Last week, Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize for her complex new novel, The Blind Assassin. As do many of Atwood’s books, the tale weaves between several different times, arcing back and forth between the present-day world of octogenarian Iris Griffen and her past in the 1930s and ’40s. Not just Iris’ past, but also that of her younger sister, Laura Chase, a now-mythic writer in the Sylvia Plath mode who wrote one brilliant, scalding novel, then plunged her car off a bridge at the age of 25. As Iris tries to make sense of her sister’s death, their story also interweaves with that of a novel-within-the-novel, the eponymous “Blind Assassin,” a communist agitator on the run from the law who feeds his beloved — Laura, or perhaps Iris herself? — installments of a fabulous tale about a world situated in “another dimension of space.” Lushly written (if a tad too long), with beautifully drawn characters, The Blind Assassinvividly evokes prewar upper-middle-class Canadian society. Stuck in a world in which women’s powers are still largely subordinated to hearth and husband, Atwood’s two heroines seethe with suppressed tensions and unfulfilled ambitions. Atwood spoke to the Weeklyby phone from her home in Toronto.
L.A. WEEKLY: You’ve been short-listed for the Booker Prize before, so how does it feel to actually win?
MARGARET ATWOOD: I’ve been nominated four times in total, this being the fourth. Penelope Fitzgerald had a similar experience, and Beryl Bainbridge has been short-listed five times. How does it feel to finally win it? It’s deeply surprising, because my friends in England had been calling me up with all of the reasons why I wouldn’t win.
That’s called moral support, is it?
Well, I think it was called “preparing you for the worst” and “stiff upper lip.”
InThe Blind Assassin, both Laura and Iris seem to feel that they have very little power over their lives. Why do you so often seem to gravitate toward the theme of powerlessness in women’s lives, at a time when many people would have us believe that women have more power than ever before?
Women in a small corner of the world have more power than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that they have as much as they might require. “More than ever before” is a relative term. Ask somebody who’s working for McDonald’s behind the counter exactly how much power they think they have. And if you look at the entire global picture, you’ll see that it is quite different, because out of the total population of the world, the Western world is only a small part.
Do you feel optimistic about the future, do you feel that women can —
Why is it always women? Why do we always have to be talking about women? Why can’t we talk about society? Because the fact is that women and men are connected. You can’t alter the conditions of one without altering the conditions of the other.
You generally think of yourself as being someone who feels optimistic about the future, then?
I feel optimistic about the gardening season next spring. That’s the future. Do I feel optimistic about the future within the next 30 years? Well, it’s only the race between advancing dire conditions and human ingenuity and good will. Which will win? Which is going to win, short-term greed or long-term vision? With politicians it’s usually short-term greed. So maybe we should be talking about the electoral system?
Yes, well, given what’s going on now, the electoral system is coming under intense scrutiny as well.
Here’s a challenge to all the multi-multibillionaires of the world who control a very large proportion of the world’s money. They should put out a big prize for whoever invents the following things, and this is not in order of priority.
Number one: a substitute for trees and the making of paper. I propose industrial hemp — you’d have to smoke an acre of it to get high.
Number two: a desalination plant that is economically feasible. Meanwhile you could do something about the irrigation systems, because they’re wasting a lot of water. Those things that spray it into the air, they should be banned and replaced with something that is much less wasteful.
Number three: a machine that would replace the ozone layer. Because even as we speak, people at the bottom of Chile cannot go out in the sun anymore. No more ozone protecting them. If it spreads, it’s curtains for us all.
Number four: solar power on a huge scale. Um, what number am I up to?
Alright, five: the reduction of flatulence in cows. Somebody has already invented something that causes cows to only burp half as much as they presently do. That should be widely implemented if people want to keep on eating hamburgers, because we are being burped to death by cows. [Laughs] This is getting pretty funny, but it happens to be true.
Your father was an entomologist, so obviously you’ve grown up with an interest in science. Some of your books are said to have a science-fiction subtheme, and inThe Blind Assassin the subplot is described on the jacket itself as science fiction. But it struck me more as a historical fable.