Margaret Atwood: ‘He’s still with me — not in the usual way’ by Sarah Baxter

Margaret Atwood talks about life after her partner, Graeme, book bannings in America and why her short stories are more personal than ever

Margaret Atwood has written a new story about Hypatia of Alexandria, a real-life 4th-century mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who was stripped naked, flayed with clam shells and torn limb from limb by the mob. How things have changed, I suggest to her, citing my belief in progress. “Silly old you,” she chides me. Modern life can be just as cruel as the ancient world; worse even. As her Hypatia points out, if this were the modern day people would have recorded her savage death on their phones.

Atwood has lost none of her scepticism about the human condition. Much like her characters she refuses to look away. “Give up and party. Rape, pillage or murder. Run away fast. Or write it down. These are the choices,” she says. Atwood has made hers. At 83 she is perhaps the most famous and prolific literary novelist in the world, one of four two-time winners of the Booker prize — in 2000 for The Blind Assassin and in 2019 for The Testaments. The success of the television adaptation of her 1985 dystopian bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale won her legions of new admirers. Simply put, she is a brilliant and spiky storyteller who can seamlessly turn big issues into page-turners.

We are having brunch in a smart hotel on the coldest day of the year, a bone-chilling minus 20C, in Toronto, Canada, her home town. She is mindful of all the battles won that are having to be fought all over again. “We are already into not-quite-book-burnings and we are already into the ‘let’s control women’s bodies’,” she says, pointing to the US Supreme Court’s reversal of abortion rights. She finds it “incredible” that the works of Toni Morrison, the Nobel prizewinning novelist, are now being banned from some American classrooms for dealing with rape and child sexual abuse.

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale

History has a habit of repeating itself, she says. It is the “wheel of fortune”, the tarot card representing life’s eternal cycle; somebody at the top crushes others, only to be crushed by those rising up. Autocrats such as the Russian president Vladimir Putin try to stop the wheel, but fate grinds on. There is satisfaction in that. An admirer of Game of Thrones, Atwood thinks Prince Harry, the self-described “spare”, is lucky to be born into a royal family that has been stripped of real power. Otherwise “he probably would have been murdered by somebody lower down the food chain to get him out of the way”.

Atwood lives in Midtown, a posh, gentrified area near the University of Toronto, having had the foresight to buy a large dilapidated property in 1985 from a cult. “When we moved on to our street it was rooming houses, cults and call girls,” she says. “Our house started out as a feather bed for falling priests and nuns, none of whom were renovators.” After her first, brief marriage to the writer Jim Polk failed in the early 1970s, she met the novelist Graeme Gibson, a conservationist and bird-watcher who — like her — was handy. They never married, but they had a daughter, Jess, in 1976, and brought her up there and in a cabin in the Ontario woods.

Atwood is tiny, with a powerful presence. “My daughter would pick me up and say, ‘Look at my little mommy, isn’t she cute?’ And I’d say, ‘Put me down!’” Atwood’s hair is as white as frost, but as corkscrew as ever. It’s her signature witchy look. People used to grouse, “Hark at her, with her snaky hair,” she recalls. “Did I hear the word Medusa? I did.” She can drop at a moment’s notice into a scary “Come into my gingerbread cottage” voice, but she is no Grimm sister. Kindness and humour leaven her novels and short stories.

In her new collection, Old Babes in the Wood, she writes with wry candour of being in the “land of the temporarily living” in our “meat envelopes”. “I know what’s coming,” she tells me. “Death. At my age I see a lot of it.” She is writing up a storm: she started a journal on Substack called In the Writing Burrow last autumn and is working on an eagerly awaited literary memoir before the Reaper calls.

Atwood with Graeme Gibson in 2017

She was in London with Gibson in 2019, promoting The Testaments, when he died of a huge brain haemorrhage. He was 85. As a consequence she reluctantly joined the “circle of widows”. (“We have not yet got around to a gender-neutral term for Those Who Have Lost Their Life Partners. Maybe TWHLTLP will appear shortly,” Atwood writes in the short story Widows, poking fun at the fashion for strings of acronyms.)

“We knew it was coming. He had vascular dementia and was starting to get little bleeds on the brain,” Atwood says. They had had an enjoyable dinner with friends and he went “out on a high”. His family had a “habit” of dying in London, she says drily; and he was spared the distress of killing himself, having already taken the precautionary step of asking a Canadian doctor for help in the event that his condition worsened. But she misses him dreadfully.

It is as clear as a bell that Nell and Tig, the life partners who appear in the most touching stories of her new collection, are Atwood and Gibson. “That I admit,” she says, having always insisted her novels — with a larger cast of characters — are not about herself. These are Atwood’s most personal tales by far. In Wooden Box she writes with great tenderness about the experience of living with someone whose memory is fading. “You can recognise whole songs, whole symphonies from just a few notes, if you know the music well.” In Widows Nell wonders: “How am I managing to cope now that Tig has died? Am I lonely? Am I suffering?… Am I ticking all the prescribed boxes of grief?”

They’re love stories, aren’t they, I say. “Life stories,” she replies, quick as a flash. It amuses Atwood that Gibson has been sanctified after death. “He’s become Saint Graeme. He now has literary and environmental prizes named after him.” Does this make her happy? “I think it’s very useful for other people and he would like that.” But he is not here to enjoy it, I suggest. “Ah, but how do you know that? You don’t,” she says, turning steely. “Graeme is still very much with me, although not in the usual way.”

Margaret Atwood: Banning books is futile in the internet age

Are you going to be St Margaret, I ask. “Jeez I hope not,” she says, cackling. Sometimes she discusses reincarnation with her friends. She wonders whether she might like to be a tea shop. This is what happens to famous people. They become “a café, pub, a statue, a memorial garden, a theme park or a thesis”. She claims to have “no opinion” on the afterlife. “I am a strict agnostic. But atheism is a dogma like all the others,” she says.

After attending a re-enactment of the 1645 Battle of Ledbury on her last trip to Britain, Atwood wrote on Substack that the world is divided between Cavaliers and Roundheads with the “mushy middle” in between. “It’s hazardous to attempt an intervention when Joan of Arc is cooking at the stake. You are likely to fry in your turn,” she observes. For this potent reason Atwood is wary of the debate over trans rights, but she has firm views on the flexibility of gender. “There is a bell curve. This is why you need to know biology,” she says. Stuck in the desert, the writers of Genesis had no idea about the hermaphrodite sex lives of “snails and bivalves”, she points out.

The trans issue has bitterly divided the feminist movement. “Has nobody considered the fact that there are agents provocateurs in the mix? People are pretending [and] saying outrageous things to get real trans people in trouble,” she says. “If this isn’t happening, it’s the first time in history.”

Atwood: “The world is divided between Cavaliers and Roundheads with the mushy middle in between”

Surely some vexed questions, such as where to imprison rapists who have self-identified as women, require an answer? “If you make a gate that people can go through without gatekeepers, and there are perks, some people will abuse that,” she replies. Is there a fair solution? “People are going to have to come to a considered balance. They will have to work it out.”

She does believe in fairness, though. At the height of the #MeToo movement she wrote an article, “Am I a bad feminist?”, warning against “vigilante justice” after a Canadian professor of creative writing was fired without due process. On the upside, #MeToo “made a lot of guys think twice about keeping it zipped, especially if they were prominent”. But, she adds: “If you make pointing an infallible weapon, some people are going to abuse that.” This month she is launching #AfterMeToo with the Canadian Women’s Foundation, on how to report and investigate sexual harassment and assault fairly. “You cannot confuse beliefs with facts, especially if you are accusing somebody of a serious crime,” Atwood says.

I sense she is exasperated about being badgered on these issues. Her home is in the “mushy middle”, with neither Roundheads or Cavaliers nor the extreme right or left. “The mushy middle is under attack from both sides all the time. Each side would like to eliminate it. But then they get tired of whatever it is they are being trampled by — and then they get to vote,” she adds mischievously.

Atwood is confident that “in the fullness of time” human beings are capable of sorting out trans rights. She is more fearful of the plagues, viruses and ecological disaster that pervade her dystopian writing. “Everybody is connected to the natural world,” she says. “Kill all the forests, kill all the oceans and we will cease to breathe. It’s not that I feel it, I know it.” A glimmer of hope remains, though. “We wish to be hopeful because what is the point of being doomed all the time? If you say you are doomed you are not going to do anything.”

She has been generous with her time. As we leave our table, she offers to walk me down the road in the biting cold to the Bata Shoe Museum, to which she has donated a pair of peacock-coloured shoes. She loves fashion and describes herself as a “demon” knitter and crocheter. I have no idea what to expect, but find it is full of instruments of torture: the sharp, pointy-toed foot armour of a 15th-century knight; 3in-long shoes for women whose feet were bound and broken, made in China barely over 100 years ago. Had I not met Atwood, I wonder whether I would have noticed the horror. We don’t have to look far.

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood is published by Chatto & Windus on Tuesday at £22

All forms of Margaret Atwood Novel

Cat’s Eye (1988)
This is like Lord of the Flies but with little girls. Thought to be semi-autobiographical, it follows a painter, Elaine Risley, who recalls in flashbacks the petty bullies of her childhood in Toronto during the 1940s and 1950s. Forget the sisterhood — this novel reveals just how cruel girls can be.


The Handmaid’s Tale (2019)
After she starred as Offred in the hit TV series, Elisabeth Moss narrated this award-winning audiobook of Atwood’s creepy dystopian novel, which has become a feminist touchstone. Moss’s unimpeachable reading draws out all the paranoia of the original classic.


Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995
If Atwood hadn’t found fame as a novelist she could have made her name as a poet. She has published 18 collections, her subjects ranging from werewolves to the sex life of slugs. But there are also knockout romantic poems such as Variation on the Word Sleep, a delicate expression of love that ends with the beautiful stanza: “I would like to be the air/ that inhabits you for a moment/ only. I would like to be that unnoticed/ & that necessary.”


Rebecca de Pont Davies and Stephanie Marshall in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale (1998)
Years before the wildly popular television series there was Poul Ruders’s opera adaptation of Atwood’s button-pushing dystopian classic about American life under a totalitarian theocracy. It was revived by ENO last year and felt as timely and urgent as ever.


Alias Grace is still a great watch

Alias Grace (2017)
Sarah Polley’s miniseries, based on Atwood’s 1996 novel about a real-life servant jailed for a double murder in 1840s Ontario, suffered from comparisons with the more glossy Handmaid’s Tale adaptation. Sure, it’s quieter, more cerebral and it doesn’t have Elisabeth Moss, but it’s still a great watch. Netflix


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