Wednesday, April 25, 2012

DeNeen Brown Washington Post: Margaret Atwood at Times Talks

Split Personality In Margaret Atwood Reside Both the 'Ordinary' Person and the Extraordinary Writer

By DeNeen L. Brown

Washington Post Foreign Service


She slips into a local cafe like one of her characters -- a woman in a pastel purple print dress, porcelain bare arms and pastel purple hat. She looks almost translucent. She is alone. None of her characters is hiding in there. They have been left behind long ago in the pages of her books. She, the writer, does not bring them with her as much as her readers want her to.

Most of these characters -- memorable women on the verge of sanity, on the edge of nervous breakdowns -- came from her. But are not her. Not Elaine, the girl gasping for air in "Cat's Eye," who peeled her own skin; not Marian in "The Edible Woman," who thought she would be eaten; not Kat in "Hairball," who saved a tumor in a glass jar and placed it on a mantle; not Iris of "The Blind Assassin," whose sister, wearing white gloves, deliberately drove off a bridge.

Writing, Margaret Atwood has said, is something she does. Not something she is. "The mere act of writing splits the self in two," she says. There is the ordinary person, and then there is the "slippery double" who does the writing.

She is often reminded of this tortured duality by a clipping tacked to a bulletin board in her office, "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate. . . ."

The famous, she notes in her latest book, "Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing," "are always shorter and older and more ordinary than you expected."

On this afternoon, the ordinary woman who has shown up happens to be Margaret Atwood, whose name is often printed three times bigger than the title on the covers of her books. The winner of the 2000 Booker Prize, she is one of Canada's foremost poets and novelists and has helped to show the world that this country is producing some of the best writing in modern times.

This is the woman who has helped to give Canada its voice and its identity. Yet, in this uncrowded cafe, no one seems to notice her, or maybe it is the Canadian way not to stare, to point and whisper that there sits Margaret Atwood.

Still, something about both her and her books makes the reader so curious about the origins of the characters and the plots, the passions or fears that lie beneath.

She sits behind a cup of coffee with milk. She is the regular person, the one who bakes great brownies, knits her grandbaby sweaters, invites lonely newcomers to dinner at her downtown home (because Toronto can be a closed place) and greets every guest at her Boxing Day party, where she and her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, serve baked beans and ham. (Is that Michael Ondaatje standing in the corner? And who is that beautiful woman who looks like Atwood, who has flown in from Europe and is joking about milk and whiskey?)

You ask her, the writer who is sitting in the cafe, about confidence because you think she must be confident, more confident than many in the world who sit in rooms alone with words that multiply but never amount to anything.

"Confidence?" she repeats. "I don't know that I have any. I have the same list of paranoias that every other writer has as far as I can determine. 'It's no good! This is useless! I hate this!' It's the same blank sheet that everybody starts with."

That sheet, she has said, is "smooth, white and terrifyingly innocent. . . . White, because it's hot, it will burn out your optic nerves. Those who stare at the page too long go blind. . . . The page is a skin that can feel you touching it. Did you really think it would just be there and do nothing?"

Atwood's "Negotiating With the Dead" explores those pages, their written words and the writer's relationship with them.

She writes: "Let's say it's a book about the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different. It's the sort of book a person who's been laboring in word mines for, say, forty years -- by coincidence, roughly the time I myself have been doing this -- the book such a person might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she's been up to all this time."

Or: "Perhaps I wish to say: Look behind you. You are not alone. Don't permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for the snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist -- it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you. Advice for the innocent pilgrim, worthy enough, no doubt, but no doubt useless; dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appall, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded."

Still, the readers keep asking such obtuse questions as: "Where does it come from?"

When she was a child, writing and art were not something people were absorbed with, she says. She was born in Ottawa in 1939, two months after World War II began. "People had other things on their mind and even if they hadn't, they wouldn't have been thinking about writers." She remembers once that a poet wrote a magazine article and titled it "Canadians Can Read, But Do They?"

Her father ran a forest-insect research station in Quebec, taught her entomology, and each spring, her parents would leave for the cold North and return to a different city each fall. The "landscape of the north" became her home town.

Often writers grow up with "books and solitude," Atwood says. In the North, there were no theaters and the radio did not work well, she says. All she had were books and time. She became a writer in a split minute of transformation. She remembers it was 1956. She was walking home from school, when a poem wrote itself in her head. Later, she wrote it down. "I didn't know that this poem of mine wasn't at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn't have cared," she writes. "It wasn't the result but the experience that had hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in 'B' movies."

Over the years, she has produced more than 37 volumes: poetry, children's books, fiction and nonfiction, including at least 10 novels and three short story collections. She has written in hotels, on airplanes, in the middle of the night. Ask her when she sleeps, and she says the most appropriate question is when she eats. It used to be that the best time for writing was the middle of the night, but lately getting up at that hour has become dangerous because stairs covered in night can trip up a writer.

Atwood has wondered: If she went blind would she be able to write? "Henry James apparently dictated his later novels, but I don't think I would be capable of doing that. I seem to have to be able to see them." Or what if something happened to her hands, would the black thread that spins the words stop coming? Writing, she says, is produced somehow by the connection between the brain and the hand. "It's not you sitting up in your brain directing your hand." The brain and hand are one.

Stories come to her, she says, dropping in like unexpected visitors. Sometimes there is not enough space for them, no rollaway beds to lie on while she finishes something else. "But they aren't always the right ones," she says. "They come and then some of them go. And the ones that stick around are usually the ones that you would think maybe a sane person should not endeavor to write," she says.

She is speaking of "The Handmaid's Tale," published in Canada in 1985, a futuristic novel about a dystopian society in which fertile women become handmaids for reproduction and are farmed out to have babies for barren couples.

The idea for "The Blind Assassin," a novel about the rise and fall of a Canadian family, began simply as a subject Atwood wanted to explore, that of a woman who had lived through the 20th century, watching the changes between 1901 and 2001. The book's main character, Iris, first appeared to Atwood carrying a container.

"So when I first started looking at her, she was dead and she had left behind the container, which was a hatbox, and somebody else was discovering her container and was finding out what was in it, which were some letters."

But that didn't work. So Atwood threw the woman and the container out. The next time the woman appeared to her, she was alive. "But she was being discovered by two other people who were younger than she, and she had a container, which was a suitcase and in the container there was a photograph album," Atwood recalls. "That didn't work, either. But one of the photographs survived." Then the two young discoverers started having an affair "and he was married with baby twins."

The characters took over the life of the old woman. So Atwood "put them in a drawer."

"Maybe they are carrying on in there. I don't know. The twins were very cute and it was sad to give them up, but there you are."

As soon as those characters were put away, "the old lady moved to the first person and began speaking herself. Once she began speaking herself, then it was all right."

"The only way you can write the truth," Atwood writes in "The Blind Assassin," "is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person and not even by yourself at some later date, otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it."

There is nothing mystical about her own hands, except when you look at the early drafts of her novels that are saved in the rare book library at the University of Toronto. And you see that she starts her novels on lined paper in spiral notebooks. There are certain pages where the handwriting seems to have gotten faster and faster and becomes more and more illegible as if the hands were simply trying to keep up with the story that is spilling onto the page.

"Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space," she has written in black ink. The words are in cursive, written quickly. JT, she has written then scratched it quickly. She picks up. "Space is curved and so time must be curved also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in it [she scratches out 'it,' replaces it with time, then scratches out that, too] it and exist in two places at once."

In some ways, it seems sneaky to be here in this library, looking at these original versions. Her early thoughts are lying here with no one but the librarian to guard them. Here we find the many beginnings of her epics written in pencil, crayon, black and blue ink, roller pen. Typed and crossed out. Filled in the margins. Self-edited. Arrows and circles. And if you flip back far enough, there are pencil sketches of flowers, bulbs and roots and a mask of a beautiful woman crying. And here you pause, because this page reveals that this woman is not only an artist of words but one of pictures.

Later, the hand writes, "I chew the skin off from around my fingernails. Some things don't change." And there is something written in the margin. But it is illegible. Squint. Decipher. It is written quickly. It is probably a secret to the method but it can't be read. "What I am not afraid of, snakes, worms, toads, mice, rats, dogs, leeches, guns unattached to people, most men. What I am afraid of: thunderstorms, spiders, poisonous jellyfish, some men (megalomaniacs and psychopaths). Sharks. Large red tropical centipedes. Wimps: harmless-looking, but they can give you a vicious nip. This is how I would have described myself until a week ago. Now I would add to the last list: women."

It is hard to know where the fiction fuses itself with real life.

Atwood has been called a feminist who wrote a prototype feminist work, "The Edible Woman," published in 1969, long before people knew what category to put it in.

"Let's pretend that we're back in 1969 and that our very first book is being published and that we are in fact 29 years old and that we are treated like the most amazing freak that has ever appeared on the face of the Earth, because we are a young female person, before feminism has really hit -- or about the moment when people have figured out that it has hit but other people don't know that, and some of the questions that would be asked are now pretty far beyond belief," she is explaining. "So those were the kinds of fools that I didn't suffer gladly, but if somebody asks a naive question in all good faith, my attitude was there are no stupid questions. There are only stupid answers. But there's a difference between that and outright aggression . . . which I certainly got a big dose of in my earlier years."

She lives by a general rule. "I never kick anybody in the knee first. I haven't. Never. But if they start. . . . Why stick around for it, why stick around for abuse?"

Atwood says she can usually tell when an interviewer is hostile, but some mask it. "The English are particularly good at concealing their hostility and then hammering you over the head with it when the interview actually comes out. But they've been quite nice to me lately."

That was before the Booker. "I think once I entered the old writer's category, they're rather fond of those. And it's true that younger women are more frightening to society at large than older ones," she says. "Because you don't know what they're going to do. Whereas with me, you have a fairly good idea because I've already done most of it."

She is an intensely private person. Some people know her but then they find that they don't really, even after reading two biographies about her, which she says she has not read. "I've looked at the pictures, though." She says if she started reading them, she would have to start correcting them. "And that way madness lies."

There are things people can't know about her and there are things she would never reveal. "You can't actually stop anybody from writing your biography. You can sue them if they are libelous once they've published it. But that is not the case with either of these biographies. I take it they're rather laudatory in possibly a somewhat more boring way than my life actually was or is, or was at the time," she says. "It's not that I'm a monster or perverse, but why would I tell private things to those people?"

So people try to write her into one of her many characters or a composite of them. They want to believe they know her. She has been sitting on their shelves and nightstands for all this time. Thirty-seven volumes of her.

Some people have called her prolific. She says she is not. "I'm old. If you take the number of years I've been writing, say from the age of 16 up until the age of 61 -- which I am now, 61 minus 16 is 45. So 45 years of writing. Then take the number of books I've actually published, and then count only half a point for the short ones. I'm not as prolific as you think. Ten novels over 45 years is pretty slow. Joyce Carol Oates is my standard. . . . That's prolific. I'm average."

Not really average. Atwood, who is now 62, is considered the major Canadian writer. Still last year, when she won the 2000 Booker Prize for Fiction, she was surprised.

Her reaction as she sat in the audience: "Surprise, A. B -- my feet were killing me because I made the mistake of buying new shoes. They're very nice. But it was the first time I had worn them, so that rather limping walk up to the podium was entirely genuine. Serves me right. Vanity. My outfit was black, so they were black but with sequins on them."

She was surprised because an English friend of hers kept telling her she didn't think this would be Atwood's year. "And since I'm a gullible person and very innocent and always do what people tell me, I actually believed her."

So Atwood was sitting there having a fine time when they announced she was the winner. "I hadn't put fresh lipstick on or anything, as you might do if you thought you might win it. So I was actually quite genuinely surprised. Nor had I prepared remarks. . . . So I had to improvise. And there are some pictures of me that look as if I am on some very strange drug. Because you walk backstage and there are all these people with flash cameras, so you're basically looking pretty much like an owl in headlights."

But that may not have been the writer they captured. Most likely it was her ordinary double.