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Author Margaret Atwood meets with members of the Globe and Mail's editorial board to talk about culture and upcoming federal election. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Author Margaret Atwood meets with members of the Globe and Mail's editorial board to talk about culture and upcoming federal election. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

At the editorial board

Margaret Atwood at the editorial board Add to ...

Author Margaret Atwood visited The Globe and Mail editorial board on Thursday, April 21. Following are some excerpts from that conversation. For the complete transcript, click here.

Ms. Atwood: Okay, so the reason I've positioned myself politically is so that you would not accuse me of "Red Emma." You know you're in the middle when people shout at you from both sides. And, therefore, I seem always to be traditionally in that position.

When I published Survival, I actually got attacked more from the left than from the right. Why was that? Because the right didn't notice. They didn't read it, or else they would write letters. This was in the age of letters - remember when people wrote actual letters? The coloured pencils, underlining capital letters, the coloured pencils, underlining things.

That's now the equivalent of The Globe comments section. Comments on the Wednesday piece were pretty much all good, oddly enough. Because usually, you know, you get yelled at from both sides.

But the left yelled at Survival because they were, at that point, internationalist, and suspicious of anything smacking of nationalism. And also they felt there wasn't enough "working persons" writing in the book. Reason being, brackets, not many working people had written, but never mind that.

So that is where it was, and in fact the cultural nationalism of the sixties and early seventies as [Jacques]Parizeau pointed out was not a radical movement, it was a Conservative movement, because it was your Red Tories who were traditionally interested in culture, history, and national affiliations. They were at that time.

I think a lot of Canadians would fall into that Red Tory category, by which I mean fiscally conservative and socially tolerant. But they now have no Conservative person to vote for. Because those people have been eliminated pretty much. There are no Flora MacDonalds in that party any more. What would Flora say? This is the thing you ask yourself. What would Flora say?

So what's on my mind, because I write a lot about utopias and dystopias. And was imprinted quite early on on George Orwell - another reason the Stalinists yelled at me. Did not like George.

I read Koestler when I was 14 and it made a deep impression. It was certainly very in sync with 1984. Except one of them was fiction, and the other was less fiction. So utopias and dystopias - which I studied as a Victorianist - in the 19th century was of course the age of utopias.

There were thousands and thousands of them written, and a number of them were set up. There's an interesting new book called In Eutopia, in which he follows both the literary utopias and the actual ones to see how they fared. But there were tons of them in the 19th century, and thenin the 20th century were saw two big, and several somewhat smaller experiments, in real-life utopias setting up, and those would be the Soviet socialist republics. And they would be Hitler's Germany followed by things like Cambodia and Mao's China.

They all started as utopias. They all started by saying we're going to make your life so much more unimaginably better. And, by the way, it's inevitable. So you're either with us or against us. And if you're against us, I'm sorry, but we will have to eliminate you. Because you're standing in the way of the greater happiness of the greater number and the greatest good. And the improvement of humanity and all the rest of it.

And that's why people like me are always a little nervous about words like "progress" because we've seen the ends to which that word has been put over the years. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make things better, but making them better all at once with sweeping true-believer plans makes us very, very nervous.

So when we're looking at political parties, we think, are there any of these sweeping destroy-everything-build-everything-new true-believers going around these days. Who is most likely to think they have to tear it all down and start over from zero? Who is more likely to say you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs? Who is most likely to be saying the end justifies the means. Those are the things that make us nervous. Those of us who study utopias and write dystopias.

I'm actually working on a Dictate-o-meter. It will have an arrow and be like a clock. People think it's from here to there, you know, that screaming anarchy is on one end and total lockdown state is on the other, and some are in the middle as liberal democracy.

But it's actually not linear. It's a circle. So Koestler later wrote a book called The Yogi and the Commissar in which he pointed this out. Ever come across that one? It goes like this, it's not a line, that it's a circle. Because the extreme-left and the extreme-right actually curve around and meet at the bottom. And that's when you get total lockdown - no matter what it calls itself.

So, I'm not very interested in labels. I'm not very interested in what they're calling themselves. I'm interested in what they're doing. So, in the Dictate-o-meter, on the road to total lockdown, the place you don't want to be. And you don't want to be in screaming anarchy either, it's the war of all against all, and that soon precipitates into gangs and warlords and out of that eventually will come Henry VIII. Because we all watch The Tudors. Why didn't he ever get fat? What is his secret? You could sell that.

Sean Fine, Editorial Writer: What scares you the most about him?

Ms. Atwood: What scares me the most about him? I don't know whether scared is entirely the right word yet. Worries. Causes one to become anxious.

The initial platform was actually quite good, some years ago. And I would like to hear what Preston Manning has to say about all of this. Because, squeaky though his voice may have been, he made some good points. He made some respectable, good points that we all agree with.

And we all agree that government should be more open. We all agree that government should be more accountable. And this government came in on that platform. That's why people voted for them. They've gone back on it completely. This is the most opaque and secretive government, and unaccountable government that we've had in some time. By unaccountable I mean not telling the real price.

Mr. Fine: Unfortunately though, Preston Manning is in our paper today.

Ms. Atwood: ...saying these guys are just great. So what happened to his integrity? I mean if he really believes in openness and accountability how can he support this government?

That was my point: was he lying all along, or has he had a conversion experience?

Andrew Gorham, Arts Editor: You evoke formidable names - Hitler, etc. And you would think - and I would think - disrespect for the Parliament by Harper, and whatbrought down the government would have incited huge interest. And it hasn't. It's failed.

Ms. Atwood: We do not do very good civic education in this country. So that people can go all the way through school without actually understanding why they should vote. In Australia, it's the vote that you have to vote. unless you get a note from the doctor. You actually have to vote. Even if you spoil your ballot, you have to be there to actually put a piece of paper in the box.

I think we're very complacent in this country. We think that things will go along the same way and that we'll all be okay. And as long as we see some pictures of the Rockies and some hockey and some flags, then everything is as it should be. And that will be fine, until it's your turn, and you suddenly wake up and you realize that you have no recourse. You know? Something really unjust has happened to you and actually have no recourse.

There's a big lawsuit going on right now from the people in the centre of Toronto who had everything smashed up by the G20. Do you think they're going to get any money back? Probably not. What about all the people who were arrested as they're walking down the street? Do you think they will have any recourse? Probably not. So you say we're not living in a police state. Have a think.

Mr. Gorham: Have you ever not voted?

Ms. Atwood: I've never not voted.

Mr. Gorham: Municipal, provincial, federal?

Ms. Atwood: Municipal, provincial, federal...I probably missed. Well I was out of the country.

Mr. Gorham: Well, yeah, with circumstances preventing otherwise...

Ms. Atwood: Otherwise, I tend to vote. I tend to be a voting type of person. And the reason I tend to be a voting type of person is that I have been in enough countries where people couldn't. And I've been in enough countries where they could, but it was rigged. It's always very rigged.

You have a choice from these people from the party, and these other people from the party. I lived in Berlin in 1984. I visited Poland and Czechoslovakia. Two very different experiences, and East Berlin. The most thoroughly locked-down were East Berlin and Czechoslovakia. Poland, because it had a counter-power, which was the Roman Catholic Church, was relatively open.

And it was Poland where the whole fall-down of the curtain began. So I know how people behave in those societies. I know the kinds of pressures that they feel. I know the kinds of hoops and jumps you have to go through to talk to people under those circumstances. Out in the middle of the park, away from the microphones. That wouldn't avail you now. They've got directional mikes. They can pick up what you're saying.

I think we're now reduced to the little piece of paper with the message on it, which you then burn.

John Geiger, Editorial Board Editor: Do you think, speaking to that point, if a campaign is boring, which you keep hearing people saying - it's become almost a mantra in some media...

Ms. Atwood: Well maybe things need to get a little more locked-down and then it'll be less boring. Maybe the needle has to go further towards the dictatorship and maybe people will wake up and think, "Hey, just a minute, what happened?"

Karim Bardeesy, Editorial Writer: Before he entered politics, Michael Ignatieff had a job similar to yours, as a writer.

Ms. Atwood: Writing isn't a "job," by which I mean you don't have an employer, so you can't be fired.

Which is why it is me sitting here today saying it, and not a couple of million of other people or more who would be saying exactly the same thing. Because if they were here saying it, people would look at them funny and it might impact their job.

Mr. Bardeesy: What do you think happens to writers who have that independence when they enter politics?

Ms. Atwood: OK, so writing and "writing." Michael has written some books, is that the same as being a writer? Was he ever a freelance? No. He always had another job. Is it the same. No. It's not.

If you look in Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, and look at the chapter on money, there are only a limited number of ways in which you can support your writing habit. And they are: having a patron, that would include grants; inheriting money - I recommend it; marrying it - also good; having another job - the T.S. Eliot fallback position; or supporting yourself through the marketplace. Those are the options.

I do the final one, lucky me. I am one of 10 per cent in North America.

So not may people can actually support their writing habit through the marketplace.

Under having a patron today would fall grants.

Somebody tweeted me today saying Picasso didn't need grants. Actually Picasso had a patron. Who would that have been in his early years? It would have been Gertrude Stein - did you know that? I bet you didn't.

James Joyce had an affluent patron who supported him through Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake.

We don't seem to have many of those patrons in Canada, although we've got some. We tend to do it in the form of awards.

I was talking to a guy on the subject of copyright. He was in favour of the "don't pay writers for their stuff" option. At least not in universities. And I said, how do you think writers could therefore make a living and he said, "Couldn't it be a grant system?" And I said "Absolutely not," because then immediately you have favouritism, and you certainly don't have the market deciding anything.

Mr. Geiger: As a writer of dystopias, if there were a Harper majority, do you have a vision of what Canada would look like?

Ms. Atwood: I think it would force a unite the Centre movement. And the centre would probably include the righter portion of the NDP, the Liberals, the lefter portion or the orphan Tories, who have nobody to vote for, and a number of Greens.

I just think people would finally say, 5 parties is untenable. And how that would arrange itself I'm not sure.

A lot of origins of parties disappear. The issues that the party congealed around in the first place go. And then other issues come on stream.

And if you go back into the 19th century it is a bit like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, in which people move around a chair. The Liberals of the 19th century were big free traders. It was the Tories who were up against that, and they were against it up until Mulroney.

The Mulroney Tories then became the Liberals of the 19th century.

Mr. Bardeesy: Political opposition often gains fuel by humour and is often expressed through humour. I'm wondering, in Canada, do we have enough humour in our opposition? Your piece was very funny, but do we have enough...

Ms. Atwood: I'm not a politician. Nor do I shill for any of them, particularly. I'm an independent observer.

Mr. Bardeesy: Perhaps "dissent" is the better word than opposition?

Ms. Atwood: Not even "dissent," I would say "critique." And I have done that in the past. I never actually got a chance with the NDP, but I certainly did it with the Liberals when they were in power for so long.

You can go back and read some of the old comic strips. We actually had quite a bit of trouble with the Liberals in the artistic community because Trudeau didn't want any of this cultural nationalism because he felt it played into Quebec separatism. So he was not very supportive in that respect at all.

Mr. Bardeesy: So, do we need more satire? More comedy?

Ms. Atwood: There is quite a bit of it out there. Don't know whether you trolled the web at all. There's - can I swear? Have you seen ShitHarperDid? Have you seen the one with the two little bears? And there's a whole series now called "Women Breaking Up with Harper" and they break up with him indifferent cities. Even Edmonton. Well, "Women Break Up with Harper Edmonton" probably is the most toughest one, but there's an Antigonish one, a Hamilton one, there's various different ones: "Steve, it's over. You lied to me. You spent my money. You took away my daycare and told the kids to stay at home."

I think the other thing that's really, really worrying is the extent to which watchdogs who serve the public have been shut down. I'm thinking in particular, of the nuclear regulator, who was simply fired. The long form census person who was forced to resign because they lied about what he said.

These are the acts of a dictation-minded outfit. In other words, truth is what we say it is. They lied about the Auditor-General, she caught them out. But this is the tendency, and this is why the Dictate-o-meter is going down, towards the dictatorship.

Julie Traves, Deputy Arts Editor: Is that what this election is missing? Sex appeal? I'm not being facetious.

The one that could best be turned into a Harlequin romance or a Harlequin non-fiction would be The Helena [Guergis]Affair. So it would be a book called Smeared.

I'm not joking. It would actually make a great story. Because whatever you think of her husband, what happened to her was not right. Maybe there are reasons for not telling the general public about what the cocaine sniffing off of prostitutes chests charges were, but there was no reason for not telling her. Once you are not telling a person what they are accused of, you write off an Inquisition and its really wrong.

Mr. Owen: How would you vote in Simcoe-Grey?

Ms. Atwood: I'd vote for her. I would. Partly because it makes a better ending.

And I think that story resonates with so many women because it is a lot like Mean Girls. The Mean Girls don't tell you what they are whispering behind your back. In Mean Girls the target of all of this strikes back, and Helena is striking back. But it is a lot like that, and it is a lot like whispering campaigns and witch burnings. The person is singled out for reasons that are not the same as the reasons that are put forward.

The other telling moment is "This Individual."

"This Individual" is from cop shows. This Individual is what you call the perpetrator climbing through the window. So they're not a man and they're not a woman. They're not a person.

It's a little photo moment of what happens to you when you're on the outs in some way.

The other telling moment is her statement: "I want to return to my Conservative family." So, there is a "Conservative family." You are either a member of the family or you are not a member of the family. If you are not a member you don't get in.

And that applies not only to her, who was kicked out. If you were doing a cartoon you could almost do the Victorian sending the women being out into the snow with her baby. This Individual is not going to be allowed into this house again.

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