has been writing with insight and wit about this world, and the world maybe to come, for more than 60 years. On 21 July 2010, Andrew Tate found the novelist, poet and critic online and on form in Toronto.
Photography: Simon Chirgwin
Recently, your fiction has emphasised the urgency of the environmental problems we face. Can you recall when you first became aware of such issues?
I grew up with it, because my dad was a biologist – not only a forest entomologist but a student of ecosystems – and also an early environmentalist. In fact, both of my parents were. The Sierra Club,1See www.sierraclub.ca. the Ontario Naturalists,2See ontarionature.org. they were into all of those kinds of things as far back as the Forties. People of that generation were witnesses to, already, a huge decline in numbers within species.
What we’re seeing now is whole species just vanishing from the face of the earth. If you had gone to, for instance, the Arctic 10 years ago and you go back now, it is very, very visible what is happening. You can see where the glacier was; you can see where the glacier is now.
What other, moral values were instilled in you by your parents and your teachers?
Oh, I think environmental awareness is moral, because what it says is, there’s a connection between us and other living beings – which is true. There is a connection between how we care for our space and how other people are then able to live in it – not only other people in the future but other people now.
If you live in the woods, it is moral as well as practical to learn how to put out a fire properly, because if you don’t know how to put out a fire and you start one by accident, you’re going to cause a lot of destruction.
If you examine a lot of the things we think of as moral ideas, we consider them moral because if you don’t do them it causes harm.
Some of your fiction is very critical of the relationship between technology and commerce. Are you to a degree suspicious of science per se?
Generally, readers don’t like being preached to. They like to make up their own minds, and if you don’t supply the moral for them, they will put it in themselves
I have no suspicion of science per se, any more than I have a suspicion of hammers and saws. Science is a tool and like any tool it can be used for good things or bad things. You can use a hammer and a saw for building a house for someone who doesn’t have a house or you can use them for murdering someone and cutting them up into pieces. It’s not the hammer and the saw that make moral decisions – and in fact you can murder somebody quite well with a stone.
Is there something that compels us as human beings to make a choice between good and evil?
I think it’s built in – it’s one of the things little kids are very interested in. If you tell them stories, they want very much to know who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, who’s going to be OK at the end. That’s why fairy tales are so popular – as a rule, Cinderella comes out of it all right (although Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother doesn’t always fare quite so well…)
Kids like to know that the wolf is shot by the hunter (in the old version) or becomes a vegetarian or something like that (in the modern versions). They like to know that it’s all fixed and they can go to bed feeling safe. And, by the way, it’s no good to tell a small child that there is no monster under the bed. It doesn’t work. What you have to say is: Well, there is a monster under the bed but it’s OK because we’ve made friends with him and he’s not coming out tonight.
How do you yourself prefer a fairy tale to end?
On Mondays, I prefer the vegetarian outcome, although it is not realistic. Mondays are rough. By Wednesday, I am feeling strong enough to face the sterner version, in which the grandmother gets eaten. But I’m not in favour of the vilification of wolves: an ecosystem without wolves falls prey to the ravages of too many deer.
So, there’s a kind of moral function to storytelling –
I think it’s built in. In fact, we talk about it quite a lot in the writing community. Generally, readers don’t like being preached to, not because they have no moral sense but because they like to make up their own minds, and if you don’t supply the moral for them, they will put it in themselves. They always do.
As a writer, you have always in some sense been socially aware. Even your first novel, The Edible Woman,3First published in 1969 by André Deutsch finds a strong link between the political and the personal –
Well, I certainly was not aware of doing that at the time. We didn’t have the women’s movement when I wrote it in 1964–65, and I thought I was writing about anthropomorphic food.
Still, it was very prescient and it anticipated –
Absolutely, but who knew? Not me. I didn’t know then what anorexia was, either; but then people discovered it and all of a sudden [The Edible Woman] became a central text. That happens quite a lot…
If you don’t believe in preaching to your readers, do you ever yearn for that kind of Wildean all-art-is-quite useless-and-should-be-quite-useless point of view?
Unless you are a psychopath, you have an empathy function that makes you feel sad when you see another person unhappy, and so you’re going to have a moral sense whether you like it or not
Oscar Wilde was a total preacher. That was his sermon, you know? The Picture of Dorian Gray is an almost over-the-top moral book. All of this about aesthetics having its own value – you can’t actually say that without making a moral statement. It’s a contradiction in terms.
Yes. Art always has a kind of moral function, if you like.
Well, people have built-in attitudes about morality. Unless you are what is known in psychiatric circles as a ‘psychopath’, you have an empathy function, a brain program that makes you feel sad when you see another person unhappy – rather than just finding that unhappy person annoying – and therefore you’re going to have a moral sense whether you like it or not.
Does literature nurture that ability in us to empathise?
That’s one of the excuses often made for it. People are always looking for reasons why literature and art are OK and should be allowed, but actually they have the wrong end of the dog, as it were. Literature and art are another of those things that are built in, and just as you see little children saying ‘Is it good or is it bad?’, you see them doing all those kinds of things: they tell stories, they sing songs, they learn language automatically if they are around people who talk, they draw pictures – it just comes very naturally to them.
The thinking now is that art is an evolved adaptation that became part of our make-up because it gave us a survival edge. If you have the ability to understand a story and I tell you about Uncle George being eaten by a crocodile right over there in that river, you learn from that – you don’t have to go there and go swimming and test it out and get eaten. And groups that could exchange information in that way were much more likely to make it through than those that couldn’t.
As for singing, dancing, acting out rituals and all the rest of it, they help to unify a group – as you could see at the world football tournament.
Don’t you find that rather a reductive account of art?
Oh, art can do all sorts of other things, but I’m addressing the well-meant but misguided attempt to tell people why they should have it. It’s not a question of why you should have it – you’ve got it, whether you want it or not. It may be a question of what kind of art you find enjoyable or wish to create, but you can’t take the art out of the human being unless you do something pretty radical to the insides of people’s heads.
Can we talk a bit more about your contribution to what is broadly termed ‘the women’s movement’?
Again, I’m a bit too old to have thought any of that up.
You have been foundational in it, nonetheless.
But not on purpose!
Well, do we always have to live deliberately in order to achieve interesting things?
The Handmaid’s Tale , which is very much part of the British curriculum now, was very prescient when you wrote it. Do you feel that anything has changed for the better for women in the 25 years since then?
What shocks people is not so much the things that are done in The Handmaid’s Tale but where they’re done. But I never have believed the words ‘It can’t happen here.’ Whatever ‘it’ is, it can happen anywhere
Well, at the moment when I wrote it the religious right in the United States was coming to the fore, having been rather knocked off its horse by the late Sixties and middle Seventies, and was saying things such as ‘Women’s place is in the home.’ It is my view that nothing in human life ever comes from nothing, and when you go back to the foundation of the United States of America in the north-east, what you find underneath the Declaration of Independence, the revolution and all of those things is another foundation: the Puritan theocracy that gave us, as it turns out, Harvard University. A theocracy that, not incidentally, hanged Quakers, because the Puritans wanted to be the ones calling the theological shots.
So, the kinds of things that were being said in the mid 1980s were a lot like the things that were being said in the 17th century – a century in which I have been particularly interested because my ancestors were some of those very same Quaker-hanging, Salem-witch-trial types of people. So, my theocracy [in The Handmaid’s Tale] – which we pretty much almost got under George [W] Bush, by the way, and which underlies things like the Tea Party movement – I placed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which now is thought of as the home of liberal democracy. And I put into it nothing that people haven’t already done at some time in some place. There is nothing invented out of my twisted imagination. Actually, what shocks people is not so much the things that are done [in the book] but where they’re done. But I never have believed the words ‘It can’t happen here.’ Whatever ‘it’ is, it can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.
The reactions to the book at the time were interesting. The English, having done their civil war, were not in any mood to do it again and so they said, ‘Jolly good yarn!’ The Canadians, always an apprehensive bunch of people, said: ‘Could it happen here?’ And the Americans said, ‘How long have we got?’ It’s much closer to a possibility for them – considering the way their politics goes and the extremes of the polarisation that you have right now, some sort of coup is not out of the question.
Do you think things are better now for women or worse?
Which women? You know, you can’t generalise like that, any more than you can about men. Are things better or worse for men? Well, which men? Pick a country. Generally speaking, when things are bad for everybody, they’re also bad for women.
Worse for women?
Bad. Sometimes they’re worse – in the Congo, they’re probably worse, but a state of anarchy, chaos and continuous war is actually pretty horrible for everybody.
I think you have described yourself as ‘a strict agnostic’ –
I think that religion is one of those things that are probably built in, like art – like the brain pattern that makes you feel sad when you see somebody crying in a movie. It may just be part of being human. It’s not a question of whether people are going to have religion or not, so then it becomes a question of ‘What kind are they going to have?’ And who is going to try to grab hold of that and manipulate it for their own ends? Because all of our emotions are manipulable, there’s no question.
The people who put slogans on buses saying ‘God doesn’t exist’ – if you’re going to the trouble and expense of doing that, it’s a religion. That’s the belief – because it’s not a piece of demonstrable knowledge – that you have invested yourself in.
It’s not a question of whether ‘religion’ is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s a question of how people are using it and to what ends. What is that hammer being used for? To build a house or to murder a neighbour?
I think they’re misguided: if religion is an evolved adaptation, it’s no good to tell people they shouldn’t do it. People have a predisposition to believe things they can’t actually prove. In good circumstances, that can be very unifying and motivating; in bad circumstances it can unfortunately be manipulated and can do a lot of harm.
So, again, it’s not a question of whether ‘religion’ is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s a question of how people are using it and to what ends. Are they using it to increase their own affluence or to further their military or political aims? That often happens. Or are they using it to achieve a relationship with a numinous world that they can’t point to as existing in solid objects? What is that hammer being used for? Is it being used to build a house or to murder a neighbour?
If we can’t help but have religion, what kind of religion would you say you have?
If we take ‘religion’ to mean ‘the numinous realm to which you feel emotionally committed to the point of making sacrifices for it, but which you cannot justify on the basis of empirical knowledge,’ I am probably some sort of modified North American animist, crossed with a certain kind of Blakean mystic.
A shorter answer is: the religion that would probably get me burnt at the stake or strung up from a lamp post by most of the others. Except the Buddhists – they don’t do too much burning at the stake, not as a rule. Or the Jains. Or the Spiritualists. Or the Quakers. Or some of the First Nations – I’d be safe with them, I think.
Christianity needs to regreen itself, don’t you think? [The literary theorist] Northrop Frye used to say that the Bible is a book that judges you (rather than you judging it), by which he meant that it gives you a great many choices, from sadistic punishment to forgiveness, and which version you pick out for yourself defines you.
We’re all painfully aware of too many terrible examples of bad religion. Have you seen any examples of religious practice that you think are actually valuable?
We hear most about the bad ones because, of course, it’s bad news that makes the papers; but that doesn’t mean that the good stuff isn’t going on. As a teenager, I went around to every religious organisation I could find to see whether I wanted to belong to any of them. (I sampled them all, including the Spiritualists, who were a hoot.) And you do find the good stuff being practised – it’s all around you. It is often small and practical and on the ground and hard to see – it’s not like a big scandal.
What did you learn as a teenager as you sampled all the different churches?
Baptists are great singers; Presbyterians not so much. Anglicans have terrific choirs. Unitarians not.
To judge from your most recent books, you seem to be biblically very literate.
Well, this is one way in which Canada is different from the United States. Since the Declaration of Independence, they’ve been pretty strict on the separation of church and state (and you can see why – there would be a battle royal over whose theology was going to be in there); but when I was in public school we had Bible readings every morning and religious knowledge was part of the curriculum. Number one. Number two, in order to study English literature, the honours course which went from Anglo-Saxon to about 1950, you needed to know the Bible – very intensively in the earlier period, and especially for Milton, and less intensively all the way through. The Sun Also Rises – where does that come from?
If you treat every place on the earth as a parking lot, you’re going to end up with everyone dead. There is a connection between what we venerate and what we choose to protect
Ecclesiastes.5In fact, Ecclesiastes 1:5: ‘The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose’ (US KJV)
Right. But if you don’t know that, you’re not going to understand the title of that book.
I went to Victoria College, where Northrop Frye was the eminence grise. He taught a course called ‘The Bible as Literature’ and he went through the whole thing and stuck it all together and had it make sense. He was a great biblical scholar. In The Anatomy of Criticism,6Anatomy of Criticism: Four essays (Princeton University Press, 1957) he wrote about types and antitypes and that is just straight out of biblical scholarship. And so is the New Criticism, by the way: it is biblical exegesis as applied to poems.7The New Criticism advocates close analysis of the text itself and disregards (for example) the author’s background and intentions. So, much of the literary criticism that we have today has its roots in that kind of textual study.
That brings us, I guess, to your experience of reading the Gospels. What do you make of Christ?
Well, obviously a very successful story. But are you asking me whether I ‘believe’ in the many different kinds of doctrines that have swirled around that figure? You actually get a wide choice.
I’m just curious to know how you, as a writer, as a human being, respond to that figure in the Gospels.
Well, I think as a story – or, as Northrop Frye would have called it, a ‘myth’ – and a story of central importance to our culture, it’s an exemplary plot, if you like. It’s a plot about how people quite frequently treat their prophetic or inspirational figures – and an example of the worst kinds of things that people do to other people.
As that kind of story, it’s very powerful. But then, of course, you get all kinds of spin-offs from that story that emphasise one facet of it or another facet of it. There’s actually quite a range. In Sunday school, they were very keen on Jesus, Nice Person towards Children – the Jesus who dances hand-in-hand with children from all over the world. Then you get Jesus the feminist… And Jesus the person who rather deliberately didn’t write anything – that’s interesting to me…
Do you have a sense of the holy or the sacrilegious, even if it’s not rooted in a particular religion?
The sacrilegious has to do with a couple of things, probably. Number one, the violating of a group’s treasured symbols – you know, going into the church and doing weird things to the host and stuff like that. That kind of desecration. It’s not just to do with cultic practices. For instance, among First Nations Canadians certain places are sacred and it is very, very counter-indicated to build a copper mine at the head of a venerated river system, just for instance. And usually those places are venerated for a reason: it’s where their food comes from.
The idea of place, of a numinous presence… I think those are very, very old and functional ideas, because we do depend on our geography, we do depend on what grows on the earth, and if you treat every place on the earth as a parking lot you’re going to end up with everyone dead. There is a connection between what we venerate and [what we] choose to protect. If you go way back, there is that connection between those ideas [of the holy and the sacrilegious] and our livelihood.
Do I think that there are numinous presences of that kind on the earth? No question. And I’m not saying that there’s a flower fairy or anything like that, I’m saying that if you destroy those places, the results are going to be very, very bad – and if you destroy all those places, the results are going to be terrible. So, should we protect certain things – not necessarily as ‘holy’ but, let’s just say, as numinous? Sure. No question.
History is a myth – I hate to break this to you. It’s something people make up. They’re supposed to make it up out of things that really happen, but sometimes they don’t even do that
Do you have a sense of the transcendent?
Well, let’s just say that certain places have an emotional effect on people.
The catch is that different places have different emotional effects on different people. Some people think, ‘Oh, I’m in the Holy Land! I feel so holy!’ But if that doesn’t happen to be your religious background, you’re not going to feel that. Sorry.
Some would argue that either everything is sacred or nothing is. Is that a workable point of view?
It’s workable – but if God is everywhere, then God is in the parking lot, too, and that’s not usually where you have those feelings. (I did know a guy who had a numinous episode in a parking lot, but he was diagnosed as bipolar, after he had taken off all of his clothes and got arrested.)
You are one of those writers who have followed the Romantic poets in promoting what [the essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David] Thoreau called ‘the tonic of wildness’. In a poem titled ‘The Moment’, from Morning in the Burned House , you have the landscape tell a greedy, consumerist humanity, ‘You own nothing. You were visitors.’ Do you ever feel that the planet would be better off without us?
The planet actually doesn’t care. I hate to break this to you. So, I don’t think it would – And what do we mean by ‘better off’? I mean, it’s a meaningless term in a way.
I suppose, that it would prosper –
But what do we mean by ‘prosper’? The individual cockroach might, if it were conscious in that way, say to itself: ‘Oh good! Now I’ve got much greater scope for my cockroachiness.’ But I don’t think cockroaches are saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t any people?’
A number of people are saying that, and that’s a bit scary, don’t you think? I mean, are we really at the point at which we actively hope for our own elimination?
You seem to me to be very conscious of the implications of your words and deeds – a sense perhaps that, in one way or another, you are going to be judged by history.
History is a myth. There isn’t anything in the sky called ‘History’. I hate to break this to you. It’s something people make up. (They’re supposed to make it up out of things that really happen, but sometimes they don’t even do that.)
But, also, you say ‘history’, but history when? You know, in 20 years? Fifty years? A hundred years? Two hundred years? Which one of those is history?
If you could be remembered in 100 years…
I’m not really worried about that. I hope there will be somebody around to remember something in 100 years – that would be nice. But whether they’re remembering me or just trying to figure out how to dig up edible roots… It’s not actually going to be my problem.
People say, ‘Looking 30 years down the line…’ and I say, ‘Actually, that’s your problem. You’d better start thinking about it.’ What I’m thinking about is more environmentally-friendly ways of disposing of my corpse.
Unless you have a habitable planet, all of the other questions you’re asking are completely beside the point. Nature can do very well without us, but we cannot do without Nature
Well, that’s a vivid image – I’m not saying ‘bleak’…
I don’t think it’s bleak, it’s just part of the cycle. What do God’s Gardeners say [in The Year of the Flood (2009)]? Return yourself to the cycle of life. You got your life out of it; you should give your life back.
So, the idea of a personal legacy doesn’t interest you?
Not in that old Keatsian sense – you know, joining the immortals. That stuff doesn’t actually last, in geological time, very long. The Pilgrim’s Progress was once the second-most-read book in the English language. Who has read it now, with the exception of me?
I’ve read it, I have to say.
Have you read Part Two?
Christiana’s journey? I have read it, yes.
Well, join the group of five!
Who or what inspires you or encourages you today?
Today? Probably my insatiable curiosity… If we had to pick a Greek god or goddess I most identify with, I’m very much afraid that it would be Hermes. Not Pallas Athene [the goddess of wisdom and civilisation], sorry. Hermes is the god of the crossroads and communication and the opener of doors, and I do have an insatiable curiosity to see what’s behind the next door.
To quote Scarlett O’Hara, tomorrow is another day – although I prefer to think that today is another day…
And what, if anything, gives you hope for the future?
You know what? I think hope is another one of those things that’s built in. Unless you are severely depressed, you do have a generally hopeful attitude when you get up in the morning: What’s going to happen today? That is why the early morning is such a great time of day: it’s new, it’s fresh, there seems to be a space in which there are lots of possibilities. We have inherited that generally hopeful feeling, that sense of purposefulness, from our ancestors – if they hadn’t had it we wouldn’t be here, because they wouldn’t have got up in the morning.
But if you’re asking, ‘To what shall we apply that hopefulness?’, that’s a different question. I like to try to apply my hopefulness to circumstances where something can, in fact, be done to keep the planet habitable – because unless you have a habitable planet, all of the other questions that you’re asking yourself are completely beside the point. Or (the way I like to put it when I’m feeling very succinct) you can live three days without water. Or (to be also very succinct) what produces the oxygen that we breathe? What actually produces it? Green plants, and particularly forests. So, cut down all the forests and what will happen then?
Nature can do very well without us, but we cannot do without Nature.
This edit was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Third Way.
|⇑3||First published in 1969 by André Deutsch|
|⇑4||Interviewed for High Profiles in February 1995 and May 2013 respectively|
|⇑5||In fact, Ecclesiastes 1:5: ‘The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose’ (US KJV)|
|⇑6||Anatomy of Criticism: Four essays (Princeton University Press, 1957)|
|⇑7||The New Criticism advocates close analysis of the text itself and disregards (for example) the author’s background and intentions.|
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939. She was educated at Leaside High School in Toronto and read English at Victoria College, Toronto University. In 1961, she won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to study for a master’s degree at Harvard.
Between 1965 and 1972, she taught intermittently at various Canadian universities.
Her first novel, The Edible Woman, came out in 1969 and has been followed by 12 more, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Penelopiad (2005) and The Year of the Flood (2009). She has also published seven collections of short fiction – most recently, The Tent and Moral Disorder (both 2006) – and has written or co-written six books for children.
Her non-fiction includes five books of literary criticism and her CBC Massey lectures, Payback: Debt and the shadow side of wealth (2008). Her first, prize-winning collection of poems, Double Persephone, which was privately printed in 1961, has been followed by 15 more, including The Circle Game (1964), Morning in the Burned House (1995) and The Door (2007).
Her work has been published in over 30 languages, including Estonian, Farsi, Icelandic, Japanese and Turkish. The Handmaid’s Tale was filmed in 1989.
Few living novelists have been more honoured. She has been shortlisted five times for the Booker Prize, which she won in 2000 with The Blind Assassin; and has nine times been a finalist for Canada’s Governor General’s Award, winning it with both The Circle Game and The Handmaid’s Tale (which also won the very first Arthur C Clarke Award).
She was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1981 and a Chevalier in France’s Order of Arts and Letters in 1994, and in 2010 received the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in Davos. She holds honorary doctorates from many universities, including Toronto, Montreal, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and the Sorbonne Nouvelle.
She was married from 1967 to 1973, and now lives with her long-term partner, Graeme Gibson. She has three children and two grandchildren.
Up-to-date as at 1 August 2010