For many years Canadians have been taught that they are inferior to everybody, except maybe blacks,” observes Ottawa-born author Margaret Atwood. “If you are not successful, they sneer at you, and if you are successful, they sneer at you too. But that has begun to change. Now anybody who makes it here makes success more possible for other Canadians.”
By that standard her countrymen are greatly in debt to Atwood, the 40-year-old poet-novelist who has built an enviable reputation with seven volumes of poetry and four acclaimed novels. The second of these, Surfacing, will be released as a feature film this fall starring Joseph Bottoms. Atwood’s latest novel, Life before Man (“Superb,” said the New York Times), is a sad-funny look at a decaying Toronto marriage. The book, like its author, is neither frivolous nor terribly optimistic. In fact Atwood, who admits that her work “doesn’t provide a lot of exits into the sunset,” is both surprised and somewhat skeptical to find herself a commercial success in a Scruples world. “I think I’m kind of an odd phenomenon,” she says, “in that I’m a serious writer who never expected to become a popular one.”
Her popularity has not been lost on Hollywood. Atwood is already pondering six offers for the screen rights to Life before Man. Her poetry, on the other hand, is a different, and often bitter, cup of tea. One work-in-progress, called Torture, presents grisly images of Iranian secret police savagery under the Shah, of rape and genital mutilation. Even her conventional poems compare love “to the cool debaucheries of slugs under damp cardboard.”
The broad scope of her work mirrors her own eclectic background. The daughter of an entomologist, Atwood grew up in the remote forests of northern Quebec where she chopped wood, carried water and trimmed the wicks on kerosene lanterns. She was 12 before she attended school full-time. “I was told there were five things a girl could be,” she recalls, “nurse, teacher, airline stewardess, typist and home economist. I decided on home economics because it paid the most.”
By the time she reached the University of Toronto, however, she was already a writer. “I started at 16 and I have done it ever since.” She earned a degree in an English honors program and went on to graduate studies at Harvard. In 1966 her first volume of poetry won the coveted Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honor.
A five-year marriage to another writer, an American, ended in divorce about the time she published Surfacing, her first novel to win wide critical acclaim. “The marriage,” she insists, “was not a disaster where we ended up hating each other. Neither of us is that kind of person.”
The financial rewards of Surfacing, a tale of an artist searching for her identity, have allowed Atwood to give up teaching to concentrate on her dual literary careers. Curiously, she never writes a line of poetry while working on a novel. “A poem, if you’re lucky, takes 10 minutes. If you’re not lucky, five years—and then you throw it away.” Still, Atwood feels that “the exciting part of writing is in the process and not the product. It must be a lie that writers hate the actual writing. They can’t be that masochistic. I wouldn’t say I am happy while writing, but it is a definite high.”
She shares an old farmhouse on a 100-acre farm north of Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson, 45, and their 4-year-old daughter, Jess. On the farm they raise vegetables, winter wheat, alfalfa—and occasionally the question of marriage. “I don’t feel it is the right thing to do now,” Atwood says. “I always wanted to have a child under the right circumstances, which for me included an interested partner and enough money. It took me a while to get both. Now my child is what I care about most, and my family as a whole. Writing is a very important part of my life, but it’s not a human being. I’m pretty much aware that there is a difference between them.”
Atwood is currently working on the screenplay of her third novel, Lady Oracle. In hours away from farm chores and their typewriters, she and Gibson drink homemade beer and listen to Willie Nelson records. “I’m not the fur coat or luxuries type,” she says, “There is nothing I want to buy that I don’t have.” Their only indulgence is travel, most recently to the West Indies.
“All I want now is more of what I’ve got,” she says. “I want to keep on writing, and in an ideal world, I’d like another child, but that’s not going to happen. If I ever get to the point where I think I’m repeating myself or writing garbage, I hope I’ll stop.”