THE TRUE STORY OF HOW LITERARY LEGEND AND NEW ENTREPRENEUR MARGARET ATWOOD BECAME AN AWARD-WINNING WRITER AND NOTABLE WOMAN OF INFLUENCE
By: Carolyn Lawrence| Photography by: Christopher Wahl
When she descends the staircase at The Spoke Club on Toronto’s tony King West strip, renowned author Margaret Atwood appears modest and whimsical. She is taken aback at first by the entourage waiting in the Gallery below, but graciously shakes every hand in the room, presenting us with a copy of her latest book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. We are there to meet our cover woman, but most importantly our literary idol, author of the dog-eared novels we’ve re-read for years – for me, it’s Cat’s Eye. What we get to know is the woman behind the words.
“Although I’m told by my older relatives that I announced when I was 6 that I was going to be a writer,” Atwood recalls, “evidently I forgot all about that for 10 years and started again when I was 16.”
She tells the tale of walking though Leaside High School’s football field on her way home when she composed a poem – her first poem – from out of nowhere. The words seemed to fall from the sky and were pushed into her head like a thumbprint. Her talent was clearly innate as she was never taught creative writing in school; her education back then, in 1956, focused on essays and analyses.
“However, I did have an excellent teacher called Bessie B. Billings,” she adds. “We had a lot of smart women teachers in high schools in the ’50s because they were not allowed – by and large – to teach university. So they were deflected into high schools, and we got the benefit of them.”
Many of the entrepreneurs, and women of influence, we profile attest that a winning combination of preparation, opportunity and simply not knowing how hard it’s going to get, will get you far along your path to success. As with Atwood’s admission, “I knew I wanted to be a writer without at all knowing how difficult that might be and what the impediments were,” Atwood says.
Her next move, she described, was to go into journalism and write for newspapers. At which point her parents, obviously, filled with worry and apprehension, dredged up a working journalist for Atwood to meet, who warned that women on newspapers were only allowed to write the social pages and the obituaries. Met with the intended distaste, she states, “I therefore went to university with the assumption that I could teach during the term, and write my deathless masterpieces in the summer.”
Her entrepreneurial brain already ticking, Atwood’s other bright idea was that she would write true romance stories because in the magazine Writer’s Markets – which she hastily purchased – those were the writers who made the most money.
“My idea was that I would whip them off, make enough money to live in my garret, drink my absinthe, acquire tuberculosis, and cough myself to death while writing my deathless masterpieces.”
The entourage laughs hesitantly. Atwood’s humour is dry and dark; lines like these are delivered in all seriousness. But what else would we expect from a woman who’s infamous for her dystopian tendencies? The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood – all painting pictures of warning. Her works also demonstrate a strong advocacy for women’s rights among her other social and well tweeted opinions.
Tackling traditional female roles in many of her early novels, such as The Robber Bride, Cat’s Eye, Life Before Man and The Edible Woman, what Atwood sees as the biggest challenge for female leaders today is the backlash against female agency, particularly in the United States.
“I think once you get past a certain age it’s less [apparent],” she says, “but during the reproductive years, people want to have control of you. We’re not entirely sure what motivates it, but it’s quite noticeable at the moment in the platforms of Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney.
On Twitter right now [people are saying] it’s The Handmaid’s Tale coming true – whereas when I published it in 1985, some people thought I was stretching it. But as I’ve frequently said, I didn’t put anything into that book that has not happened at some point in history. And if we’ve done it once, we can certainly do it again.”
“I’M GUINEA-PIGGING MYSELF […] PLAYING IN THE SANDBOX OF NEW TECHNOLOGY. TRYING A BUNCH OF THESE THINGS TO SEE HOW THEY WORK FOR ME, AND THEREFORE HOW THEY MIGHT POSSIBLY WORK FOR OTHER WRITERS.”
That area is the one we have to be most aware of, Atwood adds, “because it is a way of getting women out of any sort of competitive role in business or in, say, active life outside the home.”
Her anthropological analysis of women’s advancement also touches upon the physical challenges – and opportunities – for women in the workforce, and how they have changed over the ages.
“Now that we are existing in an electrically-powered, oil-dependent society in which upper-body strength has been replaced by dexterity, it has enabled women quite considerably because you do not need to be able to lift a great big heavy weight,” she explains. “You don’t need to be able to weld steel. You’re not pushing a plough. A lot of these things that require physical strength are either obsolete, or there are a lot of other jobs that have opened up that don’t involve [strength].
The typewriter and the sewing machine were big emancipators, although at first it might not seem so because they created a lot of not very well paid jobs. But they created jobs.”
She mentions a home economics book from about 1911, called Domestic Science, that lays it all out: the working girl’s wardrobe. This is what you need, here’s how much of it you can make yourself, this is what you should spend, how to do it. “What it meant was,” Atwood says, “once women could make money of their own, they were going to want to be able to control that money.”
When Atwood was considering her own career, her teacher, Billings, recommended she attend Victoria University in the University of Toronto because unlike a lot of other places at that time, Vic hired women. Even Harvard, where Atwood earned her Master’s, didn’t hire female teachers. “They were very happy to let you get a degree, but they weren’t going to hire you. You’d be amazed how widespread the prohibition against that was at the time. It was the prevailing climate – but Vic was an exception.”
“ON TWITTER RIGHT NOW [PEOPLE ARE SAYING] IT’S THE HANDMAID’S TALE COMING TRUE – WHEREAS WHEN I PUBLISHED IT IN 1985, SOME PEOPLE THOUGHT I WAS STRETCHING IT. BUT AS I’VE FREQUENTLY SAID, I DIDN’T PUT ANYTHING INTO THAT BOOK THAT HAS NOT HAPPENED AT SOME POINT IN HISTORY.”
Another strong woman of influence helped shape Atwood’s career after she left Harvard and took a job in market research. “My boss, Mary Simms [sic], was a model of mentorship,” Atwood recalls. “She herself had come up the hard way.”
Simms was a person who believed in native talent, and in helping people develop it. Her department in Canadian facts was all female because the people who conducted market research surveys back then were women. “In those days it was a given that you needed a day job because nobody in Canada in the ‘50s thought that they could make a living writing fiction and poetry. You could work for magazines [but] most of the people who did that were men – with the exception of June Callwood and Doris Anderson, who was running Chatelaine magazine.”
Times have changed, she adds, “but it is still true that you have to have a means of sustenance.”
Today Atwood no longer requires a day job, but does not limit her career to writing alone. She invented the LongPenTM in 2004, a remote-controlled device that allows long-distance official signings without being physically present – something Atwood conceived after long-legged press tours became too draining.
And now, embarking on new adventures as an entrepreneur, or as she calls it, playing in the sandbox of new technology. “I’m guinea-pigging myself,” she says. “Trying a bunch of these things to see how they work for me, and therefore how they might possibly work for other writers.”
Currently she’s helping out with Wattpad, a website developed by two men – one of whom had been a games developer, but he didn’t like it. What he really liked to do was read. So he decided to build a site that would enable reading and sharing.
“Wattpad is completely free, and it’s a story exchange,” says Atwood. “I think the benefits there are in the area of literacy, especially for younger people and people in developing countries who don’t have access to libraries, schools, bookstores – all of those advantageous things that we take for granted.”
There’s also Byliner, a site on which original short fiction can be monetized. Atwood explains that, once upon a time, there was a large market in magazine fiction that dried up during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, leaving nothing but The New Yorker pretty much standing alone. But fiction has now come back via the internet.
“The people who formed Byliner have a background in editing and worked for The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy – the high-end magazine market,” she says. “I worked with one of those people who is a woman and a very good editor, Amy Grace Lloyd, oddly enough, at Playboy.”
Atwood motions to her book on science fiction, In Other Worlds. One of the last pieces, she says, is about weird tail covers of Playboy in the 1930s, which were painted by a female artist.
“I worked with Amy on that piece. She then told me about Byliner, and I ventured to give it a try.”
“I’M OLD AND OBJECTIVE ENOUGH TO KNOW WHEN [THE BOOK] WORKS. IF IT DOESN’T WORK I’M NOT GOING TO PUBLISH IT. THINGS HAVE TO BE SUCCESSFUL ENOUGH TO PASS THAT TEST.”
There’s another site, too, about to launch that has Atwood’s involvement – a new e-tale storefront called ZolaBooks.com.
“Again my connection is female,” says Atwood. “I had met some of the people now involved with Zola Books because of [their] background in publishing. There’s a lot of networking that goes on in any enterprise. It’s a lot of fun. You get to catch up with people and see where their lives have led.”
Because writing can be a lonely career path, its social aspects are often seen as a welcome break from the usual solitude of working for yourself.
“I have an office in my home,” she says. “But I’m a write-anywhere person. I usually do quite well in cafés, as long as I’m at the back. I [also] do well in airplanes – nobody can phone you.” The main idea for Atwood is focus: a place where she can work and not be interrupted.
“That’s harder than you might think,” she says. “For instance, I’ve been known to rent Bed & Breakfasts and just go write in them during the day, if I’m at a moment where I need a lot of focus.”
Tips and tricks like these seem to have been picked up along her way, and when asked what the most inspiring piece of advice was that someone gave her, Atwood responds that it wasn’t so much inspiring as it was useful: change her name.
“My nickname is Peggy – it’s the Scottish dominative for Margaret – and John Robert Columbo said nobody would ever take [me] seriously as a writer if [my] name is Peggy. Very practical advice,” she says. “So, Margaret writes the books; Peggy feeds the cats.”
The name Margaret Atwood is taken very seriously today. With a career spanning almost 60 years, encompassing over 80 works, 90 awards and 19 honourary degrees, how does this woman of influence define success?
Simply put: success is when you know the book works.
“I’m old and objective enough to know when it works,” says Atwood. “If it doesn’t work I’m not going to publish it. Things have to be successful enough to pass that test. I have a strong conviction of what constitutes a book that works, which is quite a different thing from a strong conviction of self. If you had a strong conviction of self, you would think that everything you did was brilliant, and that’s actually quite a dangerous thing if you’re an artist.”
Most of what Atwood does is brilliant – or at least she’s awarded as such, including being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1973. But she doesn’t write to win awards, she insists. “They’re very nice, [but] these things are all in context, are they not?”
When it came time to receive the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1966, for instance, Atwood had nothing to wear. She borrowed her roommate’s dress, her other roommate’s earrings, and off she went to Ottawa.
“While I was away,” she adds solemnly, “my roommates burnt my Hush Puppies.” The entourage laughs heartedly this time, and Atwood cracks a smile. “They felt now that I was an award-winning writer, those Hush Puppies were beneath me.” That award came at the “unexpectedly young” age of 26 for her collection The Circle Game, when Atwood’s career was just getting started and she hadn’t yet determined her goals.
“You go project by project, so it’s not a question of becoming the head of your company of any of those really identifiable things.” Atwood does own a company that she incorporated in the mid-‘70s, called O. W. Toad, an anagram of her surname. “I would have given [it] a more sober-sounding name had I realized that I was going to become quite so well known.”
Once, she received a letter from the tax department asking if there really was a Mr. Toad. And her response? “There’s a Ms. Toad.”
Looking back at some of the funny things she did, Atwood says she does not know whether they can be labelled accomplishments – but they were definitely amazing moments.
“Did you know that I wrote my first screenplay in 1971 with Tony Richardson, director of Tom Jones? No – people don’t.
[It took place] at Tony’s enclave above Saint-Tropez at the time in fashion history when people were wearing t-shirts with satin butterflies appliquéd onto the front. Twiggy was gone – thank heavens for that. Those of us with curly hair did not appreciate that moment. The ethnic look was just about to arrive – hooray for it! – so that was a lot of fun.
Going to Ms. Magazine and getting my picture taken with Dolly Parton was a lot of fun. Winning the Booker after three previous nominations – that was certainly a lot of fun at that moment. Winning the Giller was great. Getting the Toronto Walk of Fame with Joni Mitchell – that was fun because it was Joni Mitchell.”
After a pause, she adds: “I don’t think it’s [accomplishments like those] that you remember as such, [but] the experiences around them.”
When asked what is her greatest achievement, Atwood is at first reluctant – “I’m Canadian, we don’t talk about greatest achievements” – but quickly her dark humour and pragmatic sense returns.
“If I were John Keats I would have already been dead for 50 years. If I were Shakespeare, I’d already be dead. A lot of these people died young. So maybe my greatest achievement is staying alive long enough to have a greatest achievement.”
And for all of us sitting enraptured in The Spoke Club’s Navillus Gallery, the true story of meeting Margaret Atwood will no doubt be one of our amazing moments.