Unlocking the Door

Like many artists, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood seems uncomfortable with the notion of explaining her craft. She follows no formulas, has no set writing patterns and brushes off any attempts to dig into how the creative mind works.

But that’s not to say that this world-renowned author of such novels as Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace and her latest, Oryx and Crake, doesn’t have any wisdom to offer her fellow writers. Her nonfiction book Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Anchor Books) is proof of that, and our interview with her revealed some interesting insights that all writers can take to heart.

You’re a poet, novelist, short-story writer and essayist, and always have been, ever since you announced to your friends back in high school that you were going to be a writer. Do you have a soft spot for one genre over the others?

I do when I’m writing it. When I’m in a poetry phase, I think this is the greatest thing and how could I write anything else? When I’m writing a novel, I’m very focused on that, and I can barely read poetry. There’s no secret. I’ve always been a multitasker in all areas of life.

Does that keep you fresh?

It keeps me very busy. But I don’t confine myself to writing. Do you want your sewing machine fixed?

You have a distinct voice that shows through in all your published work. There’s an intensity, a sense of menace beneath the surface, along with a wry, dark humor. Did you always write this way?

I think everybody goes through an apprenticeship period in which they try different forms. And I certainly did. When we were in high school in the ’50s, in our high school anyway, we didn’t read much modern poetry at all. So “The fog comes on little cat feet,” and that was about it. Most of the other things we read, if it was prose, it was most likely written before 1900. They taught rhyme, they taught scansion. I knew what the various kinds of sonnets were long before I hit university.

So presumably that’s what you started out trying to write?

[Laughing:] I started out sounding sort of like a combination of Lord Byron and Edgar Allen Poe. I wouldn’t say that what I was doing back in college was very much like what I sound like now. I’d say that didn’t hit until I was 24 or 25.

So what changed?

I was writing more formally before. I can’t tell you what happened except that it was a very noticeable shift, and it happened all at once. You can’t account for anything that happens in the creative mind. It’s the eureka experience. The experience comes unbidden.

Is there a particular poem or novel that you think introduces that change?

Yes, it’s my first book of poetry, which you can’t get in the States, called The Circle Game. [Editor’s note: See “This Is a Photograph of Me,” a poem from this collection, at right.] As for novels, it was the second one I wrote, The Edible Woman. My first novel was happily unpublished. I can look at The Edible Woman, and I can see where I was going. I can see things in it that I later went on and developed.

So did you see the shift and decide, yes, this is the direction I want to go?

I felt the shift. This is not an intellectual matter.

Finding Her Voice
Margaret Atwood published her first book of poetry, The Circle Game, in 1966. She considers it the first work to demonstrate a profound shift in her voice—a distinct voice that carries through her novels, poems and short stories even today. This poem first appeared in The Circle Game:

“This Is a Photograph of Me”

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.

(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the centre
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)

Was there any conscious effort then to develop it further?

It’s not something you develop. It’s something you have access to. It’s not like scratching away at the architectural drawing board—maybe we need a doorknob here, or we can put this window over here. That may come in the editing process. But the experience you’re talking about is more like opening a door, not developing something.

Then you say, I didn’t even know that door was there. Shall I go further down this corridor?

Do you ever hesitate in that idea of whether you should go further?


But do you generally plod through?

Eventually. But the hesitation can take years. So that’s more like, OK, I know the door is there, but I’m not going in there now. I need to get my little vial of magic light or whatever it is we need for these expeditions. Or maybe you say, I’m just not ready to go there yet.

And eventually you’re ready.

Eventually, I go through the door. Or so far, that’s been true. Let me give you an example: I wrote the first notes and chapters for Cat’s Eye when I was 25. I didn’t write the book itself for another 23 years. That’s a long hesitation.

Again, is that just an instinc-tual thing—you know when you’re ready to go back?

You know when you’re not ready; you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready. You keep trying, but you may wait a while between the tries.

And in your case, you try something else.

I try something else. That’s one of the virtues of being a multitasker. If something’s not working, you can go dig up a flower or fix a drape. Or write a different book.

What are your thoughts on the “chick lit” phenomenon?

Well, I wrote the first one: The Edible Woman. It was published in 1969.

Do you think that compares with what’s being done today?

Have a look! Have a look. It’s very Bridget Jones’s Diary when you come to think of it. She works in an office, it’s a shit job—

But your voice doesn’t match up with the tone of most of today’s chick lit.

Well, some chick-lit books are better than others. I thought Bridget Jones was quite a howl. There’s good, bad and mediocre in everything. If you really wanted to, you could say the original chick-lit book is Pride and Prejudice. So what is it, if it’s about young women we’re not supposed to take it seriously? It should be judged on its merits like everything else. A lot of the books we regard as classics today were thought of as cheap junk when they came out. Dracula by Bram Stoker is one; so is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There’s a long list.

Let’s talk about your writing process. Do you write every day? Can you walk me through a typical writing day for you?

Not every day. I’d like to, but I never did. I’ve always had either a job or a very busy life. I can’t describe my process. It’s chaos around here all the time.

So you don’t have any sort of weird rituals or anything before you get started?

Oh, I wish. I used to have the pencil-sharpening, pacing-the-floor, anxiety-attack ritual, but things got so I just couldn’t afford the time. So I’ve got that narrowed down to about five minutes of screaming time. [Laughs.]

Sometimes you just come to a stop, and you go do something else. And you do get to a certain age where you realize that the world will actually not stop turning if you don’t write anymore.

I guess you don’t really suffer from writer’s block, then.

I never have, although I’ve had books that didn’t work out. I had to stop writing them. I just abandoned them. It was depressing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. When it really isn’t working, and you’ve been bashing yourself against the wall, it’s kind of a relief. I mean, sometimes you bash yourself against the wall and you get through it. But sometimes the wall is just a wall. There’s nothing to be done but go somewhere else.

That sounds pretty practical.

I’m a very practical person. I grew up in a practical way; I grew up in the north. Make too many mistakes, and you’re dead. You usually don’t get a whole lot of second chances at certain kinds of mistakes. So let us say I’m cautious but practical.

So how does a Margaret Atwood novel come to be? Do you start with a plot concept? The characters?

I usually start with some voices. Or an image or a place. The Handmaid’s Tale started with the scene of the bodies hanging from the wall. In the writing, that scene migrated quite far back into the book. But that was the first arresting image that made me feel I really had to go forward with this book.

Do you outline?

No. I did that once. It was a terrible mistake.

So you start with an image—

Yes. It’s like overhearing someone talking in the next room. It’s like seeing a village a long way off and thinking you have to go there. It’s like seeing an object fraught with significance. You wonder why that’s there. What is that blood-stained cleaver doing in the middle of the living room floor? I think we’d better look into this!

I’m compelled by something to go and find out more about it. And I’ve been wrong.

And do you just know when you’re wrong?

You know eventually. It may take you 200 pages. That’s unpleasant. But you know when you lose interest.

We all have those “this is drivel” moments. But it would be a “this is drivel” moment that lasts for quite a long time. It’s not only drivel on Monday but on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, too. What am I to make of this? Why did I write that?

You’ve won the Booker Prize (for The Blind Assassin), as well as numerous other prestigious awards for your body of work. Does such recognition change anything in how you approach your work?

I think if I hadn’t won them, I’d be a more anxious and ulcer-ridden person.

Really? That’s surprising, considering how practical you are.

I know it is. But having had the experience so many times … I’m probably the most short-listed person in the world. To be that short-listed, if I’d never won anything, think how weird it would be.

Can you tell me a little about your writing space?

I don’t really have a writing space. I do a lot of writing on airplanes, in airports, in hotel rooms. I do write in my study here, where I have two desks. But I don’t use my two desks, because I write on the floor. I lie on the floor—actually, I sort of crouch. I’m more comfortable.

So what are you working on now?

I’m not telling. Never, ever tell. I know that if I told my editors at publishing companies what I was working on, they’d turn green and think I was crazy.

Because of the subject matter?

Yes. That’s always been true.

Did you used to tell and then stopped?

I once told the title of a book, and then I changed it and everyone thought I’d written two books. So I never tell anyone anything.

You have to understand, my Western horoscope sign is the scorpion, and we’re happiest in the toes of shoes where it’s very dark. Nobody knows we’re there. And on the Oriental calendar, I’m the rabbit, and we’re very happy at the bottoms of burrows. We’re very secretive.

Well, you have to be true to your nature, then!

There you have it. Don’t tell nobody nothing—until it’s something you want everybody to know.

On Writing and Immortality
By Margaret Atwood

All writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld and to bring something or someone back from the dead.

Why should it be writing, over and beyond any other art or medium, that should be linked so closely with anxiety about one’s own personal, final extinction?

Surely that’s partly because of the nature of writing—its apparent permanence, and the fact that it survives its own performance—unlike, for instance, a dance recital. If the act of writing charts the process of thought, it’s a process that leaves a trail, like a series of fossilized footprints. Other art forms can last and last—painting, sculpture, music—but they don’t survive as voice. Something unfurls, something reveals itself. The crooked is made straight, or, the age being what it is, possibly more crooked; at any rate, there’s a path. There’s a beginning, there’s an end, not necessarily in that order; but however you tell it, there’s a plot. The voice moves through time, from one event to another, or from one perception to another, and things change, whether in the mind alone or in the outside world. Events take place, in relation to other events. That’s what time is. It’s one damn thing after another, and the important word in that sentence is after.

All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them. But you don’t learn only from writers—you can learn from ancestors in all their forms. Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth, so if you’re going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time.

All writers must go from now to once upon a time; all must go from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation, depending how you look at it. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more—which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.

Excerpted from Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Anchor Books) with permission from Margaret Atwood.

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