Human Nature and Activism in Writing: Margaret Atwood, by Katie Struckel

Who would have thought that when Margaret Atwood published seven of her poems on a small-bed letterpress at the age of 21, she’d emerge as one of the most respected artists of this century? Canadian-based Atwood is the author of over 50 titles, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace and her most recent novel, The Blind Assassin. Named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 100 Best Writers of the Century, Atwood has made a place for herself in all walks of literature.

Being proficient at writing in a variety of forms is one of Atwood’s strengths. She has written everything from fiction to poetry and most recently opera, simply because no one told her not to. “I think if I had gone to creative writing school, they probably would have said, ‘Pick one or the other,'” she says. “But since there were hardly any creative writing schools at that time, I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t do what struck me.”

Atwood began her writing career while still in high school, where she wrote for the school newspaper and contributed pieces to the yearbook literary section. In college she wrote for both school literary magazines and non-school publications. It was at this time that she published her poems.

“I published seven poems and made them into a little book, which cost 50 cents,” she says. “I wish I had kept a lot of them.” Atwood took the 200 books to local bookstores and “low and behold, some of them agreed to take those little things.” Most likely those same bookstores stock Atwood’s titles today.

In this interview with Margaret Atwood, she shares her views on the novel form, the fundamentals of writing, and the socio-political impact she has had on society.

You’ve said that novels aren’t sociological texts or political tracts. How would you characterize novels?

Well, novels are stories; they don’t purport to be factual relations of events that have actually happened. In other words, they’re not like stories in a newspaper in that you kind of hope they might be true. The idea with a novel is that it’s true in a different way. It’s true about human nature, but it’s not true about somebody called “John Smith,” whose name is also John Smith in the novel. You’re telling stories about the kinds of things that happen, and you’re telling “what if” stories, but you’re not telling, “On June the 5th, year 2000, Katie phoned Margaret and had the following conversation.”

However, that’s not to say that the novel has nothing to do with society. Of course it does, because you’re telling “what if” stories and “this is the kind of thing that happens” stories about us, who we are, where we are, where we’ve been and all of those kinds of things. Sometimes you’re telling them about Mary Queen of Scots, but they’re still about human nature.

So then, overall, you’re saying a novel is about human nature and that’s really the role it plays in society — to reflect our humanity.

Well, you can’t help that, because human beings write them. And they write them either well or badly. But with the good ones, the reaction the reader has is “that’s right,” or “that’s the way it is,” or “that’s what would have happened,” or “I’m surprised to hear that, but now that you tell me, it all fits.” And sometimes you say, “I don’t believe that in a minute.” In that case, the novel’s gone off the track.


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