Ask the Author: Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood My upcoming book Hag-Seed re-imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In honor of Shakespeare Week, here’s a ‘deleted scene’ from Shakespeare’s play!

Before the tempest.

Prospero and Miranda, seated at a table with dishes and goblets, in front of the entrance to Prospero’s cave.

’Tis past the hour.

Well past! I faint for hunger!

Prospero (calls):
Thou toad! Thou fen! Thou cup of dung! Thou wart!
Laggard, bring forth the viands!

Caliban (within):
They’re not cooked through.

Wherefore not cooked! Thou freckled malice, out!
Thou’re pinched by goblins else! Produce our meal!

Caliban (comes forth, bearing a dish):
Here’s pig-nuts for you. May they choke your craw!

Pig-nuts! Once more? ’Tis the fourth time this week!
I hoped there might be berries, or a fish…

Dig other foods thyself, if thou be squeamish.
Talk sweeter, if thou wish for sweeter dinners!

Prospero (tasting):
Faugh, toadstool! Hast a mind to poison us?

Vapours bloat your bellies! May you rot!
Gladly I would have poisoned you full oft,
And danced with tenfold joy while you lay writhing,
Had not your imps prevented!

For this thou shall be twisted into knots,
Flung into mires, thy tendons twanged like strings…

Ariel appears, invisible.

Master, the ship approaches, as foretold.

Prospero (rising):
Bring me my magic garment! Here’s my luck!
Mine enemies, and sailed within my reach!
Thunder, I say, and darkest clouds boil forth,
The portrait of mine anger! Ariel, strike!


Oho! He’s left the wench all unattended!
And so this chance may prove my luck as well!

Margaret Atwood Hello: I was a constant reader as a child and young person, so hard to say. Who I was reading changed over time, as it does. In high school I was reading everything from Jane Austen to scifi, in college everything from Shakespeare to Kafka and Beckett. And Canadian books: I read them when I could find them. If I had to pick one, it would still be Shakespeare. What an inventor! And so observant!
Margaret Atwood Hello: It seems that poetry is making something of a comeback. Have a look at the Griffin International poetry awards, and the Poetry in Voice/Les Voix de la Poésie contests for high school students… both very successful.

As to "where it should go," I wouldn't dare to say!
Margaret Atwood Thank you. I'm not sure how to answer your question, but possibly the "Eternal Triangle" chapter (writer, book, reader) in my book about writing, "Negotiating with the Dead," might be of some help. Writing is what I do; hard to know how, apart from physical things like "a pencil."
Margaret Atwood Yes, but easier if it's set on a distant planet. We are having some difficulties on this one. Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin (and Mao) all came in with promises of a utopia to come, except first they felt the need to clear away the past (kill a lot of people). That's made utopias on this planet suspect. Hard to be convincing about them.
Margaret Atwood Wow, that's an all-in question! Some things seem like a good idea at the time, but you take them out because: 1) Would that person say it? Do it?
2) What might they say or do instead? I think it's learn-by-doing: you try things, and they either convince you or they don't.
Margaret Atwood Today? Some of both. Answering your Q (desk); putting in the rest of the garden (outdoors). To go in: tomatoes, kale, zucchini, summer squash, peas, beans.
Margaret Atwood I did start to write this novel in 1964 when I was living in Vancouver, but I set it aside because it was in fact not the right time for me to attempt it. I needed to be older. I have been blessed (or the opposite) with a memory for exact physical details, so the textures of the decades in the novel were not hard for me. Textures and smells… total recall.

I ended up writing the snowiest scene in Australia, on a balmy day with kookaburras calling outside…. Sometimes time and distance can help with perspective. I was also surprised to receive many letters – once I'd published it – in which the children behaved even worse.
Margaret Atwood Hello: It was very far from my thoughts when I began. That was in Canada in the late 50s and early 60s, and none of the writers I knew had the expectation of commercial success. We made jokes about it, but we didn't think we could really do it. I have been more than a little surprised by the unexpected success of some of my wilder ventures. I have never been able to anticipate anyway what "the reader" will like. "The reader" is not homogenous, like cream cheese. "The reader" is always one, singular - an individual. So I try to take care of my books, and have to trust that the readers will make their own choices. I can't set out to flatter and seduce them!
Margaret Atwood In reality, there are quite a few Canadian writers who have done well internationally, but they are often not recognized as being Canadian.
It's not as old, as a body of writing, as British and American literature. And Canada is not a large (in population), nor has it ever been an imperial power. Those items do factor in…
Margaret Atwood The process of writing is the same, but the vantage point is of course different. But it is different for Each male character… because they are not all the same. I do notice that my younger male characters swear more. And they get angry faster; but my older ones and more saintly ones don't do either.
Margaret Atwood Hello: I have no idea! Learn by doing… why not do both at once? Plunge in, and then if you get stuck, try a Helpful Hints book? A lot of people have mentioned Bird by Bird. The main thing is to keep going…
Margaret Atwood Not all women are angelic. Women are human beings and come in every size, shape, age, and degree of moral rectitude. But maybe you meant a systematic degradation and stultification, without any mitigating factors? That would be uninteresting. As for "unhappy components," all art of any complexity has unhappy components. It's an ongoing discussion though:
what is art for? To make us better? To make us feel better? To engage us? To act out our darker sides? To reflect 'reality'? All of the above?

The artist is free to express. And the reader to comment.
Margaret Atwood Hello: My first advice would be: don't listen to any advice before you start writing. Just start. If you listen to too much advice you will get overwhelmed. Once you start, you will find out what you need to know next.

But read. And write a little every day.
Margaret Atwood Hello: Thank you and I'm glad you enjoyed it! Texts on the page are a way of rendering the voice, including "speech;" speech marks are a textual convention. (Roman writing for instance did not have a lot of punctuation, making it harder for us to read today.) Sometimes one can use an initial dash; sometimes an inset. Probably I didn't use quotes for some reason having to do with the fact that the speeches in question are reported from memory. Something like that. I must have had my reasons at the time…
Margaret Atwood Thank you! The elements came from several sources: 1) History: I put nothing in that we have not already done, sometime, some place. 2) The study of 17th C Puritan Theocracy in New England. 3) The fact that I was born just as the Second World War began. I have always been interested in dictatorships and totalitarianisms, whether of right or left. If there was going to be one in the USA, what form might it take? 4) All totalitarianisms try to control (among other things) women's bodies. They control men too of course, but in different ways. 5) My interest in SciFi/SpecFic of the early 20th C: the form itself. How to do it? And finally, 6): The statements being made by the fundamentalists of the early 1980s. I tend to believe people will do what they say they want to do, if they acquire the power to do those things. So, if you want women back in the home, how do you make them go back? Control their access to money. We now have near-perfect tools for doing that. They are called the credit card and the internet.
Margaret Atwood Hello: That's a lot of questions! I think it could be about anyone you love. The imagery comes from a number of "dream vision" sources, including
a Grimms' folktale, a poem of William Blake, and the version of a descent to the Underworld from Virgil. But these are all, in themselves, deep "dream" images.
Margaret Atwood Hello: People do both, but I don't seem to be able to plan everything out in advance. I plan and structure as I go along. Otherwise it feels too much like Paint By Numbers… though if you're writing a crime novel, you should probably know in advance who did the crime...
Margaret Atwood Crunchy. Without a doubt.
Margaret Atwood

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