Last week, Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize for her complex new novel, The Blind Assassin. As do many of Atwoods 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 sisters 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 Assassin vividly evokes prewar upper-middle-class Canadian society. Stuck in a world in which womens powers are still largely subordinated to hearth and husband, Atwoods two heroines seethe with suppressed tensions and unfulfilled ambitions. Atwood spoke to the Weekly by phone from her home in Toronto.
L.A. WEEKLY: Youve been short-listed for the Booker Prize before, so how does it feel to actually win?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Ive 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? Its deeply surprising, because my friends in England had been calling me up with all of the reasons why I wouldnt win.
Thats called moral support, is it?
Well, I think it was called preparing you for the worst and stiff upper lip.
In The 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 womens 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 doesnt mean that they have as much as they might require. More than ever before is a relative term. Ask somebody whos working for McDonalds behind the counter exactly how much power they think they have. And if you look at the entire global picture, youll 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 cant we talk about society? Because the fact is that women and men are connected. You cant 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. Thats the future. Do I feel optimistic about the future within the next 30 years? Well, its 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 its usually short-term greed. So maybe we should be talking about the electoral system?
Yes, well, given whats going on now, the electoral system is coming under intense scrutiny as well.
Heres a challenge to all the multi-multibillionaires of the world who control a very large proportion of the worlds 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 youd 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 theyre 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, its 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 youve grown up with an interest in science. Some of your books are said to have a science-fiction subtheme, and in The Blind Assassin the subplot is described on the jacket itself as science fiction. But it struck me more as a historical fable.
Well, its like weird tales; its like Conan the Barbarian, which appeared in the 30s. Its what we would now call maybe science-fiction fantasy. There isnt just one science-fiction story in The Blind Assassin, because apart from the main story, the man [Alex] gives us inklings of other stories hes thought of writing. There are the men who go to the perfect world, then find that they cant get out of it. Then theres the one in which they dig up an alien out of the ice, and so on.
But the main one is more historical fantasy than actual sci-fi.
Its more like dirty pulp fiction . . . The genre goes way back, back to Platos Atlantis, Jonathan Swift, and all the utopias of the 19th century. And usually those forms were used as a criticism of society here is this other world, heres how they do things there, as opposed to this other stupid, rotten way we do them here.
So do you think of yourself as following in that tradition of utopian and dystopian writing?
Only in The Handmaids Tale, a couple of short pieces and the pieces in this book. Thats the extent of it. Im not a real writer of the genre like, for instance, William Gibson. I have got corners of that. I do not disdain it as a form the way some people seem to.
Since Flaubert, the dominant form of Western literature has been realism, which is very much about the nitty gritty of everyday life, but science fiction harks back to the fantastical, which is really more of a medieval form. You write very realistic novels, but theres also this kind of fantastical dimension to your work. You seem to have it both ways.
You know, so did Flaubert. He wrote Salammbô, he wrote a short story about Salome. He also wrote a medieval one about St. Eustace. So he got around; and there was a huge school of what we would now call fantasy writing in the 19th century. At that point, it was thought of as being derived from German romanticism. There were people like Gogol in Russia who wrote very fantastical things. And if you read them now, youd say Aha weird tales. I fit just perfectly into that genre.
So you see yourself as both a fantasist and a realist?
Well, realism taken at its widest sense includes the other tradition, because how does the so-called science fiction stuff get into The Blind Assassin? It gets in because thats how a young man like that at that time would have been able to make a living . . . Theres nothing unrealistic about that. It is realistic to say that people in the 30s, most of them, couldnt afford hardback books, so they read magazines. And, the magazines that they read were not about the workers flag is painted red most of the time, they were escapist fantasy.
Now we have soap opera.
You bet. What soap opera usually means is sordid and dramatic happenings among the well-to-do. What ä realism means is sordid and dramatic happenings among the poor. [Laughs]
I couldnt help thinking as I was reading The Blind Assassin that Laura seems to be a sort of Sylvia Plath figure, and theres obviously been a huge resurgence of interest in her recently.
Well, not just her. There is a phenomenon from, let us say, the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, that period of the 20th century, when there were a number of women writers who were precocious, who might have written one or two books, who came to somewhat dismal ends. There are quite a few of them. Shall we mention Carson McCullers, who actually published her first book in 1940, and her second one in 1941, one in which the woman cuts her nipples off with the garden shears? That was called Reflections in a Golden Eye. Then Elizabeth Smart, 1944, has got all of those dirty words in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Didnt commit suicide or die early, but she was essentially a one-and-a-half-book writer.
You must feel grateful not to have been one of these women who, as you say, wrote one and a half books and faded away.
Yes, Im very grateful for that, but I was a somewhat later generation. And therefore I had various things going for me that they didnt.
I gather as a child that your family traveled around a lot with your father on his scientific field trips?
Yes, up in the north. My parents were somewhat unusual.
So you were home-schooled?
Well, you had to get the lessons from the school, and we did them, but that didnt take much time.
And do you think that having that kind of very independent upbringing has influenced you?
Absolutely. Because it just made me look at some of the things that were going on and were being said as silly.
You strike me as one of the more independent-minded women, or indeed independent-minded people, writing today.
Well, thats because I wasnt properly socialized.
There are so many attempts today, particularly here in America, to paint a simplistic picture of the world as good people vs. bad people.
Well, you know, the definitive event in American history, some people think it was the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I believe it was the Salem witch trials an event with which I feel deeply connected, because one of my family members just barely avoided getting hanged.
They tried to accuse her of being a witch just before that whole craze hit, and Im sure if it had hit she would have hung for sure. Well, they did actually hang her, but it didnt take. A well-known person called Half-Hanged Mary. Mary Webster if you look in the book of poems called Morning in the Burned House, you will find a sequence of poems about her. Anyway . . . you see it repeating over and over again in American life, in McCarthy and so forth. We long for this moment where you get to point your finger.
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Yes, and I fear that if the election goes in one direction now there will be a lot more of that.
It will be a complete zoo no matter who is declared. Conspiracy theories will spin endlessly. A clear decision either way would have been much better than whats happening now. Unbelievable.
What are they saying up there in Canada about it?
Theyre saying, Unbelievable. You just heard me say it. Put it in a novel, no one would believe it. And especially if you made the governor of the crucial state the brother of one of the candidates. Unbelievable.