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Margaret Atwood

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Atwood picMARGARET ATWOOD, 2017 (ActuaLitté/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Biographical details ▽ Biographical details △

Ottawa, Canada, 1939

Places lived
Ottawa; Sault Ste. Marie; Toronto, Canada


Novels, stories, poetry, plays, criticism

Literary, science fiction, dystopian, satire

Writing language

Greatest lists ▽ Greatest lists △

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Alias Grace (1996)

The Blind Assassin (2000)


The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Alias Grace (1996)

The Blind Assassin (2000)

Science Fiction

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Oryx and Crake (1971)

Canadian Literature

Power Politics (1971)

Surfacing (1972)

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

The Robber Bride (1993)

Alias Grace (1996)

The Blind Assassin (2000)

Oryx and Crake (1971)

Historical Fiction

Alias Grace (1996)

On books, writers and writing


Certainly Canadian authors spend a disproportionate amount of time making sure that their heroes die or fail. Much Canadian writing suggests that failure is required because it is felt—consciously or unconsciously—to be the only "right" ending, the only thing that will support the characters' (or their authors') view of the universe. When such endings are well handled and consistent with the whole book, one can't quarrel with them on aesthetic grounds. But when Canadian writers are writing clumsy or manipulated endings, they are much less likely to manipulate in a positive than they are in a negative direction: that is, the author is less likely to produce a sudden inheritance from a rich old uncle or the surprising news that his hero is really the son of a Count than he is to conjure up an unexpected natural disaster or an out-of-control car, tree or minor character so that the protagonist may achieve a satisfactory failure. Why should this be so? Could it be that Canadians have a will to lose which is as strong and pervasive as the Americans' will to win?

Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature


Plato said that poets should be excluded from the ideal republic because they are such liars. I am a poet, and I affirm that this is true. About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true. I of course—being also a novelist—am a much more truthful person than that. But since poets lie, how can you believe me?...

Wordsworth was sort of right when he said, "Poets in their youth begin in gladness/ But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Except that sometimes poets skip the gladness and go straight to the despondency. Why is that? Part of it is the conditions under which poets work—giving all, receiving little in return from an age that by and large ignores them—and part of it is cultural expectation—"The lunatic, the lover and the poet," says Shakespeare, and notice which comes first. My own theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit. I have avoided this by being ambidextrous: I write novels too. But when I find myself writing poetry again, it always has the surprise of that first unexpected and anonymous gift.

Waterstone's Poetry Lecture, Hay On Wye, Wales


[On writing Alias Grace:]
In murders in which there are a man and a woman involved, public opinion usually goes in the following fashion: everybody is agreed on the man but opinion is usually split about the woman. One side: "She instigated it all. She's the female demon." The other side: "She is an innocent victim coerced by force, circumstance and fear"....

This novel is set in the Victorian period, and you might say the Victorian period is the period of dreams. It's when they become very, very important.... I think dreams are part of people's lives — and if you are going to show a character you have to show their dreams.... There was a huge interest into the workings of the mind and how it worked....

The novel is partly about stories, how they are constructed, how they are influenced by the circumstances surrounding them: who is telling, who is listening, and why.

"Margaret Atwood on writing her historical novel Alias Grace", interview with CBC


But whatever the scientists may come up with, writers and artists will continue to portray altered mental states, simply because few aspects of our nature fascinate people so much. The so-called mad person will always represent a possible future for every member of the audience—who knows when such a malady may strike? When “mad,” at least in literature, you aren’t yourself; you take on another self, a self that is either not you at all, or a truer, more elemental one than the person you’re used to seeing in the mirror. You’re in danger of becoming, in [William] Shakespeare’s works, a mere picture or beast, and in Susanna Moodie’s words, a mere machine; or else you may become an inspired prophet, a truth-sayer, a shaman, one who oversteps the boundaries of the ordinarily visible and audible, and also, and especially, the ordinarily sayable. Portraying this process is deep power for the artist, partly because it’s a little too close to the process of artistic creation itself, and partly because the prospect of losing our self and being taken over by another, unfamiliar self is one of our deepest human fears.

"Ophelia Has a Lot to Answer For", lecture at Stratford Festival


I read George Orwell probably as soon as 1984 came out, and read Animal Farm when I was a child, thinking it would be like Winnie the Pooh, and I didn't know it wasn't. I thought the pigs were real pigs and the horses real horses, and I was just wracked by it.

After I wrote Handmaid's Tale, people came up to me and asked why weren't there any protests. And I said, "You don't understand totalitarianism." A real totalitarianism doesn't fool around with protests in the streets....

I don't know whether there are any really pretty novels. There are novels that end well, but in between there are human beings acting like human beings. And human beings are not perfect. All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that's the novelists' materials. That's where they have to go. And a lot of that just isn't pretty. We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.

"A Progressive Interview With Margaret Atwood", The Progressive


Is The Handmaid’s Tale a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked—increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.

"Margaret Atwood on What 'The Handmaid's Tale' Means in the Age of Trump", essay in New York Times


So there's speculative fiction and there's science fiction. And there's science fiction fantasy and there's fantasy. And you might put them all under a big umbrella called wonder tales. So wonder tales are not naturalist. They're not the world that we find ourselves in here and now today.

Speculative fiction is a way of dealing with possibilities that are inherent in our society now, but which have not yet been fully enacted. You can look at books like Brave New World, Zamyatin's We, and 1984, things for which we've got the technology more or less, and arranged in a space on the planet we happen to be living on. Science fiction, usually we think of other galaxies, other planets, other sorts of things entirely. And I write speculative fiction not because I don't like the other kind, but because I can't write it. It's not within my skill set.

If you're interested in writing speculative fiction or even science fiction, look around you at what's happening in the world. Read some newspapers. Often the back pages of the newspapers, or even a magazine like New Scientist or Scientific American will open the doors to some of the things that people are working on right now, but may not have succeeded in doing yet. But it does show what they're interested in achieving. And you can take that idea, and just move it a little further down the road.

"Writing Speculative Fiction", online MasterClass


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