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Canada's Sardonic Goddess of Dark, Insightful Stories

Margaret Atwood speaks of her ambitious new novel and of being a successful woman in what is still a man's world.

September 26, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a writer, Margaret Atwood is impossible to categorize. She has written 15 works of fiction, five of nonfiction, 13 poetry collections and five children's books. Within these genres, her characters and story lines cross all borders, roaming through history into the future, working through diaries and flashbacks, prose poems and traditional narrative. There are a few consistencies: Her main characters are, with few exceptions, women, and her settings are often Canadian.

Yet one always knows when one is reading an Atwood novel, and the reason for that is apparent the moment the writer herself begins to speak. Her voice is unmistakable, even for those who have never heard it. Low, even-cadenced, with a deadpan delivery of that final one-liner, that outrageous observation, it echoes in one pitch or another through all of her writing. Skeptical yet vulnerable, an unflinching, lifted-eyebrow of a voice. The kind of voice an audience leans into.

When Atwood recently appeared at UCLA to mark the publication of her new novel, "The Blind Assassin" (Doubleday), there were plenty of them. Words, that is. In what was billed as a conversation about writing with KCRW-FM's (89.9) Michael Silverblatt, the 60-year-old Canadian writer read a bit from the book, and then proceeded to skim over a wide variety of topics. On her granny's inability to knit: "During the war, she was relegated to wash cloths, but even they [didn't come out] square." On the mysticism of numbers: "There are 93 chapters in ['The Blind Assassin'], which is a very good number because if you add 9 and 3, it's 12, and if you add 1 and 2, it's 3, and someone out there knows what I'm talking about. . . ." On her early teaching career: "I taught grammar to engineering students in a Quonset hut at 8:30 in the morning. I made them read Kafka. I thought it would come in handy in their later lives." On Canadian nationalism: "Canada is such a peculiar country that if you say 'Canada exists,' people think you mean you hate the United States."

Even when discussing the role of writer as shaman, she managed to invoke Virgil with the timing and delivery of a great stand-up. By way of PBS.

After that, she answered questions. About character and voice, about the mechanics of writing. Her answers were poetic if a bit vague--about finding the right voice, she said, "It's the moment when you're learning to ride a bike that you realize you haven't fallen off and you're actually moving forward."

"Novelists," she said finally, "write not out of a great fund of wisdom but out of a great fund of ignorance. We're trying to create order out of chaos. And it's dark in there."

After that, Atwood was, as they say, available for signing. Which can take some time when you've written enough to occupy an entire bookcase. People, she said the following morning at her hotel, tend to present her with their entire Atwood libraries.

How long did it go on?

"Never you mind," she said. "I'm still upright. One dear sweet man," she added, "had got a hold of an edition of one of my books for which I had done some watercolors. He wanted me to sign every one."

And did she?

"Of course. Not one of my characters would have done such a thing. But I'm much nicer than any of my characters."

This is a point she makes several times, in several ways. Not that her main characters are evil, or even mean, but they are often--and often understandably--self-centered, a bit impatient, perhaps, with others as they quest for their personal truths.

Atwood certainly seems a patient person, sympathetic with the relentless questions of young writers demanding she explain her methods, as if she were a magician concealing a set of directions.

"What people want is to know how to do it," she said. "We want a magic pill, or someone to tell us there is no magic pill. What we don't want is for one to exist that we can't get a hold of. So it's actually a relief to find out that that's not how it works. People come up later and say, 'Thank you for saying it's confusing and dark because that's how I feel.' "

'Handmaid's Tale' Made Her Popular

Atwood came to the attention of the American masses in 1990, when her remarkable novel "The Handmaid's Tale" was made into a rather disappointing film of the same name. Over the years, her fiction has been dubbed feminist, gothic, popular, literary, historic, domestic and political. All of these things are accurate, but none of them alone is true.

The themes of her work are those of all art: love, death, family, fear, work and power. In Atwood's hands they are illuminated and clarified by things as mundane as a foray into a lover's bathroom cabinet, or as extraordinary as the United States run by religious fundamentalists. In either case, in every case, she attempts to tell the truth of her characters' lives, even if the truth is the revelation of their lies.

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