March 06, 1989 12:00 PM

Thirty-three years ago, when Margaret Atwood first decided she wanted to become a Serious Writer, she was convinced that she was in for a miserable time. “It was because of all those biographies of women writers,” she says. “There was always something drastically wrong with them. Emily Dickinson lived in a cupboard, Charlotte Bronte died in childbirth. They were weird like Christina Rossetti, or they drank or committed suicide like Sylvia Plath. Writing seemed a kind of call to doom. I thought I would probably get TB and live in a garret and have a terrible life.”

She proceeded, courageously, nonetheless, and proved all her fantasies wrong. Now 49, Atwood has long been both a critical and a popular success. More than 20 books of poetry, fiction and essays have earned her numerous prizes and a loyal readership. Her last novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), spent nearly four months on the New York Times bestseller list. Her new effort, Cat’s Eye, just cracked the list at No. 9. Moreover, she’s in good health, and the place she calls home is not a drafty garret but the cosy Toronto house she shares with novelist Graeme Gibson, 53, and their 12-year-old daughter, Jess. Atwood’s books may focus on life’s darker elements—a reviewer once dubbed her “Canada’s high priestess of angst”—but the priestess herself is quite content. “I probably write unhappier than I am,” she says. “And that’s because I think the world is unhappier than I am.”

Cat’s Eye is a case in point. Elaine Risley, the novel’s protagonist, is a successful 50ish painter who has come home to Toronto for a retrospective of her works. She is uncomfortable with her acclaim, and with being in the city she fled years before to escape troubling childhood memories: As a young girl of 10, Elaine was tormented mercilessly by her best friend, Cordelia, and nearly killed by one of her vicious pranks. When Cordelia later became a depressed, overweight teenager, Elaine betrayed her in turn. Now, at her moment of professional glory, the grown-up Elaine finds herself still obsessed with these schoolgirl cruelties and begins to understand the role they have played in shaping—or misshaping—her life.

The book (which takes its title from a treasured marble) is a stunning evocation of childhood—with all its morbid fascinations, misinformed fears and barely civilized pleasures. (Elaine and her brother like to look at scabs under the microscope.) Much of its detail is autobiographical. Atwood’s father, like her heroine’s, was a forest entomologist who spent years traipsing with his wife and children through the backwoods of northern Ontario and Quebec collecting specimens. Like Elaine Risley, Margaret went to school only sporadically until she was 12, when the family finally settled in Toronto and confined their bug-seeking expeditions to summers. But was young Peggy, as she was called, herself a victim of little-girl tortures? “Ah, now that’s getting into the autobiographical fallacy,” Atwood says. “Does it matter whether Wordsworth really saw any daffodils? Besides, it’s very difficult to get a fix on what one was really like.”

She does remember that she began writing at age 6. “Comic books and novels,” she says, “because my brother was writing them, and I looked up to him. And then I stopped around 8, probably because he did.” She started again at 16, discovered writing provided “a terrific high” and abandoned plans to become a home economist. (“The guidance book had said there were five careers for women: nurse, secretary, stewardess, teacher and home economist,” she says. “I didn’t want to be any of those things, but home economists were paid the most.”) Atwood studied English and philosophy at the University of Toronto, then took a master’s degree in literature at Radcliffe. In 1966 her first volume of poetry, The Circle Game, won Canada’s coveted Governor General’s Award. Three years later, her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published to admiring reviews.

But it was not until 1972 that Atwood began making a living at her craft. “Success for me meant no longer having to teach at university,” says Atwood, who had been an instructor in London, Toronto and British Columbia. About the same time, her five-year marriage to writer James Polk ended in divorce, and she began her 18-year relationship with Gibson. He says, “It was fascination at first sight.” She says she was not initially impressed but grew to be. “I like him,” she says now, “because he’s cute, and he’s large, and he is not threatened by me, which is major.”

Atwood credits Gibson—whose novels, Communion and Perpetual Motion, were both favorably reviewed—with getting her involved in an array of causes, including PEN (he heads the Canadian English-speaking branch) and environmental groups. The two write at home in separate studies, take long walks together for exercise and occasionally jaunt off to Costa Rica or Cuba to bird-watch. They also entertain regularly. “Our friends have a wide range of political views,” Atwood says. “We try to invite people who won’t kill each other.”

It’s a far cry from the cold, spare garret Atwood imagined as a child. Still, she wonders occasionally if her growing literary success might somehow threaten this comfortable domestic routine. The movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale, which begins filming this month with Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall and a screenplay by Harold Pinter, will no doubt enhance Atwood’s celebrity, and she’s not thrilled about that. In Canada, “there’s more of an idea that with fame comes responsibility, so I get a lot of phone calls,” Atwood says. “I’d say I’m famous enough.”