Margaret Atwood: ‘If you’re going to speak truth to power, make sure it’s the truth’ | Life and style

Margaret Atwood is smiling, waving a inexperienced copy of her e book The Testaments at me, whereas I wave a black one again at her. Excessive-cheekboned, pale-skinned, her curly gray hair like a corona, she’s sporting a jewel-green shirt that makes her eyes glitter. Behind her stretches her massive, comfortable, barely darkened sitting room in Toronto, with books and wall hangings and a whirring fan. Atwood gleams out of my display, brilliant in all senses.

She is speaking about being a grouch. She tells me she turns down quite a lot of interview requests, “after which I get a status as being very grumpy and onerous to take care of. However who cares?” Grumpy appears mistaken to me. I had been warned that Atwood was scary – super-sharp and impatient – however she’s not like that both. She is unsentimental, clear, certain of her information and opinions, however she additionally has a light-weight, mischievous high quality. She says my title as if always on the verge of teasing me.

And she or he’s not grand, although she has each proper to be, as one of the vital profitable writers on the planet. Now 80, she has written 17 novels, 17 books of poetry, 10 books of non-fiction, eight collections of quick tales, eight kids’s books and three graphic novels. Her inexperienced copy of The Testaments is the paperback model of her barely extra cheerful sequel to The Handmaid’s Story: the black hardback bought greater than 250,00zero copies in its first month within the UK alone. Atwood could possibly be forgiven for resting on her laurels – or resting, full cease – however she likes to be fingers on: she runs her personal Twitter and Instagram accounts, the place she posts books she likes, hyperlinks to campaigns and festivals, generally humorous little clips (there’s a nice quick movie of her using an electrical scooter in New Zealand in February). She writes articles, and places her title to open letters for causes she helps: Greta Thunberg’s environmentalism, free speech, LGBTQ+ rights, girls’s rights, birdwatching. She has loads happening.

Ladies’s rights campaigners dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Story in Los Angeles final yr. Photograph: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Photographs

In the intervening time, like many people, she is anxious concerning the US election, even when she has no vote. “Canadians are all pressed up towards the plate glass window like this,” she says, making a splurgy face. Whereas she considers Joe Biden electable (“He does look like a human being, he doesn’t look like a sociopath or a narcissist, so that is all to the nice”), whether or not he’ll make it to the White Home is one other factor.

“It relies upon to what extent He Who Shall Not Be Named manages to destroy the postal providers,” Atwood says. (Donald Trump comes up a number of occasions in our dialog, although she refuses to truly title him.) “That’s not going to be a tippity-top common transfer as a result of individuals’s pension cheques, their drugs, come within the postal service. For those who don’t get your pension cheque, you’re going to hate the federal government. However then, in the event you can’t vote, it doesn’t matter in the event you hate them or not.”

No less than it’s not your nation, I say; possibly it shouldn’t matter to Canadians?

“Oh sure, it ought to,” she says. “That’s our border, the longest undefended border on the planet.”

This border options in The Testaments – one of many heroines is smuggled over it, to and from the patriarchal totalitarian state of Gilead – and Atwood talks to me about its historical past by means of slavery and prohibition. Now, she says, People are sneaking into Canada to flee their very own nation’s hopeless method to Covid-19. “They stroll by means of the woods,” she says. “And I observed, final time I used to be in Saskatchewan, which is out west, we had been proper close to the border and there have been drones patrolling it.” In one other echo of her books, the woods are being watched for escapees.

The Handmaid’s Story and The Testaments got here out of Atwood imagining what type a dictatorship would take within the US: does she contemplate Trump to be a manifestation of this? She doesn’t say sure, however tells me there’s a “recipe” for placing in a dictator, which is: destroy or take over unbiased media; do the identical with unbiased judiciary; kill artists or make them actually compliant. “And when you begin taking pictures protesters within the streets, that’s a extremely large sign that that is going to be a dictator.”

Writing The Handmaid’s Story in 1985, she had it in her thoughts US dictatorship might by no means be a socialist one. “You wouldn’t be capable of get the 33% essential to assist you. That’s the quantity you want for a functioning dictatorship, so long as they’ve received weapons.” As a substitute it might be a God-based affair. “It could fly underneath some bizarre, ‘Let’s stand in entrance of a church, holding a Bible the other way up’ message,” she says. “Play God.” It’s clear who Atwood is referring to: a kind of dictator, who performs the God card and exploits the web.

“Nicely, within the Obama election,” she says, “the individuals who favored Obama had discovered methods to use social media and the Republicans hadn’t. Within the 2016 election that they had, and so had the Russian bots. Any weapon or any human instrument goes to have an excellent facet tied in to a silly or dangerous facet you had not anticipated while you invented no matter it was. You can’t devise a weapon that someone else won’t seize and use towards you.”

Canadian author Margaret Atwood poses with her book ‘The Testaments’ during the photo call for the authors shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction at Southbank Centre in London on October 13, 2019.

Atwood holding The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Story, at a photograph name for final yr’s Booker prize, which she shared with Bernadine Evaristo. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Photographs

As a long-time scholar of historical past, Atwood is aware of progress doesn’t transfer easily, however in stops and begins. She has been writing a brand new foreword to We, the 1920s dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin reputed to have impressed Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-4: “The Russian Revolution is one among my obsessions of the second,” she explains. She talks concerning the revolution’s want to destroy marriage by making divorce simpler – an initiative which may, to the fashionable thoughts, appear a pro-woman transfer, however wasn’t. “Males had been simply getting married, getting divorced. There have been all these kids with out households or assist. That is the issue with issues that look good on paper.”

Feminism is on the root of virtually every little thing Atwood writes, however she doesn’t at all times toe the occasion line. She is on document as disliking the sort of feminism that disapproves of lipstick; she isn’t keen on portraying girls as saints or martyrs; and he or she was known as a “dangerous feminist” when she signed a 2016 letter that requested for a correct authorized course of across the dismissal of a College of British Columbia professor who had been accused of significant sexual assault. Just lately, together with 152 different writers, critics and lecturers, she put her title to an open letter in Harper’s journal that supported “open debate and freedom of thought and speech”; it was criticised for not acknowledging “the issue of energy: who has it and who doesn’t”.

Atwood doesn’t thoughts individuals disagreeing along with her. She reads loads, attracts on her personal expertise: “I hate to maintain saying ‘At my age’ however, at my age…” In July, she took a step into the heated Twitter row surrounding JK Rowling and trans rights. In June, Rowling had prompted controversy by taking concern with the phrase “individuals who menstruate”, utilized in an article about Covid-19 and menstruation merchandise (Rowling would have most popular the phrase “girls”). Atwood didn’t refer on to Rowling’s essay on the topic, however tweeted a hyperlink to a scientific article that acknowledged that intercourse, in addition to gender, exists on a spectrum between female and male. “Some science right here: ‘When Intercourse and Gender Collide.’ #TransGenderWomen Biology doesn’t deal in sealed Both/Or compartments. We’re all a part of a flowing Bell curve. Respect that! Rejoice in Nature’s infinite selection!” Atwood added.

“Learn the science, that’s all I’d ask of individuals,” she says once I ask her about this. “Go to the biology first, please. I additionally put up a pleasant YouTube clip of those two younger individuals explaining all of it very rigorously. [The two go through Rowling’s piece and disagree with it, bit by bit.] They’re very good-humoured.”

What does she assume when trans rights and feminism butt up on this means?

“I believe, what are individuals afraid of? I believe they might have seen Psycho at too formative an age. They’re afraid of someone dressing up like their lifeless mom and stabbing them within the lavatory or one thing.”

She’s joking, clearly, however girls have been no-platformed and misplaced jobs on account of their public assist for Rowling; Sasha White, for instance, the girl just lately fired from her place at a literary company. That should conflict along with her concept of free speech? Atwood snaps again into seriousness.

“Suzanne Nossel has an excellent steering e book known as Dare To Converse. That’s nicely definitely worth the learn. If in case you have a state of affairs the place you are feeling your rights are being eliminated, it’s vital to speak about it clearly.

“It’s also true that in conditions the place individuals haven’t had any energy, and out of the blue they get energy, some individuals are going to abuse that energy. Discovering out you’ve received energy, and might get someone fired, while you haven’t had any – that may be a fairly heady feeling. I imply, let’s all dance across the guillotine as we chop off the heads of the aristocrats. Right here’s my quick model: in the event you’re going to talk reality to energy, be sure it’s the reality. That’s an excellent maxim.”

Having spent a lifetime excited about energy and what it does to individuals, Atwood doesn’t imagine it at all times corrupts: “Some use it for benevolent ends.” However she believes that, typically, it goes to individuals’s heads, whether or not they’re working from good intentions or not. Whoever is “successful”, by means of privilege or recognition, will take it out on others.

“If in case you have energy, don’t waste it on squashing snails,” she says. “Reserve it for the biggies. If in case you have a celebration line that’s enforced throughout the board, you’ve received a tyranny. Sometimes, these occasion strains get in on the excuse that you need to demolish the individuals at the moment in energy as a result of they’re utilizing their energy badly. So you have to have that energy as a result of you are going to make use of it nicely. However you then get the facility and begin squashing snails.

Atwood and her daughter Jess in 1982.

Atwood and her daughter Jess in 1982. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/Fairfax Media/Getty Photographs

“It’s simply enjoyable for lots of people to demolish different individuals and it at all times has been, throughout the board. Individuals like doing it. For those who’re actually going to place your self within the field marked ‘virtuous’, you’ve received to ask your self whether or not you’re truly being virtuous, or whether or not you’re being sadistic. Pay attention to the way you’re utilizing your energy.”

That is a part of a for much longer and extra nuanced dialogue than is feasible on social media, in fact. We couldn’t actually have this dialog on Twitter, I say. “It may be achieved, however provided that you’re speaking to people who find themselves conversing with you in good religion,” she says. “In individual is healthier. I can say to you, ‘Did you actually imply that? Is that what you truly meant? What are the results of what you simply stated? Do you actually need to shut down debate on every little thing throughout the board – as a result of meaning your debate goes to be shut down, too.’”

Atwood likes speaking to journalists head to head, on the document; she likes us as a result of she will be able to see we’re not bots. “The factor about issues on-line is that tweets pop up and disappear and sometimes you don’t know who’s achieved them. You don’t know in the event that they’re a bot, a instrument of a propaganda organisation. However you, Miranda, in the event you had me saying one thing unfaithful and libellous… I do know the place you reside.”

Ha! Nicely, I do know the place she lives, too, kind of. And she or he’s nonetheless in lockdown, so she’s probably not going anyplace. She returned from a e book tour on 10 March and since then has been in a bubble with numerous members of the family, together with her “child” sister Ruth, 68, and a four-year-old grandchild. Ruth arrange her stitching machine and has been making masks, and the 2 have had one thing of a return to childhood: they staged a puppet present for the BBC’s Entrance Row Late, after host Mary Beard requested Atwood to create a chunk across the concept of plague. They carried out a rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque Of The Pink Loss of life utilizing champagne bottles, knives and forks, and a bottle of hand sanitiser. “It’s on-line someplace,” Atwood says airily.

And, in fact, she has been writing. In the intervening time, she is engaged on some quick tales and a group of essays, “if I can discover out what I did with them,” in addition to “numerous different issues. At all times a pair at a time. I imply, you retain saying, ‘I can’t do any extra of those little tasks’, however it’s at all times an emergency for someone, isn’t it?” Not for her the unique writing retreat, the common day by day hours. She writes wherever and each time, capable of focus at will. “The writing expertise is identical whether or not there are different individuals in your neighborhood or not,” she says. The Testaments was written in all types of locations, together with a practice held up by a landslide.

Margaret Atwood and her husband, Graeme Gibson, at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival in 2016.

Together with her late husband, Graeme Gibson, at a literary competition in Jaipur in 2016. Photograph: Rohit Jain Paras/AFP/Getty Photographs

However lockdown has been a wierd time, largely as a result of there’s somebody lacking. Final September, her accomplice, the author Graeme Gibson, died in London, two days after she launched The Testaments. They’d been collectively for nearly 50 years. I’ve been questioning if that is too delicate a topic, however she mentions it first.

“He had an enormous stroke,” she says, “and spent 5 days within the very properly run college hospital [UCH, in London], and died.”

She’s capable of discuss his demise calmly as a result of she’s satisfied it was an excellent one. His kids made it to London in time to say goodbye (he has two sons, Matt and Grae, from a earlier marriage; and a daughter, Jess, with Atwood). Plus he’d had dementia for some time: “He was declining and he had needed to take a look at earlier than he reached any additional phases of that.” They’d simply spent a beautiful 10 days in Italy collectively, he travelling with a damaged arm, as a result of “I definitely wasn’t going to depart him behind as a result of we knew that this [a stroke] might occur at any second. If in case you have vascular dementia, you begin bleeding into your self and sometimes you’ve got a stroke. That was already symptomatic. He was having little bleeds out of his pores and skin. When that’s taking place, you realize issues are progressing.

“We had been ready,” she says, “insofar as you might be ready. It wasn’t a shock. It wasn’t, ‘How might this occur?’ It was, ‘OK, this has occurred.’”

After Graeme’s demise, she needed to determine whether or not or to not proceed along with her e book tour. She determined she would as a result of, understandably, she didn’t need to return to their dwelling. So she “took a airplane from London, I landed in New York, I walked off the airplane, I went on to Seth Meyers’ present and simply saved going.

Headshot of Margaret Atwood against blue-grey background

‘I’m at one with my weirdness.’ Photograph: Derek Shapton/The Guardian

Lockdown will need to have been dreadful, although, I say – all that point at dwelling with that absence. “Nicely,” she says, “we had already received by means of Christmas with the household. And none of these items are straightforward for anyone. It’s most likely loads simpler in the event you disliked the individual.”

I burst out laughing, regardless of myself. Atwood is such an sudden mixture of logic and cheek. She smiles again. “For those who actually dislike someone, you assume, ‘Nicely, good, they’re gone.’ That isn’t what I believed. However I’ve a terrific prolonged household and buddies, and it’s simply… that is what occurs. And I appear to be a de facto member of a widows’ membership, of people who find themselves in my place – different writers who’ve misplaced their spouses. Not simply widows: some are widowers. This moping is transgenderal.” That mischief flashes once more.

Atwood met Gibson in 1970, when she was in her early 30s. They’d each been married earlier than and moved right into a semi-derelict 19th-century farm in Ontario, which they set about doing up. She’s just lately written about this time in a brand new foreword for a single concern of two of Gibson’s books, Perpetual Movement and Gentleman Loss of life. It appears like chaos, with animals, youngsters, damaged equipment, plus makes an attempt at farming, writing and attempting to earn sufficient to stay. “Graeme stated that farming was driving round till one thing broke, then driving round to seek out the half to repair it, then driving round.”

Later they moved to Toronto, to present their daughter extra of a social life. However Atwood had been up for his or her nation journey as a result of she grew up in a cabin within the woods, the center little one of an entomologist father and dietitian mom. She thinks her formative years is vital, partly as a result of the shortage of distractions gave her the focus that helped her develop into a author, but in addition as a result of she and her siblings had been allowed to develop up away from, for example, a small conservative city “that will at the moment are inclined to the judgmental”. Maybe fortunately for her, she didn’t attend formal faculty till she was 12. Her household didn’t slot in with on a regular basis society; “bizarre” is the adjective I’ve heard her use.

Margaret Atwood reading one of three poems she presented at a 1981 rally condemning US intervention in El Salvador

Studying one among three poems she introduced at a 1981 rally condemning US intervention in El Salvador. Photograph: Dale Brazao/Toronto Star/Getty Photographs

“The vital factor about being bizarre was that if individuals then known as you bizarre afterward, it was an expertise you had already had. You could possibly assume, sure, I do know. It’s simply bizarre, it’s what it’s. I’m at one with my weirdness. However so far as my quick household had been involved, we had been regular. I had fairly egalitarian mother and father and nobody stated to me, ‘You’ll be able to’t do this since you’re a lady.’ That simply didn’t occur. They generally stated, ‘You’ll be able to’t do this but since you’re too younger’, however that’s a completely totally different factor.”

Her grandmothers, whom she remembers clearly, had been additionally “fairly powerful: they weren’t shrinking violets, not individuals who lay round consuming sweets, or had been afraid of issues. And my mom was a tomboy. She would say, ‘Roll up your sleeves, ladies, let’s get this achieved.’ They weren’t fearful individuals.” This stood the younger Atwood in good stead when she encountered individuals who prompt one thing can be troublesome, or that ladies couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. “It was too late,” she says. “These limitations had not been put in my head.”

Within the 1950s, when there have been “very, only a few individuals keen on being a author in Canada”, she simply cracked on. In her late teenagers and early 20s, she wrote poetry and browse it out in Toronto cafes, together with one known as the Bohemian Embassy: “They generally received letters from individuals who needed a visa, who thought it was actually an embassy for Bohemia.” It was the beginning of beatnik tradition: there have been people singing nights, jazz nights, poetry nights.

She went to Radcliffe Faculty, the feminine wing of Harvard, in 1961, and noticed Bob Dylan and Joan Baez carry out in Boston. “Joan in naked toes and lengthy hair, and Bob together with his mouth organ caught on his shoulder. Very early days.” Their efficiency didn’t appear seminal on the time. “It was thrilling, however not as thrilling as these items are to different individuals looking back. You’re preoccupied with your individual life, and also you haven’t had the picture essay known as The 60s Years. Anyway, I’m right here to let you know that the 60s had been the 50s till 1966.”

When contraception arrived. “And pantyhose. What do you name them? Tights. With out tights there would have been no miniskirts. Simply take into consideration that. Then second-wave feminism hit the general public view in 1969. You then received a quick window of quite a lot of intercourse as a result of there was no Aids but. And syphilis had been defeated. Issues received extra conservative within the 80s.”

Atwood isn’t emotional about this. It’s what it’s. Progress continues, however not easily; not with out fights and trauma.

“Miranda,” she says. “What do you consider my hair? I haven’t lower it for some time. Do you assume I ought to give it a little bit of a trim on the again, with nail scissors?”

She holds it again, in a teeny ponytail. We determine sure, so long as the remainder of it stays large.

“If you’re 80, individuals flirt with you as a result of they know there received’t be any penalties. They flirt in an previous woman means, like they’re humouring you: ‘Oh, you look fabulous!’”

And does she reply, “Sure, I do”?

“Oh no. That wouldn’t be modest.” She fouffs it up a bit extra. “I’ll put a little bit of inexperienced in it,” she says. “Simply to brighten up the grandkids.”

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is out now in paperback.

Wardrobe stylist: Nadia Pizzimenti at P1M. Hair and make-up: Taylor Savage. Photographed at Westside Studio, Toronto. High image: Lilliput Hats hat, Sentaler coat, Michelle Ross earrings. Above: Calvin Klein shirt, Beaufille earrings.

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