Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret
Embarking on your first reading tour? Margaret Atwood's advice: pack cold medication.
Back in 2004, then-associate editor (and first-time author) Matthew Fox spoke to Margaret Atwood about her soon-to-be-published collection of essays, Moving Targets. The result was one of the most charming interviews ever recorded with the suffer-no-fools Queen of Canlit.
Margaret Atwood: Do you have your devices plugged in?
Matthew Fox: I do, and I’m recording as we speak.
MF: Have you chosen from my questions which ones you prefer to answer?
MA: I’ve looked at the questions. They’re good questions for you to write about. They are not always good questions for me to answer.
MA: For example, the third one about Negotiating with the Dead: “What sort of journeys are you taking now to the underworld?”
MA: Well, writers don’t usually talk about what they are working on right now. It’s bad luck.
MF: I’ve heard that. I’m a writer too, but find myself forced to talk about what I’m writing.
MA: Just say no!
MF: Just say no? To my agent?
MA: Say no to disclosure!
MF: Well, then, moving on to your new book Moving Targets. I particularly enjoyed “The Grunge Look.” I only have the sampler, so it only has three—
MA: You don’t have the whole text?
MF: I’m afraid not.
MA: Well, it’s quite a lot longer than that. Why didn’t they send you the whole text?
MF: I don’t know. I think we requested one on Thursday—
MA: But I wanted you to do this interview having read the book.
MF: Well, like I said, I’ve only been able to read the three—
MA: That seems very silly.
MF: I know.
MA: Did they even send you the table of contents?
MA: No? When’s your deadline?
MF: My deadline is Friday.
MA: Next Friday?
MF: This coming Friday, unfortunately.
MA: Well, that’s just truly stupid.
MA: I just can’t understand it.
MF: I’m sure if we were given more time, we would have been able to arrange something.
MA: There’s such a thing as a courier. (Laughter) Well, then, let me just run over some of the territory that’s in the book.
MA: There’s quite a lot of work on other writers, because I do a lot of reviewing. There’s also some of my more political writing. There’s a piece I wrote on Napoleon from before the invasion of Iraq. There’s also a piece called “Letter to America” that I wrote for the Nation. You really should make them send you the whole book, because it’s divided into three sections and each of the sections has an introduction saying, “Here’s what I was doing in those decades.”
MF: That’s right. You mention in your overall introduction that this book is structured in a similar way to your first collection of non-fiction, Second Words.
MA: Yes, I divided Second Words up into three sections as well. Moving Targets, however, is more pre-Handmaid’s Tale, post-Handmaid’s Tale. Pre-Alias Grace, post-Alias Grace.
MF: And that’s how this one is structured?
MA: Pre-Blind Assassin, post-Blind Assassin.
MF: That is how it’s structured, the new book?
MA: Somewhat. You’d know if you had the book.
MF: I’d know, yes.
MA: You could see for yourself!
MF: That’s true. I have every intention of reading the book as I particularly enjoy reading your non-fiction. But let’s see, you mention that you write a lot about other authors in this text. I noticed in the introduction that there were a few too many people that you have to remember as opposed to the ones that are still alive.
MA: Right, yes. A number of them have died.
MF: How do they relate to your theory in Negotiating with the Dead about authors having to descend into the underworld in order to write?
MA: The kind of dead people I’m talking about in Negotiating with the Dead are really one’s models.
MF: Such as who, in your case?
MA: Oh, Shakespeare, Chaucer, God.
MF: God being on the list of dead people?
MA: (No response)
MF: Okay, so let’s go back to Moving Targets. In the introduction, you said that you crossed the line between what Mordecai Richler used to call “world-famous in Canada” and “world-famous.”
MA: Canada crossed a line.
MF: So you feel that Canada crossed a line, not you?
MA: I crossed the line, too. But Canada crossed the line in that there are now a number of writers who are not just world-famous in Canada.
MF: Do you feel that you and Canada crossed that line at approximately the same time?
MA: No. I did it a little bit earlier.
MF: When do you think you crossed it? Was there a particular moment when you realized it?
MA: I think when people stopped yawning when I said I was from Canada.
MF: And when do you think Canada crossed the line?
MA: About the eighties. The later eighties.
MF: Is there an event that you can associate with that?
MA: No. You’d have to go back and do your social history. This is your piece, not my piece.
MF: Of course. Is Canada a good place to start, as a writer?
MA: You start where you start. You don’t have a choice. You don’t choose your parents, you don’t choose where you were born, you don’t choose where you start. So, I think it’s a demonstratively good place because of what people have done with it. But it’s not often clear why that should be so.
MF: But what about for you personally? Is it more rewarding to have that international recognition or is it more rewarding to have it here at home?
MA: Rewarding? I don’t think that’s why people do it.
MA: I don’t think that’s why they do any kind of art. I don’t think they do it because they are going to find it rewarding. It can be rewarding in spite of that, but I don’t think that’s what drives them on.
MF: What does drive them on?
MA: They’re obsessive-compulsive.
MF: I see.
MA: I think “rewarding” is what you ask Miss Universe.
MF: I see.
MA: Do you find this rewarding? (In a high-pitched, ditzy voice) Oh yes! It’s so rewarding! I just feel so rewarded! (Laughter) This other question—this is sort of a People magazine take on things, this one about when did you care about your reputation. I think that if you really care a lot about what other people think of you, you’re probably not going to make it.
MF: Right. Like the letters I get back from publishers telling me why they don’t want to publish my book. “It’s too Canadian.” “It’s too quiet.”
MA: Who’s your agent?
MF: Ted Gideonse. (Pause) He’s excellent. He works at the Ann Rittenberg agency in New York.
MA: Well, maybe you should get a Canadian agent.
MF: I tried very hard to get a Canadian agent, actually. It wasn’t until my book deal got announced that any of them bothered to contact me.
MA: Ah, so you have a book deal.
MA: (Laughing) I see where these questions are going now! You want to know what to do when your book comes out. That’s what this is.
MF: Well, this is all wonderful advice for someone who is doing this for the first time.
MA: What sort of a book is it?
MF: It’s a collection of short stories, mainly set in Canada.
MA: And it’s going to be published by?
MA: And they’re going to put you on a book tour?
MF: I hope so. I think next summer.
MA: All right. You should make sure there are copies in the stores.
MF: Maybe I’ll just…
MA:… travel with your own.
MF: Yeah, that’s good advice. I’ll make sure I have a box in the trunk of my rented car as I’m driving across the country to do these readings.
MA: You’re going to drive?
MF: I think I want to drive. I think it would be a very interesting experience to do that next summer.
MA: So, they are set in Canada where?
MF: Several are set here in Montreal. There are a few set in a fictional town located in southern Ontario. And then there are a few set in cottage country.
MA: If you have a funny story, read the funny story last.
MF: So people remember?
MA: So that people don’t get the idea that the whole thing is funny and then laugh at the unfunny parts.
MA: Another thing, time your reading. Don’t go over time. Usually, it’s about three minutes a page.
MF: This is all excellent advice.
MA: Yeah, we actually have a template and we make the publisher give us all of the information. Such as, who is going to pick me up? Where? What is their number? What is their cell phone number? Where is the address of where I’m going? Because if they don’t turn up, I can get myself there. All of those silly things, because sooner or later somebody is going to say, “Sorry I missed it, my dog threw up and my grandmother died and I couldn’t get a hold of you and I didn’t know you were standing in the rain for five hours waiting for me to come take you to the reading.” So, if you just get all the phone numbers for everybody, and when they’re not there, you can phone them.
MF: That’s excellent advice, thank you.
MA: Something will happen. Think of everything that could go wrong and provide against it.
MF: Maybe this is why I want to drive.
MA: I once hitched from a New York freeway. Well, “hitched.” More like rescued by the marines when the limousine blew up.
MF: How did you manage to get out—?
MA: The marines were on their way to the marine airport and they gave me a lift. I took a taxi from there and sent the bill to my publisher.
MF: I’m so sorry that happened to you.
MA: That’s not the worst thing. You don’t want to hear worse things. That’s a mild story. What can I tell you? Be prepared.
MF: Be prepared.
MA: Let me tell you how not to get a cold. Got a pencil?
MF: Yeah. I’m going to type it into my computer.
MA: At the first tickle, don’t wait any longer—at the first tickle. You need to travel with a product called Cold-fX.
MA: fX. Stock up. It’s used by hockey players. It’s a Canadian product, it’s excellent. It’s very potent ginseng. At the first tickle, take three of those. At the same time, the Americans make a product called Zicam—Z-I-C-A-M—get some of those, take one of those. At the same time, there’s a French product called Corey-Zalium or Coldco. And Voiorn, V-O-I-O-R-N, Voiorn. Take that, too.
MF: All three of them at once?
MA: Also, get some of this stuff called Emergency; it comes in little packets. Have that, and then you travel with Fisherman’s Friend. These are for your readings. Before every one of your readings, have a Fisherman’s Friend.
MF: Love those.
MA: Your voice will wear out and then you’ll get a throat infection. The other thing you have to insist on is that they have a microphone. They will say, “Oh, we don’t need one,” but you do need one. They think of you only giving the reading once. But you’re doing it over and over.
MF: Of course. I’m typing all this down now.
MA: This regime has saved my life.
MF: Several times?
MF: I imagine that’s particularly true for travelling internationally, having to do readings internationally.
MA: It doesn’t matter. People in Saskatchewan have germs you don’t have.
MF: That’s true.
MA: You do a book tour, you’re exposed to everybody else’s germs.
MF: And here I thought being a writer was only going to be damaging mentally.
MA: Well, you could do a Proust, play “I can’t leave my cork-lined room.”
MF: Worked for Proust.
MA: (Laughter) Yes.
MF: Considering how much reading you do, I assume you’ve read The Mill on the Floss.
MA: Oh yes. We had it in high school.
MF: I encountered it in a Victorian literature class at Concordia. I really was struck by the way that “Great Aunts,” your essay, reminded me of the end of The Mill on the Floss. There’s a chapter where an aunt—very much unlike your own aunts, but an aunt nonetheless—turns around from being judgemental in order to support the central character. Like that, the message I got from your essay was that you were getting acceptance from a place called “home.” Do you look for that sort of thing now? Where’s home now?
MA: I’m too old for that.
MF: You’re too old?
MA: How old are you?
MA: Well, just wait.
MA: I’m now the home for other people. That’s how it works.
MF: And how does that work for you, being the home for other people?
MA: Oh, I don’t mind, Matthew. I can go, “Here’s what you do on your book tour. Take these cold remedies. Be sure to write down all your numbers.”
MF: Well, it’s greatly appreciated.
MA: I didn’t have people to tell me all those things. Nobody had done it yet. Who was it? It was Farley Mowat who gave me some advice. When Surfacing came out in 1972, he said, “You’re a target now. People are going to shoot at you.” And they did.
MF: A moving target, if you will.
MA: Exactly, exactly. (Pause) People who were older than me, some of them were very nice. Others weren’t.
MF: Who was very nice to you, apart from Farley Mowat?
MA: Farley was very nice. P. K. Page, the poet, was nice. We won’t go into who wasn’t nice.
MF: Okay. I guess there’s no point in that. Those people tend to be forgotten anyway.
MA: Not necessarily, but they are people who had problems with younger writers.
MA: Well, I think feeling a threat. I think that’s usually the reason.
MF: Yes, I’ve been to writing school.
MA: Here’s my other piece of advice. Now that you have a book deal, some of your friends won’t be able to handle it. That’s normal.
MF: I think I’ve already encountered one or two of those.
MA: Just wait until it comes out.
MF: Oh no.
MA: (Laughing) But others will be able to handle it. And not only that, you’ll get new friends.
MF: I hope so.
MA: You will. They’ll be the friends who will have already factored your book into their picture of you. You’ll be surprised what some people will say. They weren’t expecting you to do this.
MF: I suppose it was pretty surprising, even to me.
MA: Well, there you are. Think of the others.
MA: Well, we’ll see how it works out. Just as long as you’ve got the cold products.
MF: I’ll go to the pharmacy this afternoon.
MA: Good. There’s nothing worse than having a cold on your book tour.
MF: Well, thank you. This has been very informative and helpful.
MA: Thank you. Bye-bye.
This piece originally appeared in Issue 11 of Maisonneuve.