Margaret Atwood on Donald Trump, Witches, and Flying Cats
In Conversation with a Canada's Great Literary Birder
Not long ago, Margaret Atwood and her husband Graeme Gibson spent a week at their summer cottage in a remote corner of southwestern Ontario. They went early in the season, as they often do, to catch the spring migration of birds. Jonathan Franzen might be the best-known bird watcher in the literary community, but Atwood has enjoyed the pastime far longer. Her father, a forest entomologist, introduced her to the hobby when she was a young girl. She, in turn, introduced birding to her husband, whom she says has become a “fanatical convert.” They’ve shared the interest for decades.
Apart from righting the quotidian hassles that many northern cottagers face on returning after a long winter—this year their home’s pipes burst, which caused them minor grief—Atwood spent her week on several projects, including a round of galley corrections for Hag-seed, a forthcoming novel adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, written for the Hogarth Shakespeare project.
Atwood, now 76, shows no sign of slowing with age. Dressed in a bright pink hat and sensible denim birding attire, she and I spoke over coffee in the outdoor patio of the community’s café and bakery.
Grant Munroe: Let’s lead off with recent news: Hulu’s announcement of the series adaptation of your 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. How did that come about?
Margaret Atwood: I didn’t have much to do with putting it together, actually; the television rights went with the movie rights in 1989. The original producer had sold it to a distributor who went bankrupt, then somebody else bought it, and then somebody else. Trying to follow the string and find out who actually owned the rights took time, but we eventually did. People wanted to do the series earlier, but they could never figure out where the string led. “Who do I talk to?” they’d say. I had no idea!
GM: I’ve heard of things like this happening in Hollywood. They call it “production purgatory” or something.
MA: That’s right. It goes into limbo. But it seems to be good hands now. The first two scripts I’ve read are excellent.
GM: What’s the next step?
MA: They’re shooting in September.
GM: Have you been asked to participate?
MA: As a consultant. I get to read the scripts and make notes on them. Does that mean that they will follow the notes? No! Do I get information before the press gets it? Yes! Can I do anything about it? No! It’s always that way with writers of novels that get made into films—unless you produce them yourself. All you can do is hope that it ends up with somebody decent, which it seems to have done this time.
GM: When first published in 1985, the novel was seen by some as a stand against the radical religious movement gaining strength within the American right.
MA: The response to the book was interesting. The English, who had already had their religious civil war, said, “Jolly good yarn.” The Canadians in their nervous way, said, “Could it happen here?” And the Americans said, “How long have we got?”
GM: This was during the era of The New Right and The Moral Majority.
MA: All that had just started.
GM: Do you feel things have gotten worse in the intervening years?
MA: The book’s more relevant today; we’re further down the track.
GM: Even considering that Ted Cruz didn’t clinch the Republican Party nomination?
MA: Look how far he got.
GM: He was close.
MA: Donald Trump is not particularly of that ilk, but he certainly feels that a girl’s place is to look nice and stand behind, beaming adoringly. Which is sort of old-style, 1950s-beauty-contest stuff, rather than religious-right-fundamentalist-puritan stuff. But the United States has two root ideologies: one of them being the Puritanism of the 17th century, and the other being the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Trump is more of an Enlightenment figure, but, in relation to women, we must not forget that Rousseau was actually harder on them than the preceding regime. The usual thing that happens in revolutions is that men are all for women taking part as long as the revolution is ongoing. As soon as it succeeds—back to the kitchen.
GM: That seems to follow Trump’s rhetoric now. He says things like, “Women head my companies. Women are incredibly tough.“
MA: “I just love women.”
MA: He’s all for a certain kind of women, but not women in general, I would say. But no, he’s not much of a puritan. Whereas Cruz certainly is. And Rubio is similar. The Tea Party is of that root from American society, which never really went away. It might have looked in the 17th century as if we were having a bad experience with Salem witches, and were quite embarrassed about it afterwards, but it’s never really left.
GM: You studied the witch trials when you were a fellow at Harvard.
MA: I certainly did. People are still churning out books about it. There’s still great interest.
GM: I have family history that goes back to Salem.
MA: You do?
GM: Yes, but not on the fashionable side of the trials.
MA: What’s the name?
GM: Richard Coman, a bit player. He was one of the men who accused Brigit Bishop, the first witch tried there. He testified that she came to his bedside wearing a scarlet red dress, woke him, then sat on his chest.
MA: Oh, as they do! My granny’s maiden name was Webster. On Monday, she’d say Mary Webster was a relative of ours, and on Tuesday she would say she wasn’t. It all depended on how reckless she was being. In any event, history knows her as the Half-Hanged Mary figure that dragged off to Boston just before Salem really got going, was accused of witchcraft, and was eventually exonerated. When Mary went back to her hometown, the townspeople didn’t like Boston’s verdict, so they strung her up. They figure she must have been very thin or had a tough neck, because when they came to get her in the morning, she was still alive. What she was accused of was making an old man extremely valetudinarian. In other words, making an old man old. “Before my very eyes, I got older! What’s going on? Who did that?” He was obviously pretty crazy. He said she would come to the foot of his bed and stick pins and needles into his feet.
GM: Your family has deep New England roots, then.
MA: Yes, all except the Scottish quarter.
GM: Where they Loyalists?
MA: Half and half. I shouldn’t say all of them, because we’ve got French Huguenots, Scottish clearances, and New England puritans. Basically everyone was kicked out of somewhere for being of a different opinion. Some of them came as part of the British effort to populate Nova Scotia with Protestants of whatever kind they could get. So some of them came up just before the Revolution, and some of them came up after the Revolution.
GM: In The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada’s portrayed as a place of sanctuary.
MA: Yes, for some people. If you can get across the border, you’re going to have a better chance of not getting slaughtered.
GM: The idea of Canada being a place where Americans flee to when they’re at odds with their government isn’t new.
MA: Absolutely not. That’s happened numerous times.
GM: I’m sure you’re aware of the celebrities threatening to move to Canada if Trump wins the election.
MA: Yes, yes, of course. As a joke, I assume. But people forget that Canada was considered the Land of Canaan in the spirituals that come out of the antebellum South. The Land of Canaan was the Land of Canada. That’s where you were supposed to be heading. All of those old songs, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd”—it was the North Star they were following. There were the refugees from the War of Independence, too. That’s what Laurence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes is about. He wasn’t allowed to call it The Book of Negroes even though it was named after a book of so-called negroes, of Black Loyalists. It exists. In it are listed the people who helped the British in their American war. What would happen to them? They had been promised freedom if they helped. They all ended up in New York, and what were they going to do? The British sent a bunch of them to Nova Scotia, too.
GM: The trope carried on to the Vietnam Era.
MA: For sure. There were huge numbers of Americans who came up at that time.
GM: You were living in Toronto then.
MA: Yes, I knew a number of them. Many of those who came stayed. Some are with us to this very day.
GM: In the event that Trump was elected, would you support the Canadian government fast-tracking Americans seeking residency?
MA: I think you have to prove hardship to get fast-tracked. If Donald Trump was going to string people up from lampposts, I would certainly support relief.
GM: Darren Aronofsky is currently working on the television adaptation of your Madadam trilogy. This one for HBO. Is this still in the works?
MA: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s being done with Protozoa Pictures, Aronofsky’s production company.
GM: When can we look forward to that?
MA: Because they’re doing all three books in the Madadam series—Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam—it’s a much bigger project. But they have their writer. And I’ve seen the first script, which is good.
GM: You’ve got a lot of projects in the air.
MA: I know. It’s too many. But a lot of them don’t involve me. It’s not me doing the work, primarily; it’s other people.
GM: One of these collaborations is Angel Catbird, a new graphic novel. Can you tell us about that?
MA: Yes. I write the script and then show it to my co-creator, the illustrator Johnnie Christmas, and we go back and forth. On what people look like, for example.
GM: What’s the process like? Do you meet? Skype?
MA: It’s all through email. He sends me emails with drawings attached. But sometime I send things to him, saying, “More like this.” And sometimes I draw little sketches. We had a long discussion about pants. What sort of pants is Angel Catbird wearing? He has to wear pants of some kind. So we had a long talk, and came up with something that’s agreeable and aesthetically pleasing.
GM: Can you tell me about Angel Catbird and its genesis?
MA: Yes. I was drawing flying cats at the age of seven, so it’s probably some deeply repressed wish that there should be flying cats in the world. It comes out of bird conversation, essentially. What can be done about the huge number of birds that are killed by cats? Because that’s what some cats do, and I say this as a cat person. I had cats for years and years. Many different cats. I know they are different in their personalities. I had a very smart cat that, because of his intelligence, was quite neurotic. I’ve also had rather slow cats, who were much happier.
You cannot say to cat people, “You must keep your cat inside or flush it down the toilet.” You can’t say bad things about their cats. My solution was to create a superhero who can encounter the many issues faced by both cats and birds. Angel Catbird is the result of a collision with a car and a genetic superslicer. You know how these things happen.
GM: Of course. You’ve been keen on birds for quite a long time. Have you ever birded with Jonathan Franzen?
MA: No, but I helped him with one of his things for the American Bird Conservancy.
GM: He’s sparked a bit of controversy…
MA: He always sparks controversy! What was it about this time?
GM: His outspoken stance against house cats. He started criticizing them around the publication of Freedom.
MA: And then got death threats.
GM: Yes. Your approach seems a bit less alienating. You’re not on the attack.
MA: No, no, no, no. A lot of cat owners love birds, so it’s not an either/or position. Many cat owners are devastated when they learn the truth about the damage some cats can do to the bird population. If enough people get agitated about it, though, they do come up with solutions. For instance, we learned through our surveys that 59 percent of domestic cat owners now don’t allow their cats to roam outdoors. That’s a huge percentage. Even 30 years ago, that percentage would have been zero. There has been improvement.
It all goes back to the drastic decline in birds, which is not all due to cats. Some of it is the problem with windows, some is due to habitat destruction, and some is due to pesticides. (If you kill all the insects, you’re starving all the insect-eating birds on their migration.) This is a problem with multiple causes.
GM: In an interview that Franzen gave, he said that birdwatching was decidedly unhip. Do you agree?
MA: Oh, don’t drag me into whatever Jonathan Franzen says or doesn’t say!
GM: I have to try. There’s a delicious literary-slash-birdwatching feud that could be sparked here.
MA: You have to try, but no, no. And I’m too old to be concerned about whether anything’s hip or not. I do know that people like to make a fun of hipsters. Do you know Kate Beaton’s work?
GM: I do!
MA: So she has a strip on hipsters. Hipsters in the past, hipsters in the present.
GM: Skinny jeans are out, I hear.
MA: In and out, in and out. What’s replacing them?
GM: God knows.
MA: The only advice is save all your clothes, because they’ll be in again. The question is, will you still fit into them?
GM: As you’ve witnessed these styles repeat, is there any insight you can pass along?
MA: Oh, what can we say about it, except some periods are funkier than others? What’s in now? Fifties furniture. Fifties Swedish, modernist furniture that everybody thought was so completely passé in 1980.
GM: Does this get exhausting? Seeing the patterns of fashion rotate so predictably?
MA: No. There are just things you wish you saved. Vinyl records are back. The sound is much mellower. I think something that will not return, though, is the tape deck.
GM: Cassette tapes?
MA: Yes, cassette tapes.
GM: Believe it or not, those have come back.
MA: Not as tapes, though, what’s on them is coming back.
GM: No, the tapes!
MA: They actually like those?
GM: I hate to be the first to break the news.
MA: That’s so awful. The sound was terrible and they always got screwed up. They’re just doing that to be perverse. Vinyl has come back, so that niche has been occupied by people they don’t approve of. Now they’re going into—oh, that’s too funny. What are young people doing? I really don’t know—but I’ll know shortly, because I have a granddaughter who’s almost in that age group. I can tell you that they like paper books. They don’t want to read books on unhip mom and dad e-readers. They want the tangible object.
GM: Why do you think that is?
MA: There are neurological reasons for it, as it turns out. And you know this from sending emails. If you have a complex email with five things you want a person to do, you better separate those things, number them, put some of it in colored writing—because otherwise they won’t see the fifth task. We’re back in Marshall McLuhan land, with hot media and cold media, the way we assimilate information. You can make the screens better, but there is still something different about the way we orient ourselves to the physical book. It’s easier to read short things on screen. It’s very hard to read long, complex things. I double-dare you to read Proust at any length. Try reading Under the Volcano.
GM: Mark Kurlansky talks about this in his new book, Paper: Paging Through History.
MA: It’s a book about paper?
GM: The history of paper, yes.
MA: That is fascinating. Of course, the declaration of independence was written on hemp paper. Watch for the return of hemp! It’s coming.
GM: One of the most memorable subjects he touches on is the obsolete profession of rag picking. After the Battle of Waterloo, rag pickers scurried around pulling uniforms off dead soldiers. Just to feed the insatiable demand of paper mills, which used cloth pulp in those times.
MA: Even more gruesome were the people who pillaged teeth from corpses after Waterloo. At dusk, shadowy figures came out with dental instruments. They were only interested in the front teeth—you know, the top and bottom four—the rest could be ivory or wood or something, but to get a really authentic look you needed those real teeth, and they were pulling them out of dead bodies.
GM: That’s the stuff of nightmares.
MA: Well, it is. But to the victor belong the spoils, and those were some of the spoils.
GM: Another interesting anecdote in Kurlansky’s book involves Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. When the two met, they were so concerned about electronic surveillance that they wrote on scraps of paper, passed it between themselves, then burned what they’d written.
MA: That was in my novel before they did it. It’s in The Year of the Flood. They’re writing notes and burning them. But you have to be in the same location as the other person. The thing that gets tracked and snooped on is then your body, the same as it used to be. “Where were you on the night of December 24, 1872?” It’s all about locks and keys, and it always has been about locks and keys. It’s been rumored, though I can’t prove it, that the Kremlin has gone back to typewriters for this reason. Maybe that’s what will come back into fashion next.
GM: I’d like to move along to Hag-seed. Can you talk a bit about that?
MA: Hag-seed. So much fun. It was done for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, to honor the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Hogarth asked ten or so different writers to choose a play by Shakespeare and revisit it in the form of a prose novel. It could be a kind of distant inspiration or a fairly closely following the play; whatever the author chooses.
They’ve now published two: Jeanette Winterson’s tight adaptation of A Winter’s Tale, called The Gap of Time; and Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson, which is rather loosely adapted from The Merchant of Venice. Next is Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler—The Taming of the Shrew. Then mine. I chose The Tempest. It’s something I’ve thought about before, back in my book Negotiating with the Dead, which is now called A Writer on Writing. (I guess they thought the word death was too off-putting!) Prospero is one of the people I wrote about as a magician figure.
GM: You also seem drawn to islands.
MA: Oh, islands. Islands are always metaphorical. If you look in my book called—ask me something I haven’t written!—called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, you’ll see that I wrote about how islands were places where authors once set other worlds. Unfortunately, we then discovered all the islands. Authors then used caves: some other world that you’d access by falling down a tunnel, like Alice in Wonderland.
GM: Where is Hag-seed set?
MA: The Tempest is about prisons. What are the three last words that Prospoero utters in that play? “Set me free.” Think about that, as I did—at great length.
GM: Did you do any research for the book?
MA: I got hold of all the movies about The Tempest I could find, of course. One of them was the 2010 film by Julie Taymor. It has a female Prospero played by Helen Mirren, who can play anything. She’s Prospera. They had to do a bit of rewriting, but Shakespeare has been rewritten so much over the years, it’s just amazing.
GM: I understand it took a bit of time to come to an agreement on the American cover for Hag-seed. Can you talk about that aspect of book production?
MA: Some authors don’t care about their covers. Others really do.
GM: Do you?
MA: Yes. I used to be a poster designer in one of my other lives.
GM: Does your publisher offer you an array of spec designs, directions the cover might take?
MA: No, usually they send one design, and I think, “This is good.” Or, “This doesn’t quite work.” Sometimes I send them something first. The cover for Alias Grace—everybody liked that. I sent them Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Head of a Girl in a Green Dress,” a watercolor of Elizabeth Siddal.
GM: While in the process of writing a novel—
MA: Do I see the cover? Not always, no. I usually wait until I finish.
GM: You’ve talked about the dangers of dissipating creative energy while in the process of writing a book. Do you ever discuss works in progress?
MA: I never tell. I never talk about anything until it’s done. Because if I did—if word got to my publishers, they’d say, “Margaret, what are you doing? What do you mean you’re writing about a society in which women have to wear long red dresses? What?” No. Some people submit an outline, but there’s no point in me doing that; I know what I intend to write will change.
GM: You must have some vague outline, though, at the start.
MA: I have some ideas, but they’re usually wrong.
GM: At what point during the process do things start to clarify?
MA: There’s a labyrinth of branching paths. Every decision you make is going to preclude others. If you take this door, you are, therefore, not taking any of the other five doors.
GM: Have you ever been stymied about which door to take?
GM: How do you come to a conclusion?
MA: I get a really bad headache. I realize I’ve taken the wrong door and have to go back. Alias Grace was in the wrong person. It was 100 pages in the third person and was not going to work out. Because in the third person you can’t lie to the reader. Whereas in the first person you can lie, and do—a lot. In the third person, if somebody lies, it’s the author lying. And that’s not fair.
GM: Have you had strong disagreements with editors?
MA: About details. But usually, no. Not a lot, really. Usually at the copy editing stage. Sometimes it’s just a failure of knowledge of information. For instance, when working on The Blind Assassin, one copy editor said, “I looked for the town Ypres Salient and it doesn’t exist.” That’s because it’s not a town! It’s a thing that happened on the front line; it’s when the line bulges out. “Oh,” she said. She also said, “Don’t you think you got it backwards with the Remembrance Day ceremony, because you’ve got them playing taps, then reveille. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” And I said, “No, taps is played when you go to sleep. Reveille is when you wake up in the morning. The symbolism is that these people are dead, but they’re going to be resurrected.”
GM: You must be gratified to see the progress that’s been made when it’s come to bringing speculative fiction into the fold of “serious literature.”
MA: It was always in the fold! This is what drives me nuts.
GM: So you’d disagree with a writer like Ursula le Guin, who spoke about how grateful she is that science fiction has pulled itself from the “ghetto of genre”?
MA: Well, it went into a space in the 1950s or so, when people started to look down upon it. But when 1984 was published, it wasn’t called anything. Same with Brave New World. It was a novel; it was fiction. Nobody was saying, “Let’s not read this because it’s got a person with skin-tight clothing on Mars on the cover.” That hadn’t happened yet. I think there was a thing that happened in the 50s with b-movies and certain kinds of sci-fi magazines that put literary readers off. But that was about the third phase of those kinds of books. Somebody like Northrop Frye would put them in the category of romance. With a romance—with a quest romance of that kind—you have a break from reality. In ancient times, that usually occurred because of a shipwreck and characters would encounter strange beings. This has been going on for a very, very long time.
GM: Funny how the sharp division of genres seemed a North American issue. Over in Britain, Kingsley Amis jumped back and forth easily. In 1976, he wrote The Alteration, an alternative history novel. A speculative novel.
MA: Genres were made up. They were made up so booksellers would know where to put the books on the shelves. Sometimes they’re quite wrong. And sometimes things get lost on those shelves that should really be reaching a much wider audience, but because they’re on that shelf and they have a certain kind of cover, people think, “Ehhh.”
But back to your earlier question: This “people were mean to me” is somewhat of a myth. Which people were mean when? H. Rider Haggard’s She was an enormous best-seller. Carl Jung had a very high opinion of it. Haggard kept writing similar books for years and made a fortune. H.G. Wells was enormously successful, and Jorge Luis Borges writes about his earlier books with the highest respect. It’s literature. It’s all books. There are good books and bad books. Literary fiction can be bad, and so can sci-fi. Sci-fi can be wonderful and so can literary fiction. As long as it’s a good book, who cares? Hold my attention; that’s all I ask. Make me believe.