- Miranda Sawyer
Margaret Atwood is smiling, waving a green copy of her book The Testaments at me, while I wave a black one back at her. High-cheekboned, pale-skinned, her curly grey hair like a corona, she’s wearing a jewel-green blouse that makes her eyes glitter. Behind her stretches her large, comfy, slightly darkened sitting room in Toronto, with books and wall hangings and a whirring fan. Atwood gleams out of my screen, bright in all senses.
She is talking about being a grouch. She tells me she turns down a lot of interview requests, “and then I get a reputation as being very grumpy and hard to deal with. But who cares?” Grumpy seems wrong to me. I had been warned that Atwood was scary – super-sharp and impatient – but she’s not like that either. She is unsentimental, clear, sure of her facts and opinions, but she also has a light, mischievous quality. She says my name as though constantly on the verge of teasing me.
And she’s not grand, though she has every right to be, as one of the most successful writers in the world. Now 80, she has written 17 novels, 17 books of poetry, 10 books of non-fiction, eight collections of short stories, eight children’s books and three graphic novels. Her green copy of The Testaments is the paperback version of her slightly more cheerful sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: the black hardback sold more than 250,000 copies in its first month in the UK alone. Atwood could be forgiven for resting on her laurels – or resting, full stop – but she likes to be hands on: she runs her own Twitter and Instagram accounts, where she posts books she likes, links to campaigns and festivals, sometimes funny little clips (there is a great short film of her riding an electric scooter in New Zealand in February). She writes articles, and puts her name to open letters for causes she supports: Greta Thunberg’s environmentalism, free speech, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, birdwatching. She has a lot going on.
At the moment, like many of us, she is concerned about the US election, even if she has no vote. “Canadians are all pressed up against the plate glass window like this,” she says, making a splurgy face. While she considers Joe Biden electable (“He does appear to be a human being, he doesn’t appear to be a sociopath or a narcissist, so this is all to the good”), whether he will make it to the White House is another thing.
“It depends to what extent He Who Shall Not Be Named manages to destroy the postal services,” Atwood says. (Donald Trump comes up a few times in our conversation, though she refuses to actually name him.) “That’s not going to be a tippity-top popular move because people’s pension cheques, their medications, come in the postal service. If you don’t get your pension cheque, you’re going to hate the government. But then, if you can’t vote, it doesn’t matter if you hate them or not.”
At least it’s not your country, I say; maybe it shouldn’t matter to Canadians?
“Oh yes, it should,” she says. “That’s our border, the longest undefended border in the world.”
This border features in The Testaments – one of the heroines is smuggled over it, to and from the patriarchal totalitarian state of Gilead – and Atwood talks to me about its history through slavery and prohibition. Now, she says, Americans are sneaking into Canada to escape their own country’s hopeless approach to Covid-19. “They walk through the woods,” she says. “And I noticed, last time I was in Saskatchewan, which is out west, we were right near the border and there were drones patrolling it.” In another echo of her books, the woods are being watched for escapees.
The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments came out of Atwood imagining what form a dictatorship would take in the US: does she consider Trump to be a manifestation of this? She doesn’t say yes, but tells me there is a “recipe” for putting in a dictator, which is: destroy or take over independent media; do the same with independent judiciary; kill artists or make them really compliant. “And once you start shooting protesters in the streets, that’s a really big signal that this is going to be a dictator.”
Writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she had it in her mind that a US dictatorship could never be a socialist one. “You would not be able to get the 33% necessary to support you. That’s the amount you need for a functioning dictatorship, as long as they’ve got guns.” Instead it would be a God-based affair. “It would fly under some weird, ‘Let’s stand in front of a church, holding a Bible upside down’ message,” she says. “Play God.” It’s clear who Atwood is referring to: a sort of dictator, who plays the God card and exploits the internet.
“Well, in the Obama election,” she says, “the people who liked Obama had figured out how to use social media and the Republicans hadn’t. In the 2016 election they had, and so had the Russian bots. Any weapon or any human tool is going to have a good side tied in to a stupid or bad side you had not anticipated when you invented whatever it was. You cannot devise a weapon that somebody else will not seize and use against you.”
As a long-time student of history, Atwood knows progress does not move smoothly, but in stops and starts. She has been writing a new foreword to We, the 1920s dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin reputed to have inspired Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The Russian Revolution is one of my obsessions of the moment,” she explains. She talks about the revolution’s desire to destroy marriage by making divorce easier – an initiative that might, to the modern mind, seem a pro-woman move, but wasn’t. “Men were just getting married, getting divorced. There were all these children without families or support. This is the problem with things that look good on paper.”
Feminism is at the root of almost everything Atwood writes, but she doesn’t always toe the party line. She is on record as disliking the kind of feminism that disapproves of lipstick; she is not interested in portraying women as saints or martyrs; and she was called a “bad feminist” when she signed a 2016 letter that asked for a proper legal process around the dismissal of a University of British Columbia professor who had been accused of serious sexual assault. Recently, along with 152 other writers, critics and academics, she put her name to an open letter in Harper’s magazine that supported “open debate and freedom of thought and speech”; it was criticised for not acknowledging “the problem of power: who has it and who does not”.
Atwood doesn’t mind people disagreeing with her. She reads a lot, draws on her own experience: “I hate to keep saying ‘At my age’ but, at my age…” In July, she took a step into the heated Twitter row surrounding JK Rowling and trans rights. In June, Rowling had caused controversy by taking issue with the phrase “people who menstruate”, used in an article about Covid-19 and menstruation products (Rowling would have preferred the word “women”). Atwood didn’t refer directly to Rowling’s essay on the subject, but tweeted a link to a scientific article that stated that sex, as well as gender, exists on a spectrum between male and female. “Some science here: ‘When Sex and Gender Collide.’ #TransGenderWomen Biology doesn’t deal in sealed Either/Or compartments. We’re all part of a flowing Bell curve. Respect that! Rejoice in Nature’s infinite variety!” Atwood added.
“Read the science, that’s all I would ask of people,” she says when I ask her about this. “Go to the biology first, please. I also put up a nice YouTube clip of these two young people explaining it all very carefully. [The two go through Rowling’s piece and disagree with it, bit by bit.] They’re very good-humoured.”
What does she think when trans rights and feminism butt up in this way?
“I think, what are people afraid of? I think they may have seen Psycho at too formative an age. They’re afraid of somebody dressing up like their dead mother and stabbing them in the bathroom or something.”
She’s joking, obviously, but women have been no-platformed and lost jobs as a result of their public support for Rowling; Sasha White, for example, the woman recently fired from her position at a literary agency. That must clash with her idea of free speech? Atwood snaps back into seriousness.
“Suzanne Nossel has a very good guidance book called Dare To Speak. That is well worth the read. If you have a situation where you feel your rights are being removed, it’s important to talk about it clearly.
“It is also true that in situations where people have not had any power, and suddenly they get power, some people are going to abuse that power. Finding out you’ve got power, and can get somebody fired, when you haven’t had any – that can be a pretty heady feeling. I mean, let’s all dance around the guillotine as we chop off the heads of the aristocrats. Here’s my short version: if you’re going to speak truth to power, make sure it’s the truth. That’s a good maxim.”
Having spent a lifetime thinking about power and what it does to people, Atwood doesn’t believe it always corrupts: “Some use it for benevolent ends.” But she believes that, often, it goes to people’s heads, whether they are operating from good intentions or not. Whoever is “winning”, through privilege or popularity, will take it out on others.
“If you have power, don’t waste it on squashing snails,” she says. “Save it for the biggies. If you have a party line that is enforced across the board, you’ve got a tyranny. Typically, these party lines get in on the excuse that you have to demolish the people currently in power because they are using their power badly. So you need to have that power because you are going to use it well. But then you get the power and start squashing snails.
“It is just fun for a lot of people to demolish other people and it always has been, across the board. People like doing it. If you’re really going to put yourself in the box marked ‘virtuous’, you’ve got to ask yourself whether you’re actually being virtuous, or whether you’re being sadistic. Be aware of how you’re using your power.”
This is part of a much longer and more nuanced discussion than is possible on social media, of course. We couldn’t really have this conversation on Twitter, I say. “It can be done, but only if you’re talking to people who are conversing with you in good faith,” she says. “In person is better. I can say to you, ‘Did you really mean that? Is that what you actually meant? What are the consequences of what you just said? Do you really want to shut down debate on everything across the board – because that means your debate is going to be shut down, too.’”
Atwood likes talking to journalists face to face, on the record; she likes us because she can see we are not bots. “The thing about things online is that tweets pop up and disappear and often you don’t know who’s done them. You don’t know if they’re a bot, a tool of a propaganda organisation. But you, Miranda, if you had me saying something untrue and libellous… I know where you live.”
Ha! Well, I know where she lives, too, sort of. And she’s still in lockdown, so she’s not really going anywhere. She returned from a book tour on 10 March and since then has been in a bubble with a number of family members, including her “baby” sister Ruth, 68, and a four-year-old grandchild. Ruth set up her sewing machine and has been making masks, and the two have had something of a return to childhood: they staged a puppet show for the BBC’s Front Row Late, after host Mary Beard asked Atwood to create a piece around the idea of plague. They performed a rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque Of The Red Death using champagne bottles, knives and forks, and a bottle of hand sanitiser. “It’s online somewhere,” Atwood says airily.
And, of course, she has been writing. At the moment, she is working on some short stories and a collection of essays, “if I can find out what I did with them,” as well as “various other things. Always a couple at a time. I mean, you keep saying, ‘I can’t do any more of these little projects’, but it’s always an emergency for somebody, isn’t it?” Not for her the exclusive writing retreat, the regular daily hours. She writes wherever and whenever, able to concentrate at will. “The writing experience is the same whether there are other people in your vicinity or not,” she says. The Testaments was written in all sorts of places, including a train held up by a landslide.
But lockdown has been a strange time, mostly because there is someone missing. Last September, her partner, the writer Graeme Gibson, died in London, two days after she launched The Testaments. They had been together for almost 50 years. I’ve been wondering if this is too sensitive a subject, but she mentions it first.
“He had a big stroke,” she says, “and spent five days in the very nicely run university hospital [UCH, in London], and died.”
She’s able to talk about his death calmly because she’s convinced it was a good one. His children made it to London in time to say goodbye (he has two sons, Matt and Grae, from a previous marriage; and a daughter, Jess, with Atwood). Plus he’d had dementia for a while: “He was declining and he had wanted to check out before he reached any further stages of that.” They had just spent a wonderful 10 days in Italy together, he travelling with a broken arm, because “I certainly wasn’t going to leave him behind because we knew that this [a stroke] could happen at any moment. If you have vascular dementia, you start bleeding into yourself and typically you have a stroke. That was already symptomatic. He was having little bleeds out of his skin. When that’s happening, you know things are progressing.
“We were prepared,” she says, “insofar as you can be prepared. It wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t, ‘How could this happen?’ It was, ‘OK, this has happened.’”
After Graeme’s death, she had to decide whether or not to continue with her book tour. She decided she would because, understandably, she didn’t want to return to their home. So she “took a plane from London, I landed in New York, I walked off the plane, I went on to Seth Meyers’ show and just kept going.
Lockdown must have been dreadful, though, I say – all that time at home with that absence. “Well,” she says, “we had already got through Christmas with the family. And none of these things are easy for anybody. It’s probably a lot easier if you disliked the person.”
I burst out laughing, despite myself. Atwood is such an unexpected combination of logic and cheek. She smiles back. “If you really dislike somebody, you think, ‘Well, good, they’re gone.’ That isn’t what I thought. But I have a great extended family and friends, and it’s just… this is what happens. And I seem to be a de facto member of a widows’ club, of people who are in my position – other writers who’ve lost their spouses. Not just widows: some are widowers. This moping is transgenderal.” That mischief flashes again.
Atwood met Gibson in 1970, when she was in her early 30s. They’d both been married before and moved into a semi-derelict 19th-century farm in Ontario, which they set about doing up. She’s recently written about this time in a new foreword for a single issue of two of Gibson’s books, Perpetual Motion and Gentleman Death. It sounds like chaos, with animals, teenagers, broken machinery, plus attempts at farming, writing and trying to earn enough to live. “Graeme said that farming was driving around until something broke, then driving around to find the part to fix it, then driving around.”
Later they moved to Toronto, to give their daughter more of a social life. But Atwood had been up for their country adventure because she grew up in a cabin in the woods, the middle child of an entomologist father and dietitian mother. She thinks her early life is important, partly because the lack of distractions gave her the concentration that helped her become a writer, but also because she and her siblings were allowed to grow up away from, for instance, a small conservative town “that would at that time tend to the judgmental”. Perhaps luckily for her, she didn’t attend formal school until she was 12. Her family didn’t fit in with everyday society; “weird” is the adjective I’ve heard her use.
“The important thing about being weird was that if people then called you weird later on, it was an experience you had already had. You could think, yes, I know. It’s just weird, it is what it is. I’m at one with my weirdness. But as far as my immediate family were concerned, we were normal. I had pretty egalitarian parents and no one said to me, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ That just didn’t happen. They sometimes said, ‘You can’t do that yet because you’re too young’, but that’s an entirely different thing.”
Her grandmothers, whom she remembers clearly, were also “pretty tough: they were not shrinking violets, not people who lay around eating chocolates, or were afraid of things. And my mother was a tomboy. She would say, ‘Roll up your sleeves, girls, let’s get this done.’ They were not fearful people.” This stood the young Atwood in good stead when she encountered people who suggested something would be difficult, or that women couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. “It was too late,” she says. “Those barriers had not been put in my head.”
In the 1950s, when there were “very, very few people interested in being a writer in Canada”, she just cracked on. In her late teens and early 20s, she wrote poetry and read it out in Toronto cafes, including one called the Bohemian Embassy: “They sometimes got letters from people who wanted a visa, who thought it was really an embassy for Bohemia.” It was the start of beatnik culture: there were folk singing nights, jazz nights, poetry nights.
She went to Radcliffe College, the female wing of Harvard, in 1961, and saw Bob Dylan and Joan Baez perform in Boston. “Joan in bare feet and long hair, and Bob with his mouth organ stuck on his shoulder. Very early days.” Their performance didn’t seem seminal at the time. “It was exciting, but not as exciting as these things are to other people in retrospect. You’re preoccupied with your own life, and you haven’t had the photo essay called The 60s Years. Anyway, I’m here to tell you that the 60s were the 50s until 1966.”
When birth control arrived. “And pantyhose. What do you call them? Tights. Without tights there would have been no miniskirts. Just think about that. Then second-wave feminism hit the public view in 1969. Then you got a brief window of a lot of sex because there was no Aids yet. And syphilis had been defeated. Things got more conservative in the 80s.”
Atwood is not emotional about this. It is what it is. Progress continues, but not smoothly; not without fights and trauma.
“Miranda,” she says. “What do you think about my hair? I haven’t cut it for a while. Do you think I should give it a bit of a trim at the back, with nail scissors?”
She holds it back, in a teeny ponytail. We decide yes, as long as the rest of it stays big.
“When you’re 80, people flirt with you because they know there won’t be any consequences. They flirt in an old lady way, like they’re humouring you: ‘Oh, you look fabulous!’”
And does she reply, “Yes, I do”?
“Oh no. That wouldn’t be modest.” She fouffs it up a little more. “I’ll put a bit of green in it,” she says. “Just to liven up the grandkids.”
Miranda Sawyer writes features for the Observer. She is also the paper’s radio critic.