Alan Yentob meets acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood in Toronto and discovers how a childhood spent between the Canadian wilderness and the city helped shape her.
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When you're in the middle of a story,
it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion.
A dark roaring, a blindness,
a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood.
Like a house in a whirlwind,
or else a boat crushed by the icebergs, or swept over the rapids,
and all aboard powerless to stop it.
It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all,
when you're telling it, to yourself, or to someone else.
The celebrated and eminent Canadian novelist, poet and critic,
I have been reading a lot of stuff about you,
trying to find out about Margaret Atwood.
I've read a lot of stuff,
but I still don't know anything about Margaret Atwood.
You have a marvellous sense
of not communicating anything about yourself.
You haven't asked me anything about myself.
Do you think you frighten people?
-Do you ever get that sense?
-Oh, yeah, sure I frighten people.
Don't ask me why, it's not my problem.
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
During a writing life spanning more than seven decades,
Margaret Atwood has made a deep impact
across continents and generations.
I think about what Atwood broke through.
I think about the prejudices, I think about the preconceptions.
She just blew away all the borders,
all the shut doors, she just blew them all open.
Her best-known work, The Handmaid's Tale,
remains a terrifying warning against the misuse of power...
..and following recent political events,
the novel has taken on an alarming new resonance.
You know what? It's time in our country
that we had somebody with a strong temperament, I hate to say.
She does sort of warn us, I feel.
This is what will happen if you pursue this route.
She's a visionary. She's as much a visionary...
as HG Wells was.
As a writer and a woman coming of age in post-war Canada,
Margaret Atwood forged into uncharted territory.
She was and is a literary pioneer,
who blazed a trail that others would follow.
Margaret had, like, 40 years of being a creative force.
It's been inspiring for me to work with her and learn from a master.
Our country is large in extent but small in population,
which accounts for our fear of empty spaces...
And also our need for them.
Much of it is covered in water,
which accounts for our interest in reflections...
the dissolution of one thing into another.
Much of it, however, is rock,
which accounts for our belief in fate.
Margaret Atwood was born in Canada in 1939.
At the time, the country was not known for its literature.
What could there be to say about such a vast expanse of nothingness?
But Margaret Atwood would change all that.
And when you were a child,
there were hardly any of these buildings here?
-They weren't here at all, no.
-None of them?
The highest building was the Royal York Hotel,
which looks so short now, was considered immense.
At what age did you become aware of not just Canada,
but what its place was in the world?
-What year are we talking about?
-Let's talk about your teenage...
My American boyfriend, when I was 18,
used to tell me about Chicago and how big it was and how much more
-wonderful it was.
-I mean, what did you tell him about Canada,
-if he told you about Chicago?
-Nothing! What was I going to say?
The Canada that I grew up in thought of itself as a cultural backwater.
First-rate artistic items - books, films, music -
were known to come from elsewhere.
If you wanted to be serious about writing,
it was taken for granted that you had to leave the country.
You yourself, as you were growing up,
could see that somehow literature and culture in Canada was either,
you know, borrowed or acquired?
You know, basically, I didn't think much about it
until I was writing about it.
So I passed my teen years in a state of blissful oblivion.
It was an unusual childhood.
Margaret's father was an entomologist,
and her family spent most of the year in the backwoods of Canada
while he studied insects.
Every spring, my parents would take off for the north.
Every autumn, when the snow set in, they would return to the city...
..usually to a different apartment each time.
At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods
in a packsack, and this landscape became my home town.
You must not think electricity, you must not think running water.
You must not think lavatories?
No, you must not think those, no.
Margaret's father came from rural Nova Scotia.
Her mother was the daughter of a country doctor.
They met while they were still at high school.
My dad saw her sliding down the banister of the central staircase
and said to himself, "That is the woman I will marry".
It took him two tries, but he finally accomplished it.
She had never tented outside or done any of those woodsy things,
so what he introduced her to was a way of life
that did not involve getting dressed up
and putting on a hat and gloves,
which she basically hated, or very much housework,
because in the woods you don't have to do a lot of housework.
There are no vacuum cleaners.
So she said, "I would just sweep up the dirt and throw it out the door".
For Margaret and her older brother Harold,
it was a close-knit, carefree childhood
that seemed alien to visitors from the city.
We met as teenagers at a summer camp.
She was called Peggy Nature then,
and I used to visit her up in Kipawa, in northern Quebec.
I was this city kid who found myself extremely uncomfortable
in a situation where there was no running water
and there was no electricity or anything -
but they were totally in sync with it,
it was fine, they never had a problem.
I remember, there was a mouse running up and down the rafters
of the exposed brick roof,
and I was kind of freaking out
because I thought it was going to end up in my sleeping bag,
and Margaret had a humane trap
that caught the mouse and then we got in a canoe
and we took the mouse to a neighbouring island.
That's the way she was.
From an early age, we got instructions
about avoiding lethal stupidity.
Don't set forest fires, don't fall out of boats,
don't go swimming in thunderstorms, that sort of thing.
Squeamishness and whining were not encouraged.
Girls were not expected to do more of it than boys.
Crying was not viewed with indulgence.
Rational debate was smiled upon,
as was curiosity about almost everything.
Did you see yourself as a bit of a tomboy, yourself, or not really?
No, I did not consider any of this in any way unusual.
You don't wear frilly skirts in the woods.
-For several reasons -
but one of them is that the black flies and mosquitoes
would get up under them. You don't want that.
As well as being well-drilled in woodland survival,
the Atwood children were schooled at home.
The University of Toronto Library
holds hundreds of their early creative works.
This is Annie The Ant, which was my first novel, and it...
Could you read me a bit of Annie The Ant?
Well, it's very boring at the beginning.
Well, why don't you go straight to the middle?
You have to go from the beginning
to realise that I've learned something about narrative,
which is that you shouldn't be so boring
at the beginning!
It starts in a quite boring way, because Annie is an egg.
Then Annie is a larva.
"The larva that would produce Queen Ant had to be fed royal jelly,
"but she was just a worker,
"so she could eat all the crumbs and things that the grown-up worker ants
"brought in and in a while she'd be able to turn into a pupa
"and then into an ant". You hooked yet?
Yeah, yeah, actually I'm enjoying this, go on.
So inside the pupa...
"She was slowly turning into an ant.
"When it was time, Annie came out.
"She looked around at this strange new world,
"then she went out and worked with the other ants".
Kind of like Brave New World, isn't it?!
-And how did it end, the Annie book?
How did it end? "The end".
So, not nearly as exciting, I would say...
As The Handmaid's Tale?
In 1945, the family moved to Toronto
and Margaret began to have more to do with cities,
and with other children.
After moving between several different schools,
she arrived here, at Leaside High.
For a young girl used to home-schooling,
the rigours of the school routine came as something of a shock.
It was the military phase of schools.
The girls marched in the girls' door,
the boys marched in the boys' door,
and then you had to sit in rows and put up your hand
and all of these kinds of things -
and also the pace at which things moved was glacial.
So I think I did develop an ability to look very attentive
while thinking about something else.
Elements of that experience of school
would one day feed into her novel Cat's Eye.
"So I am left to the girls, real girls at last, in the flesh,
"but I'm not used to girls or familiar with their customs.
"I feel awkward around them.
"I don't know what to say.
"I know the unspoken rules of boys...
"..but with girls, I sense that I'm always on the verge
"of some unforeseen calamitous blunder."
Cat's Eye is about a girl who comes to a new environment,
she's come from the country,
rather like Margaret Atwood did herself,
and goes to school and can read no codes.
And, as we all know, the codes of girlhood are just...
They're labyrinthine, they're mean, they're set for exclusion,
they're set for cliques, all sorts of things.
-Why don't you come over to my house
and we'll work it out together?
And I remember when we published that book, that people said,
"Oh, it's like Lord Of The Flies, for girls".
People hadn't really put it on the page before,
what little girls do to each other, actually,
and how wicked that is, and how they can destroy people.
I mean, that's a brutal book in lots of ways, isn't it?
"Perhaps she's forgotten the bad things, what she said to me,
"or what she did - or she does remember them, but in a minor way.
"As if remembering a game, or a single prank,
"a single trivial secret of the kind girls tell and then forget.
"She will have her own version - I am not the centre of her story,
"because she herself is that...
"but I could give her something
"you can never have except from another person -
"what you look like from the outside, a reflection.
"This is part of herself I could give back to her.
"We're like the twins in old fables,
"each of whom has been given half a key."
Although Cat's Eye contains elements of Atwood's own childhood years,
the plot itself is purely fictitious,
a fact that many critics were determined to ignore.
People make the very naive connection between what they read
in your books and who they think you are,
often feel cheated when you tell them that you have invented
things in your books, but truly that's what a writer is.
-A writer is a person who writes, you know, fiction or poems,
and that's different from...
..factual books, books of biography.
Yes, if your novel was merely,
or your poem was merely an autobiography...
-You could only write one book.
By now it was the late 1940s.
Women, no longer required for wartime production,
had been herded back into the home.
The baby boom was on.
Marriage and four kids were the ideal,
and remained so for the next 15 years.
In the '50s you were given a guidance textbook, which was grey.
This was supposed to help you choose your future career...
..and in this guidance textbook,
there were a lot of future careers for persons of the male gender.
There were five for girls.
Let's see if you can guess them...
Public school teacher.
Airline stewardess - that was a new one - new, very glamorous
at that time - you got the pillbox hat.
and home economist.
I was 15 when Elvis Presley made his debut.
This was the era of sock hops, of going steady, of drive-in movies,
of well-meant articles by grown-ups
about the dangers of necking and petting.
Take me home!
The pill was far in the future.
Girls who got pregnant disappeared from sight.
Gee, I haven't seen her since she left school.
Either they'd undergone abortions, which had killed or mangled them,
or they'd had shotgun weddings and were washing diapers...
..or else they were hidden away, in homes for unwed mothers.
This was a fate that needed, at all costs, to be avoided.
Given such conditions, how is it that I became a writer?
It wasn't a likely thing to have done,
nor was it something I chose,
as you might choose to become a lawyer or a dentist.
I was walking past the football field and I wrote a poem,
and then I thought, "This is what I want to do."
-Just like that?
-Just like that.
It was completely ignorant, you know,
I had no idea what that might involve -
but the main thing is that my parents being Depression-era
-"Make some money."
"You're going to have to support yourself,
"how are you going to do that?"
So I figured out, "I will be a journalist," said I.
..dredged up a real journalist, who was a third cousin or other -
we had a lot of those -
and invited him to dinner to tell me about journalism,
and obviously dissuade me from doing any such thing.
And what he said was...
..that if I worked for a newspaper, as he did,
as a female person I would end up writing the obituaries
and the ladies' pages, and that's it.
So I thought, "OK, I'm not going to be a journalist.
"I guess I'll just have to go to university."
I was 17 when I enrolled at the University of Toronto.
The year was 1957.
Our professors let it be known that we were a dull lot.
By and large, they were right.
The boys were headed for the professions.
The girls - for futures as their wives...
..but there were also the others.
The others wore black turtlenecks.
They were few in number,
often brilliant, considered pretentious,
and were referred to as the "artsy-fartsys".
At first they terrified me...
then I, in turn, terrified others.
"It is dangerous to read newspapers.
"While I was building neat castles in the sandbox,
"the hasty pits were filling with bulldozed corpses,
"and as I walked to the school, washed and combed,
"my feet stepping on the cracks in the cement, detonated red bones."
All of this time I'd been writing, compulsively, badly, hopefully.
I used my initials instead of my name.
I didn't want anyone important to know that I was a girl.
I want to ask you now about your first acceptance letter.
-It must have been quite a moment when somebody said, "Yes".
Yes. That was a now-defunct little magazine called the Canadian Forum.
That was a thrill. So I ran out to the kitchen and said to my mother,
"I just got an acceptance letter from the Canadian Forum",
and she said, "What's that?"
It was kind of crushing!
Not everybody was in my world, Alan.
By the late 1960s,
Margaret was confident enough to write under her own name
and published her first novel, The Edible Woman.
Set in Toronto,
it was the tale of a bright young woman
who found herself pressured into an ill-advised engagement.
As a result, she gradually became unable to eat.
The thing that I found most winning about The Edible Woman
was the way in which it tackled very serious issues,
but with a kind of light, comic touch.
That was the thing that won me over and made me think,
"I'd like to read more work by this author."
People come up about The Edible Woman and they say,
"Did you ever stop eating?" And I say, "No."
And they get all upset about this,
-because usually they have.
Usually they have had the experience that I have written about
and they can't figure out, how come I have written about it
without having had it? But it's very simple, you say,
"Well, did Agatha Christie really commit all those murders?"
It wasn't just the subject matter -
the Canadian setting was also unusual.
The setting of Toronto really just jumped out at me.
I, later, as an academic and a scholar,
discovered that one of the early drafts of the novel
placed the events of the novel in a city called Goronto,
which I couldn't help but think was a kind of playful acknowledgement
that Toronto had yet to make its way into literary fiction.
Atwood's rise as a writer coincided with Expo 67...
..a world exhibition in Montreal
billed as the greatest show on earth.
For the first time, Canada felt forward-thinking and modern.
A player on the world stage.
If you think that the Canadian flag as you know it today...
We only got that in 1965,
so there was a lot of feeling of something starting.
Lots of conversation, I do remember this.
"What is the Canadian self-identity?
"What is the Canadian self-identity?"
And literature was definitely asking that.
Expo 67 coincided with the birth of the Anansi Press,
a progressive publishing house that championed Canadian authors
in their native country.
At Anansi, populist how-to guides funded new work by upcoming talent.
Margaret Atwood was involved from the start.
We had this line of books.
Do you know the Idiot's Guides?
-OK, so this was early Idiot's Guides.
One of them was called Law, Law, Law,
and it was how to write your own divorce and your own will
without having to pay a lawyer -
and one of them was called VD.
It was the first VD book.
So we were sitting around having an editorial meeting...
..a financial editorial board meeting,
and what was going to be our next thing?
Should it be a cookbook?
Those kinds of ideas -
and I said there isn't really a relatable and understandable
direct book on Canadian literature,
something that answers the question that people are always asking me,
which is, "Isn't it just second-rate British or American?
"Why should we bother? Surely it's just a blank on the map."
So we decided that we were going to write the VD of Canadian literature.
She called the book Survival.
In it, Atwood boldly made the case
for a unique and distinctive Canadian literature,
centred around victims
and their ability to survive the elements.
It's not surprising to me that she wrote a book about Canadian writing
because she embodies that sort of relationship, I think,
between a person and the landscape.
For me, that's a very Canadian concern...
..and I think that connection is really crucial to her writing
and really crucial to her thinking
and crucial to Canadian thinking, I would say, too.
"Every country or culture
"has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core.
"The central symbol for Canada is undoubtedly survival.
"Our stories are likely to be tales from awful experience.
"The north, the snowstorm, the sinking ship
"that killed everyone else.
"The survivor has not triumph or victory
"but the fact of his survival.
"He has little after his ordeal that he did not have before,
"except gratitude for having escaped with his life."
We thought we might sell 5,000 copies, which was big in our world -
and for some reason it just hit that moment.
When Survival was published in 1972, it sold 30,000 copies.
Huge, for that time.
Suddenly Margaret Atwood was a household name.
Well, it was a double-barrelled shotgun.
That was the moment which Farley Mowat,
a well-known writer of the time,
said to me, "Now you are a target and people will shoot at you."
-And was he right?
I think that a certain kind of thing happens to people
when they achieve a certain degree of work -
we might call it success or we could call it notoriety -
but people think of them...
I mean, they stop thinking of them as a writer
and start thinking of them
as a kind of substitute preacher.
It turns you into a sort of cardboard cut-out.
That same year, Margaret published Surfacing, her second novel,
which was later made into a film.
It's a story of self-discovery
set against the landscape she knew so well.
'Surfacing, to me, so much epitomises a woman
'in a landscape in Canada,
'particularly in Ontario, a province full of lakes and woods.'
It's sort of a '60s book in some ways, too,
cos it's about finding yourself. It's pre-feminism in many ways -
but it's so much about the landscape,
it's so much about the water.
So much about diving into yourself...
..and I think there was that sense of mapping this country.
She also had this wonderful phrase, "A country needs its own voice",
and I think she was part of that generation
that were just rising all up to answer those questions.
For a Canadian woman coming of age in the 1960s,
the expectation was courtship, love and marriage -
and the sooner, the better...
..but Margaret was in no hurry to conform.
There were two broken engagements, and one short-lived marriage
before she met the writer, Graeme Gibson,
who would become her lifelong partner.
How did you meet, and was it instant attraction?
It was a noisy...this noisy party at Grossman's in Toronto,
and she told me she thought that my book should have won
the Governor General's Award when hers was one of the three.
And conversely, you said...
No, he didn't.
I said, "My goodness..." I've forgotten...
I was overcome, Peggy, as I so frequently am.
Graeme is a gentleman, he's kind and loving, attentive,
totally in awe of her.
She's so lucky to have him
because not a lot of men in such a relationship
would be able to deal with her intensity, her drive, her ambition,
and yet he's there for her at every turn.
Margaret and Graeme moved to a farm in the rural community of Alliston.
Three years later,
their daughter Jess was born.
I remember what a lovely mother she was.
She wasn't a doting mum, and she treated Jess as a little adult.
"With a choked cry,
"Israel Hands loosed his grasp upon the shrouds and plunged headfirst
-"into the water."
He shot him by mistake.
-Jim Hawkins shot Israel Hands by mistake.
OK, that's the end of that chapter.
When I was an aspiring female poet,
the notion of required sacrifice was simply accepted.
The same was true for any sort of career for a woman...
but art was worse,
because the sacrifice was more complete.
You couldn't be a wife and a mother and also an artist,
because each one of these things required total dedication.
"My daughter plays on the floor with plastic letters.
"Red, blue and hard yellow.
"Learning how to spell, spelling, how to make spells.
"I wonder how many women denied themselves daughters,
"closed themselves in rooms,
"drew the curtains so they could mainline words.
"A child is not a poem, a poem is not a child.
"There is no either or."
Is parenting done equally?
Parenting isn't a job, it's a condition of the universe.
Margaret Atwood is often described as a feminist writer,
but she maintains that her popularity
amongst the feminist community was unsought.
I began as a profoundly apolitical writer,
but then I began to do what all novelists and some poets do -
I began to describe the world around me.
Women suffer in my novels because most women I talk to
seem to have suffered.
Margaret spent several months in Berlin
on a cultural fellowship programme.
At the time, it was a city divided.
It was in Berlin that she began the novel that would make her
an international name.
The Handmaid's Tale is a work of speculative fiction,
or dystopian fiction, in which women have been reduced
solely to their reproductive function.
The Republic of Gilead is a terrifying world in which women
are denied access to any kind of autonomy,
any kind of right to control the course of their own lives.
"The lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious, in good repair.
"They're like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines
"about homes and gardens and interior decoration.
"There is the same absence of people,
"the same air of being asleep.
"The street is almost like a museum,
"or a street in a model town
"constructed to show the way people used to live.
"As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns,
"there are no children.
"This is the heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude,
"except on television.
"Where the edges are, we aren't sure.
"They vary according to the attacks and counterattacks,
"but this is the centre, where nothing moves.
" 'The Republic of Gilead,' said Aunt Lydia, 'knows no bounds.
" 'Gilead is within you.' "
The Handmaid's Tale is, of all your books,
it's one that everyone talks about.
I know - and increasingly, now.
The Handmaid's Tale I wrote partly in answer to the question,
if you were going to put in a totalitarian regime
in the United States, what kind of totalitarian regime would it be?
As we know from the history of the 20th century,
both the USSR and Nazi Germany
came in as utopian plans.
On the other hand, if you have no plans for making things better...
..they get worse.
So we're always caught between these two things.
What do we mean by better?
How do we get from here to that better?
And does that better involve a big hole
with a lot of dead people in it?
As has frequently been the case.
It was also partly in answer to the question,
if you were going to put women back into the home,
as the right was already saying they should be put in the 1980s,
how do you make them go back in?
Now that the...
box has been opened and the butterflies are out
and flitting about, how do you cram them all back in?
By what method?
'In The Handmaid's Tale, their method
'is to force women to reproduce
'for the good of the state.'
You girls will serve the leaders,
and their barren wives.
You will bear children for them.
Oh, you are so lucky!
'The red cover-ups that the handmaids are required to wear,
'where did that come from?'
It came from several different sources.
Number one, I was frightened as a child
by the Old Dutch Cleanser packet.
-Tell me about...
-Old Dutch Cleanser
was something you cleaned sinks with.
On it was a picture of a Dutch woman in a big blue outfit
with a bonnet that hid her face.
So, I was quite frightened by it as a child, this was...
You were looking into the abyss when you looked at that package.
Another one was, in Canada, during the War,
in prisoner of war camps, the outfits were red,
and the reason the outfits were red is that you could see anybody trying
to run away across the snow.
The other idea of course is from Christian colour iconography.
So, European painting,
you will always see in these pictures the Virgin Mary wears blue,
Mary Magdalene wears red.
So, red went on a woman in a picture of that kind,
it is a very sexualised colour.
The Handmaid's Tale resonates with troubling attempts
to control women's lives throughout history.
From the Salem witch trials, to Nazi Germany,
where they tried to breed an Aryan race.
To Romania under Ceausescu,
where birth control and abortions were banned.
One of my rules for the book was I would put nothing into it
that had not already been done somewhere.
So there was a precedent for every single thing in it.
The shocking thing was that I took all of these precedents
and put them into Cambridge, Massachusetts,
supposedly the home of liberal democracy.
Why is that? Because, having been born in 1939,
I never believe it can't happen here.
Illegal immigration is so rampant and so dangerous and so bad
for the United States, OK? Period, that's it.
When are we going to get smart, folks?
When are we going to get smart?
Three decades after it was first published,
The Handmaid's Tale has once again struck a nerve.
It was quite telling
that a lot of the women's marches around the world,
days after the inauguration of Donald Trump,
they sported signs and carrying quotations,
slogans and mantras from The Handmaid's Tale...
..and there's a good reason for that.
It's a novel that is a work of speculative fiction
or dystopian fiction, if you prefer,
but it's a novel that, as Atwood insisted as the time,
was really also recording things that had already happened
and were happening in the world in the present moment,
and I think that the fact that in 2017
we are going back to The Handmaid's Tale
really speaks to the power of the novel
as a kind of prophecy
and as a novel that could almost enter into any chapter of history
and find resonance.
I think the urgency is in everything,
I think it's been in everything she's ever written.
She's always understood the ways in which the power can go wrong
in our lives, the ways in which we have to embrace authority,
and at the same time understand that authority
is at all points undermineable -
and should be, to check its structures -
and she checks the power structure with everything she writes.
Margaret's fascination with science fiction,
both as a writer and reader, goes right back to her childhood.
Like a great many children before and since,
I was an inventor of other worlds.
Mine were rudimentary,
as such worlds are when you are six or seven...
..but they were emphatically not at this here-and-now Earth.
I wasn't much interested in Dick and Jane.
The creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me.
Saturn was more my speed,
and other realms even more outlandish.
Our earliest loves, like revenants,
have a way of coming back in other forms -
or, to paraphrase Wordsworth,
the child is mother to the woman.
So, when you started your first storytelling ventures,
they involved your brother Harold, didn't they?
Well, we drew comics.
He was much more prolific than I was,
cos he was practically three years older,
and he had great sagas going on,
and they, of course, were very warlike,
because it was the War and immediately post-war
and we were all very attuned to that as kids.
Oh, this is good. I love this.
What's On Neptune?
"Introduction. This story is not true.
"Of course, there is a planet called Neptune,
"but its inhabitation is unknown.
"I have made up a number of things
"that will be used in the next two volumes.
"Harold L Atwood, author of Alfred's Youth, etc, etc.
-Go on, then, read on.
I think every author should put that at the beginning of their book.
Number one - a number of things are not true.
We know, it's called fiction.
Here's what else you've written, and then read on.
In contrast to her brother's epic sagas,
Margaret's stories took a softer approach.
Painting the Easter egg.
Slight mystery about the gender of the Easter Bunny.
Always spoken of as "he", but where were those eggs coming from?
To date, Margaret Atwood has written five novels
that could be described as science fiction...
..but, rather than the far-flung galaxies of her childhood,
her adult novels are firmly rooted on planet Earth.
The MaddAddam trilogy takes place in, let's say, nearish future.
Human beings have done horrible things with technology -
as we are trying to do.
There are various rather disgusting biological things
that are being done, the internet has grown,
there are more different kinds of drugs available -
and there's an apocalyptic event.
There is an event that essentially destroys most of the human race,
and then we see what becomes of the remnant.
"Men can imagine their own deaths.
"They can see them coming,
"and the mere thought of impending death acts like an aphrodisiac.
"A dog, a rabbit, doesn't behave like that.
"Take birds. In a lean season,
"they cut down on the eggs, or they won't mate at all.
"They put their energy into staying alive themselves
"until times get better...
"but human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else,
"some new version of themselves, and live on forever.
"As a species, are we doomed by hope, then?
"You could call it hope - that...
For Margaret, science fiction is a bit like
a fire and brimstone sermon,
where you might say, "This is where you're going,
"this is what could happen to you if you don't mend your ways today."
She does sort of warn us, I feel.
If you don't take care of the landscape,
you don't take care of the wildlife.
If you don't prize what's important between human beings,
this is what will happen.
We grew up in Canada knowing that it's dangerous.
The landscape can be dangerous. The weather's dangerous.
You can be in places that can overwhelm you.
What I like about the sort of length of time
that Margaret Atwood's been writing and talking about the natural world
is that, in a way, it started off
thinking the natural world could kill us,
and now she is very much saying, "Actually, wait a minute,
"we're killing the natural world ourselves."
"I am the horizon you ride towards, the thing you can never lasso.
"I am also what surrounds you, my brain scattered with your tin cans,
"bones, empty shells, the litter of your invasions.
"I am the space you desecrate as you pass through."
Both Margaret and her husband Graeme
are passionate environmental campaigners
and honorary presidents of Canada's Rare Bird Club.
-The one inside - oh, it just stuck its head out.
Every year they return to Pelee Island,
a bird-watcher's paradise in Lake Erie.
Did your love of birds and the preservation of birds -
did it come from your childhood?
Oh, I grew up with it.
I'm like a person who grows up with a religion
and therefore takes it for granted, whereas Graeme is like a convert,
and you know they are always more enthusiastic!
So, he is really the main mover behind our bird activity.
There is a problem, there's no question.
I've been doing this now for 15 years, now,
with the birds here on this island,
and there's far fewer now than when we started.
So, in bird conservation,
cats are thought to be responsible in North America
for the largest numbers of migratory bird deaths,
and conservation organisations have traditionally tiptoed around that,
because cat owners are quite passionate about their cats.
Therefore, how do you tackle the problem
without losing your major donors and attracting a lot of hate mail?
Margaret's latest venture is a comic book take
on Canada's cat-bird problem,
starring a superhero who is part cat, part bird.
To bring the character to life, she enlisted the help
of Vancouver-based artist Johnnie Christmas.
Angel Catbird is a story about a scientist
who is working on a gene-splicing formula.
He has a mysterious accident one night where he gets hit by a car.
This cat and this owl comes along,
and then the gene fluid splashes on him
and he gets merged with these creatures.
The character of Angel Catbird is based on an idea
that Margaret's been sketching since childhood.
-Oh, here we are.
This is the original flying cat.
-There it is.
Where did the flying cat come from?
Well, I wasn't allowed to have a cat because we were up in the woods,
so, I very much wanted to have one,
and, of course, here is somebody with their cat on a leash,
various wish-fulfilment pictures of having cats.
So you only came back to the flying cat, to the Angel Catbird...
-In later life.
-In later life.
-Really later life.
-Yes, but think of...
..all the repression that must have gone on to produce such an outburst.
One thing I really enjoy about working with Margaret on this
is that, if the idea's good, that's what we go with.
There's not a lot of ego in the...
"Well, this is my idea and this idea has to stand because it's mine,
"it's the best idea."
Margaret gave me bullet points on the important things.
She wanted, like, feathery feet, owl features, cat features
sort of thing, but she left it very open.
I thought he was just going to be kind of fur,
he was just going to be this fur man, you know?
There's no need to put on pants because you wouldn't see
any genitalia, because he's just covered in fur -
but Margaret immediately was like, "Is he going to be wearing pants?"
Like, none of that is going to be going on -
and then there were like...
..I don't know how many versions of superhero pants we went through.
Then we conferred on pants, and you can find them.
Sketches of the pants. I sent him a book on feathers.
I said that they should be feathered pants.
So, this is the design that we chose.
Simple and elegant -
and that translated into this, but then he said,
"We need an origin story for the pants, cos they can't just appear."
So you will read in the comic that we added an origin story
for the pants.
We all remember Superman and how puzzled we were as children.
I mean that question about where Superman's clothes were
when he was Clark Kent -
that was never really satisfactorily answered.
He just would go into the phone booth,
take off his clothes and come out as Superman.
You know, where did his civilian clothes go when he did that?
So where does Angel Catbird put his?
I'm not going to tell you, it's in the text.
-Oh, it's in there, is it?
-Yeah, it's right in here.
-It's in the story.
-I'll find it.
-Yes, you will!
The double life led by all comic book superheroes
is something that's always been second nature to Margaret.
Or should that be Peggy?
You might say I was fated to be a writer,
because I was endowed at birth with a double identity.
Due to the Romanticism of my father, I was named after my mother -
but then there were two of us,
so I had to be called something else.
Thus I grew up with a nickname, Peggy.
Waste not, want not - I was bound to do something
with this extra name of mine sooner or later...
..so, the author's the name on the books.
I am the other one.
She's Margaret Atwood to everyone,
and then sometimes when you get in, slightly in on the inner circle
you get to call her Peggy...
..but I think she's quite clever with that,
because when you're as big a public figure as she is,
you need to protect yourself.
Margaret, your stories make me very sad.
Oh, that's too bad.
I thought the characters were all so very lonely.
Well, a lot of people are.
It's nice she has Peggy to kind of retreat to.
You know, kind of Margaret Atwood can be the person
who can take the flak or the praise, but Peggy can go home.
Do you care, as a matter of interest,
how the critics respond to your books?
You mean when I'm writing the book do I worry what critics will say?
Well, or even afterwards?
You can't predict it, but when you write a book,
you already know yourself what's wrong with it.
-You don't need to be told.
-You know where the weak points are.
You hope you've papered them over enough
so that people won't see them!
Sometimes it's just...
The book is what it is,
and some people are going to have ideological troubles with it,
no matter how good it is or bad it is as a book.
Margaret's received numerous literary accolades,
but for years the Booker Prize eluded her.
When The Blind Assassin was shortlisted,
it was the fourth time she'd been nominated for this coveted award.
She said to me,
"Shall I come over for the dinner?"
Because she'd been twice before and hadn't won,
and there was murmurs about, oh, you know,
"God, it's going to be three times the bridesmaid, never the bride."
She said, "Do I need this?
"Shall I come? What do you think?"
And I said, "I think you should.
"I think it would be a great shame if you didn't come,
And the winner, the first Booker Prize of the 21st century,
It was such a big relief!
I mean she's won so many prizes,
but somehow this was getting to be a bit of a burden,
I thought, you know.
It would just be wonderful to just tick that one off.
First of all, Margaret Atwood,
congratulations on winning the Booker.
Do awards still matter to you?
Oh, I think they always matter in some shape or form.
Particularly that one, because it was the fourth go.
"Why is it we want so badly to memorialise ourselves?
"Even while we are still alive.
"We wish to assert our existence like dogs peeing on fire hydrants.
"We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas,
"our silver-plated cups. We monogram our linen.
"We carve our name on trees.
"We scrawl them on washroom walls.
"It's all the same impulse.
"What do we hope from it?
"Applause? Envy? Respect?
"Or simply attention of any kind we can get?
"At the very least, we want a witness.
"We can't stand the idea of our own voices
"falling silent, finally, like a radio running down."
Throughout their friendship,
Margaret has been a muse to Charles Pachter,
who has painted her many times over the years.
Well, honey, that's 60 years ago.
Isn't that frightful?
When you think about it.
Can you believe it?
Keith, bring my scarf in, the yellow one.
You want me to wear it...?!
But the eyes are the mirror of the soul,
and when you get the eyes right,
everything else follows suit.
She's got these gorgeous blue eyes,
and sometimes you can see the blue and sometimes you can't.
Anyway, I'm having a good time.
What are you going to do here?
You're going to make the background blue?
-You're going to ruin that nice drawing?
This is looking really good. I'm pleased.
You were mesmerising at age 27.
Look at you.
You're still doing pretty good, honey.
You know how to mesmer, don't you?
OK, here we go.
HE CLEARS THROAT
Owl And Pussycat, Some Years Later.
"So, here we are again, my dear,
"on the same shore we set out from years ago, when we were promising -
"but minus, now, a lot of hair.
"Or fur, or feathers, whatever.
"I like the bifocals.
"They make you look even more like an owl than you are.
"I suppose we've both come far,
"but how far are we truly from where we started?"
All right. I'm going to do the teeny-weeny...
-You can do that little bit in there, yeah.
"Under the fresh-laid moon, when we plotted to astound,
"when we thought something of meaning could still be done
"by singing, or won, like trophies.
"I took the fences, you the treetops,
"where we hooted and yowled our carnivorous, fervid hearts out.
"And see? We did get prizes.
"There they are.
"A scroll, a gold watch
"and a kiss-off handshake from the stand-in for the muse,
"who couldn't come herself but sent regrets.
"Now we can say flattering things about each other on dust jackets.
"Whatever made us think we could change the world?"
"Well, my dear,
"our leaky cardboard gondola has brought us this far.
"Us and our paper guitar.
"No longer semi-immortal, but now moulting owl and arthritic pussycat,
"we row out past the last protecting sand bar towards the salty open sea,
"the dog's-head gate, and after that, oblivion.
"But sing on, sing on.
"Someone may still be listening besides me.
"The fish, for instance.
"Anyway, my dearest one, we still have the moon."
For decades, Margaret Atwood has been universally acclaimed as Canada's greatest living writer. Fearlessly outspoken in life and in her work, Atwood has always been an unrelenting provocateur. Now at the age of 77, her star shines brighter and bolder than ever with an explosive television adaptation of her best-known work The Handmaid's Tale, which was first published in 1985. It is a dystopian work of speculative fiction set in the future, which has drawn comparison with aspects of Donald Trump's leadership, in particular the charges of misogyny which have inflamed anti-Trump campaigners across America.
Alan Yentob meets Margaret Atwood in Toronto and discovers how a childhood spent between the Canadian wilderness and the city helped shape her vision of herself and the world, set alight her imagination and set her forth on a path to literary success.