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Margaret Atwood

The activist author of Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale discusses the politics of art and the art of the con.

Q: But are there certain discrete truths that you explore in your work? So often people on the left seem afraid to talk about transcendent truths, values, the ethics involved in even the smallest human interactions.

A: I'm probably not exactly on the left in the way that you understand it.

Q: How would you define yourself then?

A: I'm a Red Tory. To get a fix on this category, you have to go back to the 19th century. The Tories were the ones who believed that those in power had a responsibility to the community, that money should not be the measure of all things.

Q: Would this be your discrete truth -- that money is not the measure of all things?

A: Everybody knows it isn't. Within one's own family money is not the measure of things, unless the person is an absolute Scrooge. Only the most extreme kind of monster would put a price on everything. There are all kinds of other things that we are not supposed to sell -- political influence being one of them. We too rarely have public conversations about the common sense of money. We too rarely talk about the human cost of putting some of these economic measures into effect.

Q: What you're saying sounds great, but we live in a consumerist culture where money is the measure of who you are.

A: Well, it used to be that your bloodlines dictated who you were. But the U.S. became the land of the self-made man, in which not only did you make a fortune but you could make up everything else about yourself as well. You move into a new town with a spurious pedigreed background and you just make yourself up.

I collect con-artist stories. One of my favorites is that of a Portuguese woman who had been passing herself off not only as a man but in the military establishment as a general. Then there was the jazz musician who was married and had three adopted children and turns out to have been a woman all along.

Q: Why do you think these women do it? For the power they gain by being men?

A: Sometimes it's not even power so much as the absence of nonpower, which is different. One actively exercises power. The absence of nonpower is just that people don't bother you. You don't suffer the consequences of not being powerful.

Q: In much of your writing you explore the state of the -- I don't want to say "victim" -- of the person who is "not yet," and mostly these are women.

A: You know why? Unless something has gone disastrously wrong, other people aren't that interesting to write about. Let me tell you a story: When my daughter was little, she and a friend decided to put on a play. It opened with two characters having breakfast. They had some orange juice and cornflakes and they poured milk on the cornflakes and they had some tea and they had some coffee and they had some more orange juice and cornflakes and toast and they put jam on the toast. Finally we said, is anything else going to happen in this play other than having breakfast, and they said no, and we said, well then, it's time to go.

This is lesson No. 1 in narrative: Something has to happen. It can be good people to whom bad things happen, a nice person getting bitten in two by a shark or crushed by an earthquake, or their husbands run off on them.

Or then it can be people of devious or shallow character getting into trouble or making trouble. But if you want to read a novel in which nice people do nothing but good things, I recommend Samuel Richardson's The History of Sir Charles Grandison. It goes on and on. I think I'm the only person who's ever actually finished the book.

Q: I wasn't arguing for the crushingly boring novel. My question was about victimhood. Does this mean all your books need female victims?

A: Let us change it from victimhood to people in circumstances that put some pressure on them, which is not quite the same thing. Some people tell me that Grace Marks is a victim and I say, "Hey, just hang on a minute. What about Nancy and Thomas? They're the ones who ended up dead in the cellar." I don't think it's quite as simple as "These people over here are always the oppressors, and these people over here are always victims."

Q: You turn the traditional victim into victimizer to chilling effect in Cat's Eye, where little girls are anything but sugar and spice and everything nice.

A: Of course, I wasn't supposed to say that, because sisterhood is powerful and women are always supposed to get along with one another. It's not true any more than it is for men -- and why should it be?

Women are human beings, and human beings are a very mixed lot. I've always been against the idea that women were Victorian angels, that they could do no wrong. I've always thought it was horseshit and does nobody any good. Remember, Lizzie Borden got off largely because the cultural agenda had convinced people that women were morally superior to men, so Lizzie Borden was "incapable" of taking the ax and giving her mother 40 whacks.

In the early fight for women's rights, the point was not that women were morally superior or better. The conversation was about the difference between men and women -- power, privilege, voting rights, etc. Unfortunately, it quickly moved to the "women are better" argument. If this were true in life or in fiction, we wouldn't have any dark or deep characters. We wouldn't have any Salomes, Carmens, Ophelias. We wouldn't have any jealousy or passion.

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