At 82, the Canadian author has seen it all – and her novels predicted most of it. Just don’t presume you know what she thinks, she tells Hadley Freeman
‘How are you? You’re named after Ernest Hemingway’s first wife,” Margaret Atwood announces by way of a greeting when we meet on a hotel’s heated patio near her home in Toronto. Atwood, 82, has often been described as a prophet, thanks to her uncanny ability to foresee the future in her books. When Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in January 2021, it looked, terrifyingly, like a scene out of The Handmaid’s Tale, when the government is overthrown and the dystopian land of Gilead is founded. She seemingly predicted the 2008 financial crash in her nonfiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, published that year. Atwood has always scoffed at any suggestion of telepathy, pointing out that every atrocity in The Handmaid’s Tale had been carried out by totalitarian regimes in real life, and she “predicted” the crash by noticing the number of adverts offering to help people with their personal debt. But as she stands in front of me, snowflakes glittering around her like stars, the flames of the hotel’s gas heaters leaping on either side of her, dressed all in black save for her little red hat, correctly guessing who I’m named after, she certainly seems to have a touch of magic about her. How did she know about the Hemingway connection?
“Because I’m deep into Martha Gellhorn,” she says, launching into a long discussion about the celebrated war correspondent and Hemingway’s third wife. Atwood isn’t writing a book about Gellhorn (yet), but she found a letter from her to the father of her late partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019, and is now a Gellhornologist. After six or so minutes, I wonder if we’ll ever talk about anything else, but Atwood has a regal quality that makes interruption unthinkable. It does not, as I later learn, render argument impossible.
Proceedings begin peacefully enough. Atwood and I are meeting because this month she will publish her latest collection of essays, Burning Questions, a 500-page doorstopper that gathers together her nonfiction output from the past two decades. During this period she also published five novels, one novella and Payback. Atwood is arguably the most famous living literary novelist in the world and unarguably one of the most prolific: in her half century of writing, she has published, on average, a book a year. She has won the Booker twice – in 2000 for The Blind Assassin and in 2019 for The Testaments, controversially sharing the prize with Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. Atwood shrugs off that literary hoo-ha – “So fun! Bernardine’s a great gal” – and adds that she is “a veteran of not winning the Booker”. Of course, being a veteran of not winning means being a veteran of being shortlisted, which in Atwood’s case is four times on top of her wins. So when she describes herself to me as a “grade-A procrastinator and goof-off”, I say that seems unlikely, given how much she writes, and she looks abashed. “I know – it’s horrible, isn’t it?” she says. When I ask how she managed to whittle her essays down to a mere 500 pages, she cringes again at her own productivity. “Horrible!” But adds, “If writing wasn’t a pleasure, I wouldn’t do it.”
And Atwood’s writing is – unfailingly – a pleasure to read. She is one of the all-time great storytellers, a truth sometimes obscured by her highbrow reputation. Whole days of my life have been lost to her novels, including Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride and The Blind Assassin. When it comes to making you want to know what happens next, Atwood is up there with Stephen King and JK Rowling. She has written in every literary genre, from poetry to sci-fi to mystery. But there is one connecting thread: many of her novels are told using a retrospective narrative, with a character looking back on their former life while trying to make sense of their current one. It is a device that winks at Atwood’s love of Victorian literature, but it’s also how she thinks, always looking forward, but also looking back. When she writes her books, she types up yesterday’s handwritten pages and handwrites the pages for tomorrow. “The rolling barrage!” she laughs. When we talk about modern social movements, she refers back to the French Revolution; when we talk about the rollback of abortion rights in the US, she cites Nicolae Ceaușescu, the notoriously anti-abortion dictator of Romania from 1974 to 1989. “As you may have noticed, I like to do my research,” Atwood smiles, after we’ve segued into long discussions of Stalin, or Mao, or Robespierre. It’s all fascinating, and evidence of her tirelessly curious mind. But it can also feel as though she is building a wall of words to protect herself from prying questions. At one point, when she pauses in the middle of such a digression, I ask if her research into Gellhorn has been a way to stay close to Gibson.
“Of course. No-brainer. Next question.” She picks up the menu. “Shall we split the ubiquitous avocado toast?”
Atwood always has a book on the go, so even though she has only just received the finished proofs of Burning Questions, she is already deep into her next project: her 10th collection of short stories. When it comes to work, she is indefatigable: “This has sometimes been resented by friends and family. But I come from a hard-working background and a hard-working generation. I always knew I should be able to support myself.” She has “no time routine, but a space routine: a certain number of pages or words. No cork-lined Proustian writer’s haven. For me, it’s roll up sleeves and get it done.”
Yet it’s a mystery how she does get it done, considering how deeply involved she is with the world around her, as Burning Questions proves, with its clear-eyed essays about the climate, feminism and the future. By now, Atwood has more than earned the right to lock herself away in an ivory tower, but she keeps jumping into the mud. She has been involved in multiple controversies, due partly, but by no means solely, to her fearlessness in addressing hot-button issues in her writing. During the Trump era, her name became a byword for the feminist fightback against the creep of misogynistic legislation that sparked many comparisons to Gilead; Handmaid’s Tale costumes became a staple of pro-choice protests. Both that book and Alias Grace were turned into TV series, propelling her into a stratosphere of celebrity unknown to most authors. When The Testaments, her keenly awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was published in 2019, bookshops stayed open until midnight so fans could get copies as soon as they arrived, a privilege usually granted only to titles such as new Harry Potter books. Her fearlessness has not worked against her commercially.
“Not fearless,” she corrects me. “I am afraid of thunderstorms, bears, certain kinds of heights, also totalitarian forms of government, the behaviour of mobs when they get going. What passes for fearlessness is sometimes just naivety. I am not suspicious or cautious when others might be. Also, I don’t have a job, so I can’t be fired.”
I don’t like to favouritise my books. The others would be out to get you: ‘How could you? I spent all this time with you!’
This may partly explain her fondness for signing politically charged open letters, such as, in 2020, the so-called Harper’s letter about cancel culture, which denounced “an intolerance of opposing views” on the left, and, three months later, another one expressing support for non-binary and trans people, written as a critical response to an essay by Rowling explaining her views on gender. Atwood’s involvement made those letters headline news. Given that the two ostensibly contradicted one another – and we’ll get back to this – she arguably annoyed everyone. “People want you to be on their side, which to them means you have to be their puppet. Not a good fit for me,” she says. She is also a regular tweeter, addressing controversial subjects – politics, gender – most well-known people steer clear of. The week before our interview, Atwood spent almost an hour on Twitter, arguing with strangers about the environmental cost of building more housing in Toronto. When one anonymous tweeter bluntly informed her she wouldn’t be able to control what happened to the land after she died, Atwood wrote back “I … wouldn’t … be … too … sure … of that! I … may … retuuurn … (creaky door sound)” and added a spooky ghost emoji.
Does she ever think: maybe I should make life easy and not comment on this or that controversial issue, but instead focus on my novel?
“Oh, I always think that,” she says.
So why quarrel about green spaces on Twitter?
“I know – why aren’t I sensible? It’s an interesting question. I don’t belong to a political party, I don’t have any purist ideological positions. So the key questions are, as they always have been for me, is it true and is it fair? And once you are interested, you get sucked in.”
Because she feels she has to fight for them?
“Because you notice people deflecting to some other question, which is not the one you’re asking.”
A young man comes up to our table to pay his respects, and he tells her they grew up in the same area. At first, Atwood is interested and asks questions. But after five minutes she’s done. “OK, shoo! Shoo! Bye-bye!” she says, turning back to her avocado toast so suddenly that the man is left dazed, mid-sentence. I’d heard from others who have met her that Atwood can be “a bit fearsome” and it’s true she exudes a cerebral grandeur that means you don’t want to displease her. In her obituary of Doris Lessing in Burning Questions, she writes: “If you don’t think of yourself as an august personage, you don’t have to behave yourself.” Does she think of herself as an august personage?
“Of course not! I’m Canadian, you’re not allowed to think that,” she laughs. I suspect she does a bit – and she should, because she is – and when I later ask what’s the best thing about being in her 80s, she replies: “I get to be condescending towards young people.” But it’s also true that she’s not scared of kicking over people’s expectations. In her books, the female characters can be just as cruel as the men: there are the aunts and wives in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments who torment the handmaids, and also the girls who viciously bully one another in Cat’s Eye.
“My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviour this entails, including criminal ones,” she writes in one of the most interesting essays in Burning Questions, which was born out of a classic Atwood controversy. In 2016 she, with several other Canadian authors, signed an open letter criticising the University of British Columbia for publicly suspending the author and then tenured associate professor Steven Galloway due to allegations of sexual misconduct, thereby denying him due process. After an investigation conducted on behalf of the university, a judge cleared him of sexual assault and Galloway apologised for having had an affair with a student. UBC decided not to rehire him and later paid compensation for damage to his reputation and violating his privacy. The authors who signed the open letter were criticised for what some saw as privileging Galloway’s side over his female accuser, and a number of them removed their names from the letter.
Atwood’s response was different: in 2018 she wrote an essay defending her position and questioned the social shifts that contributed to Galloway’s downfall. “The #MeToo movement is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn’t get a fair hearing through institutions, so they used a new tool: the internet … [But] if the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? In times of extremes, extremists win,” she wrote, and titled her essay Am I a Bad Feminist? The essay caused shock among some of her fans, with one college newspaper headline describing her as a “problematic fave”. Atwood sounds pretty cross when writing about the “Good Feminists” who now think of her as a “misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist”. Did it hurt her to be criticised by those who had once idolised her?
“I’m too old! I feel bad for the ‘Good Feminists’ who got misled. This kind of thing does no good to feminism. All it does is provide ammunition to the people who say the whole thing is a crock of shit,” she says now.
The criticism hasn’t diminished her interest in Galloway, whose case she still follows keenly. “Oh, let me catch you up!” she says, and later sends me links to articles and a Substack to follow. What fascinates her is not the disproven allegation, but how UBC reacted: in their rush to do the right thing, they did the wrong thing, by treating him as though his guilt were a given. It’s a subject that reverberates through her fiction – in books such as The Robber Bride – and an example of her refusal to bow to ideological purity. Her clear-eyed focus on what’s fair and true over any kind of ideology, with little concern about public criticism, is part of what has made her personally so inspiring and her work so enduring.
The tenderest pieces in Burning Questions are the personal ones, such as those recalling her childhood in the woods in Ontario and Quebec, scrabbling around in the trees looking for infestations of beetles and caterpillars with her father, a research entomologist. “We’d be driving along and suddenly we would pull over. ‘An infestation!’ we would cry. Other families stopped for ice-cream cones. Ours stopped for infestations,” she writes in Trees of Life, Trees of Death. Atwood didn’t go into full-time education until she was 12, and she suggests one reason she is not cautious about jumping into the fray is that she lacks the wariness children tend to learn when they grow up among other social groups. A lot of her own upbringing features in Cat’s Eye, with adult Elaine recalling her woodland childhood very wistfully, and describing how much of an outsider she felt at school. Does Atwood feel especially close to that novel?
“I don’t like to favouritise my books, because the other ones would get annoyed,” she says, and laughs. “Then you have all these vengeful books out to get you: ‘How could you? I spent all this time with you! No gratitude!’”
And there are, of course, also essays about Gibson, who she was with from the early 1970s and with whom she has a daughter. Gibson, a writer and conservationist, was so supportive of his wife that she famously gave him a T-shirt with the slogan: “Every woman writer should be married to Graeme Gibson”, a quote from a journalist. His books included The Bedside Book of Birds, but towards the end of his life, due to the progress of his vascular dementia, he could no longer identify the birds in their garden. Nonetheless, Atwood recalls in her 2020 foreword to The Bedside Book of Birds, which is included in Burning Questions, he still liked to watch them. “‘I no longer know their names,’ he told a friend. ‘But then, they don’t know my name either,’” she writes. Gibson died in the UK, with Atwood on her book tour for The Testaments. She continued the tour. “Given the choice between hotel rooms and events and people on the one hand, and an empty house and vacant chair on the other, which would you have chosen, Dear Reader? Of course, the empty house and vacant chair were simply postponed. They came my way later, as such things do,” she writes in the prologue to the collection.
What was it about Gibson that made him so supportive?
“He wasn’t an egotist, so he wasn’t threatened by anything I was doing. He said to our daughter towards the end of his life, ‘Your mum would still have been a writer if she hadn’t met me, but she wouldn’t have had as much fun,’” and she nods, as if agreeing with something clever he just said while sitting next to her. She has also included in Burning Questions the 2020 introduction she wrote for his novels Perpetual Motion and Gentleman Death. Was writing those introductions a way of saying goodbye to him or celebrating him?
“Celebrating him. You don’t actually say goodbye to the dead when you’re my age. They don’t leave.” I start to ask another question about Gibson but she waves her hand, saying: “It’s in the book, it’s in the book.”
Lockdown was not as brutal as it could have been for Atwood, because her daughter and her family went to stay with her. Also, she adds, it’s not like this was mankind’s first pandemic, and she’s on to talking about how illnesses tore through previous generations: “Young people say, ‘This is the worst!’ But it’s not! We’ve been here before.” Research sates Atwood’s curiosity and helps to keep her balanced rather than getting caught up in the madness of the day, by locating it instead within the ebb and flow of history. “I’m in favour of holding the centre in so far as it’s possible. But I’m going to be dead soon, so good luck with it all,” she says.
She looks – and talks – like she’ll outlive us all, I tell her, which is the truth. We’ve been talking for two hours, in fairly brutal temperatures, despite the heaters, but her chattiness never fades, her bright eyes never dim.
“Come on, look at the numbers! Here’s the hourglass, here’s how much sand is left.”
Well, she doesn’t seem as if she’s running out of sand.
“I know,” she says. “It’s a good act.”
I ask if she’s as combative in real life as in her writings.
“Not at all. I’m very willing to listen to other people’s points of view, but I am not willing to be scammed.”
XY and XX are not the only chromosomal combinations possible. Look it up. This has been in flux for a very long time
And this is when things go momentarily pear-shaped. One burning question I am especially keen to discuss with Atwood is the fraught modern debate over gender identity. Gender theorists argue that gender identity – how a person defines themselves – is as important as biological sex. Gender-critical people argue that gender identity is irrelevant because women are oppressed due to their biological sex. This debate, which has threatened to fracture feminism at times, with younger feminists subscribing more to the former argument and older ones cleaving to the latter, does not feature in Burning Questions, but Atwood has tweeted and spoken about it multiple times. Given that she wrote the ultimate novel about the sexual exploitation of women, The Handmaid’s Tale, it would be easy to assume her views veer towards the gender-critical end of the spectrum. But she is no purist. After all, she signed the Harper’s letter, which many saw as an argument against, in part, the left’s objection to gender-critical views; then, three months later, the letter obliquely criticising Rowling. She has posted articles on Twitter that support gender ideology and videos that criticise Rowling. Yet she also posted an article asking whether the word “woman” was being erased out of concern for trans women’s feelings – a gender-critical view – followed by a post reassuring her followers that the writer “is not a terf”, a derogatory term for gender-critical women meaning trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It has not been easy to tell where her feelings lie on this issue. So I ask about a recent comment of hers, in which she said biological sex is not either/or – “Rejoice in nature’s infinite variety!” In other words, it’s too simplistic to say people are either male or female.
“Everything in nature is on a bell curve. We have this two-box thinking [about gender] because it’s biblical, so wool over here, linen over there,” she says.
If biological sex is not binary, how do people know who to make a handmaiden or who is given FGM?
“OK, let me say this again,” she says more sharply. “This is going to take a while to settle down, but XY and XX are not the only chromosomal combinations possible. Look it up, OK? This has been in flux for a very long time and in the Bible, a male wearing female clothes would be – ” and she makes a slicing gesture across her neck. “You want to do that? No.”
Gender-critical people would argue that those are different issues, I say.
“What is a gender-critical person?” she asks
It’s someone who believes that all living creatures are either male or female and that rare chromosomal variations don’t disprove that.
“I’m not going to argue about this. That’s not what my book is about and that’s not what we’re here to discuss,” she says.
Given how discursive our interview has been, this objection surprises me, but I return to the book. In one essay, Literature and the Environment, she writes: “[People] are very ready to tell the writer what a bad person he or she is because he or she has not produced the sort of book or essay the preacher feels he or she ought to have produced.” Does that not contradict her oblique criticisms of Rowling’s essay as anti-trans?
“Open question. We’re not even sure what anti-trans is, and the trans community will take a while to sort this through. It is not true that there are no trans people, so then a lot of questions come into that, and we’re not going to get into those, although they seem to be your obsession of the day.”
But Margaret, I say, you write so brilliantly about women’s rights. Of course women want to know what you think about this subject, given how much it pertains to women’s rights.
“I’m not informed enough,” she says briskly. “But there doesn’t seem to be much fuss about trans men. Why is that?”
Why does she think?
“I don’t know.”
Because men aren’t physically threatened by them?
“They’re not physically threatened by trans men,” she agrees, then corrects herself. “They do not feel physically threatened by trans men, although it is possible a trans man could murder one of them.”
A little later, she mentions how dangerous it is for people to make generalisations about one another, so I give it one last go and ask why, then, did she use the sweeping term “terf” on Twitter?
“I think you’re making too much of this!” she says, sounding thoroughly fed up now. The subject is closed; the interview moves on.
Our conversation continues peacefully enough, but after we say our goodbyes my overwhelming feeling is one of frustration. I give her credit for not storming out of the interview, but I feel no closer to understanding her views and assume I never will, given how reluctant she seemed to be to discuss them. But then – as she has done so often in her books – Atwood surprises me with a plot twist. Just an hour or so later, she sends me several emails, some about the Galloway case, others elaborating on her thoughts about gender. This becomes an ongoing back and forth, in which she lays out her views, patiently and thoughtfully. Most of it is off the record, but I think she won’t mind me saying that, ultimately, we both want the same thing, which is truth and fairness.
The more we email, the more I realise we are not arguing about this the way I’m used to arguing about it, ie the social media way, which is just shouting at one another and not listening to the other’s point of view. We are genuinely curious to understand one another and send each other links we think the other will find interesting. After several days of this, I become self-conscious about how much of her time I am taking up, time she should be spending on her new book of short stories, and I apologise for being so stubbornly argumentative. She writes straight back: “Don’t worry, Hadley. Some people won’t really discuss things with me because they are intimidated. I agree with Orwell: the truth does matter.”
Burning Questions by Margaret Atwood is published by Vintage on 1 March at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.