Anealla Safdar interviews Margaret Atwood exclusively for New Writing.
Anealla Safdar: In our masterclass with you, regarding the digital platform, you said that what publishers are increasingly “trying to do, is insert the author as messenger between the reader and the book,” (whereas once the book was the messenger); and you issued some caution to writers who are uncomfortable with social media. However, you use Twitter and Wattpad yourself – could you expand on your comment on the position of the author in social media. Do you think it on balance a positive or negative tool for fiction writers?
Margaret Atwood: It is entirely a matter of individual taste. Those are the forms I feel comfortable with and have the time for. I’ve tried others that were not such a good fit. There is no The Author, who should do this or that, apart from writing wonderfully. There are only individual authors. If you hate singing in public, don’t do it. If you like trying new things, try them. Don’t let yourself be pushed into things you find awkward, distasteful, or time-wasting. End of story.
AS: In the masterclass you focussed on first chapters with us. What do you think a first chapter of a novel should ideally do?
MA: The thing it has to do is cajole the reader into wanting to read on. One way or another, or yet another. It is the gateway, the door, the key signature, as in music. It sets a tone. It also makes a promise to the reader: ‘Come with me and I will such a tale unfold….’ And then you’d better unfold it. But first, you have to open the door and beckon.
AS: In The Handmaid’s Tale two lines about our relationship with the past have stayed with me. ‘When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.’ Is this a nostalgic impulse? Can the past ever be known? Is this the task of ‘historical’ fiction, to make an unknowable past knowable?
MA: I’m not very good at telling other people or indeed literary forms what their ‘tasks’ are. ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,’ says Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. I’m not sure we can ever ‘know’ the past in its entirety, but how we construct our versions of it will certainly influence the present.
AS: In a recent conversation you had with with Alice Munro on a Google Hangout, you discussed the ‘likability’ of characters. It’s something we talk about a lot in our workshops, usually in terms of whether there is empathy or sympathy for the protagonist. Why do you think there is a tendency to psychoanalyse a fictional person’s qualities and motives, when in reality we accept people’s nuances and oddities without as much question?
MA: It’s a compliment in a way. We accept these characters as ‘real,’ in some way. I think this comes from the long 20th Century tradition of close textual and Freudian psychoanalytic literary criticism, blended with realism and naturalism in the novel. The Jamesian idea that fiction was an in-depth portrait, a study, etc., along with the Victorian tendency to judge the characters. An earlier age might simply have treated characters as stock features (as in plays). Chekhov famously said he didn’t judge his characters; he did, though. So do we all, on some level: we are moral beings, we have opinions about these things. But that’s not the same as thinking everyone in a book should be nice!
As Alice said also, we know the characters in much more depth than we can know the neighbours!
AS: Oryx and Crake is the first novel you wrote from a male perspective. How different was the experience, after inhabiting a series of female protagonists before?
MA: I have other male protagonists – Dr Jordan in Alias Grace, Nate in Life Before Man, and various male leads in short stories. But this book has only one narrator, and he is male. It’s easier to write another gender from your own culture than the same gender from a different one, I believe.
AS: What is the most recent memorable book you have read?
MA: The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. Very interesting, (You didn’t say ‘fiction’….)
AS: According to your tweets, you’ve transformed your residence in Norwich into a ‘writing burrow’. Do you find it necessary to sequester yourself away from the world to write? What does your writing burrow look like?
MA: The Writing Burrow is carried from place to place, like a snail shell. It is not specific to Norwich. Recently it was on a train. The Writing Burrow is inside my head, so I can’t give you a very good description of it. But it does involve turning off the Internet.