Interview with author Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood speaks to Canadian Living about her writing, her attempts at knitting and her no-holds-barred approach to energy conservation.

By Kat Tancock

On <i>Moral Disorder</i>

Read an excerpt from Moral Disorder.

Margaret Atwood. You know her as the Medusa-haired giant of Canadian literature, a two-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award, a winner of the Giller Prize, and there's the Booker Prize, of course. She's been a critic and a crusader. But, as you'll see in this exclusive interview with Canadian Living Magazine -- timed with the release of her new collection of short stories, Moral Disorder (McClelland & Stewart) -- Atwood is also just like you. She's a regular Canadian, a mother and grandmother whose concerns mirror yours (safeguarding the environment, building a future for our kids, conserving energy), and her pet peeves may also be in line with yours (those invasive fuel-powered leaf busters, overly controlling parents, noisy lawn mowers). She knits and knows more about solar panelling than most of us!

CL: What made you decide to present this work as short stories rather than a novel?
MA:
Well, a novel would have more bridges. It would have more connective tissue, as it were. So it really is more like a photograph album in which you get one story out of this time period and another story out of that time period. A novel would also have more of a structure that would be set up in the first few chapters and then follow consistently throughout, whereas this is more like peeking into various windows. So they are actually stories. But they are interrelated stories.

CL: Another thing that struck me in the way they were arranged and the way you had presented them was the point of view, how it goes from the earlier stories, which are narrated, and then it switches to the third person, talking about Nell, and then back to the first person again. What was the motivation of this, the way you presented these?
MA:
They were stories. So that was how they came out. But some of the stories contain several levels of time within the same story, for instance. So it's not a straightforward beginning, go all the way through until you get to the end. It's more like if you think of a spiral notebook, the spiral part of the spiral notebook. It's more like that. So you might find yourself in, say, the '90s or now and then you flip back to an earlier time. Or you're reading about an earlier time and you flip forward to a later one. So that's how it goes and that's how I see it.

CL: Have you been working on these for a long time, or is it something you've been working on recently?
MA:
I wrote the first one ["The Labrador Fiasco"], which isn't the first one in the book, in the mid-'90s. A lot of the ideas have been around for a while, but when I sat down to write the rest of them it was maybe about two years ago.

CL: Did you always intend for them to be a collection?
MA:
I always intended them to be a collection.

CL: When I was reading the book, and then I was looking through your biography and other interviews, I found a lot of correspondences between the characters' lives in the book and the stories and your life, more so than I've noticed in any of your other books that I've read. So to what degree is it biographical, or meant to be biographical?
MA:
It's not meant to be read as autobiography. They are stories, they are fiction. But pretty much everything in them happened, though not necessarily in that order. And, of course, more things happened that aren't in the stories. So if I were sitting down to do the story of my life, it would be quite different. It would be more like -- I would have to put in my life as a writer, which isn't in there at all.

CL: So this is more like a selected photo album of your life.
MA:
This is more like a photo album of a theoretical life, which doesn't necessarily correspond exactly to mine.

CL: But someone who lived through your time and had a lot of the same influences.
MA:
All of those animal stories are, in fact, true. Every animal happening really happened. But more animal happenings happened that I didn't put in. I didn't put in the Irish wolfhound.

CL: In the title story, "Moral Disorder," during the time Nell is on the farm, there's a lot of focus on how she's providing food -- the kitchen garden and the bread she bakes, and that sort of thing. And it's the same thing she was fascinated with during "The Art of Cooking and Serving."
MA:
Yeah, well, you have to act it out, don't you?

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