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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CL: What to you is the significance of this basic household task?
MA: I don't know -- that's what people do. Usually they go through a sort of nesting period of their life. Whether they're doing it with somebody else or not, they go through a period when home furnishings become important, which follows a time when home furnishings have not been important.
CL: And did you have a similar period in your life? Was it at the same time?
MA: Absolutely. I knitted that bedspread. The cat got into it, just as described.
CL: That would drive me crazy.
MA: Well, it was annoying -- what, you mean the knitting or the cat?
CL: The cat.
MA: Yeah, that was quite annoying.
CL: Do you knit now?
MA: I have knitted. I don't knit all the time. I think the most recent thing I knitted was a rabbit that I knitted for a grandchild. Its nose, I have to admit, was a little too long. Looks a bit more like a rat. But once I got the ears onto it, it was better. I knitted the little jacket for it, it was very cute.
CL: Nell's sister in the book is described as anxious. She was an anxious baby, an anxious child, and her family doesn't seem to have any influence on that. How does this reflect your views on children and nature vs. nurture?
MA: Some kids are born like that.
CL: Do you think parents have that much influence on their children's character?
MA: I think they can respond to what hand they're dealt, in whatever way. But anybody who's ever had babies knows that they come out differently. They're not all the same.
CL: From day one?
MA: From day one, they're just not all the same. From day one, they have a personality.
CL: As a mother, did you find that difficult?
MA: No, not at all. But then, I got a lucky card. What they think now is that it's probably 50 per cent. There were theories that said all nature and then there were theories that said all nurture, but they've squared off now at about 50/50. I think you can make your child really miserable. It's not about ruining your kid's life. You can certainly do that. But you cannot take a child who is fearful to begin with, and make it into a completely extroverted, fearless child. You can work with that personality of the child and help it be less fearful. But you're not going to be able to take away one personality and replace it with another. Because people are just -- they come out with certain sets of genes, and they're predisposed one way or the other. A lot of that was not understood until very recently. But you know, it's the same thing with kittens. It's the same thing with birds -- there's some that are bigger and more pushy than others. With the kittens, there's often one that's picked on by the others and pushed away. So it's just how they are.
CL: I want to move on to you as a writer, and first of all your writing process. Where do you write?
MA: Well, I can write almost anywhere. The main thing I need is I don't want people talking to me when I'm doing it. But as long as they're not, then I can do it.
CL: Do you write on paper, or do you write with a computer now?
MA: I do both. If I'm on a plane, I usually write in a notebook, and then I transcribe. I just got a very cute book, which was written by a young woman trying to explain to her parents how to use a computer. I just use the most basic functions. But now that I've got this book I can learn to do other things.
CL: And when you're working on something, say a novel or a collection of short stories, do you find that you need to focus on that one thing, or do you multitask?
MA: I pretty much focus on the one thing.
CL: And do you find it absorbs you?
MA: Well, if it didn't, I would probably be a pretty horrible writer, wouldn't I?
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Read an excerpt from Moral Disorder.
CL: Are you working on anything new right now?
MA: Yes, I am.
CL: More fiction?
MA: I'm not telling. I never tell.
CL: In terms of your career -- when you started out, Canadian literature was in a very different phase than it is now. So, say you'd reached your writing time now, as opposed to when you did, how do you think your career would have been different?
MA: How is it for young people now? How it is for young people now is, first of all, there's a lot more of them who are writers. So there's more competition within their own group. Second, there are a lot more outlets available -- there's a lot more publishers. But third, those publishers are quite picky about what they're going to publish, because the whole scenario has changed, and also it's changing very quickly right now. There's a paradigm shift going on at this very moment, which is being propelled by so many things going online. So book publishers are going to have to rethink how they're doing business and that, of course, is going to change the conditions for young writers. And we don't know how that's all going to turn out. It's in a state of great flux at the moment, having been stable for a number of years -- all the cards have been thrown up into the air. And we don't know how that's all going to settle down.
CL: So in terms of your own career, do you think you would have had a harder time or an easier time now?
MA: You know, that's impossible to say. You really can't -- if I were a younger person, I would be a different person. Something I always do for characters in my books is make them a time chart. And that time chart shows not only their own birthday -- day, month and year -- but what else happened in those following years. So if my character was born in, say, 1950, they're six when Elvis Presley makes his appearance, they're 16 in the middle of the '60s, and therefore they're 18 right about the time the flower children hit, so they probably grow their hair long and smoke dope -- a novel thing to have done at that time -- and then they're 26 in the mid-'70s, so it goes like that. So you are going to be different depending on what age you live in, because the forces being brought to bear on you and the opportunities open to you are going to be different.
CL: You do that for all your characters?
MA: I do that for all of my characters. It also shows how old they are in relation to one another.
CL: That brings me to another question. When you're working on a project, when you're starting it out, do you start all the plans right away, work all this stuff out, or do you start writing and it evolves from there?
MA: No, I start writing and it evolves from there, but one of the things I get to pretty early on is how old is this person. Because that's going to influence how they're looking at life, what's happened to them so far, what their parents are like, all of those things.
CL: Do you think you do that more than other writers?
MA: No, I think they all do it. Unless they're having, you know, an adventure story in twinkletoe land that has no relation to the world we actually live in.
CL: There's one more thing I wanted to ask about Moral Disorder. I guess it was about two years ago when you were planning the book. Was there anything that prompted working on this particular project right now?
MA: No, you just get to a point where it's time to write something that you've been thinking about writing for a while. But I always have a list of about five things like that.
CL: Too many ideas and not enough time?
MA: That's the idea.
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CL: Throughout your career, you've spent a lot of time paying a lot of attention to the lives of Canadians, women in particular. Is there anything you thought would change for the better in our lives over the last several decades that hasn't changed, or things that have changed that you didn't expect?
MA: Better footgear. Much better footgear. Beginning in about -- oh, I would say the '60s. Definitely more comfortable shoes. A big plus.
CL: What about in terms of working lives?
MA: Well, working lives, I mean -- usually the pattern is that young women don't understand any of this stuff until they have kids. Then they realize they're between the door and the wall. That on the one hand, they want to be with their children, and on the other hand, they need to make money; on the one hand, working life can be very tiring, and on the other hand, so can staying at home. It's just a set of choices that seem very stressful to people of that age and that situation.
CL: One thing that's been changing is being expected to get married and have children. That's not quite such an expectation anymore.
MA: Expectations. I think as an expectation, [starting a family] is something that everybody always thought that you should and would do -- that went out the window in about 1970. But it's coming back.
CL: You think?
MA: Oh, I think so, to a certain extent. Everything is cyclical. And what it usually is is that a certain number of people in every generation reject whatever it was that their mothers did and go back to whatever it was that their grandmothers did. And then they try that for a while, and then the cycle flips over. And people are then doing the same thing, except that those who were the mothers are now the grandmothers.
CL: If we gave you a magic wand and you could make one change to Canadian society, what would it be?
MA: One change in Canadian society. Big or little?
CL: It could be either. It could be political, it could be social...
MA: OK. I think the most important question facing all of us right now is whether we are going to continue along the road that we're on and choke to death, or whether we are going to make changes in the way we produce and consume energy. So I think if I could make one big change, we would all get solar panel roofing and get off the grid, or even give back to the grid, because in Ontario, anyway, we can now feed back energy. And that would make a huge difference. And while we're at it, let's ban gas-powered leaf blowers. And throw in gas-powered lawn mowers. There's no need for these. You can get electric models if you have to blow leaves off your sidewalk. I'd also say get a rake, but there would be a rebellion if I said that.
CL: Do you see people changing? And, I mean, a lot of the changes that we're supposed to be making are things that I know my grandparents did naturally, like growing food.
MA: Exactly. This is what I'm saying, you go back to what your grandparents did. I think it's moving. But if we could ban gas leaf blowers it would move a lot faster.
CL: Get more money for public transit, maybe?
MA: Well, that's not enough. It's really not enough. It's a good idea, but it's not enough.
CL: Why do you say that?
MA: Because people will still choose their car for convenience. So it's got to be better cars. We went to diesel, which is a lot less consumptive and gets much better mileage. And also to a hybrid, which we use in the city. That's several years old now. I think probably the ones they have now are even more efficient. The beauty of them is that when you're stopped at an intersection, nothing comes out the back.
CL: And what do you think about electricity issues?
MA: Well, there again. We've constructed our whole house so that we don't have air-conditioning. You have to think about it. You've got to put out and draw in the awnings. The awnings make a huge difference. Skylights that open at the top of the house make a huge difference. All of those kinds of things, which people used to do as a matter of course. And then air-conditioning was invented, and they just forgot about it. But it'll all come back. So, the electricity issues. Well, there's Bullfrog Power. There's solar-panelling your house and feeding it back onto the grid. So it's going to be a combination of use less and think of other ways of making it.
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