People in Saskatchewan have germs you don’t have.
October 12, 2005 7:30 PM   Subscribe

An interview with Margaret Atwood. [Sometimes bad interviews are the most interesting.]
posted by furtive (30 comments total)
Unfortunately, this isn't one of those times.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:39 PM on October 12, 2005

Do you have your devices plugged in?
George Bush said to Jeff Gannon.
posted by Balisong at 7:42 PM on October 12, 2005

That was....weird.
posted by nightchrome at 7:43 PM on October 12, 2005

That was the best thing i've read in months. It rather says everything one needs to know about humans--plus helpful tips for the germophobe!
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:48 PM on October 12, 2005

Ah, Peg.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:57 PM on October 12, 2005

What a funny old bat!
posted by klangklangston at 8:08 PM on October 12, 2005

MA: Good. There’s nothing worse than having a cold on your book tour.

I love them both--thanks, furtive!

(maisonneuve is a really wonderful magazine, if anyone hasn't seen it ever.)
posted by amberglow at 8:13 PM on October 12, 2005

she really is quite hilarious - i'd love the chance to talk to her if i didn't think i'd walk away shaking my head, feeling slightly uncomfortable, and as if i wasn't sure what had just happened to me
posted by drgonzo at 8:19 PM on October 12, 2005

That was fun, and bizzare. I was afraid that she was really going to tear into him for not being prepared (and it wasn't really his fault), and then it went in such a strange direction.
posted by JeremyT at 8:23 PM on October 12, 2005

MF: God being on the list of dead people?
MA: (No response)

You're interviewing Her, stupid.

MA: Something will happen. Think of everything that could go wrong and provide against it.

She'd make a fine FEMA director. President, even.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:24 PM on October 12, 2005

In 2008, don't forget to VOTE CANADIAN!

I'm not sure it'll go over well in the Midwest...
posted by TheSpook at 9:17 PM on October 12, 2005

Speaking as someone who has sat down with Margaret Atwood and drunk tea with her, I'd say he got off pretty lightly. I adapted one of her scripts for a movie and she wanted to give me her feedback. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
posted by unSane at 10:46 PM on October 12, 2005

That was amazing.

MA: If you have a funny story, read the funny story last.

MF: So people remember?

MA: So that people don’t get the idea that the whole thing is funny and then laugh at the unfunny parts.

MF: Right.


MA: Also, get some of this stuff called Emergency; it comes in little packets. Have that, and then you travel with Fisherman’s Friend. These are for your readings. Before every one of your readings, have a Fisherman’s Friend.

Before I just thought she was brilliant.
posted by freebird at 12:05 AM on October 13, 2005

Thanks furtive. I'm not even a fan of Atwood but that was great!
posted by vacapinta at 12:43 AM on October 13, 2005

I enjoyed that very much, thanks.
posted by letitrain at 12:45 AM on October 13, 2005

I think [Canada is] a demonstratively good place [to start as a writer] because of what people have done with it. But it’s not often clear why that should be so.

I think “rewarding” is what you ask Miss Universe.

LOL. That turned out to be worth the read despite seeming trivial.
posted by dhartung at 1:01 AM on October 13, 2005

I saw her speak once and came away with the impression that she is a brilliant, witty woman who does not tolerate fools. On the other hand, she met my indigent, itinerant poet friend at a book conference and went out to dinner with him and they had a lovely time, so she apparently does have a appreciation for the odd.
posted by Uccellina at 1:27 AM on October 13, 2005

Her observation about being, past a certain age, home for other people was fascinating. Wow.
posted by Malor at 1:30 AM on October 13, 2005

Nice, thanks! It must be a pain to have to sit through a series of half-baked interviews with unprepared interviewers.
posted by carter at 7:36 AM on October 13, 2005

unSane : That was a tantalizing comment. Can you elaborate. What happened? Is there anything more you can say about the meeting?
posted by yoz420 at 7:52 AM on October 13, 2005

Oh, dear. That was hilarious.
posted by sonofsamiam at 8:32 AM on October 13, 2005

Very nice. Made me smile this morning. Thanks!
posted by occhiblu at 9:19 AM on October 13, 2005

That was charming and delightful. I too was surprised that she seemed so accomodating as I had always viewed her as something of a curmudgeon (or the female equivalent of that if there is one). Thanks!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 10:31 AM on October 13, 2005

I saw her speak once and came away with the impression that she is a brilliant, witty woman who does not tolerate fools.

That's my impression of her too. A classmate of mine from publishing school went to a bookstore signing and, when her turn came, said, "I really enjoy your work and you've inspired me and sometime I really hope to be a published novelist like you." Atwood said, "Whatever," and signed the book.

My classmate thought it was rude, and so it was, but at the same time I could see Atwood's side of it. How many times a day must she hear that sort of thing? I thought my classmate should have realized that, and come up with something more interesting to say.

A guy I met told me he met her at some function and she was bitching about the quality of the wine. He knows something about wine, and thought it excellent, so he commented, "I noticed you were sucking on an orange slice a few minutes ago. Perhaps that affected how the wine tastes." Atwood snapped, "That had nothing to do with it!" He thought she was one of the most incredibly unpleasant people he'd ever come across.

I've been trying to find Jan Wong's infamous 1996 interview with Atwood, but it doesn't seem to be available anywhere. You can read it in Wong's book, Lunch With Jan Wong. Apparently Atwood can't spell worth a damn.
posted by orange swan at 10:52 AM on October 13, 2005

"I really enjoy your work and you've inspired me and sometime I really hope to be a published novelist like you." Atwood said, "Whatever," and signed the book.

My classmate thought it was rude, and so it was, but at the same time I could see Atwood's side of it. How many times a day must she hear that sort of thing?

Doesn't matter. If she doesn't like signing books for people who don't have the World's Greatest Bon Mot prepared, maybe she shouldn't be signing books.

It would not have hurt Atwood to merely say "good luck," and leave it at that. It's a shame that such a talented preson is so small inside.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:42 AM on October 13, 2005

"Preson," of course, being Anglo-Sanskrit for "woman."
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:42 AM on October 13, 2005

Hmph. This is why I think I'd prefer not to meet those writers I really respect.

Although in the interviews I've read and heard -- this one included -- she really does come across as very entertaining and warm.
posted by brina at 12:31 PM on October 13, 2005

An audience with 'a queen'
Saturday, September 7, 1996
The Globe and Mail
MARGARET Atwood, CanLit icon and author/editor of 43 books, has just admitted she can't spell.

"Spell 'busy,' " I say, to assess just how orthographically challenged she is.

"B-u-s-y," she says meekly.

"Spell 'macaroni.' "

She doesn't even attempt it.

"I mix up my a's and e's," she explains.

Before I can toss another word at her, Ms. Atwood, 56, recovers her equilibrium. In her trademark elongated nasal twang, she drawls: "When I announced in high school I was going to be a writer, my mother said, 'You'd better learn to spell.' I said, 'Others will do that for me,' and they have."

We are sitting in Arlequin, her hangout in the Annex, an upscale neighbourhood of brownstones and boutiques in central Toronto. Her publicist had faxed me to meet Ms. Atwood here for lunch. I am allotted one hour with her before she leaves for Lake Erie's Pelee Island -- a rest on the eve of a looming book tour.

I arrive 10 minutes early, dropping Ms. Atwood's name to get a good table. The apparently well-read waiter is impressed. He seats me in a spacious red leatherette banquette in no smoking, assuring me that Ms. Atwood doesn't smoke. For me, this is a no-lunch lunch because I can't waste a precious moment cutting or chewing. But to avoid drooling while Ms. Atwood eats, I order bread and hummous.

She arrives, and frowns at the table. "Too noisy," she says, even though the restaurant is deserted at 11:30 a.m. -- her choice of time for lunch. She eyes the banquette at the very back. "Why don't we move back there?"

I look at the bread and hummous and the glasses of water, and say: "That's smoking." She finally sits down. For her, this will also be a no-lunch lunch. "I can't eat and talk at the same time," she explains, ordering a café au lait. "Just a little coffee. Mostly milk," she says to the hovering waiter. "Do you have 1 per cent or 2 per cent?"

With her translucent skin, longish nose, pale blue eyes and Botticelli mass of brown curls, Ms. Atwood looks like a petite version of Cher in the movie, The Witches of Eastwick. She is 5 feet 3½ inches ("I used to be 5-4 but I'm shrinking") and wears a black sweater, a straw hat, black sandals and black striped loose pants. For a photographer's benefit, she has applied mascara and a lick of lipstick.

Her latest book and ninth novel, about an obscure 19th-century Canadian murderess, is a departure from her usual novels about contemporary relationships. To prepare, she immersed herself in the literature of the time. "Have you read Victorian lurid thrillers?" I shake my head, feeling dumb. "Well, I have," she says.

Some readers find her books dauntingly dense, but she is one of the few Canadian novelists whose books sell very well. Based on advance orders for Alias Grace, "it's a success, don't worry," Ms. Atwood says. Asked for specifics, she becomes as prudish as one of her characters. "We don't discuss numbers in our family."

Ms. Atwood virtually created CanLit. "There is no one king of CanLit. But there is a queen, and that's Atwood," says John Pearce, editor-in-chief of Seal, which publishes Ms. Atwood in mass-market paperback in Canada.

I wonder if she's recognized when she goes out. She nods. "This is Canada, so they just usually. . . . " She breaks off her sentence and pantomimes: first a long stare, then a whisper in the ear of an imaginary companion.

I ask the routine questions about her family. Ms. Atwood says her daughter is studying English and philosophy at McGill University. I ask what her name is. Ms. Atwood balks. I nod, feeling faintly embarrassed that I didn't think about stalkers and kidnappers. Belatedly, I realize that Ms. Atwood has dedicated Alias Grace to "Jess," who is, of course, her daughter.

A pleasant inquiry about her imminent departure for Pelee Island sparks another Atwood rebuke. "I would never have told you that," she says. But would her fans really circle in a boat, hoping for a sighting? I mean, there is civilized fame, such as hers, and uncivilized fame, such as Pamela Anderson Lee's.

"How would you feel if you were having dinner and people drove up to your house?" says Ms. Atwood, sipping her café au lait. The waiter hovers, wondering why neither of us is ordering lunch.

Later, I learn that Ms. Atwood hangs this sign on her office wall: "Wanting to know an author because you like his work is like wanting to know a duck because you like pâté."

Keeping secrets is part of her style. She doesn't tell anyone what she is working on -- not her agent, not her publishers, not even her devoted assistant and spelling helpmate, Sarah Cooper. It's out of self-defence. Creating a make-believe conversation with an editor, Ms. Atwood parodies herself. "Well, actually, I'm writing a novel set in the future with characters running around in Dutch Cleanser can outfits," she says, alluding to her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale. While that book was still in the embryonic stage, she once made the mistake of describing it to novelist Graeme Gibson, her partner and father of Jess.

"Don't you think you're going a bit too far?" he replied.

When writing, Ms. Atwood used to distract herself by leaping on her back-yard trampoline. "I don't hop, skip and jump any more -- too old." Now she relaxes by baking pies in the gloomy kitchen of her Edwardian home -- blueberry, rhubarb, pumpkin and peach.

Ms. Atwood writes her first draft longhand on yellow, lined legal pads, then types it into her computer, using four fingers -- and a thumb for the space bar. Last year, she published a book of poems, a collection of speeches and a children's book and edited, with Robert Weaver, an anthology of short stories.

Despite her years of success, Ms. Atwood still suffers prepublication jitters. She feels old stings, such as an unkind 1985 Harvard review. With Alias Grace, will the critics -- and her public -- agree with the bookstores?

"On the one hand, my job is over. On the other hand, I have insomnia and nightmares. It's like waiting for exam results." When she can't sleep, she sips hot milk and honey, and rereads her favourite old books. Such as?

"You know, murder mysteries."

In a sense, Alias Grace is Ms. Atwood's first murder mystery. It is a Victorian melodrama based on Grace Marks, a 16-year-old maid convicted of a double murder in Canada in 1843. Does Ms. Atwood believe Grace Marks committed murder?

"I'm not saying," she says stonily. "I'm not going to spoil it for the reader. People at the time came away with either [impression]."

"Is everything all right?" the waiter asks.

Ms. Atwood and her researchers found out how parsnips were stored (in the ground), what female prisoners wore to sleep in the 1850s (coarse yellowed smocks) and the correct way to make a Tree of Paradise quilt (dark triangles for the leaves, light triangles for the fruits). They delved into newspaper accounts, court transcripts and the judge's trial notes, though not always with gratifying results.

"It turns out that he was the judge with the most illegible handwriting that ever existed," Ms. Atwood says dryly.

She left intact significant facts, but invented freely where there were holes. On and off, "counting the part when I threw most of it out and started again," the novel took about two years to write.

"It's very much like a detective story, but the ending is still up in the air," Ms. Atwood says. "That's the difference between history and a murder mystery."

Her assistant arrives to whisk her away. I order lunch.
posted by capilano at 8:34 PM on October 13, 2005

Thanks capilano! I don't think that's all of it, though. Jan Wong writes in her book that she mentioned in the column that Atwood's daughter Jess had just left for university and named the university. Margaret Atwood then called her and bawled her out for mentioning this in print.
posted by orange swan at 6:27 AM on October 14, 2005

Atwood sometimes tells, with charateristic zing, of the writer meeting the brain surgeon at a cocktail party:

Brain Surgeon: "When I retire, I'm going to become a writer."
Novelist: "Funny you should mention that, because when I retire, I'm going to become a brain surgeon."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:50 AM on October 14, 2005

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