‘I’ll do anything once.’ Margaret Atwood at Manchester Literature Festival

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Manchester as I weave my way through teems of shoppers. Thankfully my destination’s the more tranquil Royal Exchange Theatre where Erica Wagner is interviewing Margaret Atwood as a precursor to the two-week Manchester Literature Festival.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the festival and in the introductory remarks, Cathy Bolton, co-director of the festival, shows us the programme with a picture of a 10-year-old Margaret Atwood on the front. And this is where the discussion with Wagner begins…

Wagner asks where the curls are now that Atwood sports in the photograph. She replies, ‘In my sister’s cellar.’ She says that she wanted to get them cut but this met with parental resistance. Her mum used to create them by curling them around her finger but, when her mum went into hospital to have Atwood’s younger sister, her dad’s fingers proved too thick for the job. Atwood went to the hairdressers. The curls were saved though and ended up in her sister’s cellar when Atwood refused to have them in her own home. There’s been some discussion of making them into Victorian hair jewellery but traditionally this was done following someone’s death. ‘No yet! No yet!’ says Atwood.

She goes on to talk about how the latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, came about. Atwood says she was working with editor, Amy Grace Lloyd, who’s worked for the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Playboy. (She’s also a novelist. Atwood tells us that Lloyd’s book The Affairs of Others did well in France because it has ‘widows and sex in conjunction’.) Atwood used to write long form pieces for Playboy when Lloyd was there but when the magazine decided it wanted ‘no more hifalutin stuff’ and ‘confined itself to the basics’, Lloyd started a site called Byliner on which to publish long essays and fiction. She lured Atwood in by saying Amy Tan had done something for it. She says she wanted to do a continuous story, a serialisation, because she’s always admired Charles Dickens. She did four parts and then her book editor got wind of it and wanted it to become a book. Of course, this meant changes. She had to take the reminders as to what happened in the previous episode out; the embedded back-story was removed and put at the front in chronological order, and Stan was rescued. At the end of part four, he was a sex robot, dressed as Elvis Presley, being shipped to Las Vegas in a box. You can have Elvis in any form in Las Vegas, she tells us. ‘They’re thick on the ground.’ She then reads an extract from the novel where Stan is putting on his Elvis costume.

After the reading, Wagner asks about one of the conceits of the novel – the private prison. ‘It’s not a conceit,’ says Atwood. They discuss people making money from prisons. Atwood sites a number of examples including a prison in Alabama that’s discussed in an article on The Atlantic website which uses “pay-only” probation. The American constitution outlawed slavery but not for prisoners, she says. [‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’] She also tells us that when prisoners were being transported to Australia there were far more men than women so, to keep the men happy, they lowered the tariff for sending women to the colonies. Once you’ve a quota it has to be filled.

Wagner asks her if she has a sense of when she wants to focus on a subject. Atwood says it’s usually due to ignorance. She then goes on to talk about The Heart Goes Last. She says the scheme in the novel seems utopian on the surface: the volunteers spend a month in prison, followed by a month out, swapping places with other civilians. When in prison, they alternate between being prisoners and guards. People are keen to do this because there’s a lack of jobs and they’re living in their cars. There are two problems, the first is that the real criminals were released because they were too disruptive, they now roam the streets in lawless gangs, and the second is that we don’t know what will happen when people get old.

Atwood refers to the recent film 99 Homes in which people are evicted for not paying their mortgage. Atwood has a television programme in the novel called The Home Front in which evicted people are interviewed. The audience vote on people’s stories and whoever’s told the ‘woeist’ tale wins money. Atwood’s protagonists don’t think of trying this, ‘The odds are low anyway that you’ll ever win anything.’

Wagner asks about Consilience, the name of the town in the novel. Atwood defines the word as the way biological forms in nature interact, using eating and being eaten as an example. Wagner also points out that at the front of the novel, it’s divided into cons + resilience. They also discuss Positron, the name of the prison project. Atwood says it’s a subatomic particle but Isaac Asimov also used it in I, Robot. It means that robots can’t cause harm to humans.

This is followed by a discussion about sex robots. Atwood says that Taiwanese banks have just introduced a robot greeter that can read human emotions. A limited number of these were put on sale for private use and sold out in one minute. The brochure that comes with them says they can’t be used for sex or improper behaviour. Atwood adopts a generic robot-sounding voice, ‘Do not come close to me. I can see what you’re thinking. Get your hands off me.’ Apparently the Japanese have invented a robot that gets goosebumps.

Wagner follows this up by mentioning a young woman at Cheltenham Literature Festival who asked about how far we’d come since The Handmaid’s Tale was written. She asks if Atwood’s surprised at the developments. No, she says. She doesn’t use anything in her novels that hasn’t been done, used or we have the technology for. She says humans are driven by desires and fears and those are limited in number. If you want to find out more about them, go back to mythology and fairy tales. She talks about the cloak of invisibility, about being able to produce endless amounts of food and not having to clear up afterwards, about desiring interesting and endless sexual partners whilst expecting our spouses to remain loyal to us at all times.

She mentions the epigraphs in The Heart Goes Last. There are three. The first from Ovid’s ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’, the third from A Midsummer Night’s Dream which she says relates to her protagonists Stan and Charmaine meeting their alternates, lost in the dark, falling in love with the wrong people, and the second is from a blog called ‘I had sex with furniture’. Someone has manufactured a sofa with an aperture in it so a man could have sex with it and the blogger did so, so ‘you didn’t have to’. ‘Who thought it would be a good idea?’ she says. ‘Who thought I can sell that? Would you have that in your living room?’

Before they take questions from the audience, Wagner tells us that Atwood has an essay in the New Statesman next Friday about a book they both admire called A Story as Sharp as a Knife. She asks Atwood to tell us about it. ‘Once upon a time, a long, long time ago,’ she begins. There was a group of islands called Haida Gwaii off the coast of Canada. There the Haida people lived in solitude until someone discovered them and brought diseases amongst them. All but 100 of the Haida people were wiped out. Amongst those left were two epic poets in the tradition of Virgil and Homer. An anthropologist, with the help of a translator, wrote all the poetry down, after which it ‘slept in the library for 100 years’. There it was discovered by polymath, Robert Bringhurst, who realised it was poetry not primitive folklore. He taught himself Haida and this, along with the poetry, is the story told in A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Atwood describes it as ‘an extraordinary accomplishment’.

The first audience question concerns Atwood’s unreliable narrators and why she’s drawn to them. The Blind Assassin is mentioned as an example. Atwood says, ‘She doesn’t actually lie. She just doesn’t tell the whole truth.’ It’s the same in Alias Grace. She says there are two different versions of Alias Grace’s story written down, she must have been lying in one of them, but she couldn’t find enough information to confirm whether she had murdered or not. She mentions an Agatha Christie novel in which it is revealed that the narrator is the murderer. She says people didn’t like this but there’s no rule that people can’t lie. ‘I don’t think any of my narrators have been unreliable to the point of Agatha Christie’s murdering narrator. They haven’t been Iago.’

Another audience member mentions the narrator in Surfacing. Atwood says that holding things back is not the same as a barefaced lie. ‘It’s something that people do. You know what you know but not everyone you know knows what you know.’

The next question is about Edward Said’s Orientalism and the quotation ‘There is never only one, of anyone’ from Cat’s Eye and whether there’s a link between the two. Atwood says that’s ‘A little out of my ball park’. She stopped being an academic with any degree of depth in 1970/71. When she was writing her PhD thesis, she got a call from England from Oscar Lewenstein saying he wanted to make a film of The Edible Woman. Atwood replied, ‘Who is this really?’ She says she became an academic because she thought she’d need a day job, she didn’t expect to become a best seller straight away, but was decoyed by the world of film. She wanted to go to France, live in a garret, drink absinthe, become an existentialist and get tuberculosis.

The final question is with regards to Atwood’s relationship with feminism. It’s too old for her to have invented it, she says! She tells us that when she’s writing she puts the birthday of the character in the margin so she can create a timeline showing how old they are when world events took place. She proceeds to do the same for herself and key points in the feminist movement. She says the second wave was good for any women writing anything because they had an audience. The Edible Woman garnered two types of reviews, either ‘This is a young writer she’ll grow up later’ or ones that recognised she was in tune with the second wave of feminism. She’s followed feminist conversations with great interest. She describes a period in the 1980s and ‘90s as ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ but says the current focus is on violence against women and gender identity. At this point she stops and says, ‘What was the question?’ Wagner reminds her and she says, ‘Women are human beings.’ They’re just over half of the population. ‘It’s pretty much impossible to write a novel without a woman in it unless it’s Moby Dick.’ She thinks that some of the strongest support for women has come from men because ‘they can get away with it without being yelled at, screamed at, getting death threats’. She cites The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as an example. If a woman had written that she’d have been called the most ferocious man-hater. ‘Still,’ says Wagner. ‘Still?’ replies Atwood. ‘It’s getting worse.’

If you’re an Atwood fan and you’ve yet to get your hands on a copy of the recently published in paperback short story collection Stone Mattress, check in tomorrow when I’ll have a competition just for you, courtesy of Virago Books.

8 thoughts on “‘I’ll do anything once.’ Margaret Atwood at Manchester Literature Festival

  1. Have you read the new book yet? It’s a bit silly, but enjoyable enough if you liked her earlier dystopian stuff. Did she give any hint of what she’s working on next?

  2. Have you read the new book yet? It’s a bit silly, but enjoyable enough if you liked her earlier dystopian stuff. Did she give any hint of what she’s working on next?

  3. Years ago, in the 80’s, I met Margaret Atwood at a book signing in a women’s bookshop in Amsterdam. She was charming & wryly funny & didn’t mind at all when I asked her to sign my old copy of The Edible Woman as well as the poetry collection that has just been re-issued. I already knew she was a writer to admire. And a formidable feminist. She’s right. Less has changed than ‘they’ would have us believe & things are getting worse.

    I’m less enamoured of her shorts than I am her novels – Alias Grace remains my favourite – so will hold off on Stone Mattress for now. I do fancy her latest novel – The Heart Goes Last.

    Splendid piece, Naomi! Thank you!

  4. Years ago, in the 80’s, I met Margaret Atwood at a book signing in a women’s bookshop in Amsterdam. She was charming & wryly funny & didn’t mind at all when I asked her to sign my old copy of The Edible Woman as well as the poetry collection that has just been re-issued. I already knew she was a writer to admire. And a formidable feminist. She’s right. Less has changed than ‘they’ would have us believe & things are getting worse.

    I’m less enamoured of her shorts than I am her novels – Alias Grace remains my favourite – so will hold off on Stone Mattress for now. I do fancy her latest novel – The Heart Goes Last.

    Splendid piece, Naomi! Thank you!

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