Interviews

Margaret Atwood, The Art of Fiction No. 121

Interviewed by Mary Morris

The manuscript of “Frogless,” a poem that appears in this issue, by Margaret Atwood. Ms. Atwood wrote the poem on an SAS Hotel’s bedside notepad while she was in Gothenburg, Sweden last September for the Nordic Book Fair. “I’ve written quite a lot under those circumstances. Perhaps it’s being in a hotel room or a plane with no ringing phone and no supervision. Also, there’s something about jet lag that breaks down the barriers.”

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1939. As a child, she lived in the wilderness of northern Quebec and also spent time in Ottawa, Sault Sainte Marie, and Toronto. She was eleven before she attended a full year of school. In high school Atwood began to write poetry inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, and at sixteen she committed herself to a writing career, publishing a collection of poems, Double Persephone, six years later.

Her second book of poetry, The Circle Game, earned her the Governor General’s Award—Canada’s highest literary honor—and from that time forward she has been a dominant figure in Canadian letters. In 1972 Atwood sparked a hot debate when she published a controversial critical study of Canadian literature, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. In it she claimed that Canadian literature reflects the submissive as well as survivalist tendencies of the country, born from its being a subordinate ally to the United States, a former colony, and a country with vast stretches of untamed land. Following the publication of this volume, Atwood retreated from Toronto, where she had been working as an editor at the publishing house Anansi, to a farm in Alliston, Ontario, where she began to write full time.

Atwood has published nineteen collections of poetry—including The Circle Game (1964), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Power Politics (1971), You Are Happy (1974), True Stories (1981) and Interlunar (1984)—but she is best known for her novels, which include Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), and Cat’s Eye (1988). Her most widely read novel is The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), a chilling account of a puritanical theocracy that won Atwood a second Governor General’s Award and was recently made into a motion picture. She is also the author of two children’s books, Up in the Tree (1978) and Anna’s Pet (1980) and two collections of short stories, Dancing Girls (1977) and Bluebeard’s Egg (1983). She has edited Oxford anthologies of Canadian verse and Canadian short stories and, with Shannon Ravenel, the 1989 volume of The Best American Short Stories.

The question of the status of women has frequently been an issue in Atwood’s work, and feminists have seized upon her writing as a product of the movement. Atwood has also made other political and philosophical issues themes in her work, such as Canada’s struggle to create an identity and, in recent years, her concern for human rights.

This interview was conducted in a house near Princeton University, where Atwood had gone to give some readings and lectures. In person, Atwood is much as one might expect from reading her work—incisive. For many hours over a period of two days, while teenage boys bounced basketballs and played music outside, people walked in and out, and football games played on the television in the next room, Atwood sat, attentive, answering each question without hesitation. She never strayed from her point, never seemed to tire, and remained, like a narrator from any one of her books, unflappable.

 

INTERVIEWER

Has the theme of survival always been intrinsic to your work?

MARGARET ATWOOD

I grew up in the north woods of Canada. You had to know certain things about survival. Wilderness survival courses weren’t very formalized when I was growing up, but I was taught certain things about what to do if I got lost in the woods. Things were immediate in that way and therefore quite simple. It was part of my life from the beginning.

INTERVIEWER

When did you make the leap from considering survival to be a physical battle to considering it to be an intellectual or political struggle?

ATWOOD

When I started thinking about Canada as a country it became quite evident to me that survival was a national obsession. When I came to the States in the sixties, I felt that nobody knew where Canada was. Their brother may have gone there to fish or something. When I was at Harvard, I was invited as a “foreign student” to a woman’s house for an evening for which I was asked to wear “native costume.” Unfortunately I’d left my native costume at home and had no snowshoes. So there I was, without native costume with this poor woman and all this food, sitting around waiting for the really exotic foreign students in their native costumes to turn up—which they never did because, as everybody knew, foreign students didn’t go out at night.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written about the theme of foreignness a good deal.

ATWOOD

Foreignness is all around. Only in the heart of the heart of the country, namely the heart of the United States, can you avoid such a thing. In the center of an empire, you can think of your experience as universal. Outside the empire or on the fringes of the empire, you cannot.

INTERVIEWER

In your afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie you write that if the mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia. Could you say something more about that? 

ATWOOD

The United States is big and powerful; Canada is divided and threatened. Maybe I shouldn’t have said “illness.” Maybe I should have said “state of mind.” Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation. Equivalently, the United States’s feeling that it is big and powerful is not a delusion. It is big and powerful. Possibly, its wish to be even bigger and more powerful is the mentally ill part. Every Canadian has a complicated relationship with the United States, whereas Americans think of Canada as the place where the weather comes from. Complication is a matter of how you perceive yourself in an unequal power relationship.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view Canada and its literature within this political relationship? 

ATWOOD

Canada is not an occupied country. It’s a dominated country. Things are more clear-cut in an occupied country—the heroes and the villains are obvious. One of the complicating things, of course, is that the United States will eagerly swallow anything. It’s very welcoming in that way. Canadian writers often find that they have a better time in the United States than they do in Canada, because living in Canada is to some extent like living in a small town. They will rally around you when you break your leg, but on the other hand, if you get too big for your britches, well, they perceive it as exactly that. Alice Munro’s book, which is titled The Beggar Maid in the United States, is called Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada . . . as in, Who do you think you are, behaving like that—the Prime Minister? The U.S. loves success, the American dream that anybody can be president of the United States or get into People magazine. But with Canadians, it’s much more likely to be, You know, people might not like it if you did that. There are a lot more snipers in the bushes.

INTERVIEWER

Where have you been treated better as a writer, would you say?

ATWOOD

I suffer more vicious attacks, more personal attacks, in Canada, because that’s where I’m from. Families have their most desperate fights among themselves, as we know. However, if you look at per capita sales figures, people recognizing me in the street, of course it’s more in Canada. If I sold as many books per capita in the United States as in Canada, I’d be a billionaire.

INTERVIEWER

Is it more difficult for women to get published than men?

ATWOOD

I’m afraid the question is simply too broad. Do we mean, for instance, in North America, or in Ireland, or in Afghanistan? There are categories other than gender. Age, class and color, for instance. Region. National origin. Previous publication. Sexual orientation. I suppose we could rephrase the question and ask, is it more difficult for a first novelist who is female than for her male counterpart of the same age, class, color, national origin or location, and comparable talent, whatever that may be. Judging from the experience of Latin American female writers—of which there are many, though few are known in translation—the answer would be, yes. Women in many countries find it difficult to get published at all—consider the Middle East, for instance. Or black women in South Africa. In fact, they find it difficult to write. Or difficult to become educated. The barriers to women writing are often put in place at a very early age and in very basic ways.

But if we’re just talking about, say, North America, obviously commercial publishers want to publish things they can sell. Whether such publishers will publish a given book— whether by a man, woman, or turtle—depends a lot on what they think its reception will be. I don’t think there’s an overt policy against books by women or an overt quota. Much depends on the book and on the intuition of the publisher. It’s true, however, that the majority of books that do appear are still written by men and reviewed by men. Then there’s the subject of reviewing. That’s where you’re most likely to see gender bias, bias of all kinds.

INTERVIEWER

Is it difficult to write from the point of view of a male? 

ATWOOD

Most of the “speakers” or narrative points of view in my books are those of women, but I have sometimes used the point of view of a character who is male. Notice I try to avoid saying “the male point of view.” I don’t believe in the male point of view any more than I believe in the female point of view. There are a good many of both, though it’s true that there are some thoughts and attitudes that are unlikely to be held by men on the one hand or women on the other. So when I do use a male character, it’s because the story is about something or someone that can’t be otherwise conveyed or that would be altered if it were to be conveyed through a female character. For instance, I recently published a story in Granta called “Isis In Darkness.” It’s about the relationship—the tenuous relationship over the years—between a women poet and a man who has, I guess, a sort of literary crush on her and how the woman affects the man’s life. If I’d told it through the woman herself . . . well, you can’t tell such stories about romantic infatuation from the point of view of the object of the infatuation without losing the flavor of the emotion. They would just become “who is that creep hanging around outside the balcony” stories. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell the gender of a writer from reading the text alone?

ATWOOD

Sometimes, certainly, but not always. There’s a famous case in England of an Anglican vicar who said he couldn’t get anything published. So he wrote under the name of an East Asian woman and got a novel accepted by Virago. There’s a certain amount of opinion around that says, for instance, that women can’t or shouldn’t write from a male point of view and so forth. Men are very sniffy about how they’re portrayed by women, but the truth is that most of the really vicious, unpleasant male characters in fiction or theater have been written by men. The ethnic joke principle seems to be at work—it’s OK to say a man has smelly feet, no ethics, and bad table manners if the writer is a man, but if it’s a woman saying exactly the same thing, then she somehow hates men. The male amour propre is wounded. And if she writes nice male characters, they’re seen as “weak” by other men—though if a man puts a man in the kitchen, that’s realism. And on and on.

We have fallen very much into the habit of judging books by their covers. “Authenticity” has become a concern. I tend to side with creative freedom. Everyone should write as she or he feels impelled. Then let’s judge the results, not the picture of the author on the back flap.

Your question also assumes that “women” are a fixed quantity and that some men are “better” at portraying this quantity than others are. I, however, deny that the quantity is fixed. There is no single, simple, static “women’s point of view.” Let’s just say that good writing of any kind by anyone is surprising, intricate, strong, sinuous. Men who write stereotyped women or treat them like stuffed furniture or sex aids are portraying something—their inner lives, perhaps—and that’s interesting to know about up to a point. But it should not be mistaken for life outside the author’s head. 

INTERVIEWER

How do the activities of writing poetry and writing prose differ for you? 

ATWOOD

My theory is that they involve two different areas of the brain, with some overlap. When I am writing fiction, I believe I am much better organized, more methodical—one has to be when writing a novel. Writing poetry is a state of free float.

INTERVIEWER

I have the feeling that you work out problems in your poetry, but that you hold onto the metaphors and dramatize them in your novels.

ATWOOD

The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation. I don’t think I solve problems in my poetry; I think I uncover the problems. Then the novel seems a process of working them out. I don’t think of it that way at the time—that is, when I’m writing poetry, I don’t know I’m going to be led down the path to the next novel. Only after I’ve finished the novel can I say, well, this poem was the key. This poem opened the door.

When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I’ve already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers. As for lines of descent—that is, poem leading to novel—I could point to a number of examples. In my second collection of poems, The Animals in That Country, there’s a poem called “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer.” That led into the whole collection called The Journals of Susanna Moodie and that in turn led into Surfacing. Or, another line of descent, the poems in parts of True Stories have obvious affiliations with the novel Bodily Harm. It’s almost as if the poems open something, like opening a room or a box or a pathway. And then the novel can go in and see what else is in there. I’m not sure this is unique. I expect that many other ambidextrous writers have had the same experience.

INTERVIEWER

Do writers perceive differently than others? Is there anything unique about the writer’s eye?

ATWOOD

It’s all bound up with what sorts of things we have words for. Eskimos, the Inuit, have fifty-two words for snow. Each of those words describes a different kind of snow. In Finnish they have no he or she words. If you’re writing a novel in Finnish, you have to make gender very obvious early on, either by naming the character or by describing a sex-specific activity. But I can’t really answer this question because I don’t know how “others” observe the world. But judging from the letters I receive, many others recognize at least part of themselves in what I write, though the part recognized varies from person to person, of course. The unique thing about writers is that they write. Therefore they are pickier about words, at least on paper. But everyone “writes” in a way; that is, each person has a “story”—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart, and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at twenty is seen as comedy or nostalgia at forty. All children “write.” (And paint, and sing.) I suppose the real question is why do so many people give it up. Intimidation, I suppose. Fear of not being good. Lack of time. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel struck by the limitations of language?

ATWOOD

All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.

INTERVIEWER

Why is there so much violence in your work? Bodily Harm in particular.

ATWOOD

Sometimes people are surprised that a woman would write such things. Bodily Harm, for instance, was perceived as some kind of incursion into a world that is supposed to be male. Certainly violence is more a part of my work than it is of Jane Austen’s, or George Eliot’s. They didn’t do it in those days. Charles Dickens wrote about Bill Sikes bludgeoning Nancy to death, getting blood all over everything, but if a woman had written that, nobody would have published it. Actually, I grew up violence-free and among people who were extremely civilized in their behavior. When I went out into the wider world, I found violence more shocking than would somebody who was used to it. Also, during the Second World War, although there was not violence in my immediate vicinity, the angst—you know, the anxiety about the war—was ever-present. Canada went into the war in 1939, about two months before I was born. The per capita death rate was high.

INTERVIEWER

Yet you write as if you’ve lived through violence.

ATWOOD

But I write as if I’ve lived a lot of things I haven’t lived. I’ve never lived with cancer. I’ve never been fat. I have different sensibilities. In my critical work I’m an eighteenth-century rationalist of some kind. In my poetry I’m not at all. There’s no way of knowing in advance what will get into your work. One collects all the shiny objects that catch the fancy—a great array of them. Some of them you think are utterly useless. I have a large collection of curios of that kind, and every once in a while I need one of them. They’re in my head, but who knows where! It’s such a jumble in there. It’s hard to find anything.

INTERVIEWER

Is sex easy to write about?

ATWOOD

If by sex you mean just the sex act—“the earth moved” stuff—well, I don’t think I write those scenes much. They can so quickly become comic or pretentious or overly metaphoric. “Her breasts were like apples,” that sort of thing. But sex is not just which part of whose body was where. It’s the relationship between the participants, the furniture in the room, or the leaves on the tree, what gets said before and after, the emotions—act of love, act of lust, act of hate, act of indifference, act of violence, act of despair, act of manipulation, act of hope. Those things have to be part of it.

Striptease has become less interesting since they did away with the costumes. It’s become Newtonian. The movement of bodies through space, period. It can get boring.

INTERVIEWER

Has motherhood made you feel differently about yourself? 

ATWOOD

There was a period in my early career that was determined by the images of women writers I was exposed to—women writers as genius suicides like Virginia Woolf. Or genius reclusives like Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. Or doomed people of some sort, like the Brontës, who both died young. You could fall back on Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mrs. Gaskell; they both led reasonable lives. But then George Eliot didn’t have any children; neither did Jane Austen. Looking back over these women writers, it seemed difficult as a writer and a woman to have children and a domestic relationship. For a while I thought I had to choose between the two things I wanted: children and to be a writer. I took a chance.

INTERVIEWER

In much of your work, love and power seem to be intricately connected—love as a power struggle in Power Politics. Do you see any other way between men and women? 

ATWOOD

Love relationships between men and women do involve power structures because men in this society have different kinds of, and more, power than women do. The problem for a woman in a relationship is how to maintain her integrity, her own personal power while also in a relationship with a man. Being in love with somebody is an experience that breaks down ego barriers. The positive part of that is a feeling of “cosmic consciousness,” and the negative pole is a feeling of loss of self. You’re losing who you are; you’re surrendering—the fortress has fallen. But is it possible to have an equal exchange in a society in which things aren’t entirely equal? Power Politics is fourteen years old. People tend to put it in the present tense. Each of my books is different—presenting different situations, characters, and involvements. My most domestic novel is Life Before Man. In it there’s an equilateral triangle. There are two women and one man, and viewed from any one point in the triangle the other two are not behaving properly. But you can go around the triangle and look at it from all sides. To be asked what I think as a person is a different thing. I have a very good relationship with a man and I’ve had it for some time. The novel is not merely a vehicle for self-expression or for the rendition of one’s own personal life. I’m quite conservative in that way. I do see the novel as a vehicle for looking at society—an interface between language and what we choose to call reality, although even that is a very malleable substance. When I create characters in novels, those characters aren’t necessarily expressing something that is merely personal. I draw observations from a wide range of things.

INTERVIEWER

How do you work? Can you describe how you write your first draft?

ATWOOD

I write in longhand and preferably on paper with margins and thick lines with wide space between the lines. I prefer to write with pens that glide very easily over the paper because my handwriting is fast. Actually, I don’t churn out finished copy quickly. Even though I have this fast handwriting, I have to scribble over it and scratch things out. Then I transcribe the manuscript, which is almost illegible, onto the typewriter.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a time, a day, or a place for writing? Does it matter where you are?

ATWOOD

I try to write between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, when my child comes home from school. Sometimes in the evenings, if I’m really zipping along on a novel.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write a novel from page one through to the end? 

ATWOOD

No. Scenes present themselves. Sometimes it proceeds in a linear fashion, but sometimes it’s all over the place. I wrote two parts of Surfacing five years before I wrote the rest of the novel—the scene in which the mother’s soul appears as a bird and the first drive to the lake. They are the two anchors for that novel.

INTERVIEWER

What is the most difficult aspect of writing?

ATWOOD

That would be book promotion—that is, doing interviews. The easiest is the writing itself. By easiest I don’t mean something that is lacking in hard moments or frustration; I suppose I mean “most rewarding.” Halfway between book promotion and writing is revision; halfway between book promotion and revision is correcting the galleys. I don’t like that much at all. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you work closely with editors? 

ATWOOD

I used to be an editor, so I do a lot of self-editing. I rewrite a lot before I show things to people. I like to have a manuscript in more or less its final shape before anyone sees it. That doesn’t mean I can spell. There’s that, and the fiddley things like punctuation—everyone has different ideas about that. So I work with an editor to improve that aspect of the text, of course. Ellen Seligman of McClelland and Stewart was devoted and wonderful when we worked on Cat’s Eye. Things like: You have soggy twice on the same page. Meticulous. And I’ve had great fun doing some stories by phone with certain magazine editors—Bob Gottlieb of The New Yorker and Bill Buford of Granta, for instance. These sessions always take place when you’re in Switzerland or about to get into the bath, and they have to have it done right away. Bargaining goes on, horse-trading. You can have the dash if I get the semi-colon. That sort of thing. But an editor doesn’t just edit. She or he sees the book through the whole publishing process. I have close and long-standing relationships with, for instance, Bill Toye of Oxford, Canada; Nan Talese, who’s been my U.S. editor since 1976; and Liz Calder of Bloomsbury in the U.K. One of the things you want from an editor is simply the feeling that he or she understands your work. Money is no substitute for that.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve noticed that money is a very important factor in your thinking. Have you always seen things in such sharp economic terms?

ATWOOD

When you’re poor you do. I went through a period of being quite poor, of having to really watch it in order to buy myself time to write, and indeed in order to eat. My poverty wasn’t the same as real poverty in that I had some sense of direction. I didn’t feel trapped. Actually, because my family lived in the woods, it was rather difficult to tell whether we were rich or poor because none of those things applied. It didn’t matter. We had what we needed—we grew a lot of our own vegetables and things. So I grew up outside of that. I wasn’t in a social structure in which it mattered at all. Then I was out on my own quite early. I was brought up to believe that I should support myself. I had a bank account quite early on and learned how to use it. I was taught to be financially independent and I always have been. Money is important for women, because you’d be amazed how it alters your thinking to be financially dependent on someone. Indeed, anyone.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever thought of writing a novel in which a woman had an extremely important job?

ATWOOD

Yes, I have thought of doing that. But I’ve shied away for the same reason that George Eliot never wrote a novel about a successful English nineteenth-century woman writer, although she was one. It’s still so atypical as to be a social exception. Besides, I’m not a business person. I’m a self-employed person. I don’t have to deal in a power structure in the same way. I don’t have to claw my way up through the corporate world. There is a successful woman in one of my books. She’s the young, female judge that Rennie interviews in Bodily Harm. She’s just so perfect. She has modern paintings, a wonderful husband, children. She loves her work—remember her? Rennie interviews her and can’t stand it. A woman interviewer—of the “lifestyles” variety—once got very peeved with me because she felt I wasn’t telling her the real dirt. She wanted the inner guck. I finally said to her, If you had your choice, what would you like me to say to you? She said, Well, that you’re leaving Graham, right now, and that I’ve got the scoop on it, and that I can come home and watch you pack. 

INTERVIEWER

Have you always questioned institutions?

ATWOOD

Well, I grew up in the woods outside of any social structures apart from those of my family. So I didn’t absorb social structures through my skin the way many children do. If you grow up in a small town you instinctively know who is who and what is what and whom you can safely be contemptuous of.

INTERVIEWER

How do you come by your titles? 

ATWOOD

I like “come by,” because that’s about the way it is. I come by them, much as you come by some unexpected object in a junk store or lying beside the road. Sometimes the title arrives almost at the beginning of the writing of the book—The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle are cases in point. Sometimes you’ve been looking very hard in other directions and the right title will just leap at you from the side. Bodily Harm came while I was doing some unrelated reading of a legal nature. Several books have gone through a number of working titles; for Surfacing there were two serious previous titles and about twenty possibilities—some of them variations on the final one. Cat’s Eye—I think that came early on and was very necessary in view of the central physical object in the book. The Handmaid’s Tale was called Offred when I first began it. It changed by page a hundred and ten. I know this because I kept a sort of working diary—not notes, but a running total of pages written—to encourage myself. I’ve read and continue to read the Bible a lot—partly as a result of being in all those hotel rooms, partly a long-standing habit—so the final title really did come from Genesis 30. I think too that it was one of those words that puzzled me as a child. Handmaid. Like footman. It’s a very odd word.

INTERVIEWER

Is the Bible a literary inspiration to you? I know that you’ve spoken of having “the gift” in almost religious terms.

ATWOOD

That’s not an analogy I’m particularly comfortable with because it is religious. But “the gift” is real. Along with it goes a sense of vocation and dedication. You get the call.

INTERVIEWER

At the end of Lady Oracle, Joan says, “I’m not going to write Costume Gothics anymore. Maybe I’ll write science fiction. Maybe I’ll write about the future.” In a sense you have done this in Handmaid’s Tale. There is an evolution in your work toward a larger focus on the world.

ATWOOD

I think the focus has become wider, but surely that happens with every writer. What you do first is learn your craft. That can take years. In order to do that, you have to pick subjects that are small enough for you to handle. You learn how to do a good job with that. Of course, in the larger sense, every novel is—at the beginning—the same opening of a door onto a completely unknown space. I mean, it’s just as terrifying every time. But nevertheless, having made the journey a few times, you have little guideposts, little signposts in the back of your mind. One of the most salutary things is writing a novel that fails, doesn’t work, or that you can’t finish, because what you learn from these failures is often as important as what you learn from doing something that succeeds. The prospect of having it happen again isn’t so terrifying because you know you got through it. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you look over your past work with pleasure? Would you change it if you had the chance?

ATWOOD

I don’t look over my past work very much. I would not change it anymore than I would airbrush a photo of myself. When I do look at my work, I sometimes don’t recognize it immediately, or I’m indulgent, as one is towards the work of the young. Or I wonder what I could possibly have been thinking about—and then I remember. I suppose when I’m eighty I’ll have a good old pig-out on my past productions, but right now I’m too preoccupied with what’s on my plate. What a lot of food metaphors!

INTERVIEWER

Have Canadian critics been hard on you lately? 

ATWOOD

My Canadian critics haven’t been any harder on me than they usually are. If anything, maybe a bit easier; I think they’re getting used to having me around. Growing a few wrinkles helps. Then they can think you’re a sort of eminent fixture. I still get a few young folks who want to make their reputations by shooting me down. Any writer who has been around for a while gets a certain amount of that. I was very intolerant as a youthful person. It’s almost necessary, that intolerance; young people need it in order to establish credentials for themselves.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to know a great deal about visual art. Does this come from research or first-hand experience?

ATWOOD

All writers, I suspect—and probably all people—have parallel lives, what they would have been if they hadn’t turned into what they are. I have several of these, and one is certainly a life as a painter. When I was ten I thought I would be one; by the time I was twelve I had changed that to dress designer, and then reality took over and I confined myself to doodles in the margins of my textbooks. At university I made pocket money by designing and printing silk-screen posters and by designing theater programs. I continued to draw and paint in a truncated sort of way and still occasionally design—for instance the Canadian covers of my poetry books. It’s one of those things I’m keeping in reserve for when I retire. Maybe I can be a sort of awful Sunday painter like Winston Churchill. Several of my friends are painters, so I’ve witnessed the difficulty of the life. The openings with the bad wine and drying-up cheese, the reviews with the perky headlines that don’t quite get it, and so forth.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything that sticks in your mind as having been your greatest reward as a writer?

ATWOOD

The first poem I ever got published was a real high. Isn’t it funny? I mean, all the other things that have happened since then were a thrill, but that was the biggest.

INTERVIEWER

I mean something more personal, though.

ATWOOD

Alright, yes. I was in Copenhagen and just walking along, you know, window shopping in a crowded mall. Denmark has a historical relationship with Greenland where a lot of Inuit live. Along the street came some Inuit dancers done up in traditional Greenland dress. They had their faces painted and they had furry costumes on, impersonating beasts and monsters, spirits of some kind. They were spirit dancers, growling and making odd noises to the crowd. They had clawed hands and face-distorters in their mouths—pieces of wood that made their cheeks stick out in a funny way. One of these furry spirit-monsters came over to me, took his face-distorter out of his mouth, and said, Are you Margaret Atwood? I said yes. He said, I like your work. And then he put his face-distorter back in his mouth and went growling off into the crowd.

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.