An edited version of this piece was published in the December 2014 issue of ELLE India.
Age is supposed to mellow us, soften the rough edges, dull the sharpness. Canadian authorMargaret Atwood, 74, doesn’t subscribe to this stereotype in either real life or fiction. In her new collection of nine short stories, The Stone Mattress, two women are murderers, another is a werewolf, one man lusts after a young woman who comes to interview him even though his body is far from able to keep up with his thoughts. No one in the book, regardless of how old and wrinkled they are, is going gently into the night.
They’re just the kind of characters you expect from Atwood, who may have gained wrinkles but has lost none of the stiletto keenness of her intellect. “After a certain point, people tend to think ageing is hilarious,” Atwood said, when I asked her how it felt to grow old. “Especially hilarious is the fact that there are things that young people think you don’t know. You know, [like] sex. They think you don’t know anything about that. Or you’re not supposed to know anything about it. You’re supposed to be sort of old, wise and sweet. My older characters are not like that.”
Interviewing Atwood was unusually difficult for me. When you’ve followed an author through her books, short stories, essays, poetry, cartoons, inventions, speeches and interviews over approximately 20 years, it takes some doing to surf past the waves of fandom. It’s also a struggle to figure out what questions to ask her. I know she was born in 1939, in Ottawa, and spent her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. She went to school for the first time at the age of 12 and some of her experiences became the starting point for her luminous book about how girls bully each other, Cat’s Eye.
I know she ate her first rattlesnake in 1957 and that she wrote her first novel, The Edible Woman, in exam booklets on a card table in Vancouver. The book spent two years gathering dust in a publisher’s drawer, ignored until Atwood won Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award in 1966, for her second collection of poetry, The Circle Game. I know Atwood writes the first drafts of her books by hand and then has them typed up. While writing The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel set in a dystopic future in which fertile women are turned into breeding machines, she noted in her journal that she had found puffballs. Atwood is the inventor of LongPen, a device that allows celebrities to sign autographs remotely. And the author may well be a prophet because the future she describes in her Maddaddam trilogy reads more like fact than speculative fantasy. Oh, and Atwood got repetitive strain injury from signing too many autographs. That’s how popular and beloved she is.
In short, I’ve spent years virtually stalking Margaret Atwood. Consequently, I also know that she is not a chatty interviewee. There are horror stories about how she has politely chewed up interviewers who have asked silly questions. Politely but crushingly, Atwood terrorised one journalist so thoroughly that she said she’d run in the opposite direction if she ever sawAtwood again.
Which is why, when I realised that we had been talking for half an hour and were now sharing stories about dead hands and phantom footprints, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief – not just that my questions hadn’t been slashed into ribbons, but also because writers can often turn out to be disappointing when you encounter them outside of their writing. As it turns out,Atwood is delightful. Her mischievous, dry wit and treasure chest of experiences make her a joy to interview because every story Atwood has written has another story behind it.
For instance, the title tale of The Stone Mattress came out of an Arctic cruise that Atwood had been on with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson. The heroine, Verna, goes on that very same cruise and sees what Atwood had seen: a field of stromatolites, 1.9 billion-year-old fossils that could be fabulous murder weapons. That, however, is where the similarities end. “I have never killed anyone in the Arctic with a piece of rock,” Atwood assured me drily. “But I have been in the Arctic and I have the very piece of rock in the kitchen.”
On the cruise, Verna encounters an old acquaintance, Bob. (There were many Bobs on the cruise that Atwood was on and they all survived the trip.) When they were in high school, Bob had raped Verna, but decades later, he doesn’t recognise Verna. She does and decides to avenge herself by killing him. Whether or not you think Verna is justified in her actions will depend on your personal sensibilities.
Verna isn’t the only murderess in The Stone Mattress, belonging as she does to an illustrious line of Atwoodian women who break both stereotype and laws. There’s almost always an anti-heroine in Atwood’s novels, usually the character who haunts the reader long after they’ve finished the book. Atwood is a feminist, but has over the years stood out as one who knows how to create realistic women (and men) who live, rather than serve agendas. The voices she’s crafted for characters like Grace Marks (in Alias Grace) and Cordelia (in Cat’s Eye) continue to mesmerize readers. They’re sharply intelligent, resisting the constraints placed upon them by society and convention in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable and always fascinating. Atwoodian heroines are disturbers of peace, for simple-minded wannabe feminists as much as chauvinists.
“I got some kickback in the ’70s for creating a female character who wasn’t virtuous,” recalled Atwood. “But since that time, after people have reflected a bit especially on their own experiences, we all know that it’s not true that all women are not angels of virtue because we’ve known a lot of women. They come in all shapes and sizes, just like men, and all degrees of meanness or pleasantness, like men.”
The equanimity in this statement belies the way Atwood savages misogyny in her stories, using the women in her fiction to put men – real and fictional – in their place and expose the stupidity of ‘mansplaining’. That said, Atwood’s fiction is peopled with many fantastic male characters. Sometimes, they’re the voices of reason, like Tin from “Dark Lady” in The Stone Mattress, who sees the sadness behind the manic, shiny happiness in his twin sister and is the one standing by her side, whether or not she needs his support.
Today, there’s a host of Canadian writers who feature in people’s reading lists: Nobel prize winner Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Douglas Coupland, Carol Shields, to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine now, but when Atwood started writing, there was no such thing as a Canadian literary scene. This emptiness worked to her advantage because Canada was hungry for storytellers and the rest of the world proved to be just as eager to sample the stories told by Atwood and those who followed in her footsteps. She explains it as a confluence of coincidences: “If I’d arrived at the very same mental faculties but it had been the middle of the 19th century and it had been rural Canada, I doubt very much I would have become a writer. There wouldn’t have been a place for me to publish.”
Being born in the right era, however, doesn’t entirely explain the way Atwood put Canada on the literary map. She’s been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times (The Blind Assassin, not her best work, won the prize in 2000) and her novels are part of college syllabi in different parts of the English-reading world. That’s much more than time and place working in fortuitous tandem.
The charm in Atwood’s novels is similar to the stromatolites that give The Stone Mattress its name. Stromatolites, as Atwood explains, are “a fossilised cushion, formed by layer upon layer of…algae building up into a mound or dome.” Packed in these ‘stones’ are the story of our planet and life, because this fossil created oxygen on earth. In many ways, they mirrorAtwood’s style storytelling —layer is placed upon layer, with details being embedded neatly and densely within them.
There are numerous references and allusions from literature, history and science in Atwood’s writing, she wears the erudition lightly. The hooks lie in the plots and characters and they reel readers in quickly: femme fatales, twisted marriages, lost fathers; a young woman who may or may not have killed the two people who showed her kindness; a republic where women are cloistered and segregated according to their childbearing potential. Most of the time, just the blurb at the back of an Atwood book is enough to make the question of ‘what happened next?’ start gnawing at you. Quickly, you discover her deadpan, cutting sense of humour surfacing unexpectedly across the terrain of her stories, like this observation from “Torching the Dusties”, a story from The Stone Mattress: “According to Tobias, it was more difficult to seduce a stupid woman than an intelligent one because stupid women could not understand innuendo or even connect cause with effect. The fact that a pricey dinner out to be followed, as the night the day, by the compliant opening of their peerless legs was lost on them.”
Incidentally, “Torching the Dusties” is about a few old people in an home for the aged which is besieged by a murderous group of protestors, holding placards that read “Time to Go”. They’re a group called “Our Turn” and they want the old to vacate not just the premises, but the planet. It’s unnerving how credible the scenario is, despite Our Turn’s absurdly cruel agenda, and that credibility comes from how Atwood’s characters think and respond to their circumstances.
No matter how surreal the context, those that people Atwood’s writing always feel real. They fall in love, leave scars and tease both other characters and the reader. Every relationship is a tug of war that tenses and slackens in a power play that may be sly or obvious. “In the very, very broadest sense, interpersonal relationships require negotiations of various kinds, stated or unstated,” said Atwood when I asked if she thought love was essentially a power struggle between two people. “Sometimes these interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, are politically determined because they’re constrained by law, and laws are made by politicians. So who can do what to whom legally is a political matter. Who actually does what to whom, that can be outside the box. But it’s always playing against what is legally permissible and what society considers acceptable.”
Listening to her, I was reminded of something she’d written in Cat’s Eye: “We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.”
Atwood’s language and her gift for both sensing and articulating suffering is unmatched. Running through the heart of so much of her writing is pain that flashes like a river catching sunlight. Atwood torments her characters and then writes of their suffering with a simple, dazzling lyricism. Violence is written with a certain morbid relish and even something as over-written as heartbreak can become piercing when Atwood words it:
“Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.”
Reading Atwood’s fiction, it often feels as though it’s the flesh made word, to turn the famous phrase from the Gospel of John upon its head. Her novels often feel like a record of something that we’ve experienced or are just about to experience. The Maddaddam trilogy, for instance, was supposed to be science fiction about “things that have not been invented yet” — ranging from hybrid animals to human-like species called the Crakers — but we’re already taking steps in this direction. Genetic splicing is not speculative and these novels offer a chilling (though not entirely hopeless) vision of where we as a planet appear to be headed.
Even in The Stone Mattress, whose stories are Atwood’s take on Gothic literature and folklore, Atwood can’t quite let go of her pragmatism. In the story titled “Lusus Naturae”, for instance, Atwood’s heroine is a werewolf, but her father insists it’s a medical condition. When she’s forced to stay hidden indoors, the werewolf educates herself by reading Pushkin, Lord Byron and John Keats. This only serves to make the fact that she’s considered fearsome both absurd and a reflection of how so many patriarchal societies are made nervous by empowered women.
As fantastical creatures go, Atwood’s are rather human and relatable, which isn’t quite what you expect of a volume that Atwood has stressed is made up of “tales” rather than stories. In her author’s note, she writes,
“Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk take, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.”
The Stone Mattress has many kinds of fantasies, ranging from the apparitions that are a symptom of the Charles Bonnet’s syndrome in the chilling “Torching the Dusties” to the alternative reality of Alphinland and the aforementioned werewolf. However, while none of these are mundane, neither are they entirely fantastical. “I kind of shy at the jump,” admittedAtwood. “I didn’t go all the way to say a dead hand really is creeping about under your bed. I couldn’t quite get that far. But I’ve always wanted to write a dead hand story because I was so smitten by the beast with five fingers.”
Considering how much she’s written – that too in long hand – and the variety in her writing, it’s not surprising that Atwood is smitten by the beast with five fingers. At present, her hand is occupied figuring out the novel she will submit to Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. A forest has been planted in Norway that will, 100 years later, provide the paper to publish an anthology of books that are being commissioned now. Authors will write works that will be sealed for the next 100 years. They’re not allowed to tell anyone what they’re writing and the work must be made up of only words, which means there will be no graphic novels in the Future Library. These will be sealed in a box and all present-day readers will know is the title and the author’s name. After a century, the manuscript will be taken out and published. Atwood is the first writer to be invited to contribute a book to Future Library.
It seems fitting that the last novel that will be published in Atwood’s name will, like her first, sit unopened for a long time. At the moment though, Atwood’s concerns are more technical than literary. “I got some special archival paper because I didn’t want them to open the box and find a lot of oxidised scraps. That would be a disappointment,” she said drily.
Unsurprisingly, she’s breaking the stereotype of ageing yet again with this project. Instead of looking back, as we expect the elderly to do, Atwood is looking forward.