New Internationalist

Margaret Atwood

November 2010

What makes Margaret Atwood tick? The legendary Canadian author talks to Rowenna Davis about activism, women and breaking the male stronghold over ‘serious’ literature.

George Whiteside
George Whiteside

Why do women fascinate you?

I’m fascinated by people – men and women both. Primarily I’m interested in good fiction – hard-line feminism is what some people read into my work. I myself don’t start with theory; though some people imply theories from the things I write. You can’t squash real characters into tight political ideologies without truncating them. Women take up more space in my work because I have easier access to them, being one myself. Women are not a monolithic lump, but the kinds of dilemma they face are different from those of men. Their specific problems vary according to such things as culture, socio-economic status and language, but there are some things they do have in common. Anything to do with the reproductive system, for instance – men don’t menstruate, to put it bluntly.

What is your opinion of human nature?

Our behaviour is often determined by the situations we find ourselves in. Most people would rather do good than evil – we get more of a neurological kick out of doing good. But what if ‘good’ options aren’t available? What if you’re starving and the choice is to starve or steal? People hate having their choices limited and being forced into doing bad things. I’d say that we are a caring and sharing species but we can be sadly affected by our available choices. How people are treated also matters. If people are treated nicely as children they will be nice to others.

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Not in the professional sense. Professional activists are paid for what they do, and that’s all they do. I’m hardly that. I make the odd speech, write the odd op-ed: that’s about it. I haven’t often been a political party member, though I’ve been a Green, and I did join the Conservative Party of Canada so that I could vote for an organic farmer as leader, but he didn’t win. The first organization I was part of was the Writers’ Union of Canada, which we started when Canadian writers had no idea what they were supposed to be paid for their books and there was little communication among them. Where does ‘activism’ come from? I think that fairness is built into the human programme. Whether you’re upset by political oppression, climate change issues, or the economic system your first reaction is that this isn’t fair. It’s a feeling before it’s a thought. This seems to be how humans work – ‘fairness’ is one of the first notions that a child develops.

What do you think of Barack Obama?

It was a remarkable moment when he was elected – extraordinary, given the history of the US. So what about now? There’s a lot of screaming, but in fairness, he inherited a big mess. How will he eventually come out of it? We don’t know that yet. And remember, America’s political system doesn’t make the President a god. There’s Congress to be dealt with, and it’s a very divided country. The election was such a high moment – people expected popsicles to drop out of the sky, immediate miracles. But Obama’s been stuck with some serious foreign policy problems, and two badly advised wars. There are few good choices that he can make about them now.

What motivates you to write?

You may as well ask what makes a doctor work at the hospital. It’s what I do. I started writing in high school, before I knew any better. I probably carried on because I was insufficiently socialized! Then I was told – in the late 50s and early 60s – that women weren’t supposed to write, that they were devoid of talent, but the horse was already out of the barn. The important postwar writers were the Mailers, the Updikes, the Roths – the writing scene then was monolithically male. There were a few women – Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton – but look what happened to them. People in the 1960s were seriously asking me, not whether, but when, I’d be committing suicide. It was as if the only serious woman writer was a dead woman writer. Happily, things have changed.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 437 This column was published in the November 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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