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Author Podcast: Margaret Atwood


Bookbuffet recently had the pleasure of speaking with Margaret Atwood.  Ms. Atwood is one of today’s most important writers.  She has established herself as a prolific poet, novelist, literary critic, proto-feminist, and political activist.  She is hailed as one of Canada’s most eminent writers and has been honored throughout her career both nationally and internationally.  Atwood, through her perfuse writings, critiques, and activism has ultimately contributed to the growth of women’s writing and to the established legitimacy of Canadian literature.


March 14, 2006
New Members to BookBuffet who wish to receive a copy of The Tent, (Jan 2006 McLelland & Stewart) Margaret Atwood's brilliant new book of short fictions - please register to join BookBuffet, then email us with the subject line, "Send me The Tent!" [First 4 respondants win]


When my marketing contact at Random House, Canada called to ask if I would like to interview Margaret Atwood, Canada’s most celebrated author and poet, I did what anyone would do—accept unequivocally, and then break out into a cold sweat! 

Having grown up reading MA—my first taste was Edible Woman, her 1969 novel. Surfacing, her 1971 novel I read for an undergraduate literaturre class at the University of Toronto in the '80s. Already recognized by critics and academics as a writer to examine in the context of the "second wave"of feminist writing, I lapped-up her prose, which captured the marginalization women experienced during those times.

Since then Margaret has gone on to dazzle us with styles and topics ranging from futuristic dystopias, The Handmaid's Tale, to Canadian historical fiction, Alias Grace, to scifi Orynx and Crake where the world warms,
multinationals prosper, society schisms and science stays one small leap ahead of morality—how will humanity adapt?We adapt by waiting for each new book to reveal another level of brilliance in creative story-telling and master of genre.

I hope you enjoy this short conversation with Canada's doyenne of literature.—Paula Shackleton 


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PART I: Atwood on Canadian Lit

BB:  Hi, good morning Margaret Atwood. Thank you for speaking with me this morning.

MA:  Good Morning Paula.

BB:  Let us begin with my first question.  Could you describe one of the meaningful relationships that you’ve had professionally?

MA: Ok, I would say with my agent Phoebe Lorimor.  That goes back to 1971 or 70, when there were no agents in Canada, so I didn’t have one, and I saw no need to have one because we weren’t used to having them, and my editor in the United States, Peter Davidson of the Atlantic Monthly Press said, “You need an agent.”  I said, “No I don’t,” he said, “Yes you do.”  I said, “No I don’t,”  he said, “If you ever do need one, the woman that you should have is called Phoebe Lorimor.”

At that very same moment, Phoebe was reading my first novel, which had come out in 1969 and thinking to herself, “I want to represent this writer.”  [Laughs]  So I wrote a letter telling her that I had realized I did need an agent and our letters more or less crossed paths in the mail.  I was contacting her at the same time she was contacting me and she has been my agent ever since that time, despite various illnesses she has had, which has been quite hampering in her life, we’ve nonetheless been able to make it work.  She trained a couple of agents, one of whom became Alice Munro’s agent, Virginia Barber.  It’s all quite circular.

BB:  Yes, it is.  It’s very serendipitous.  How would you say Canada’s national literary voice is evolving?

MA: Well, is there only one voice?

BB:  True.

MA:  There is a publication that has just come out, well it's two publications, Literary Review of Canada has put together a list which they call, The Hundred Most Important Canadian Books and they’ve done it in two issues.  They did the first fifty in the previous one, and the second fifty in the current one and that’s from the beginning up to now, essentially.  They don’t call it ‘The Hundred Best Books,’ they call it ‘The Hundred Most Important Books,’ so these are books they feel have influenced things.  It’s an interesting list to read because it begins in the seventeenth century and it goes right on up [to today]. 

From that I think you can pretty much guess that there isn’t just one literary voice.  For example, some of these books are in French as you might imagine, and some are in English.  But if you name poetry and plays, then it’s a different question, because their list includes things like geographical surveys, which are very influential, but not necessarily what you would call literature (laughs). 

So I think what you could say, is that when I wrote Survival in 1971, there weren’t any lists like that and Canadian literature was just beginning to become widely known in Canada. 

I looked far and wide for books by native writers, fiction, poetry, and plays by indigenous writers, and there weren’t any.  There were autobiographies.  There were works by other people, who weren’t native, about native people, but there were not yet works by native people, whereas now that is a very burgeoning area. 

The latest book that’s come out is called Me Funny , and it’s about native humor.  Of course, writers like Thomas King  and Joseph Boyden have become well known.  That’s happened since 1971, and has been increasing in strength and insight since the mid-eighties.

PART II: Personal Goals

BB: Its nice to know that we’re making a great impact.

MA:  Well, of course, the other big difference is that there were very few Canadian writers who were known internationally in 1970 when I was writing Survival , and now, of course, there are a lot of them.  It would be wrong to say there were none of them at that time, Farley Mowat was published in Russia at that time, and of course Anne of Green Gables books had been known for a long time and various other exceptions.  But, Canadian literature was not known as a whole, it was known as exceptions. 

When I was traveling in other countries at that time, I would always have to begin by answering questions: “Is there any Canadian literature?” was always the first question, “Are you the only Canadian novelist?”

Nobody asks that; nobody says that anymore.

BB:  Yes, you sometimes think of writers having the same role that the Group of Seven had, which was encapsulating a landscape, so when I think of earlier Canadian writers who did that, Farley Mowat and W.O. Mitchell, and then you look at Canada being an immigrant nation, much like the United States.  Compare that to today where so may of our prominent writers [Rohinton Mistry, Yann Martel] are coming from and writing about the countries where they have derived. 

MA:  People think that’s new, but it isn’t.  It has been going on for centuries.

BB:  Exactly.  So what exactly do you strive for in your writing, and could you tell us how that has evolved?

MA: What do I strive for?  Well now, what any writer is going to want to do, first of all, is write a good book, whatever that may mean, since there are many different kinds of good books.  If that isn’t really first on your list then you aren’t really a writer, you’re a propagandist or you have some other aim or view, but it isn’t writing.  Writing in that case is simply a means to an end; it’s not that you might not have other motives, but if that isn’t your primary motive, then maybe you should be in some other field.

Apart from that, it’s going to vary from book to book.  For instance, if I’m writing something based on history, like  Alias Grace , one of the things had to be that I couldn’t change historical facts.  If I learned a fact, I couldn’t change it just to fit the story.  In that book, I had written a scene in which Grace saw the other person accused of the murder, she saw him being hanged.  It was a good scene.  But then I discovered through the historical documents, that she wasn’t there.  She had already been sent to the Kingston Penitentiary, and therefore was not present.  So I had to scrap the scene and write something different. 

Some people don’t set that rule for themselves—I do.  Similarly, if I’m doing a book like  Oryx and Crake , I don’t want to put scientific happenings that are unsubstantiated and are not accurate.  So that means that for books like that, I spend time clipping files of backup information. 

BB:  Yes, and then when you were writing The Handmaid’s Tale

MA: I decided with that work, that I wasn’t going to put anything into it that hadn’t already been done or that we didn’t have the ability to do, and again, lots of backup information.  So nobody could say, “that’s unheard of, human beings would never do that.”  In fact we’ve done it all in some form or another.  I combined it in different ways, but the motif has been with us for some time.

PART III: Exploring The Tent

BB: Now your most recent short fictions book, which I just loved, The Tent , my favorite three stories out of that were the titular story, Three Novels I Won’t Write Soon, and The Void.  I’m wondering, does this feel as though it’s your most personal work to date?

MA: Um, No.  What it feels like to me and what it feels like to you are probably quite different.  But if you feel that, it's good, because it means that the writing convinced you, but in what way, I ask myself, could a story in which a giant bath sponge invades the coast of Florida be personal? 

BB:  Well, I think I was thinking of The Tent, it felt so raw to me.

MA: Insofar as it's about writing, of course.  Insofar as The Voice is about—it’s actually about opera singers, but my opera pals think it’s pretty good [laughs].  But it is about any kind of artistic talent.

BB:  But the predatory nature in The Tent, at this point I’m sure you feel like people are peeking at every aspect, at every word, every noun.

MA: Oh I think it goes way beyond that, I’m sure you followed, for example the Salman Rushdie and the Orhan Pamuk cases in which writers get into deep dark trouble.  Those are only the well known ones.  People write, and then somebody notices and next thing you know they’re dead or in jail somewhere.  That’s something Pen International Association has been involved with for some time.  But that concerns itself with people who are put in jail or who are indeed killed for things they’ve written.

BB:  Right, I’ve introduced a village-wide reading program here in Whistler, and we’re presently reading Snow , and of course you wrote a beautiful comment about it, which is on the front cover.

MA: Right.  I reviewed it for The New York Times.

BB:  Everyone is really enjoying this book.

MA: Good, well it certainly takes you right into the heart of the controversy.

BB:  It certainly does, it is very timely.

Well I’ve come to the end of my questions and I’m just so thrilled to be able to speak with you, and honored, and I want to thank you for taking the time.

MA: Ok, well good luck with everything.

BB: Thank you.

Further Links


There is a BookBuffet book review of Margart's two latest works: The Tent, her short fiction series, and Penelopiad, her contribution to the myth series. Please click to the BB BLOG to read.

Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact, by Reingard Nischik, Editor (Camden House 2002)Winner of the Best Book Award of the Margaret Atwood Society, 1999/2000.Represents the best collective Atwood criticism that I have seen for years. NEWSLETTER OF THE MARGARET ATWOOD SOCIETY

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