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Margaret Atwood

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The elusive Margaret Atwood

Canada's foremost literary star talks about fame, politics, and the nature of buttons

Skim milk in the café au lait, thanks, she insists in that friendly but steely way she has. You wonder why she’s insisting – she looks thin and delicate with her fine translucent white skin, more like a piece of bone china than a middle-aged lady worried about fat molecules in milk. No matter, the waiters know who she is in this mid-town Toronto French patisserie near her rambling Victorian house. She’s a writer whose 10th novel is an international literary event, appearing Sept. 2 in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Holland, Germany, and Sweden, with other countries to follow; she’s Canada’s very own literary celebrity. Skim-milk café au lait it is.

Margaret AtwoodFat is surely not on Margaret Atwood’s mind these days but age and health and stamina may be. The past decade has been heavy with losses. Her father died in 1993, and more recently familiar faces from her social and literary worlds have vanished – people such as the obstreperous poet Al Purdy, who once famously poured a beer on her head (“for being too academic,” he explained later), and the writer Shirley Gibson, one of the midwives of the small presses where Atwood first published (and the mother of Atwood’s two stepsons). Now, as she approaches her 61st birthday, she has a mammoth book tour ahead of her, starting in Whitehorse on Aug. 23, and then dragging her across Canada, the U.S., and into Europe.

When she turned 60 last November, she celebrated her birthday while walking the picket line at the Calgary Herald with striking newspapermen and women. “They all sang Happy Birthday to me,” she says, smiling her usual pussycat amusement at life’s strange turns. She’s as amused as ever but she’s also something else, if the mood and content of her new book is any indication of the author’s frame of mind. The Blind Assassin is quite simply Atwood’s most emotional, yearning, heartfelt, sexy, and elegiac book ever.

Told by a woman in her 80s, one whose memories glitter with sharp strength even as her body totters, The Blind Assassin is Atwood’s usual mix of literary tricks, allusions, and unsettling images. It begins with the suicide of the narrator’s sister Laura, who, we learn, became famous with a posthumous erotic novel, The Blind Assassin, a story within Atwood’s story. We learn about the surviving sister’s ruined life. Her wealthy husband has died mysteriously. She feuds with her monstrous sister-in-law (Winifred is a new incarnation of the WASP Gorgons of Life Before Man and Cat’s Eye) over custody of her daughter and, later, granddaughter. Only the mocking but loyal handmaid, Myra, sticks by the old woman to lend a slightly unwelcome hand with laundry, diet, medications. (Atwoodian heroines always bristle at others’ ministrations.)

And yet this wreckage of a life began so well – in small-town, genteel, Anglo-Ontario in the years right after the First World War, when the narrator, Iris, and her sister Laura are the pampered and beautiful daughters of a prosperous industrialist who makes buttons out of bones from the local stockyards. Comes the Depression and the business falters amid strikes, arson, and a hostile takeover. In her later years, the now impoverished Iris finds one of her father’s gilded products, the gold all rubbed off, returned to its original bone.

Buttons and old age; a loyal fool and a quarreling family; and a lonely old person howling in the ruins of her dynasty – The Blind Assassin is nothing less than Atwood’s King Lear. Here’s Lear mourning the death of his Fool: “Thoul’t come no more, never, never, never, never, never! Pray you, undo this button.”

“I got the button imagery,” I tell Atwood proudly. She looks at me in a kindly way as if I were young. There’s more to buttons than King Lear, she observes. “I’ve been meditating on the nature of buttons since the age of three. They are proto-chessmen, you can arrange them in teams.” She says that she used to do a lot of sewing and still has her own button jar.

Buttons conjure up Lear for her, she allows. But they also figure in Alias Grace, her last novel, another gothic tale of lust, death, and unreliable narrators. (The young American doctor to whom Grace tells her life story doesn’t believe her too-plausible version: “Every button and candle-end seems accounted for.”) And near Grace’s ambiguous ending, an old tinker, the mysterious trickster Jeremiah, sends Grace a talisman – a button.

“Buttons open and close,” Atwood observes. “Metaphors only work in literature if they work in real life. It makes sense to say ‘Christ is a lion’ because people know what that is. It would make no sense to say ‘Christ is a bijorjnik,’ heh, heh, heh.” For further study, she directs the reader to the chapter in The Blind Assassin titled “The Button Factory.”

This mixture of playfulness, instruction, academic advice, and the whiff of a scolding (didn’t you read that chapter on the button factory?) is typical of an Atwoodian interview and accounts for her reputation as a prickly and formidable subject. In fact, she’s warm and even solicitous when the talk turns to, say, children (her daughter is now all grown up) or sibling rivalry (Atwood’s father dealt with it by building his three children wooden chests in which to store their private stuff). When conversation returns to her writing, however, she parries misinterpretations or simplifications with swift correction.

If you suggest that The Blind Assassin is her most overtly political book yet – with its Red scares and strikes and Conservative candidates harrumphing about outside agitators – you are swiftly corrected. “The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t political?” she snorts. Or Alias Grace, with its murders of employer and housekeeper allegedly by Grace the jealous serving-maid, and its themes of class and sexual power struggles?

Ah, smiles Atwood. “What do we mean by ‘political’? I’ve just been answering this question in a piece for the L.A. Times. To my mind, every book is political. Wind in the Willows? When the ferrets take over Toad Hall, that’s the class war, right there. And Toad gets in deepest trouble when he puts on the costume of a washerwoman and slips into the lower orders.”

Atwood has long been politicized and cause-oriented – perhaps a function of her Protestant (part Huguenot) community ethic. Three decades ago she and other young writers such as Dennis Lee and Michael Ondaatje helped found the small publishing houses that fed a literary generation. Two decades ago she and other writers marched on Parliament to demand changes in writers’ royalty protection. In the mid 1980s she rose up against Free Trade.

“My latest crusade is the water bottling plant in Oro-Medonte,” she says, mentioning a township north of Toronto, not so far from Walkerton, Ontario, the now-infamous town where seven people died from contaminated water. “At Oro-Medonte they wanted to export all their water, which would have sucked groundwater into the aquifer, and then you’ve got another Walkerton.”

She sighs. “I got involved because my brother was saying to me, ‘I think you’d better write a letter to these people.’ We’ve won that one so far.” She looks briefly annoyed: “I write so many letters to which I do not receive replies! But the worst of it is” – and here her innate sense of justice trumps her annoyance – “the worst of it is, I do get some of my letters answered. And Joe Schmoe wouldn’t.”

Writing letters, writing for newspapers, and preparing the Empson Lectures that she gave in Cambridge in April and May (“Negotiating with the Dead” – an inquiry into the nature of the writer’s identity) has occupied the stray corners of her life in the four years between Alias Grace and the publication of The Blind Assassin. Critically and commercially successful, Grace set her off on a year-long promotional marathon, from which it took her, she says, another year to recover. She swore she’d never do it again. Now she is girding herself for more of the same in a concentrated three-month book tour.

What with recovering from world travels for Grace, Atwood spent only two years writing The Blind Assassin – “not counting the false beginnings. I had two with The Blind Assassin, which included people who are no longer there.” She says that to prepare for the Empson Lectures she canvassed other writers about the creative process and asked “What’s it like when you first go into a novel?” And now her voice drops to that thrilling undertone of a camp counsellor telling monster stories: “They all told me ‘It’s dark in there.’ Heh, heh, heh. They likened the early stages of the novel to a cave, a labyrinth, a river.”

Despite having produced 44 books – poetry, fiction, criticism, collections she has edited – which have been translated into 30-odd languages, from Croatian to Korean – Atwood confesses that she feels no different. “Starting a book is incredibly anxiety-making.” Which is why she only wrote two or three hours a day at the beginning, as she felt her way along the cave walls. Much research goes into her work. She credits Katherine Ashenburg’s splendid architectural guide to small-town Ontario, Going to Town; the two acknowledgment pages in The Blind Assassin cite sources ranging from Carthaginian urn inscriptions circa 210 BC to a gushing gossip column clipping from the now defunct Canadian magazine Mayfair, July 1936, describing the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary (a voyage in which the fictional Iris and Laura take part).

“Towards the end when I know what I’m doing it’s 10 hours a day,” says Atwood. “But there’s often a lot of waiting” – again her voice slips into that false cheer of the rattled but plucky camp counsellor. “I’ll tell myself, ‘Tomorrow is another day’ or ‘Something will turn up.’”

In this case, something surprising did. Atwood’s poetry – some of the meditations on love and loyalty and time in Morning in the Burned House – has moved me near to tears. But never before one of her spiky, tricky, allusive novels. I tell her that The Blind Assassin made me cry, and I earn another kindly look. “Other readers have wept too,” she says with a gentle snicker.

Could the author be talking about herself as she wrote these final pages? The sibylline smile returns. She won’t say. Instead, fingering a cloth button on her blouse, she closes the interview.