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31 October 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:35pm

Margaret Atwood: “Ooooh! Are we going to talk about dying?”

The Canadian author reflects on ageing, generational inequality, reworking Shakespeare and writing stories that no one will read for a century.

By Erica Wagner

The speculative author: Margaret Atwood, photographed for the New Statesman by Kate Peters at the Royal Over-Seas League Club, London in October

An autumn morning in Ilkley, North Yorkshire. Summer has finally slunk away, and not long after breakfast I find myself tramping, in the chill grey air, down the hill to the train station with Margaret Atwood. She is dressed in sensible travelling black, but for a colourful scarf and pink-and-purple sneakers. Last night she filled a hall of more than 500 people at the Ilkley Literature Festival, nearly all of whom, it seemed, then stood in line to have their books signed. Some of them had just bought a copy of Stone Mattress, her new story collection – but most were bringing not only her new book but stacks of well-worn and clearly beloved paperbacks, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Cat’s Eye, from her first novel, The Edible Woman, to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. The final three are a remarkable trilogy that began to appear a decade ago; a vivid, frightening, and fully realised world that is all too believably a consequence of our present existence.

She and I were an hour on stage at the King’s Hall in Ilkley; we had arrived in the early afternoon, at which point she’d had a quick shower and then sat down to a long conversation with me and my tape recorder. After the event, she would sign for another hour, or a little more, because these days authors of Atwood’s prominence not only sign books but are also asked to appear in selfies. She has been on the road for six weeks, to Italy, to France, to Greece. Britain is her last stop before she sails home on the Queen Mary 2, a form of transport that has the advantage of being both relaxing and low-carbon, the latter a great priority for her. (Become one of her more than half a million Twitter followers and you will see that most of what she tweets has an ecological bent.)

She smiles and signs, and signs and smiles, and only then, when it’s nearly ten o’clock, do we head for dinner at a local Italian restaurant, where she reacts with remarkable grace when the manager, in his strong Italian accent, informs her that his favourite author is Dan Brown. “A really nice guy,” Atwood says gamely.

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She will be 75 on 18 November. At Ilkley Station, when Bloomsbury’s publicity agent attempts to carry Atwood’s suitcase, she is firmly rebuffed. Atwood fairly yanks her case away from any helping hands and puts an end to the matter. “I hope it hasn’t come to that!” she declares. Madeleine doesn’t offer to help again. Neither do I. Margaret Atwood is a woman who can take care of herself.

Her curly hair is grey these days but other than that there is little sign of her age. It’s a topic of our conversation, though, as age looms large in Stone Mattress, which takes its title from a tale that might be said to encapsulate much of what Atwood is about. Verna is a widow aboard an Arctic adventure cruiser peopled by go-getting older folk much like herself; it turns out she knows one of them from her very much younger days – and not in a good way. A stromatolite, the expedition’s geologist explains, comes “from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilised cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae . . . It was this very same algae that created the oxygen they are breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?”

This sharp-eyed, darkly funny tale brings in science, the natural world and humankind’s effect on it, feminism, the repercussions of our earlier actions – all topics that dance throughout the 55 books that make up the Atwood oeuvre. (She is dismissive of this vast-sounding number when I raise it: “Do we count the seven-poem-long thing I hand-set myself? Do we count Bloomsbury Quids and stuff? If you take the total span of years, it’s really not that many – I think Georges Simenon has us all beat, and so does Joyce Carol Oates.”) The story is no less astonishing for beginning life simply as a jeu d’esprit, written to entertain her fellow passengers on an actual Arctic cruise. She was helped along by her partner, Graeme Gibson – a novelist and naturalist; the couple have a grown daughter, Jess – assisting her in plotting just what it would take toget away with murder at sea. It helped that on that particular trip there were five passengers called Bob.

But as ever with Atwood, there is more to a tale of this sort than merely entertainment. “Murder mysteries are a way of flouting the Grim Reaper – it’s happening over there, it’s happening to Bob, but not to Erica, and therefore Erica is exempt.” She grins at me mischievously. “I think we all secretly think that way.”

More secret thoughts are revealed in “Torching the Dusties”, the chilling story that closes the volume. Wilma is a resident of Ambrosia Manor – an old folks’ home in a (somewhat) grander guise. Her life only seems strange at first because, thanks to macular degeneration, she suffers from Charles Bonnet syndrome, which causes her to hallucinate armies of little people, elaborately clothed elves who dance around the furniture and windowsills. But then crowds of young people start to cluster around the gates of Ambrosia Manor, blocking deliveries and carrying signs that say “Time to Go”. I won’t spoil the story, but suffice to say that the young people aren’t happy, and things don’t look good for Wilma and her fellow inmates.

“It’s a story about economic imbalance,” says Atwood plainly. Economics is another focus of her keen interest. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was published in 2008, just before the financial crash; it’s a fascinating collection of essays (first aired as the Massey Lectures, Canada’s equivalent of the Reith Lectures) which offers an intellectual history of debt as seen through literature’s lens: it wasn’t Emma Bovary’s adultery that led to her downfall, Atwood argues, but her overspending.

During our couple of days together I observe that Atwood is interested in absolutely everything, from when the theatre in Ilkley was built to the differences between British and American sign language (we have a sign-language interpreter for our event). Look at the arc of her work and you will understand why the term “speculative fiction”, rather than “science fiction”, applies. She likes the term the French have for the former: roman d’anticipation. From the feminism of The Edible Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale to the vision of a world trashed by its human inhabitants in the MaddAddam trilogy, she draws her conclusions simply by looking at the world around her and imagining what might come next.

Atwood is a realist. She has some sympathy with the angry kids at the nursing home’s gates in “Torching the Dusties”. “Wonderful though our automatonised world is becoming, there are a lot of people who don’t have jobs; and those people are young. When you have a lot of young people who don’t have jobs, you are going to get a lot of energy of an angry kind. Older people have built up resources – you know, why don’t we like dragons in The Hobbit?” she asks rhetorically. She is quite fond of rhetorical questions; it’s always worth waiting for the answer. “They keep everything in a great big pile and they sit on it. It’s the same reason we don’t like Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol: not only is he sitting on a vast pile of wealth, he’s not even spending it on himself. Currency is called ‘currency’ for a reason: it has to circulate. When you block the circulation you get a stagnant state of affairs.”

We’re tucked into a cosy corner of the bar in our Ilkley hotel as we speak; now she leans in to me conspiratorially. “The part I like about that story [“Torching the Dusties”] is how everyone discusses what’s happening on the radio – but nobody does anything because they’re secretly really in favour of it, aren’t they? That younger generation – they don’t want all that money spent before they can get their hands on it!”

It’s a problem, she says with typical bluntness, that didn’t used to exist. “Once upon a time there were not nearly so many people living to that age; people that old would have been freakish. In the Victorian situation they would have been cared for within the extended family home; in hunter-gatherer societies, should you have someone that old, the group would have cared for such a person – except when they decided, ‘OK, that’s enough,’ and they would choose to go out themselves. ‘I’ve made my contribution, I’m a drag, and now I’m going.’ That’s why I think there’s such a movement right now for death with dignity. People feel they want to be able to choose their exit.”

The baby boomers, as they move into decrepitude, “will want what they have always wanted, which is lots of choice”.

It is at this point that – unchivalrous though it is – I can’t help wondering whether, well, this is something she’s thought about herself. She arches her eyebrows and puts on a high, mock-hysterical, chipmunk voice. “Ooooh! Are we going to talk about dying?” she squeals – but then reverts to a serious, thoughtful mien. “I understand both points of view. Like anything else we do, that kind of choice is subject to abuse.”

Anything that codified assisted dying, Atwood allows, “would have to be pretty clearly supervised so you weren’t dealing with a case of: ‘I’m telling you, she really wants to! She told me herself!’ ” And then there’s that cackle again. Her own mother, who lived well into her nineties, was “very clear” about what she wanted at the end of her life. “She did not want any intervention, she didn’t want to be in hospital, she didn’t want any of those things.”

Once, towards the end of her life, Atwood’s mother had to be rushed to hospital after suffering a haemorrhage; but she refused any extensive tests. “She wouldn’t let them put a camera up her, she wouldn’t let them put a camera down her. When I finally got there, she was just grinning like a jack-o’-lantern, because she’d stood them off. What she wanted was to get out of there.”

Atwood’s moving poem about those last years, “My Mother Dwindles . . .”, echoes these recollections.

I hold her hand, I whisper,
Hello, hello.
If I said Goodbye instead,
If I said, Let go,
what would she do?

Given her energy levels, it’s no surprise that she turns this conversation away from herself; she has plenty to keep her occupied. The MaddAddam trilogy is to be turned into an HBO series by Darren Aronofsky, of Black Swan and Noah fame (he has plenty of experience with floods). She is thrilled that it will appear on the small screen rather than head for Hollywood: “It allows for the epic in a way that making a film no longer accommodates quite so well. The last big epics were things like [Akira] Kurosawa’s Ran. Years ago, people snotted on television – but ever since [Dennis Potter’s] The Singing Detective, people understood that TV in a serial format could be an astonishing thing.” And she, too, is a fan, she confesses, of a good box set. She loved Michael Hirst’s The Tudors but brings us a special recommendation from Canada: Slings and Arrows, a series set at the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival, a celebration of Shakespeare that bears a strong similarity to the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Each of its seasons is set around the production of one of the plays: in King Lear, Cordelia is played by the Canadian director and actress Sarah Polley – who also happens to be adapting Alias Grace, Atwood’s Booker-shortlisted novel published in 1996, for television.

Atwood tells me the Aronofsky project is at the stage of searching for a writer. I wonder if she’s considered doing it herself. “No!” she shrieks, horrified at the idea. She knows where her talents lie. She has a novel to finish – and then she will turn her own hand to Shakespeare: she is one of the authors participating in a Shakespeare project that will start appearing from the Hogarth Press in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. Anne Tyler, Jeanette Winterson and Atwood, among others, are being asked to revisit (“You don’t say rewrite, that would be horrible; we say: revisit”) Shakespeare’s stories. She is taking on The Tempest, “a play that poses a lot of unanswered questions”.

Her idea is to transpose it to the Arctic north; in Inuktitut, the Inuit language, “there are a lot of things in the play for which there are no words. Poor Ferdinand carries logs around; but there are no logs in Inuktitut, as there’s no wood. What’s he going to carry around? Dead seals?”

And her visions for the years ahead stretch right out into the next century. She is the first author to have agreed to participate in the “Future Library”, a project conceived by Katie Paterson, a young Scottish artist. Just this past summer, a great forest was planted in Nordmarka, not far from Oslo; the trees will grow for 100 years, until 2114. Only then will they be cut down and made into paper on which stories – up until that point stored securely, secretly away in the public library currently under construction in Norway’s capital city – will be printed. Atwood is gleeful at the idea that no one will know what she has written until long after she is gone. “I’ll have to be pretty careful,” she says. “I won’t be able to tell anyone about it.”

Her piece could be a novel, a story, a poem – anything. But none of us here today will know what it was, or rather, what it will be, depending on how you think about it. But then all books, she has said, are “communications across time”; this is only a dramatic demonstration of that fact.

To spend a couple of days in Margaret Atwood’s company is inspiring. Yet the curiosity and optimism that draw her to participate in projects such as the Future Library is balanced by a firm realism. At one point in our conversation I remark that Canadian literature seems to celebrate women; I think not only of Atwood herself, but of writers such as Carol Shields, Mavis Gallant and last year’s Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. Atwood offers a characteristically straightforward reply.

“But Carol is dead,” she says. “Mavis is dead. Of that group I’m the youngest one. There are a number of younger women writers – but you can’t say they’re dominant. I think it’s more likely to be even-steven these days. And people are much less likely to feel that they are having to jump through a lot of hoops, or that they have to answer questions like, ‘So what about the housework?’ I mean, that used to happen; but I doubt that it happens very much any more.”

Well, I say brightly, surely that’s a good thing. “That is a good thing,” she agrees. “But it may be a little bit unrealistic, in that if you have children, you do have to worry about the housework. It’s not like there’s no more housework. It was never a totally unrealistic question, even though it was, at that time, a condescending question. It doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. It doesn’t mean we’ve entered some sort of utopian era where all of these problems have just gone away or been solved by little robots, because it’s not true.”

Her feminism, I believe she would argue, is descriptive: she looks at the world around her and shows us what she sees. It is her perceptions, her observations, that have drawn her into the most important conversations about women’s place in the world.

“Well, if you are describing women in the world, those conversations will take place – unless you are stupid enough to say that everybody is living on the cover of a Betty Crocker cake mix.” There’s an edge to her voice now. “It just is so, that things are certain ways, and more in some countries than in others. What are we to make of two raped and murdered girls hanging from a tree in India? What are we to think of that?” She lets the image stay in the air between us for a moment. “That isn’t something I made up. It’s a bit too horrific for me.”

She glances out the window at the louring Ilkley evening; and then looks straight at me with her keen blue eyes. “Though I did do the end of the human race!” She laughs. But I wouldn’t say she’s joking. 

“Stone Mattress” is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99)

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