At 76, Author, poet, and all-around rockstar Margaret Atwood seems unstoppable. She was unfailingly sharp and wickedly funny through all her public appearances in India, at the Jaipur Literature Festival and then in Delhi. Here are some of our favourite things from all that Atwood said:
On writers being “cheap dates”
All of us authors descend from the village storyteller. As Canadian writer Robertson Davies used to characterise this function, “Give me a silver penny, and I will tell you a golden tale.” Note that it’s only one penny. As I said, [writers are] cheap dates.
On stories and growing older
Your romantic tragedy when you were nineteen becomes a funny anecdote by the time you’re forty five. And then, thirty years later, you can’t remember their name.
On the unfreedom of speech and expression
In an age that persecutes deviants, you can yet lose your life for being the possessor of a dangerous or unacceptable story. Words are powerful, which means that words can also be fatal.
On readers and writers
… For writers and readers are joined at the hip. Every act of writing presupposes a reader, even if it’s your own secret journal that you are writing, and the future reader is you.
On writing being an optimistic act
If you have publication in mind, you are looking at the great unknown. The sea, the ocean, the vast universe of readers into which you plan to throw your tiny bottle of a book, with your very tiny story or poetry enclosed within it. Will anyone ever find it? Will anyone ever read it? If so, will they like it? Will anyone hear your voice telling them a story? You hope so.
What writing can do
Writing is also the primary way in which the unknown, the obscure, the undervalued, and the neglected can become known. All over the world, writing has been the means by which light is shed on darkness. Whether the darkness of oppressive regimes, of lives lived in poverty, of the oppression of women, of discrimination of so many kinds.
On Harper and Trudeau in Canada
I was describing what had happened to Canada during the zombie apocalypse [as part of a guest appearance on the Zombies Run game]. The entire government had become zombified… this was under the Harper regime. It’s come back to life. In fact, we have a Prime Minister that is so cool we can’t get used to it.
On setting her latest dystopia in the USA
Canada’s too difficult a place to set real dystopias, because as we have just seen, Canada’s too shrieking nice to go all the way. When it looked as though we were heading that way, all sorts of Canadians formed citizens’ groups and dis-elected the former government.
There are a lot of areas of Canadian life in which you don’t see this fabled niceness, but I think the previous government had gone a step too far in the other direction for the average Canadian.
On utopia and the US
The United States itself, in its beginning, was a utopian experiment, done by the Puritans. They thought they were going to set up the kingdom of god on earth, they were going to be better than everybody else, they were going to be a city upon a hill, a light to all nations. Has that worked out? Not entirely, although in some areas such as Coca Cola, it kind of has.
I’m of the generation where there were a lot of dots [in place of sex scenes]. I mourn their passing. We’ve had to become much more explicit since those days. Once upon a time we could say, in romantic novels [and magazines], “And then they were one. Dot dot, dot dot dot.” You didn’t have to go into any details, so it left a lot to the reader’s imagination. And what imaginations they were.
On the future, and on inequality
On the one hand, things are going to get so much better, because think of all the astonishing discoveries we are making. On the other hand, things are going to get a lot worse because think of climate change, food shortages, and all the other things. Which is going to get there first? The utopian or the dystopian? Or is it going to be a mix, utopian for some, dystopian for others – as it is at the moment.
On pushback from her publishers
Either they want me to write agreeable 19th century historical fiction, which we find comforting, because it is in the past. I understand it, right now I’m stuck into Wolf Hall the TV version, and what nice clothing they had in the Renaissance to be sure, but it was unevenly distributed. Or they want me to write social realism, but I don’t see why one can’t write both [realist and speculative fiction].
On being a cat person
I’ve always been a cat person, it was my longing in my youth to have one, but I was not allowed to have one because we lived up in the woods so often. But I finally got my hands on one, immediately dressed it up in a bonnet. I’ve had them through the years.
On Angel Catbird, her new comic book superhero
He has an identity crisis. Half cat, half bird, do I save this, or do I eat it? He’s gotten involved with other people who’re also mutant, some of them having inherited it. One of them is called Count Catula, who is a combination of a cat, a bat, and a vampire. We like him.
On women writers in the 19th century
The novel wasn’t considered an art then, it was a low form. That’s why women wrote novels with impunity. It wasn’t considered too high for them. But there are very few women poets in the 19th century. Poetry was considered too much for our tiny brains.
On women’s empowerment, and writing about women (in response to an audience question)
Looked at as a whole, I would by no means say that the push for better treatment of women has been a failure. I don’t think it has been a total success, but my view of human beings is that these things go by stages and cycles.
I do point out to you where I have one whole novel where the narrator is a man. I wrote that because I keep getting questions like yours – why do you keep writing about women? People don’t notice Oryx and Crake.
Genres are useful for bookstores so they know what shelf to put them on. People who dismiss books based on the shelf they’re on are not serious readers, in my opinion.
On prisons for profit
There is a long human history of prisons for profit. There is incentive to criminalise more people so you can make more profit, is it not? Yes it is.
On human ingenuity
We’re going to have to invent ourselves out of our own inventions. We’re going to need to be ingenious in order to overcome problems caused by our own ingenuity.
On the origins of The Handmaid’s Tale
(This was in response to Patrick French asking her whether her travels in Afghanistan, Iran and India contributed to her writing the classic The Handmaid’s Tale).
People jump to that conclusion quickly, because they have not gone into the American and European history of the treatment of women. Nobody has a monopoly on the mistreatment of women. Things actually went backward for women in 19th century Europe, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was because at the time, they wanted women back in the home in the USA. They hadn’t figured out how yet, so I did it for them.
On the coffeehouse movement
The one in Canada was called the Bohemian Embassy. Some people thought it was a real embassy, and used to write to it, asking for visas. [...] I was twenty. I was there. That was where I first read my rather awful poetry of those days, and learned how to deal with emergencies, such as electrical failures and other poets who were drunk.
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