This section contains 2,014 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Interview by Margaret Atwood with Earl G. Ingersoll
SOURCE: "Waltzing Again: A Conversation with Margaret Atwood," in Margaret Atwood: Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1990, pp. 234-38.
In the following interview, Atwood discusses her relationship to her readers and critics of her works as well as the themes of Cat's Eye.
[Ingersoll]: Since as you know I've been working on a collection of your interviews, could we begin by talking about interviews? You have been interviewed very frequently. How do you feel about being interviewed?
[Atwood]: I don't mind "being interviewed" any more than I mind Viennese waltzing—that is, my response will depend on the agility and grace and attitude and intelligence of the other person. Some do it well, some clumsily, some step on your toes by accident, and some aim for them. I've had interviews that were pleasant and stimulating experiences for me, and I've had others that were hell. And of course you do get tired of being misquoted, quoted out of context, and misunderstood. You yourself may be striving for accuracy (which is always complicated), whereas journalists are striving mainly for hot copy, the more one-dimensional the better. Not all of them of course, but enough.
I think the "Get the Guest" or "David and Goliath" interview tends to become less likely as you age; the interviewer less frequently expects you to prove you're a real writer, or a real woman, or any of the other things they expect you to prove. And you run into a generation of interviewers who studied you in high school and want to help you hobble across the street, rather than wishing to smack you down for being a presumptuous young upstart.
Let's not pretend however that an interview will necessarily result in any absolute and blinding revelations. Interviews too are an art form; that is to say, they indulge in the science of illusion.
You've said that when you began writing you imagined you'd have to starve in an attic without an audience sufficiently large to support your writing. Is there a Margaret Atwood who would have preferred the obscurity of a Herman Melville to whom you refer so frequently, or do you draw upon your readers' responses to your work? How much do you feel involved in a kind of dialogue with your readers?
The alternative, for me, to selling enough books or writing enough scripts and travel articles to keep me independent and to buy my time as a writer would be teaching in a university, or some other job. I've done that, and I've been poor, and I prefer things the way they are. For instance, this way I can say what I want to, because nobody can fire me. Not very many people in our society have that privilege.
I did not expect a large readership when I began writing, but that doesn't mean I'm not pleased to have one. It doesn't mean either that I write for a "mass audience." It means I'm one of the few literary writers who get lucky in their lifetimes.
My readers' responses to my work interest me, but I don't "draw upon" them. The response comes after the book is published; by the time I get responses, I'm thinking about something new. Dialogue with the readers? Not exactly. Dickens could have a dialogue with his readers that affected the books when he was publishing his novels in serial form, but we've lost that possibility. Though it does of course cheer me when someone likes, appreciates, or shows me that he or she has read my books intelligently.
Are you worried by self-consciousness as you write? Or is it an asset?
Self-consciousness? Do you mean consciousness of my self? That's what you have to give up when writing—in exchange for consciousness of the work. That's why most of what writers say about how they write—the process—is either imperfect memory or fabrication. If you're paying proper attention to what you're doing, you are so absorbed in it that you shouldn't be able to tell anyone afterwards exactly how you did it. In sports they have instant replay. We don't have that for writers.
The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle and now Cat's Eye seem in large part jeux d'esprit. You give your readers the impression that you are having a good time writing—it's hard work, but also good fun. How important is "play" to you in writing? Do you have a sense of how much the reader will enjoy what you write, as you're writing it?
I don't think Cat's Eye is a jeu d'esprit. (Oxford Shorter: "a witty or humorous trifle.") In fact, I don't think my other "comic" novels are jeux d'esprit, either. I suspect that sort of definition is something people fall back on because they can't take women's concerns or life patterns at all seriously; so they see the wit in those books, and that's all they see. Writing is play in the same way that playing the piano is "play," or putting on a theatrical "play" is play. Just because something's fun doesn't mean it isn't serious. For instance, some get a kick out of war. Others enjoy falling in love. Yet others get a bang out of a really good funeral. Does that mean war, love, and death are trifles?
Cat's Eye strikes me as unusual in one especially dramatic way: it builds upon the most detailed and perceptive exploration of young girlhood that I can recall having read. Once we've read that section of the novel, we readers might think, we've had fiction which explores this stage of young boyhood, but why haven't writers, even writers who are women, dealt with this stage of a woman's development before? How did you get interested in this area of girlhood, from roughly eight to twelve?
I think the answer to this one is fairly simple: writers haven't dealt with girls age eight to twelve because this area of life was not regarded as serious "literary" material. You do get girls this age in juvenile fiction—all those English boarding-school books. And there have been some—I'm thinking of Frost in May. But it's part of that "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart, / 'Tis woman's whole existence" tendency—that is, the tendency to think that the only relationships of importance to women are their dealings with men (parents, boyfriends, husbands, God) or babies. What could be of importance in what young girls do with and to one another? Well, lots, it seems, judging from the mail…. I guess that's where "dialogue with the readers" comes in. Cordelia really got around, and she had a profound influence on how the little girls who got run over by her were able to respond to other women when they grew up.
I sometimes get interested in stories because I notice a sort of blank—why hasn't anyone written about this? Can it be written about? Do I dare to write it? Cat's Eye was risky business, in a way—wouldn't I be trashed for writing about little girls, how trivial? Or wouldn't I be trashed for saying they weren't all sugar and spice?
Or I might think about a story form, and see how it could be approached from a different angle—Cinderella from the point of view of the ugly sister, for instance. But also I wanted a literary home for all those vanished things from my own childhood—the marbles, the Eaton's catalogues, the Watchbird Watching You, the smells, sounds, colors. The textures. Part of fiction writing I think is a celebration of the physical world we know—and when you're writing about the past, it's a physical world that's vanished. So the impulse is partly elegiac. And partly it's an attempt to stop or bring back time.
The reviewer in Time said that "Elaine's emotional life is effectively over at puberty." Does that seem accurate to you now as a reader of your own work?
That ain't the book I wrote, and it ain't the one I read when I go back to it; as I'm doing now, since I'm writing the screenplay. I don't think Elaine's emotional life is over at puberty any more than any of our lives are over then. Childhood is very intense, because children can't imagine a future. They can't imagine pain being over. Which is why children are nearer to the absolute states of Heaven and Hell than adults are. Purgatory seems to me a more adult concept.
There are loose ends left from Elaine's life at that time, especially her unresolved relationship with Cordelia. These things have been baggage for her for a long time. But that's quite different from saying she stopped dead at twelve.
At the end of Cat's Eye Elaine has lost both her parents and her brother, and said goodby finally to her ex- and to Cordelia. She has a husband and daughters she loves, but she seems very alone. What do you make of her aloneness now as a reader of your own novel?
Writers can never really read their own books, just as film directors can never really see their own movies—or not in the way that a fresh viewer can. Because THEY KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
Elaine "seems" alone at the end of the book because she's on an airplane. Also: because the story has been about a certain part of her life, and that part—that story—has reached a conclusion. She will of course land, get out of the plane, and carry on with the next part of her life, i.e. her ongoing time-line with some other characters about whom we have not been told very much, because the story was not about them.
Why do authors kill off certain characters? Usually for aesthetic, that is, structural reasons. If Elaine's parents etc. had still been around, we would have to have scenes with them, and that wasn't appropriate for this particular story. Cat's Eye is partly about being haunted. Why did Dickens kill off Little Nell? Because he was making a statement about the nature of humanity or the cruelty of fate? I don't think so. He just had to polish her off because that was where the story was going.
Related to that question, a reviewer in New Statesman has written: "The novel is extremely bleak about humanity…. Through most of the novel you feel distance, dissection: a cat's eye. It ends on a note of gaiety, forgiveness and hope: but I don't believe it." When you were writing the novel did you have the sense of painting a "bleak" picture of "humanity"?
One reason I don't like interviews, when I don't like them, is that people tend to come up with these weird quotes from reviewers, assume the quote is true, and then ask you why you did it that way. There are a lot of "when did you stop beating your wife" questions in interviews.
For instance, what is this "gaiety, forgiveness and hope" stuff? I'm thinking of doing a calendar in which each day would contain a quote by a reviewer of which the next day's quote would be a total contradiction by another reviewer. I'll buy the forgiveness, sort of; but gaiety? Eh? Where? The jolly old women on the plane are something she doesn't have. You find yourself looking under the sofa for some other book by the same name that might have strayed into the reviewer's hands by mistake. Or maybe they got one with some of the pages left out.
Nor, judging from the mail I received, did readers "feel distance, dissection." Total identification is more like it. Maybe the readers were identifying with the character's attempt to achieve distance, etc. She certainly attempts it, but she doesn't get it. As for "bleak," that's a word that tends to be used by people who've never been outside Western Europe or North America, and the middle class in either location. They think bleak is not having a two-car garage. If they think I'm bleak, they have no idea of what real bleak is like. Try Kierkegaard. Try Tadeusz Konwicki. Try Russell Banks, for that matter.
Or maybe … yes, maybe … I'm bleak for a woman. Is that the key? Are we getting somewhere now?
This section contains 2,014 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)