Margaret Atwood, "'Oryx and Crake’ Revisited"- Abramowitz Memorial Lecture (4/4/2004)
BRODY: I'm Alan Brody. I'm the associate provost for the arts at MIT. And I want to welcome the MIT community and everyone else as well to this 2004 Abramowitz Lecture with Margaret Atwood. We're just thrilled to have you here. And we're certainly thrilled to have Margaret here as well.
Before I begin, let me just say, unless you are a drug dealer or an obstetrician, please turn off your cell phones, pagers.
BRODY: Thank you. The Abramowitz Lecture Series was established at MIT through the generosity and imagination of William L. Abramowitz, class of '35, as a memorial to his father. It's been sustained since his death by the devoted interest of his wife and children. And we lost Lee, his wife, this year. She was an extraordinary woman, dedicated to this lecture series, dedicated to MIT, to the memory of William, and was consistently, right up until the end, interested in this series, and sensitive, and excited about the kinds of things we've been doing. And I personally am going to miss her a great deal.
Since 1961, the Abramowitz Series has brought renowned performing artists and writers to MIT to perform, present public lectures, and always to collaborate with students and faculty in free programs. Is Dan Epstein here? There is-- I believe there's a member of the Abramowitz family that we'd like to thank. But he didn't make it. So much for commitment.
AUDIENCE: Oh, my god.
AUDIENCE: You might need an overflow room.
BRODY: If you're in the overflow room, thanks so much.
I want to introduce Candis Callison, who was on the Abramowitz Selection Committee. She's a PhD candidate now in STS. And she is personally responsible for bringing Margaret here by delivering a hand-delivered note to her at the Giller Awards. So, Candice, you'll speak about Margaret.
CALLISON: Yeah, they say Canada is a small town, but I was really surprised there's only two degrees of separation between myself and our esteemed guest today. It's my great privilege to introduce Margaret Atwood to you. As many of you well know, she is the prolific author of 16 works of fiction, five collections of nonfiction, 15 editions of poetry, and four children's books. And those are just the major publishers' titles. Her work has won a long list of honors, including the Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, Canada's top literary award.
I grew up in Canada. And I have to say that the name Margaret Atwood is and was synonymous with everything that is great about Canadian fiction and, indeed, what puts Canada on the map in the literary world. But during the mid-'90s, I began to understand her as a writer who was at work both in the so-called real world and in the fictive worlds she was creating.
At that time, as a member and past president of PEN Canada, she spoke out on behalf of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer who faced execution for his writing and political action in his own country. I remember hearing on the radio that even Margaret Atwood had spoken out in support of this writer, who was previously an obscure figure to me and much of the Canadian public. It was a cue that we had better sit up and take notice of what was happening on the other side of the world.
Similarly, as the past couple of years have seen America go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, her voice could be found in newspapers and publications like The Nation, calling readers to think and act about the events taking place here and on the other side of the globe. Perhaps this is why nestled in amongst her list of prizes for literature and writing are awards that speak on both her affect on and involvement with the nonfictive world, awards like Ms. Magazine's Woman of the Year, Humanist of the Year, and the Order of Canada, Canada's top honor to those who have immeasurably contributed to our society.
As I was preparing to introduce her today, I went online and read the many rave reviews for Oryx and Crake. And in amongst them on a message board, I found a posting from an individual with the summary line "shockingly relevant." This perhaps sums up her work in general and specifically in regards to Oryx and Crake. The posting went on to praise this novel for the creation of an all-too-recognizable world in which characters grapple with moral and scientific dilemmas.
Again, it seems that it is a cue to sit up and start thinking with and through science and technology about the world we are collectively creating. And perhaps there is no better crowd than ours at MIT that understands the relevancy of thinking about society through this sort of lens. So without further ado, here to talk more about her work and her latest novel, Margaret Atwood.
ATWOOD: Thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be here today. I have been at MIT before. As I recall, that event took place in a corridor, and I'm glad we all have chairs today. I'm here to talk about my novel called Oryx and Crake. But before I do that, I'll give you a little bit of background because people are asking me things like, how did you do the research? And why were you interested in this subject, and so forth.
It is a book about that wonderful place called the future in which we can invent because none of us have ever been there and come back yet. And I think the future was what we took to when we no longer sent fictional characters to places like Hell. Now we've got the future. For a while, we sent them to uninhabited islands, but we ran out of those. And sometimes we send them to other universes, but I can't do other universes. So it's this universe, a little bit further on.
And as for The Handmaid's Tale, I put nothing in it that does not have its corresponding clipping in the ominous brown research box in the cellar. That is, nothing is absolutely pure invention. Although, I have to admit, I cranked a few things up a bit. However, the spider goat is with us today. And so is the luminous green rabbit. I will not hear gasps of shock from this crowd because you already know that. But some people go, oh, no.
Anyway, I, in fact, grew up amongst the scientists. My father was a biologist. He was an entomologist. These are noteworthy for producing weird, writer offspring. And indeed, a lot of biologists write themselves, and a lot of them actually read. And my dad was a great reader. He loved history. He loved fiction. And he was known to burst into long snatches of memorized Sir Walter Scott poems and also to give us quizzes on Sherlock Holmes, as in what Sherlock Holmes story contains the bell pull and the snake?
AUDIENCE: The Speckled Band.
ATWOOD: Right. So that's how I grew up. And I thought I was going to be a biologist. I was headed in that direction. My brother actually became one. He became a marine biologist. And from there, he went into neuroscience, and now he's pretty much with the synapse. And when I published my first book of poetry, he wrote me a congratulatory letter that said, "Congratulations on publishing your first book of poetry. I used to do that kind of thing myself when I was younger."
So I've always kept up with the pop-science reading. And by pop-science reading, I mean the kind where you don't have to do the math yourself. I like other people to do the math and then tell me what they've found out. But I think that growing up with a scientist gives you a couple of things. Number one, you're very observant. You observe details. It's not just a tree. It's a certain kind of tree.
And it also makes you quite skeptical. I don't mean that you're a cynic or a pessimist. I mean that you question things because, as you know, in science, an experiment has to be repeatable and get the same results. So you are always asking things like, well, how did they come to that conclusion? How did they do the experiment? And since I spent some time in market research as well, I have the same skepticism about polls. I want to know what the question was and also what the question was that was asked just before that question because that can skew the results as well.
Oryx and Crake, its structure is like that of the Iliad, a book it resembles in no other way. But that is, it begins in the middle of events, and then we go back in time to find out how we got to that midpoint, and then we go forward in time to find out what the protagonist will do next. And at the midpoint of the story, the protagonist, who began life as a boy called Jimmy has changed his name to Snowman. That is not as in "Frosty the" but as in the Abominable Snowman, a creature that may or may not exist and may or may not be semi-human, which is kind of the way he's feeling about himself when the story opens.
He is living in a tree where he sleeps at night. This is because of the new and unusual life forms that are running around on the ground at night. And you'll be happy to know that I've provided him with duct tape.
There will be duct tape in the future. It is with the aid of this duct tape that he has constructed the platform on which he spends his nights. He kind of wishes he might be able to have a fire up there, but he can't. And apart from the duct tape, he's not really a handy kind of guy. He's not a kind of Boy Scout sort of person. He is, therefore, unable to dig the hole in the ground with the pointed stake on which to impale small game. He can't do that.
But he is able to wield a can opener. This is a skill I would advise everyone to acquire. And with the aid of this can opener, he has been opening cans that he has found left around, and he has been eating the contents because there are no other people, as such, in his vicinity. Something has happened to them. We find out in the course of the plot what, but I would never think of blowing it for you. Because, shocking as it may seem to me, some of you may not yet have read this book.
There are, however, some people-like creatures living nearby along with the luminous rabbits. We've got the luminous rabbits already, by the way, and some other animals that have been invented. But these new people have been improved. And I'll tell you some of the improvements. I think some of them would be quite good, thus disproving the question, surely, you're against science. No. I think it's great so long as it is for improving types of things.
For instance, these people have built-in sunblock. I think that would be good. That means they don't need the textile industry, or Vogue magazine, or shopping. They don't need any of those things because they don't do any clothes. They have an extra layer of skin on the bottoms of their feet, giving them a kind of Birkenstock effect. And they have built-in mosquito repellent, which I think would also be a major plus. They do smell like walking citrus fruits, but that wouldn't be too bad.
In addition to that, they're not only vegetarian. Better, they will never need agriculture because they can eat leaves, unlike you and me. We can't digest them. But these people can-- and grass as well. This means that their digestive systems would have to have been modified.
Now, there are two possible models. One would have been the cow, but that would have had a less aesthetically pleasing effect, and these people are very good looking. So instead, they've been modified in the direction of the rabbit. If you saw the, I think a few months ago, National Geographic with the new, big wheel of life about who's related to whom, you will have noted that we are more closely related to the rabbit than previously thought. So maybe it wouldn't be too hard. Now, there are some side effects to having the digestive system of a rabbit. And you will come across those in the book. But it's a small price to pay.
The other modification they have which I think would be very useful is that they can purr. The purring is not to make them cuter. There is, in fact, grounds to believe-- I did say I cranked some things up a bit. But there's grounds to believe that the purring of the cat has a couple of functions. We know that cats purr when they're happy, but we also know that they purr when they're in pain.
And if you have ever had a cat, you will know that if you have been injured or ill, your cat is very likely to get up on top of you and purr over your injured part or, indeed, over your whole self if you've got something like the flu. And you will also know that if a person walks into your house who hates and fears cats, your cat will go immediately to that person. And so, possibly, the purring is the self-healing aid, and your cat is going over to that person out of a desire to be helpful and kind-- the only altruistic thing a cat has ever been known to do. So the people in this book have got purring because they don't Band-Aids or any other-- they don't have hospitals, but they do have purring. So they can purr to self-heal.
But the very, very, very best thing of all that they have-- and I think this would be such an improvement-- instead of being intermittently monogamous the way we are, they are, instead, seasonal like most other animals. So they are either in season, in which case they're interested, or they're not in season, in which case they're not. And to make things even more clear, they, like many another animal, are color-coded so that, when they're in season, parts of them turn blue.
Think how useful that would be. No more, no means no-- no means yes. No more, I'm washing my hair. And I'll also be washing my hair next Friday. No more unrequited love. No more pain and anguish over this issue. You're either in season or you're not in season. And no more, by the way, pair-bonding.
So there they are. They will never write Othello. In fact, they will never write anything because they can't write. These people live at some distance from our protagonist. Why is that? First of all, to them, he looks pretty strange and monstrous. But also, for him, they're pretty boring. So he actually doesn't want to spend too much time with them because they don't understand him at all, and they don't share many of the same items of interest. This is his predicament at the beginning of the book.
The two characters on the front, Oryx, who is a female person, and Crake, who is a male person, are dead by the time the book begins. I think this is a great advantage. What it means is that we see them only through Jimmy Snowman and his memories of them. They happen to have been the two most important people in his life.
Oryx was the person he loved and idealized-- he's quite a romantic-- ever since he first saw her on an internet porn site. And Crake is his best friend. With him, he went to high school. Now, at the end of high school, their paths diverged for a while because Jimmy was not a numbers person. Jimmy was a words person.
Crake, on the other hand, was good at both. So Crake got to go off to the very well-funded Watson Crick Institute, and Jimmy was stuck with the crumbling, falling-apart Martha Graham Academy, the graduates of which are all going to end up in advertising in the future. Because in the future, the arts have somewhat diminished. There is, for instance, no longer quite the film industry there is now because people can make their own films digitally on their very own computers. And Jimmy himself has made quite an effective naked Pride and Prejudice. So to sum it up, it's a joke-filmed, fun-packed, rollicking adventure--
adventure story about the downfall of the human race. Not everybody can get those two ideas together in their heads. But I think it's a cheering sort of book, much in the same way that a Christmas Carol is cheering because Scrooge gets to wake up at the end, and he gets to say, it was all a horrible dream. I'm not really dead, and I've got a second chance. And you can wake up at the end of the book and say, it's only a book. We're on the way. True. But we do still have time, and we've got a second chance. And the other reason it's cheering is that, however awful things may be in your life, they're much worse in the book.
I always preferred that kind of book. I don't like books at all in which everybody's happy all the time. They depress me no end. This is the only book that has ever received a fan letter from Kermit the Frog. Kermit sent the fan letter. It's got his picture on it. And he also sent a poem right on the fan letter. And the poem says, "Oryx and Crake, Oryx and Crake, a frog by a lake reading Oryx and Crake." Now, I do not lie. This is true.
And I'll tell you why I got this fan letter. The person who edits The Sunday Times-- sorry, yes-- The Sunday Times literary section in London, England, is a person called Erica Wagner. And Erica Wagner grew up in New York. And her first job at the age of eight was forging the signature of Kermit the Frog on all of Kermit's answers to fan letters because her parents' job was answering all of the Muppet fan mail. This is a true story. So I think we've got-- I think we put that fan letter on our website.
I'm going to read you a tiny bit out of the book. It's not the bit I usually choose to read. But for you, I'll read it. And it might help explain why Kermit was so taken with this book. It's a conversation between Crake as a teenager and Jimmy as, now, I guess, they're both in their early 20s, and they've got together although they're at different colleges.
"'How much misery,' Crake said, one lunchtime, 'how much needless despair has been caused by a series of biological mismatches, a misalignment of the hormones and pheromones, resulting in the fact that the one you love so passionately won't or can't love you? As a species, we're pathetic in that way, imperfectly monogamous. If we could only pair-bond for life like gibbons or else opt for a total guilt-free promiscuity, there would be no more sexual torment. Better plan-- make it cyclical and also inevitable as in the other mammals. You'd never want someone you couldn't have.'
'True enough.' Jimmy replied, or Jim, as he was now insisting without results. Everyone still called him Jimmy. 'But think what we'd be giving up.' 'Such as?' 'Courtship behavior. In your plan, we'd just be a bunch of hormone robots.' Jimmy thought he should put things in Crake's terms, which was why he said 'courtship behavior.' What he meant was the challenge, the excitement, the chase. 'There would be no free choice.'
'There is courtship behavior in my plan,' said Crake, 'except that it would always succeed. And we're hormone robots anyway, only we're faulty ones.' 'Well, what about art?' said Jimmy, a little desperately. He was, after all, a student at the Martha Graham Academy, so he felt some need to defend the art and creativity turf. 'What about it?' said Crake, smiling his calm smile. 'All that mismatching you talk about, it's been an inspiration, or that's what they say. Think of all the poetry. Think Petrarch. Think John Donne. Think The Vita Nuova. Think--'
'Art,' said Crake, 'I guess they still do a lot of jabbering about that over where you are. What is it Byron said? Who'd write if they could do otherwise? Something like that. 'That's what I mean,' said Jimmy. He was alarmed by the reference to Byron. What right had Crake to poach on his own shoddy, threadbare territory? Crake should stick to science and leave poor Byron to Jimmy.
'What do you mean?' said Crake, as if coaching a stutterer. 'I mean, when you can't get the otherwise, then wouldn't you rather be fucking?' said Crake. He wasn't including himself in this question. His tone was one of detached but not very strong interest, as if he were conducting a survey of people's less-attractive personal habits, such as nose-picking. Jimmy found that his face got redder and his voice got squeakier the more outrageous Crake became. He hated that.
'When any civilization is dust and ashes,' he said, 'art is all that's left over-- images, words, music, imaginative structures. Meaning, human meaning, that is, is defined by them. You have to admit that.' 'That's not quite all that's left over,' said Crake. 'The archaeologists are just as interested in gnawed bones, and old bricks, and ossified shit these days, sometimes more interested. They think human meaning is defined by those things too.'
Jimmy would like to have said, 'Why are you always putting me down?' But he was afraid of the possible answers because it's so easy being one of them. So instead, he said, 'What have you got against it?' "Against what?' 'Art.' 'Nothing,' said Crake, lazily. 'People can amuse themselves any way they like. If they want to play with themselves in public, whack off over doodling, scribbling, and fiddling, that's fine with me. Anyway, it serves a biological purpose.'
'Such as?' Jimmy knew that everything depended on keeping his cool. These arguments had to be played through like a game. If he lost his temper, Crake won. 'The male frog in mating season,' said Crake, 'makes as much noise as it can. The females are attracted to the male frog with the biggest, deepest voice because it suggests a more powerful frog, one with superior genes. Small male frogs, it's been documented, discover that if they position themselves in empty drain pipes, the pipe acts as a voice amplifier, and the small frog appears much larger than it really is.'
'So?' 'So that's what art is for the artist,' said Craig, 'an empty drain pipe, an amplifier, a stab at getting laid.' 'Your analogy falls down when it comes to female artists,' said Jimmy. 'They're not in it to get laid. They'd gain no biological advantage from amplifying themselves since potential mates would be deterred rather than attracted by that sort of amplification. Men aren't frogs. They don't want women who are 10 times bigger than them.
'Female artists are biologically confused,' said Crake. 'You must have discovered that by now.' This was a snide dig at Jimmy's current snarled romance with a brunette poet who had renamed herself Morgana, and refused to tell him what her given name had been, and who was currently on a 28-day sex fast in honor of the great moon goddess Eostre, patroness of soy beans and bunnies. Martha Graham attracted those kinds of girls. An error though to have confided this affair to Crake."
That's from Crake's past. I'll read you a small bit from his present, and then we can have a question-and-answer session in which you can ask me things you are dying to know, such as, how come you're a blonde now?
So this is from-- Jimmy is-- Jimmy Snowman is wearing his bed sheet, and sitting on the beach, and it's dusk. And he's remembering that little poem he was taught as a child. "Snowman screws his eyes shut, pushes his fists into them, clenches his entire face. There is the wishing star, all right. It's blue. 'I wish I may, I wish I might," he says, 'have the wish I wish tonight." Fat chance.
"Oh, Snowman, why are you talking to no one?' says a voice. Snowman opens his eyes. Three of the older children are standing just out of reach, regarding him with interest. They must have crept up on him in the dusk. 'I'm talking to Crake,' he says. 'But you talk to Crake through your shiny thing. Is it broken?' Snowman lifts his left arm, holds out his watch. 'This is for listening to Crake. Talking to him is different.'
'Why are you talking to him about stars? What are you telling to Crake, oh, Snowman?' 'I was telling him,' says Snowman, 'that you ask too many questions.' He holds his watch to his ear. 'And he's telling me that if you don't stop doing that, you'll be toast.' 'Please, oh, Snowman, what is toast?' Another error, Snowman thinks. He should avoid arcane metaphors.
'Toast,' he says, 'is something very, very bad. It's so bad, I can't even describe it. Now it's your bedtime. Go away. What is toast?' says Snowman to himself once they've run off. Toast is when you take a piece of bread. What is bread? Bread is when you take some flour. What is flour? We'll skip that part. It's too complicated.
Bread is something you can eat made from a ground-up plant and shaped like a stone. You cook it. Please, why do you cook it? Why don't you just eat the plant? Never mind that part. Pay attention. You cook it. And then you cut it into slices, and you put a slice into a toaster, which is a metal box that heats up with electricity. What is electricity? Don't worry about that. While the slice is in the toaster, you get out the butter. Butter is a yellow grease made from the mammary glands of-- skip the butter.
So the toaster turns the slice of bread black on both sides with smoke coming out. And then this toaster shoots the slice up into the air, and it falls onto the floor. 'Oh, forget it,' says Snowman. 'Let's try again.' Toast was a pointless invention from the dark ages. Toast was an implement of torture that caused all those subjected to it to regurgitate in verbal form the sins and crimes of their past lives. Toast was a ritual item devoured by fetishists in the belief that it would enhance their kinetic and sexual powers. Toast cannot be explained by any rational means. Toast is me. I am toast."
And we can do questions by you waving your arm around, and then I'll repeat it into the mic so people will know what you asked, which will also give me a chance to reformulate the question too. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I work at the National Organization for Women. And I'm constantly quoting The Handmaid's Tale right now, mainly in reference to the series of attacks on Roe v. Wade. But when I read Oryx and Crake, it started haunting me in another way. So I wanted to ask you, between the two, which future do you think is more likely right now, and which is more frightening?
All right, the question was, there is another novel called The Handmaid's Tale, which was published in 1985 and which projects a future in which the United States of America has become a totalitarian theocracy. And for that--
And that book came out of my interest in world history, American history, clothing laws, and such things, and also my irritation when people say, it can't happen here. You know, that always annoys me very much because anything, given the right circumstances, can happen anywhere. What are the circumstances under which totalitarianisms usually come in-- social disruption often connected with economic disruption and fear so that people are frightened, and confused, and they are at a point where they're willing to trade their freedoms for something they think will be safety and security. So that is one possible form of frightening future.
And my rule for that book was I put nothing into it that human beings hadn't already done at some time or another. So we know that this is behavior that we are capable of. And I also am one of those people who believe that you should listen to what people say they're going to do if they get into power because they probably will do it. OK? And one of the mistakes with Hitler was that people read Mein Kampf, and they thought, oh, he's just fooling-- wrong.
So I was born in 1939, the year Canada went into World War II, so I've always been interested in those kinds of histories. That's one kind of a frightening future. And I did set it in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which annoyed Harvard at the time. But that would be the right place to set such a book because "it can't happen here" should be placed in the most extreme here.
They were, I think, somewhat perturbed that the Widener Library became the home of the Secret Service. But they didn't think it was funny. Oh, well. One of my friends wrote me a letter and said, hasn't anybody figured out yet that this book is about the Harvard English Department, which has changed its ways since. But at that time, it didn't hire women. I'm really old.
So, OK, between that and this book, well, what is more frightening? I would say that this book is more frightening because when you're talking about political systems, we know that they can be overcome and changed. And that's how The Handmaid's Tale ends. It ends with a section that takes place after the time of the book in which that system is over.
And I am, therefore, one of those people who have always thought that George Orwell's 1984 is a more cheerful book than some people have supposed. Because what you remember is the end of it, and with Winston Smith in a comatose state, and the boot grinding into the human face forever. But how the book really ends is with a note on Newspeak written in standard English in the past tense, which means that the world of 1984 has been finished. OK, so that is a more hopeful scenario.
The one in this book brings together environmental catastrophe, which we're already-- excuse me-- heading towards. Not senile yet. Can still open bottle of water-- cheering. It brings together environmental catastrophe on the one hand and our scrabbling attempts to do something about the diminishing food supply on the other. We are due to peak at 9 or 10 billion in 2050. We have run through the 90% of the world's fish stocks in the past 50 years. That's why Jimmy in the cafeteria has fish finger, 20% real fish. I'm now thinking that 20% was high. Interesting question, what is the other 80%?
So those things are on the road. And I think we're past the point where even governments can be global warming deniers as they have managed to do so well for so many years. So I'd say this one is scarier although it's not completely game over for the human race, even in this book, as we discover with mixed feelings towards the end. Yes.
AUDIENCE: How do you see the Crakers evolving?
ATWOOD: How do I see the Crakers evolving? Well, their creator has tried very hard to get rid of a few things in them without success. For instance, they still are avid question-askers. Someone has defined human beings as the animal that asks "why?" So they still do that. He's tried to get rid of singing, but he couldn't do that either. Music, I think it seems to be quite hardwired. And he's trying to get rid of dreams, and he couldn't do that.
So they still make music, have dreams, and asked questions. And where will that lead? I certainly wouldn't want to narrow the possibilities by giving my own opinion. Let us say that they do start making something suspiciously-- something suspicious towards the end of the book. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Can you tell us a bit about was it was like for you as a new writer writing a first novel and becoming published?
ATWOOD: What it was like for a new writer writing my first novel and becoming published-- I started writing when I was 16 in high school because I knew no better. And I did not know actually how hard it was going to be. I was quite sanguine about the whole thing. I actually thought-- and this is true. I thought I could write true romance stories in the day because you could make money out of those, and I would sell those. And then in the evenings, I would write my works of blazing artistic genius.
And I did try a couple of those true romance stories, but I could not do them-- not because of the plots. I was good at the plots. I know what the basic plot is. It was, in those days, girl meets two boys. One of them works in a shoe store. The other has a motorcycle.
She's gets tangled up with the one with the motorcycle, and they have an episode on the sofa. And in those days, it had to be phrased as such-- and then they were one, dot, dot, dot, dot. Well, that was the part I couldn't do. I couldn't do the dots. After that, he rides off on his motorcycle, and she has remorse. And if the story has a happy ending, she marries the guy from the shoe store, who forgives her for everything or else just isn't told. So I could do those OK.
So that wasn't going to work out. So I was going to be a journalist. My parents bit their tongues. They had seen a wonderful career in botany for me because I was quite good at it. And if I had gone in that direction, I would be cloning your glow in the dark potatoes right now.
So they dredged up some second cousin who told me, at that time, the '50s, if you become a woman journalist and work for a newspaper, you will only write two things, the wedding write-ups and the obituaries-- good training for a novelist anyway. But so I went into honors English instead. That way, I could teach at a university. And then in the summers, I could write my towering works of blazing artistic genius.
So I did take two years off in the middle because I was scared of my Latin exam at Harvard. And I worked in a market research company and lived in a closet. And it was in a rooming house. They had those then. And I wrote my first novel, which was rejected by everyone. I also wrote a book of poems, and this is worse. It was accepted. I told all my friends. And then by the third member of the small literary press, it was rejected. How depressing is that?
What did I do? I got engaged. And, well, who can blame me? After that, I was going to run off to Europe, live in a garret, and wear black clothing, drink absinthe, smoke cigarettes, write towering works of blazing artistic genius while working as a waitress in the day times. Well, that plan came to nothing. First of all, I couldn't do the smoking. It made me cough. I couldn't do the drinking. It made me throw up. I have New England Puritan ancestors, so it's genetic. So I went to graduate school.
That way, I could-- well, you know the story. So then I got a teaching job at University of British Columbia. And what did I teach? I was at the lowest rung. I taught grammar to engineering students--
--at 8:30 in the morning in a Quonset hut. And they had Quonset huts left over from World War II. And we were all asleep, so it was OK. But I did quite a good thing for them. I made them read the Parables of Kafka, useful to them in their future work, and write short prose pieces based on those, which they quite liked doing because they had a puzzle element. And then we could work on the grammar that way. And I also taught the "Whistle Stop" chorus, Chaucer to TS Eliot-- whew, like that.
And while I was there, I wrote my first published novel-- not the one that was rejected. It was good it was rejected. It wasn't a very good novel-- The Edible Woman. And I wrote it on UBC exam booklets, which have a handy lined page down the right hand and then a place where you can do the doodling on the left. So those were the days before computers. I then typed all of this onto my typewriter-- with my typewriter onto pieces of paper.
I've never been able to type. I'm so glad they invented computers because I no longer have to use the little white bottle with the brush and the little white lines that you can type and stick on. All of that is gone. Now I have the cheerful man in the box who waves at me. All I need, if I'm feeling lonely, all I need to do is pretend I'm writing a letter.
Would you like some help? I can't get Bob the paper clip on my computer. But I've been told about him. Anyway, so that's what I did. I typed it all up. And then I sent it into the publisher, who lost it. This is a Canadian story. I actually got an acceptance letter, and then I heard nothing. But I was studying for my orals, and I knew nothing about publishing anyway, so I didn't know why it was taking so long. And by the time I came out of my trance, my orals trance, I wrote them a letter.
By that time, I had published a book of poetry and won a major literary award. And I said, where is my novel? Then I got a letter from them saying, we read something in the paper about your major literary prize. And it says you've written a novel. Could we see it?
Then the publisher took me out and had a drink. He had actually five drinks. And he told me the most outrageous lie. He would never be able to get away with this now. But what he told me was that the manuscript had been in the hands of a woman editor who had gotten pregnant, and you know how that makes them go funny in the head. And she had left it in a drawer without telling anyone, and that's why they hadn't been answering my letters. What a whopper. It was all the time on his very own floor covered up with other manuscripts.
So that's my publishing story about my first novel, which came out in 1969 although I'd written it in '64 or '65. And I did my very, very first book signing in the men's sock and underwear department of the Hudson's Bay Company in Edmonton, Alberta. So there I was. It was--
ATWOOD: Yes. I don't know why that happened. It was the publicist's first week on the job. Do we--
ATWOOD: Do we know how long she lasted after that? Actually, no. But there I was with my little pile of books saying The Edible Woman. And here are these guys coming in in their galoshes because it was winter, looking to snaffle a pair of jockey shorts during their lunch hour. And they took one look at me and ran the other way. I think I sold two copies. And I thought, is this the glamorous literary life? Well, it did get more glamorous after that. I can't remember when that was. Anything else you'd like to know?
AUDIENCE: Do you have any words of encouragement?
ATWOOD: Words of encouragement-- don't throw anything out. You never know when it might come in handy. How many manuscripts did I submit before I finally got one published? I used to submit a book of poems a year, and that went on for some time. So I think probably "keep at it" is the word of encouragement you're looking for.
As for the writing part, don't look down. Just pretend you're crossing Niagara on a tightrope. Don't look down. It's one step ahead, one foot in front of the other. Don't worry about large issues. Worry about the page. The page is all you've got. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Could you talk about lack of closure in some of your works, for example, in Death by Landscape with Lois and Lucy and not finding closure--
ATWOOD: Lack of closure--
ATWOOD: You mean not telling people who had done it.
ATWOOD: Yes. Closure is very useful in some kinds of writing-- detective stories. You would feel very ticked off if you read through the whole thing, and there was no answer. You know, you'd really feel annoyed because that's the kind of book you want to read. You want to read one with closure, which things get wrapped up at the end.
I would like to write that kind of book, but I don't. And I think I'd like to leave a space at the end so that the reader can. Because I think that reading is a very participatory kind of activity. In fact, when you wire people up when they're reading, more of their brain lights up a lot more than when they're, guess what, watching TV because you have to participate in the act of creating the story.
It's, I would say, reading is to the spoken word as a musical score with somebody playing it is to the composition that you hear. So the page is really just a score for voice. And when you're reading that page, you, the reader, are the musician. You're doing the interpretation. You're also doing the costume design, the acting. You're doing all of those things. So I like to leave room for that. And I like to leave room for the reader to join in the invention. And sometimes, I just can't think of how it would end. I don't know.
AUDIENCE: How might do you consider your stories' engagement with the culture of power or, let's say, in a culture of American power given that you came out of a Canadian background? And in that regard, which of your stories do you think feels the most Canadian to you?
ATWOOD: OK, that's a double question. How does my-- how do I think my writing engages with the issue of power, specifically American power, by which I take it you mean American power in the world or possibly American power within America, number one. And number two, which of my stories appeals most to Canadians?
Well, there is a shocking piece of news for you. First of all, not all Americans are alike. And the other thing that goes along with that is not all Canadians are alike. So some of them like one thing. Some like another. They tended to be quite keen on The Blind Assassin because it had a lot of history in it that they recognized. But similarly, they liked Cat's Eye, but so did a lot of people. And it was a generational thing.
The power question, to get back to that, I think all narratives include an element that has to do with power, that is, who's got the power in the story? Who's got less power? How does the crafty person with less power go about fooling the person with more power, and so on, and so forth.
I don't know whether there's a direct answer to your first question because I'm not writing a directly, small p, political kind of book, that is, I don't write about the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party, and those kinds of things. I think I write about attitudes, and what those attitudes do to people in relationships, and when they're transferred into big-- when they become large scale, what kinds of effects they can have on people.
In The Handmaid's Tale, for instance, there's a powerful totalitarian government. In Oryx and Crake, government has, more or less, as we know it today, more or less vanished. And security issues are in the hands of mercenary armies. Read any news lately? That's who's making a lot of money in Iraq at the moment. They're English mercenary armies. So that's as good an answer as I can do. And I'll do one more, and then we'll wind it up.
AUDIENCE: I just want to ask, what science fiction or what science fiction writers do you think influenced you?
ATWOOD: What science fictions-- fiction writers do I think have influenced me? Funny you should ask. The list is long because this was once part of what was going to be my thesis topic. In fact, I got almost through it before I realized that I didn't have to teach in a university after all. I can write film scripts that never got made-- so, yes, the 19th-century ones in particular. And watch for it coming out soon, my introduction to The Island of Dr. Moreau. And on the stands, even as we speak, is my introduction to Rider Haggard's She. So that will tell you something about that.
I'm not very current, that is, I'm not up on absolutely everything that's being done today. But if you want to read my review of Ursula Le Guin, it was in The New York Review of Books last year. And that has somewhat of an overview, you know, where did science fiction come from, et cetera-- so all of the classics including some of the ones you have never heard of, such as WH Hudson and his strange book A Crystal Age, and The Purple Cloud, those kinds of books.
I was very keen as a child on The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle's book about discovering a plateau full of dinosaurs. I really loved that. It's been made into some really bad movies, but I liked it as a book. So if you want the full reading list, we can talk. But it's long. And one of the things I probably got from doing all of that is some ideas on what I myself would like to avoid. You know? Because there are sometimes parts in them that you think, we might have been better off without. And on that note, I will say thank you very much. You've-- great audience.