Discover more from Juvenescence
a conversation with Margaret Atwood
"There are pluses and minuses [to celebrity]. But for a freelancer with no job prospects, what’s the alternative? You can't un-famous yourself."
Everyone who lives in downtown Toronto has a brush-with-Margaret-Atwood story.
As a law student, the novelist Andrew Pyper once helped her push her car out of a snowbank and now has a photo of the moment on his website. Another journalist friend of mine unknowingly dropped her favourite mitten while hurrying down Avenue Road in a blizzard only to have her shoulder tapped moments later by a tiny panting woman with mad curls who returned it to her with a wink, then vanished into the night.
Margaret-Atwood-in-Toronto stories are like the city itself (quotidian, buttoned-down… yet also strangely magical). They’re like Trump-braying-at-the-deli-counter stories for New Yorkers. Or the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau checking out short skirts in Montréal. Here in London it’s the Queen (I saw her motorcade sweep through Notting Hill the morning after Grenfell burnt down, it gave me shivers). But the fact that Atwood, a novelist, occupies this semi-mythical status will always fondly endear me to the place where I grew up. She’s 83 so it can’t last forever. Once she steps down, Drake will take over and all the stories will involve bottle service tables at night clubs.
So here’s my Margaret Atwood story:
When I was working as a columnist in the Style section of The Globe and Mail, my first novel came out. Not long after I found myself at a literary charity do — one of those swish black ties thingies at a luxury hotel where corporates buy tables and writers get squiffy and go on about themselves. After the cocktail reception, the suits took their seats in the ballroom after which there was meant to be a ceremony during which the writers were ‘piped in’ as guests of honour. We were all queued up waiting for the guy in the kilt and bagpipes to arrive when Margaret Atwood suddenly appeared in front of me and asked would I please be so kind as to accompany her to the ladies room?
All the other writers hushed. I said, Yes, of course.
As I followed her to the loo I felt a deep tingly flush of pride, a sense of having been chosen from the herd. What wisdom did Margaret Atwood have to impart to me? ME! A baby writer? Was she going caution me against adverbs? Or offer to blurb the paperback? Maybe she recognised some kinship, some rare spark of genius? Why else would she want to speak to me in private?
Inside the ladies room, Atwood stopped, then whirled round and looked up at me (she’s dainty, diminutive, like a sparkly-eyed sprite). Then she pointed to her right eye.
“Did I do it right,” she said flatly.
“Sorry — what?”
(I was confused.)
“My eyeliner. I tried to put it on the inside of the lid as you suggested in the paper but I’m not sure I did it right.”
I peered closer and inspected Margaret Atwood’s eyeliner.
“It’s perfect,” I said, because it was.
She nodded and the conversation over. We went back out and joined the other writers. That’s it. The end.
Margaret Atwood doesn’t waste time. She gets on with the work at hand.
Since 1961 she’s published… (deep breath)… eighteen books of poetry, eighteen novels, eleven non-fiction volumes, nine collections of short stories, eight children's books, two graphic novels and a number of small press editions of poetry and fiction. As a writer she’s ferociously driven, an intellectual powerhouse, and she’s also a public figure engaged on all fronts (and platforms, including most recently, this one) but as you’ll see from our interview, she’s also playful, humble, fair-minded — and economical with words!
One of the lesser known facts about Atwood is how incredibly generous she is, both with readers and younger writers. She’s been a true mentor to more writers than I can count. She gives so freely of herself both on the page and in person, it’s truly astonishing. A lot of writers of her stature (understandably) just don’t.
It was such a pleasure to chat with her — I hope you like reading our conversation, which was conducted as a Q & A over email. If you do, I hope you’ll consider buying a paid subscription by clicking the button below. Like Atwood I’m a freelancer with no job prospects. I gots bills to pay and pots to boil. Your support — free or paid — is much appreciated. Enjoy.
Margaret Atwood. First off, a belated welcome to Substack! You may not be aware of this but your quiet side door entrance to the platform a few months ago was received in the Substack community (yes I'm afraid there is such a thing) a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea so the Israelites could cross (if the Israelites were beleaguered writers everywhere and the Pharaoh was Big Data). So tell me a bit about In The Writing Burrow, as well as what prompted the decision to launch? Also I'd love to know, what do you make of the medium so far?
MA: A very nice person contacted me and talked me into trying it out. Also, like many, I was wondering if Twitter was going to vanish down a sinkhole, and pondering whether to go off social media altogether. Jury’s out. And too soon to know what I make of the platform. But right now I’m having fun. Some of the readers seem to be, as well. It seems to be a good place for the short informal essay.
I keep hearing you described (usually in the press) as the world’s most famous literary novelist. Bracketing the rather annoying question of what “literary” actually means, I’m curious: Do you like being as famous as you are? What's your relationship with your own celebrity?
MA: It’s been going on a long time. There are pluses (“We love you”) and minuses (open seasons during which you get attacked and lied about over some fracas du jour). But for a freelancer with no job prospects, what’s the alternative? You can’t un-famous yourself. (Others will do that for you in due time.) Right now I’m in Can I Have A Selfie land, but that too will pass.
In addition to the fame and many well-deserved accolades, people are always going on about how wildly prolific you are and while obviously that’s true, what I find most remarkable about your career and the unique place you now seem to occupy in the global literary landscape isn’t just your so-called ‘output’ (dreadful word) but the boundless enthusiasm with which you seem to approach almost all aspects of your work. The unconcealed pleasure you take in the written word is, for me as a reader, always palpable on the page, along with a certain sly, intellectual playfulness. It’s difficult to describe except to say that reading you, in any form, I always get the sense you’re somehow “in” on the cosmic joke. No matter how ominous the story or portentous the argument, there is alway a twinkle in the darkness. How do harness that innate playfulness and channel it into weighty, complex work?
MA: It’s a Canadian or possibly a Martimes thing, maybe. Or it’s astrological: Scorpio with Gemini rising, what can I say? Or generational : skits and making fun of everything were certainly something we did. I impersonated myself being a gloomy poet in the 1960 Bob Revue at Vic. And so it goes.
Europeans often don’t get it: Isn’t A Writer supposed to be serious all the time?
Try that in Canada and you’ll get your swelled head popped with a pin quite fast. Or in my generation you would. I notice a certain joyless Puritanism creeping in amongst some of the younger gens from time to time.
You’ve often said that what ultimately drives you as a writer is your insatiable curiosity. But I want to ask you about curiosity itself, as a character trait and a creative impulse. It’s one I know many writers have in abundance but also struggle with at times because it can lead a person astray. For instance, I’ll often get interested in a subject related to a project – Welsh medieval medicine say, or the history of werewolves in France – which then leads me down a rabbit hole into an adjoining rabbit hole until I lose the thread of where I began in the first place and end up feeling overwhelmed ultimately more stupid than when I set out – because really I just sat around reading the internet all day. So what I want to ask is how do you, Margaret Atwood, manage your insatiable curiosity and keep it in check? Or more specifically, how do you mitigate the risk of over-stimulation and disordered thinking brought on by the abundance of information out there and balance your thirst for knowledge against the desire to stay on track with the project at hand?
MA: Write first, research later…that way you’ll know what you need to know, though you may end up throwing stuff out.
I wrote a great scene about Grace Marks (Alias Grace) witnessing James being hanged, only to discover that she wasn’t there. Into the wastebasket it had to go…
Speaking of the internet, it’s pretty mind-blowing, isn’t it? As someone who came of age well before the rise of big data and then became an active enthusiast/participant in digital culture, what do you think is currently being missed in the broader cultural conversation about the so-called “digital revolution”? For instance, do you find it unsettling how quickly the narrative on, say, social media (on which you are a voluble and popular presence), changed from being starry-eyed to overwhelmingly negative almost overnight? Are the robots really going to take over Margaret? If so, how can we save ourselves?
MA: That’s a bigger conversation. But new human communications technologies have always been disruptive, beginning with writing and continuing with printing, the postal service, telegraph, the phone, movies, the radio, tv, and now … this.
All have had pluses, all have had a dark side. All have had unintended consequences. Because guess what? They’re human. How do we save ourselves from being human? (Whispers: Oryx and Crake.)
Over to you, young folks. So long, and thanks for all the fish.
Random bio fact check: Is it true that you didn’t attend school full-time until you were twelve years old? If not, Wikipedia (and a thousand other outlets) is wrong and this is your chance to correct the record. If yes, what effect do you suppose this lack of a formal primary school education (in tandem with the other conditions of your childhood) have on the way you view the world, both then and now?
MA: Yes true. No kindergarten, for starters; it was the war. Spring summer and fall, up in the woods, though the times varied. School in the winters. Early reader: only communications tech available. Growing up with the biologists: one becomes curious (how does it work), specific (that’s not a bug, it’s a beetle), and skeptical (oh really? What’s the proof?)
Also, up in the woods: you learn to read the weather. Freezing, drowning, forest fires and bears are always options. Never throw out a bendy piece of wire, you may have to fix something with it. Rudimentary axe and mechanical skills come in handy. Etc.
Since moving to the UK over a decade ago, one of the most remarkable differences I’ve noticed between my birth country (Canada) and my adopted one is the different ways in which the so-called “new” world culture I grew up in and the “old” one in which I now live view themselves in the context of history. For example – and I swear this is true – my English sons (6 and 10) don’t play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians (thank god) but a game called Britons and Romans, in which they, little Englishmen (!), are the oppressed natives fighting off the brutal colonial oppressors. As a Canadian immigrant with Scots-Irish roots, I find this totally astonishing, but really it’s just a function of the way their history has been taught to them from a young age. Obviously in Canada it’s a very different and more recent colonial scenario, which changes the historical context and in turn the teaching/understanding… How would you characterise Canada’s current understanding of itself as a nation? I know that’s a rather sweeping question, but you’re Margaret Atwood so I figured I’d risk it. And while I’m at it, what the heck happened to the whole “whither Canada” debate? Was it ever actually settled? Did we cement our “national identity” when I was busy pushing a pram around North London or has American cultural imperialism triumphed via TikTok and rendered the conversation moot?
MA: All countries are currently facing these questions as old orders and understanding dissolve and shift. Canadians invented basketball and also national identity angst. It ain’t over, but I shall not write a book about it here.
NB: I doubt very much that little Canadian kids are playing cowboys and Indians any more.
Building on the previous query, I’m also interested to know what you make of the concept of “nativism,” both as it’s employed in historical/colonial terms as well as in contemporary domestic and world politics? (As a Canadian in the UK, I personally find it extremely interesting and also very confusing.)
MA: Not up to date on this but it’s not the first go round. See American literary history in the decades following the Revolutionary War. Who are we and who should we be? Old questions.
In the same weirdly tangential vein, as an environmentalist and naturalist with a keen interest in wilderness and wildlife, what do you make of the growing efforts to “rewild” extinct animal species like beavers and wolves in parts of the UK? The reason I ask is that whenever I read stories about, say, a Romanian wolf pack being reintroduced into the Wye Valley or Scottish Highlands where wolves were slaughtered into extinction hundreds of years ago by the Tudors, my first thought is what the hell would Margaret Atwood make of this?
MA: Reintroducing or supporting apex predators can have a positive effect on a whole ecosystem. Beavers help fish life in streams. Etc. Have a rabbit problem? We can help you with that. Etc. Meanwhile there have been coyotes on my street in downtown Toronto.
Don’t let your cat out.
I recently re-read The Handmaid’s Tale and I’d forgotten just what a terrifying white-knuckle ride it is. Despite knowing the story so well it still affected me physically, like a straight-up gothic horror, I couldn’t sleep! And in my insomnia I was transported back to when I first read it as a teenager growing up in Toronto in the early 90s and I remember discussing in my high school English class and the general consensus was that it was a cautionary tale about a disaster safely averted. At the time of publication, the future it presented seemed entirely inconceivable, which was, as we now know, a wee bit off the mark. Much has already been written about your general prescience, so I won’t ask about that. But I do want to ask you to reflect on that specific time and place – the context into which The Handmaid’s Tale was first published: Toronto in the late 80s/90s. The pre-post-Glasnost End Of History moment, when (it seemed to so many of us) all the world’s problems had essentially been solved or were on the way to being solved. It was my youth and perhaps because of that I remember it as a time of almost unfathomable innocence and safety -- Toronto’s Annex in the 90s as a modern Garden of Eden. As someone who was also there with a very different vantage point, do you remember it as fondly or with a more jaundiced eye?
MA: I was born in 1939. It’s never over, though there are lulls. The Hobbits dance around and smoke pipeweed, but Mordor is always mulling a comeback.
Your youth was spent in a hobbity lull. I was lurking around the borders.
As for the early 1980s, that’s when the New Deal really started to unravel, with the results that you see. I’ve described my Dictate-o-Metre in my own Substack. So handy!
Finally, is there anything you wish I’d asked you about or that you’re burning to say? If so please feel free to insert your own question here or better yet just go on about anything you fancy.
MA: I think that is sufficient. To quote Jane Austen, “You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”
If you’ve heard my Margaret Atwood story before just humour me, smile and nod along, okay?