Photo: Mark Zibert/August
Margaret Atwood Talks About Her New Essay Collection “Burning Questions,” the Climate Crisis and Aging
Susan Swan talks to Margaret Atwood about 'Burning Questions,' a new collection that surfaces past and present convictions. / BY Susan Swan / March 31st, 2022
In a Q&A with Margaret Atwood about her new book, Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-2021, Susan Swan talks to her old friend about the climate crisis, the Steven Galloway scandal at the University of British Columbia (UBC), tarot cards and growing old.
Swan, whose ninth book of fiction, The Dead Celebrities Club, was published in 2019, is the co-founder of the $150,000 Carol Shields Prize for Fiction. It is North America’s first literary award for women and non-binary writers, which will be awarded for the first time in 2023; Atwood is both a literary and honorary patron.
Swan is also writing a memoir, Too Big: Fate, Feminism and Life with a Large Body, about how, at six-foot-two, size shaped her life. Atwood and screenwriter Susan Coyne have taken out a television option for the section set in Toronto’s performance art scene during the ’70s. Meanwhile, playwright Hannah Moscovitch is working on a pilot for an upcoming CBC-TV series based on Swan’s 1983 debut novel about Nova Scotia giantess Anna Swan (no relation), The Biggest Modern Woman of the World.
Atwood is the award-winning author of 17 novels, including Canadian classics such as The Edible Woman, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. Her Governor General’s award-winning 1985 book, The Handmaid’s Tale, was made into a hit Hulu TV series and propelled Atwood to international stardom as a cultural luminary. In 2019, she won the Booker Prize for its sequel, The Testaments. Atwood’s latest projects include a short story with graphic artist David Mack to celebrate the 30th anniversary of singer Tori Amos’ debut album, Little Earthquakes, and an eight-week course called “Practical Utopias: An Exploration of the Possible” for the live learning platform, Disco.
Susan Swan: Your new book Burning Questions is a fascinating and funny cultural temperature taking. It’s also your third essay collection since your first collection, Second Words, came out in 1982. Congratulations!
Margaret Atwood: Thank you. It was a lot of work! I average 30 occasional pieces a year, so we had to go through 500 pieces to make the selection.
SS: The essays in your new book include discussions of Western literary classics, lesser-known East European writers like Ryszard Kapuscinski, and astonishing scientific facts like pig-human heart transplants. How do you know all that you know? Do you set aside hours in the day for reading books and searching online?
MA: Stuff accumulates, as in your granny’s attic. I’m also curious: I go down rabbit holes, I turn over damp logs. Amazing what you find! Sometimes a newt, sometimes a scam, sometimes a many-gendered fungus, sometimes a fight over whether Pluto is a planet. You never know. (Don’t ask whether Pluto is
a planet. I’m keeping out of that bun fight.)
SS: And how do you retain it? Do you have a photographic memory? You must have received high marks in school.
MA: No photographic memory. And I wasn’t an assiduous student in high school. I did well enough, but I lacked focus. Procrastination. Easily distracted. Boyfriends. Nail polish. All that.
SS: Most people aren’t aware that you’re skilled in reading palms and tarot cards. In your essay, “Three Tarot Cards,” you talk about meeting a young female Dutch art historian in Edmonton who introduced you to the esoteric arts. Can you describe that experience with Jetskye Sybyzma and how it affected your view of literature?
MA: I already knew tarot via modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot. Jetskye specialized in Hieronymus Bosch, and had learned astrology through that. I added the palmistry because they’re all part of the same planet-centred, early-Renaissance belief system. As I said, stuff accumulates. (It didn’t affect my view of literature. Though I like to cast horoscopes for my fictional characters, as did the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.)
SS: Burning Questions, with its essays, speeches and reports, is a jigsaw portrait of the contemporary world from 2004 to 2021. What is the biggest political change you’ve seen since you published your first collection?
MA: I’d say there are two: the foregrounding of the climate crisis, and the rise of an extreme right in North America bent on the destruction of democracy. They’re related: Big oil money doesn’t want to relinquish its power.
SS: How do you think you’ve changed, besides the change in hair colour you mention in your introduction to Burning Questions?
MA: I got older. Next Q?
SS: In your recent essay “Am I a Bad Feminist?” you pointed out that it’s a mistake to assume women are always truthful or good. And you insisted that both men and women are entitled to human rights. When did you first start forming a view about the way Western culture treats women? And has it changed over the years?
MA: About 1960, when I was reading Paradise Lost and the myth of Medusa and parrying quips about my wanton curls and snaky hair. But I never much believed stuff about what women could or couldn’t do. Mostly I made fun of it. I had a tomboy mother, which helped. Yes, opportunities have expanded and norms have changed, at least for middle-class women and in the sphere of gender-based harassment and assault. But there’s now pressure from the right to change back. Autocrats always downgrade women.
SS: While we’re talking about the bad feminist essay, have you changed your opinion about how UBC handled the allegations of sexual assault against author and former creative writing professor Steven Galloway? Why or why not?
MA: “Handled” means UBC members held a Star Chamber inquisition without informing the accused, believed a string of now proven falsehoods without doing any due diligence, passed judgment while violating their own process, and went public before there was any inquiry. Yes, I still think that’s awful. Now I’ve seen the documents produced during the SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) hearing, through which those labelling Galloway a rapist hoped to avoid a defamation trial.
UBC’s behaviour is much worse than we thought: “… rumours, gossip, fabrication of evidence, innuendo and malicious speech … hardly compatible with facilitating a fair and safe investigation.” That quote is from Judge Adair’s judgment [available at www.bccourts.ca] with a summary by Vancouver writer Carmen Aguirre on Brad Cran’s Substack account, Truth & Consequences.
If being a good feminist is wiping your feet on the need to seek out truth, then I’m a terrible one. You’d almost think this bunch had been hired by men’s rights activists to give feminism a bad name. Has UBC offered any apology for its mess-up? Nope.
SS: Burning questions, burning world. In this collection, you’re telling us that we better get our act together on climate change or we’re going to become extinct. Is survival the major theme in your writing? Or is the question, “Is it true and is it fair?” a better guide to your writing?
MA: Those two things are joined. In order to mitigate climate change, we’ll need the truth. But any action taken will have to be fair enough, or most people will refuse to act. It’s a tall order.
SS: You sum up the survival theme in the hilarious essay, “Greetings, Earthlings!” In this essay, you’re a monster-like creature from the planet Mashupzyx, appearing in an old lady disguise. As old feminists, we know conventional thinking assumes we grow more detached – and irrelevant – as we age. Yet you’re more engaged than ever. Why haven’t you given up on us?
MA: There are as many ways of growing old as there are old people. I embody some of the stereotypes, though I haven’t yet taken up hobbling. I do lure younger people into my gingerbread cottage and eat them, but one needs a hobby.
As for not giving up on our species, what choice do I have? I tried joining a wolf pack but they rejected me. “You smell funny,” they said. “It’s the Jo Malone. Feh.”
SS: A few years ago, I watched two young feminists in New York press you to tell them what was going to happen to America. Is this a regular occurrence, and how do you handle those who want you to be a prophet?
MA: I tell them that for my prophecies I need goat entrails. So far, they haven’t provided any.
SS: You warn in your essay “Polonia” that it’s never wise to give advice to the young. All they want is our blessing. And yet Burning Questions often reads like a lot of witty and rollicking advice to the world: Grow up, act fairly and responsibly, and for god’s sake, save the planet. Is there anything else you would like to add?
MA: You can give advice to the young, if they ask. For Burning Questions, people asked! But I don’t always follow my own cautions. I overheard two guys in a supermarket bemoaning their malfunctioning dishwasher. “Have you cleaned the filter?” I interjected. They looked at me with a wild surmise. “There’s … a filter?”
A version this article appeared in the April/May 2022 issue with the headline ‘Old & New Testaments’, p. 46.