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 Assassin vividly 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 Weekly by 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.”
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 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 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, it’s like weird tales; it’s like Conan the Barbarian, which appeared in the ’30s. It’s what we would now call maybe science-fiction fantasy. There isn’t just one science-fiction story in The Blind Assassin, because apart from the main story, the man [Alex] gives us inklings of other stories he’s thought of writing. There are the men who go to the perfect world, then find that they can’t get out of it. Then there’s 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.
It’s more like dirty pulp fiction . . . The genre goes way back, back to Plato’s 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, here’s 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 Handmaid’s Tale, a couple of short pieces and the pieces in this book. That’s the extent of it. I’m 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 there’s 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, you’d 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 that’s how a young man like that at that time would have been able to make a living . . . There’s nothing unrealistic about that. It is realistic to say that people in the ’30s, most of them, couldn’t 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 couldn’t help thinking as I was reading The Blind Assassin that Laura seems to be a sort of Sylvia Plath figure, and there’s 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. Didn’t 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, I’m very grateful for that, but I was a somewhat later generation. And therefore I had various things going for me that they didn’t.
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 didn’t 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, that’s because I wasn’t 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 I’m sure if it had hit she would have hung for sure. Well, they did actually hang her, but it didn’t 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.
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 what’s happening now. Unbelievable.
What are they saying up there in Canada about it?
They’re 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.