It doesn’t interest me.
Me: You never have?
Atwood: I probably … [Thinks] When you’re in the self-indulgent, introspective age of 20 or something.
Me: Because you like looking out at the world more?
Atwood: Absolutely. Anyway, I’m a multi-tasking Gemini, so what can you do? I’m superficial. Nothing to be done. I shouldn’t say that. Gemini rising. Different.
Atwood offered to do my horoscope, typing my birth details into a website and then deciphering a chart I found absolutely unreadable.
Atwood: All right, here we go, “Continue.” [Page loads] Oooh! Oh Sheila, you’re dark. You’re very dark.
Me: Very dark? What’s it say?
Atwood: I’m not dark. OK, so … Mercury is in Capricorn, that’s interesting.
Me: Why is that interesting?
Atwood: Because Capricorn is also your sun sign. And Mercury is the planet of communication and uh … lying, I have to say. Lying. But that means that you’re well-aspected for writing. Because what is writing about but lying and communication?
It fascinated me how much she knew about this—astrology being an interesting (but surely made-up) attempt to map the world. But then, her books are preoccupied with mapping specific worlds. The way her MaddAddam trilogy lingers in the memory is as a landscape, a dreamscape—with its specific colours, details, dangers and technologies.
Given her interest in speculative fiction and new technologies (she is still developing her LongPen, which lets authors sign books at a distance, and has an active Twitter account with 413,000 followers), it’s hard to place her in an era when women had to study home ec. But she described at length how, as a teenager in 1956, she “put on the first and only home economics opera. It was about three fabrics: Orlon, Nylon and Dacron. I played Orlon.”
Me: What was the first one?
Atwood: Orlon. Orlon and Dacron have not stood the test of time. Nylon has. The conflict was provided by a wandering knight called Sir William Woolley. His terrible problem was he shrank from washing. [High voice] ‘No no! He shrinks from washing!’
She explained that she sewed her own dresses as a young woman because it was cheaper, and would have continued if she hadn’t moved “17 times between 1961 and 1971, so I wasn’t going to lug a sewing machine around.” Many of her home ec classmates still attend her readings—and this loyalty made me think of something an esteemed literary editor said to me years ago in a beauty salon, while I was working there, sweeping hair. She said she believed one of the reasons for Atwood’s success was that, like her hairstyle, she had kept the same agent and editors since the ’70s. Her loyalty to them made them loyal to her.
Wondering about this, I said, “Can I talk to you about loyalty? Because I spoke to Ellen Seligman once—I was actually working at this hair salon, and she came in, and she was talking about you—”
Atwood: She got her hair done?
Me: Yes, she got her hair done.
Atwood: Don’t tell! Loyalty is not telling what other people do with their hair!
Me: But everybody gets their hair done, right?
Atwood: I don’t.