Margaret Atwood in conversation, Part I

By Callam Rodya

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part I of a special two-part feature and appeared in the Nov. 25th print issue of Lambda.

I have long been strangely apathetic towards literature. I am a theatre student, so I read dozens of plays every year. But the novel is not something I have ever fundamentally embraced. To be sure, there are a few choice literary gems that I compulsively reread almost annually, but they are few.

Queue the irony of sending me to interview one of the most revered and celebrated literary figures of modern history.

It is 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, Nov. 18. I haven’t slept much. Not only am I scheduled to interview Margaret Atwood in about two hours, I have a show opening that evening. I had woken up several times in the night, in a panic, and found myself relentlessly reviewing the notes and questions I had prepared.

You see, beyond what my research over the past weeks had gleaned, I know little about the woman I am about to encounter. I have never read her books. I have never seen her speak. I know her only as the renowned Canadian author, and so I hardly feel prepared.

By 9:30, I am on Maki Avenue, a street I used to live on during my childhood, one of Sudbury’s most affluent. I arrive at the home of Shannon Hengen, professor of Canadian and women’s literature at Laurentian. Shannon and her husband, Karl, were close friends of my mother’s during her time as a professor of Theatre Arts at Thorneloe, and so I knew them as a child. We exchange pleasantries, and I am ushered into a den for a private screening of In the Wake of the Flood, a documentary film following Margaret Atwood on an international book tour in 2009 by filmmaker Ron Mann.

It’s a quick watch, at only 48 minutes. I find myself instantly drawn in – not only does the film follow Ms. Atwood to various readings and events, it also takes her off the tour path to places like a community garden in Kingston, ON, Stanley Park in Vancouver, and finally, to our very own Sudbury, ON.

She is also a Mac user, if anyone is interested.

The idea of Margaret Atwood celebrating her birthday in Sudbury of all places had baffled me from the start. Turns out, Ms. Atwood has a great affinity for our little crater. You see, Sudbury was once a barren moon-esque landscape, the result of decades of ill-conceived smelting techniques like roaster beds, which literally destroyed the natural ecology of the area. However, over the past 40-some years, the area has been almost completely rehabilitated and today, Sudbury is a model for environmental turnaround.

As Ms. Atwood says, if Sudbury can do it, anywhere can. This is why she chooses to spend her birthday in our fair city.

The film ends. It is almost 10:30. I have a new page of notes and questions in addition to the three I had already prepared. I am informed that Ms. Atwood is running late and would be another half an hour. I go outside, smoke, pace, return inside. I enter the living room and marvel at the breathtaking view of Lake Nepahwin. The image has new life in my mind as my imagination rolls back the clock to what this view likely would have been before the environmental reclamation effort.

I am offered a latte and sit by the fire that Karl has just built in the fireplace. I wait. By this time, I care little about Ms. Atwood’s literary prowess. I don’t care about her fame and probable fortune. If the film I have just seen depicts Ms. Atwood as anything, it is as an ardent environmentalist through and through, and that is what now interests me.

I have my thesis for the interview, and it puts me at ease.

At last, Ms. Atwood arrives. She is dressed in black, a small woman, with big, curly grey hair, and stark dull-blue eyes. She appears tired, yet somewhat frantic and needs contact lens solution. I cower for a bit before approaching her. We shake hands, and sit. In the background, Shannon and Karl begin preparing a birthday lunch. I pull out my recorder, and we’re off.

It is her birthday – 71 years old. I ask her how she feels.

“The same as yesterday,” she answers without a beat. I laugh. She laughs with me. The ice is broken.

I ask her how she feels she has changed with age. She’s gotten older, she replies, indicative of her matter of fact way of speaking that I will quickly become familiar with.

“You’ve got two choices,” she tells me. “You can get older, or you can die. I chose to get older.”

I ask her about her father, who was a prominent entomologist when she was growing up. In the film, she takes about how he was warning of all of the environmental issues that we talk about today. My question is, why didn’t anybody listen?

“They have from time to time,” she says. “People are working away like crazy on alternate technologies and green technologies and they are making great progress. You would be amazed at the kinds of things they’re working on.”

“The thing is, it is a race against time and national governments are not going to be the first in,” she explains. “If you have ever been with a group of people that want to go skinny dipping in April, nobody wants to be first in. The others will laugh at them while they scream.”

Our conversation will be peppered with analogies like this one. But Ms. Atwood raises a valid point. The reason government is so reluctant to make significant strides on environmental issues is because the outlook is typically terribly pessimistic.

“To get those national governments all lined up together is just like herding cattle,” she continues. “Nobody wants to go first.”

She says the real steps are going to have to come from local governments and citizen pressure. The issue is also an economic one.

“In the short term, you do have to invest money,” she says. “In the long term, you do save money. The problem is, we’re not very good long-term thinkers.”

“It’s no good telling people ‘uh oh, here comes climate change’,” she says. “People will say ‘okay, if we’re doomed, I’m going partying!’ Unless you present an alternative method of behavior to being doomed – either you can be doomed or you can do this – it doesn’t work.”

In the film, she discusses the idea that it is not enough to present facts on an issue. Unless people have an emotional connection to it, they will be by and large apathetic. She explains it simply, by asking if I ever had pets as a child. I tell her I did. She asks how I felt towards them. I tell her I loved them.

“Well, there you go,” she says. “We love our nature pals. Why is there such a huge market in stuffed animals? It’s not stuffed people.”

Ms. Atwood goes on to explain that society largely un-teaches the natural inclination to be emotionally attached to things. As such, it becomes more difficult for people to develop that attachment later in life, particularly towards issues.

“You don’t necessarily have to consciously teach people to connect,” she says. “You just have to put them in the environment and make sure they don’t drown.”

“We’ve spent this much time living in nature,” she says, pointing to opposite ends of the room. She then raises her pinkie finger. “And we’ve spent this much time living in condos. The condo is not our natural environment.”

Ironically, Ms. Atwood and her partner, Graeme Gibson, live in Toronto. I ask her if she believes cities are sustainable.

“If you took all the people in cities and tried to sprinkle them over the natural environment, that just wouldn’t work,” she says. “We’re way beyond that point. Our world population is now so ginormous that cities are what we have. We can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers. It is beyond the ability of the natural world to sustain every living person.”

There is a scene in In the Wake of the Flood that has Ms. Atwood strolling through a community vegetable garden in Kingston, where food is grown without the use of farm machinery or pesticides. Ms. Atwood asks her guide when they are going to bring back horses to do the plowing. I ask her what she thinks people need to do, or if we need to take a collective step back.

“Well, that may be forced upon us,” she says gravely. “If the world were to run out of oil tomorrow, there would be the most unutterable social chaos. It would be just totally mayhem and a complete meltdown.”

However, she says by the time we do actually run out of oil, we may have already burned so much of it that the atmosphere will no longer support human life.

“Chemistry and physics don’t negotiate,” she says. “We are living in a time where we have some choices. But the more we don’t act, the more choices will be removed from us.”

I ask her if the arts need to play a significant role in activism, particularly on the environment.

“It’s no use telling the arts what to do,” she replies. “Governments and political parties and people with ideologies are always trying to tell the arts what to do and it never works. The arts do what they do.

We are halfway into our conversation, and I am completely captivated.

Part II of Callam Rodya’s two-part special feature will appear in print in the Dec. 9th issue of Lambda.