If the 5-foot-3-inch Margaret Atwood were to stand on all the fiction, poetry, social history, criticism, and children's books she's written in the past 30 years, she'd be a literal -- not just literary -- giant. Atwood, whose novels include The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, and her latest, Alias Grace, is known for her wicked sense of humor and caustic tongue, which have inspired critics to label her "Medusa," "amusing duchess," and "quiet Mata Hari."
The 57-year-old Toronto-based storyteller has wielded her pen and activist voice on behalf of many causes. She is the former president of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) Canada, which assists writers worldwide who live under political oppression. Most recently, Atwood protested plans to turn Toronto into a "megacity," in which the metropolitan area's six municipal governments would be consolidated into one governing board. In Atwood's world, whether she's aiming at the premier of Ontario or the not-so-nice girls in Cat's Eye, no one gets off easy.
Q: How does your political involvement inform your creative process?
A: I have no idea. People talking about politics usually start from the ass end backwards in that they think you have a political agenda, and then you make your work fit that cookie cutter. It's the other way around. One works by simple observation, looking into things. It's usually called insight and out of that comes your view -- not that you have the view first and then squash everything to make it fit. I'm talking about staying out of the Procrustean bed. You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes' bed and if they didn't, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I'm not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain political view.
Q: So, do your political self and your creative self communicate at all?
A: As an artist your first loyalty is to your art. Unless this is the case, you're going to be a second-rate artist. I don't mean there's never any overlap. You learn things in one area and bring them into another area. But giving a speech against racism is not the same as writing a novel. The object is very clear in the fight against racism; you have reasons why you're opposed to it. But when you're writing a novel, you don't want the reader to come out of it voting yes or no to some question. Life is more complicated than that. Reality simply consists of different points of view.
When I was young I believed that "nonfiction" meant "true." But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they're very different. There may not be one Truth -- there may be several truths -- but saying that is not to say that reality doesn't exist.
When I wrote Alias Grace, for example, about Canada's famous 19th-century convicted murderer Grace Marks, I knew there were some things that weren't true about this historical figure. After all my research, I still do not know who killed Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Someone killed them. To say that we don't know exactly who did it is not to say that nobody killed them. There is a truth in their deaths, but some other truths -- such as who really did the killing -- are not knowable.