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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, uncensored Add to ...

Author Margaret Atwood visited The Globe and Mail editorial board on Thursday, April 21. This is a complete transcript from that meeting. For shorter excerpts, click here.

Ms. Atwood: I'm not a member of any political party, at the moment. Although I have been members of various ones. I was once a Conservative. I joined in order to elect [David]Orchard as leader which did not succeed. So, I've actually only been a member of two political parties. I've been a Green and I've been a Conservative.

Isn't that weird? Yes, I'm one of those swing voters. So I've therefore voted for four different parties in my life. Not the Bloc. Not the Communist Party of Canada.

Sean Fine, Editorial Writer: My mother will be disappointed

Ms. Atwood: About the Communist Party?

John Geiger, Editorial Board Editor: He was traumatized as a youth.

Ms. Atwood: Were you a red diaper baby?

Mr. Fine: I was, yeah.

Ms. Atwood: Oh, what era?

Mr. Fine: I was born in 1960. She wasn't a Communist by then, she quit in 1956.

Ms. Atwood: So at that moment, the light bulb went on, and she realized that Stalin was not nice?

Mr. Fine: It was the Khruschev speech that was printed in the New York Times.

Ms. Atwood: Oh, and "the scales fell from my eyes"?

Mr. Fine: And she says all the good Communists left then.

Ms. Atwood: And how many were those?

Mr. Fine: Well there were quite a few in Canada.

Ms. Atwood: Yeah, there were quite a few. Yes, I came across a very interesting piece of graphic art, which you can get when you visit the Normandy landings, and I believe the parachute museum. And it is a comic book style, bande dessinéeas the French call them.

Which they must have been working on it while Paris was still occupied. And it's the story of World War Two told in animals. So the French are these kindly, funny, sweet little be-fraught bunnies and squirrels meaning no harm.

The British, of course, are bulldogs. The Americans are bison. We have various other animals. I think de Gaulle features as a stork. It's a French thing. And Russia is a white, smiling, friendly bear. So that's right during the war when Russia was the ally.

Mr. Geiger: What were the Germans?

Ms. Atwood: They were wolves and hyenas and one of them was pig. They had an assortment of unpleasant animals.

Mr. Geiger: Sounds like this should be published.

Ms. Atwood: Well, it has been. They've reissued it. The copy I got wasn't an old copy. It had been reprinted and if you fool around in war museums, you find the most interesting things.

Mr. Geiger: Well, thank you for coming in. And really what I'd like to do is invite you to do is make sort of an open statement, and tell us what's on your mind.

Ms. Atwood: Okay. We're talking about the election. Yes.

Mr. Geiger: Yes. And then we'll just open it up to questions. And we'll go from there.

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.

So, 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.

Gerald Owen, Editorial Writer: He made it as part of his contract actually.

Ms. Atwood: "I shall never get fat." Henry VIII's reducing elixir. So Henry VIII was actually a horrible tyrant and so was Henry IV. So you don't want to be in the land of horrible tyrants who don't want to be in the land of horrible dictators. And you don't want to be in the land of one man-rule.

And when I hear words like "strong and stable", which is what we're being offered, I think, What's the price? When are we going to pay for strong and stable?

Joe Stalin was very strong and stable. He made it through. Nobody actually succeeded in assassinating him. And he did that by bumping off anyone who looked close to being some sort of competition and through acts of random terror. So you don't want any of that. You don't want an autocratic one-person rule. You also don't want a blank cheque that allows any government to spend taxpayer's money, without telling us what it will cost. That is why this government fell, if I'm not mistaken. It was failure to tell the price. Insistence that a budget be passed for which the price was not being told.

So the other thing you don't want is secrecy. And every single autocratic government that you can mention in the entire realm of history, has always done secrecy. So I invoke the Star Chamber, I invoke the Bastille, I invoke the Inquisition during which you did not have to reveal who your refusers were.

And you don't want anything in which the judicial arm of the government and the government itself are the same thing. You want a separate justice system and you want, of course, a free media. Which is why we're all so interested in Journalists Without Borders. And why we track things like the recent disappearance of Ai Weiwei in China.

And really there is a long list of journalists, artists, writers, who have disappeared, been assassinated, been exiled, because that's what any self-respecting autocratic government always tries to get rid of. And you actually don't want a media that is an arm of the government. You don't want Pravda in a word. Their ways of dealing with those kinds of situations, that's when you get Samizdat and people who are expert in reading between the lines. But you cannot call any political system in which the media and the government are joined at the hip a free society. They have to be separate.

What else would you like to know?

Mr. Geiger: Just how does this apply to the election we're seeing?

Ms. Atwood: I'm worried about the secrecy, I'm worried about the lack of accountability, I'm worried about the one-man rule. And the one-man rule cuts two ways. Because if you're putting yourself forward as the leader, the only leader, and the person whose word goes forth from his mouth and runs throughout the entire kingdom - that's Assyrian.

Then you cannot also say, "I didn't know." If you're the all-seeing, all-knowledgeable, micro-managing ruler, you cannot then say, "I didn't know." Because in that case, you cannot proclaim competence in the same breath as you proclaim all-knowing.

Mr. Fine: The Bruce Carson story?

Ms. Atwood. Yes, has got even more to it now. And we all expect a certain amount of take-everybody's-money-and-give-some-of-it-to-your-friends. I mean, all governments tend to get into that sooner or later, and the longer they've been in power, the more they do it.

Because of the more lazy, arrogant and entitled they become. Entitled-feeling they become. But this was a bit early in the cycle they started behaving that way. The Muskoka Caper and the Carson Caper, you would expect that maybe in a government that had been in as a majority for eight years, not in a minority.

So, I say unto you, if they do this in the Green Leaf, what will they do in the Sear? That is a biblical quotation. That means, if they're behaving this way now, what happens if they get the total power? And I'm afraid it's the same as the political meetings. If you're with us, you're in. If you're not with us, you're very definitely out.

Mr. Fine: Where is he on the Dictate-o-meter? Harper?

Ms. Atwood: The Dictate-o-meter, it's a needle. So it points, up or down. You can be in a liberal democracy of a rightist inclination, you can be in a liberal democracy of a leftist inclination. He's pointing on the Dictate-o-meter further towards lockdown - so, further towards an autocratic one-person rule.

Mr. Fine: What scares you the most about him?

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?

Karim Bardeesy, Editorial Writer: 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.

Mr. Fine: They do seem to lie very badly. That is, they don't lie well. They are very transparent in their...

Ms. Atwood: We only know about the ones where they got caught. So, tip of the iceberg, what else is down there. And the Bev Oda thing - the other thing, of course, that dictatorships always do is it's one rule for the populous, and another for themselves. And the Bev Oda thing was quite outrageous.

Because if you or I did that, we'd be in jail. You take an already-signed document, and alter it so it says the opposite of what the people signing it meant, you'd be arrested, you'd be fired.

Mr. Owen: She should have used your long-distance pen though.

Ms. Atwood: It doesn't matter. My long-distance pen is still your writing. We don't actually know whose writing that is because nobody has ever said. I will give you two guesses as to why she was not fired. Because she knows who ordered her to do it. Who might that have been?

They also got the wrong Kairos of the organization that all of this was about it - they got the wrong one.

And therefore ended up accusing the United Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Mennonites, the Catholic Church, there's a whole list, of being supporters of terrorist organizations.

Mr. Geiger: Wasn't Pierre Trudeau some of these things, though?

Ms. Atwood: Yes, but we're not electing Pierre Trudeau! He'd dead. I hate to tell you. You haven't read my comics. Yeah, we had big fights at the time. Fight, fight, fight.

Mr. Geiger: You know, the secrecy, the lack of accountability, the one-man rule. A very strong leadership, a cult of leadership.

Ms. Atwood: Yeah. It probably actually started with Duplessis. Or we could look at strong one-man rules throughout history. It's much the same stuff. It's not a new pattern. When somebody gets the chance and they have those inclinations, they go for it.

Julie Traves, Deputy Arts Editor: What's the alternative?

Ms. Atwood: Right now? That's why we're all tearing out our hair. But I think the alternative at the moment is a minority government. Which has to be forced to act like a minority government. That is, take into consideration the voters who have elected all these different people.

Because the government of Canada is not the PMO's office. Government of Canada is Parliament. And I would have to think really quite a lot - twice -about giving a vote to an outfit that doesn't actually value votes. That doesn't value Parliament and that means it doesn't value all of the people who've gone to the trouble of voting.

So if we want to do away with voting - I mean, we're all being told "Oh, horrors, another election is the worst possible thing that could happen to us." In fact, another election is probably the best possible thing that could happen to us because it shows that we're still a democracy. It's the moment at which you don't have any election for years and years and years and years and years that you really have to worry.

Because then you never get a chance to correct the balance. Ever. And it is a question of balance. It's going to go like this all the time. It's one party gets too much power and they start acting like that. Then you're going to be putting your weight on the other side to get it back to the place we want to be. Which is a society in which some kind of fairness is possible.

Mr. Bardeesy: So, for you, is this an issue of central importance in the same way that free trade was in 1988?

Ms. Atwood: Absolutely. Yeah. I've studied enough non-democracies. And been in enough. To know what they're like. And among other things, they completely stifle initiative. Because the only road to power is through this narrow little bottleneck. And the only road to accomplishment is the same way. You're essentially in a position in which you've got to starting paying people off one way or another, and that's a very bad place to be.

Mr. Fine: Still this isn't a police state. We have a Constitution...

Ms. Atwood: Oh, it depends on who's running the Constitution and interpreting the Constitution. And when you've done away with the human rights watchdog, you can have all the constitutions you want. There's a lot of dictatorships that have had just wonderful constitutions.

That's why democracy got to be such a weird word in the fifties because it was the Communists saying that they were these wonderful people of this terrific constitution. It's a question of his administering it. So, if you have a constitution and a justice system that's in the pocket of the government, your constitution isn't actually worth anything, because if you appeal under it, your case will be dismissed. As what, 200 cases were under this so-called human rights person.

Mr. Geiger: Do you have any views in respect to this government's cultural policies?

Ms. Atwood: Its what? Well they don't like it, we know that.

Mr. Geiger: Well, the Prime Minister plays Beatles songs quite well.

Ms. Atwood: I think he had to withdraw one of those ads because he ripped off the copyright. We know kind of where they stand on copyright. I actually beamed in from Dubai in a video conference to the committee on copyright and got yelled at by [Conservative MP Dean del Mastro]

But I wasn't yelled at nearly as much as the guy representing musicians because [Mr. del Mastro]thought it was fit and right that radio stations play people's music without paying them anything. Everybody likes a nice artist. In the subway, on the streetcar. As long as it doesn't cost anything, they like it.

Andrew Gorham, Arts Editor: I find the selection terribly boring. And most of my friends I talk to aren't media find it boring. And the voter turnout is probably going to be low.

Ms. Atwood: I wonder if that's true. Is the bor-ed-ess of your friends the most pertinent indicator?

Mr. Gorham: 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.

Mr. Geiger: 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?"

Mr. Geiger: I was wondering if maybe that was maybe a too cynical view. Do you think that could be potentially a strategy? If you suppress voter interest in turnout then...

Ms. Atwood: How these outfits always come in is, "We're going to make things better. Everything is under control. The trains will run on time. You have nothing to worry about."

Now in the thirties, there was a real fight going on and it was between the Communists and the National Socialists in Germany, and between the Socialists and the Francos in Spain. And between the Mussolinis and, essentially, Socialist Communists in Italy. So the scare tactic was "The rabid Bolsheviks will come in and eat your kids."

That is actually not the case here. There are no rabid Socialists who are going to come in and eat your kids. So maybe people just don't see, or maybe they don't care, maybe they think it's fine that somebody's going to take their tax money for the next thirty years and put it in a lot of places, the cost of which we don't know, and a use for which we do not have.

Where are these planes going to fly? Who are we going to bomb? What's being defended? Better to put it into the army, says I. And I was one of those people who was quite appalled when Trudeau did away with the regimental uniforms. I thought that was a bad thing.

Mr. Owen: Again, under Pearson, under Paul Hellyer

Ms. Atwood: Oh was it? But he let it go forward. Yeah, it was Pearson come to think of it. And I think they did it in the interest of national unity, which was actually not how things really worked, especially not in the army.

Ms. Traves: You mentioned copyright. I was wondering if there were other cultural issues that were under the radar?

Ms. Atwood: Well, you're always going to get a lot of hoo-ha around the issue of culture. Because a certain kind of people do think of artists as lolling around eating grapes and going to arts galas. And somehow making lots of money from the public which, in fact, doesn't happen.

What does happen is the public makes a lot of money from artists and those numbers are freely available. But, still, if your dad wanted to be a doctor, it's still up his nose that you didn't become a doctor but are instead this artist person that's not entirely respectable.

We are in trouble when artists become entirely respectable because then they become apparatchiks, and, indeed, Nazi Germany had lots of artists. Hitler was a big art collector. These are the kinds of pictures he collected. You can see them in a movie called The Architecture of Doom. The main message of which was that if Hitler hadn't gotten into art school, none of this would have happened.

Because what he really liked doing was designing the uniforms. He collected pictures of flowers, pictures of fruit and bowls, pictures of noble landscapes with mountains in them, pictures of waving wheat. Pictures of noble workers with tans and muscles. And pictures of noble soldiers and nice blondes in ethnic outfits. He collected those pictures and he had a huge collection of them. And his big idea was to have a huge museum in Linz, in which he'd put all of these pictures, and all the pictures he'd stolen from everybody else. Except the pictures he decided were corrupt, bad art. Which are now the ones worth a lot of money.

So, connecting the state and the artist is always a bad idea. It's the same as connecting the state and media. It's the other thing that makes people nervous. So if you have any kind of support for the arts, doesn't that mean it's going to be some kind of mouthpiece for the incumbent government and some grievily way, and that all you will be doing is supporting mediocre, within-the-box art, which is why any such organization has to be arm's length.

Now you can always mess that up by putting at the head of it, whose your guy, who will give out money to people you like, and who will support your stuff. And therefore the porridge pot is always being stirred from underneath, and as soon as you have a kind of accepted, official type of art in a free society, young artists are going to come along and do something quite different. And put up videos like ShitHarperDid, which was put out by artists, who in a real dictatorship would be either dead or in jail.

Mr. Geiger: The Prime Minister is permitting five questions from the media to be asked each day in this campaign. One is reserved for local media, and the other four are for national media. I was wondering, if you were a member of the national media, what would you ask Mr. Harper?

Ms. Atwood: Why did you lie? But I think they vet the questions ahead of time. The questions have to be pre-approved.

Mr. Geiger: Well, I'm not sure [of that]/i>

Ms. Atwood: Yeah, well, again. Limiting access. You know as a member of the media, that if you ask a really outrageous question, you will not be welcome here and your badge will be ripped up. You won't get in. He's not alone. Bush did that. A lot of people have done that. They've always tried to control the more pie-in-the-paste kind of questions.

Mr. Geiger: A person who is listening to this and shares your views, your concerns, and I guess your apprehensions. They should vote. Where should they vote? Does it come down to a strategic vote then? Is he the only target of that strategic vote? Is there really an alternative?

Ms. Atwood: I think it depends on what riding you're in. But certainly there's strategic voting initiatives well underway.

he thing about voting for any party is that if a person is a member of that party, there's always a certain amount of party discipline. So you may think you're voting for an individual because they're a great guy - they like bowling and you like bowling - but you're voting for the party. And if it's a party that doesn't allow its individual members much say, you're voting for the head of the party.

Mr. Fine: a lot of people see a lot of what you're talking about. Then they have Michael Ignatieff there.

Ms. Atwood: And Jack [Layton]

Mr. Fine: And Jack's there. Ignatieff is improved, he's confident, he's more comfortable. he knows the country better. Platform hasn't been bad. He's had very little traction for the Liberals. Wondering how you perceive Ignatieff and the Liberals and their difficulties getting ahead?

Ms. Atwood: I think they are suffering from the same thing the Conservatives suffered from when they were reduced to two. That somebody's been in for quite a while and they've done this and that. And with Mulroney it was a number of things that people didn't like that are still with us today: They would include the GST, free trade and the attempt to re-do the Constitution, which as we all know went belly-up.

So people then turn against that person, who they had in fact voted for overwhelmingly. And the real question is, have we had enough of the Harper style of government, and in that case, it is not a question of whether you love the other person and think they are the best, you think you will give then a try because the other guy is about to drive your bus off of a cliff. So I think it's true that governments are unelected, rather than elected.

So the question is, do you think you would allow this person to test-drive the car. Not have the car, but test-drive the car, that would be a minority government.

So Harper has been given three chances to test-drive the car and he acts as if he owns the car, deserves the car. Have people had enough of that? That would be the question. Is it time to let somebody else test drive the car, and maybe tell you what they are actually going to spend and tell you what they are doing.

Mr. Bardeesy: 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. Fine: The U.S. has a MacArthur Foundation - genius grants.

Ms. Atwood: I know. And we don't. And they are amazing. And this many

Mr. Fine: You talked about Orwell and Koestler. Can you mention other writers of have been of interest to you?

Ms. Atwood: Beatrix Potter. And I'm not being frivolous. She is a great stylist. Mistress of indirect discourse. Reading between the lines.

Going on up through the list, who do you want to know? I am addicted to reading, I read all sorts of things.

Mr. Fine: When you were a young writer?

Ms. Atwood: Which age?

Mr. Geiger: How about [Aldous]Huxley?

Ms. Atwood: Oh yeah, I've written an introduction to Brave New World, I've written an introduction to the Island of Doctor Moreau. I've written introduction to She.

Mr. Fine: Around the time you were writing your first novel?

Ms. Atwood: Oh, [The]Edible Woman? My first novel, actually happily for myself and the rest of the world never got published.

Mr. Gorham: Where is it right now?

Ms. Atwood: It's in a drawer.

Mr. Gorham: Which drawer?

Ms. Atwood: It was influenced by Marshall McLuhan. There was a lot of advertisements in it.

I was one of those people who luckily was able to obtain a copy of The Mechanical Bride, early on. you know that he had to pull off the shelves - do you know this book at all?

He reproduced a lot of ads, from soap companies and cigarette companies and everything. He showed the actual ad, and then he would do an analysis of them. And it is very funny.

But the companies who's ads they were took exception. Copyright issues. And he had to pull the book. But he had them in his cellar and if you had contact you could purchase one out of the back window of Marshall McLuhan's house - so The Mechanical Bride, a piece of genius.

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. Owen: Is the utopia genre possible these days?

Ms. Atwood: Very difficult.

Mr. Owen: I think it is very difficult, they always were somewhat difficult.

Ms. Atwood: Not in the late 19th century.

Mr. Owen: But were they good ones?

Ms. Atwood: What do we mean by we say good when we're talking about genres? Were they readable? Did they have good ideas? Some of them are on the wacky end of the scale.

To that I propose [Edward]Bulwer-Lytton The Coming Race, in which people fall through a hole in the ground and find themselves in a big underground cavern in which the women are bigger and more powerful than the men which means the women have to be very nice to the men because everybody's got wings and if they're not nice to the men, the men fly away.

Which is a lot like the introduction to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, in which she says that unless you provide a nice home and good food your husband's going to go to the club all the time.

Mr. Owen: Instead, her husband was her agent, a very effective agent; he was on her case all the time.

Ms. Atwood: Alas she died early. Anyway, she's well worth reading.

Utopias - depends what you are looking for. And since this is the subject of my unfinished Harvard thesis, I can tell you what I was looking for.

I was looking for a genre which was not exactly a utopia/dystopia, but it contained an element of supernaturalism. So you would have a book like She, very influential in the first part of the 19th century, by the way.

Or a book like The Crystal Age- W.H. Hudson. Quite weird.

He trips over a tree root and sleeps for a thousand years or however long it takes and he wakes up cover in little roots which I always thought was quite cute. And he finds himself in a pre-Raphaelite utopia, in which everyone lives in big-stained-glass-decorated, weaving-adorned country houses in pastoral settings. The catch is that no one has sex except a doomed couple who are head of the household called The Mother and The Father. And nobody else even has any interest in sex.

Mr. Owen: And this is a utopia?

Ms. Atwood: Yes, because it solved the over population problem which was very much on the minds of the Victorians. And therefore the crowding, the vice, the disease all of those things that were very present for them.

So the tragedy of this book is that the hero has not been deprived of his sexual interest and he falls in love with one of these neutral women who doesn't understand what he is talking about.

Ms. Traves: 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.

Mr. Bardeesy: One of our readers had a question about the news that, it sounds like the Conservatives were successful in de-funding Planned Parenthood, for their overseas operations.

Ms. Atwood: Yeah what is this about anyway? There is a hidden agenda, it is a religious one and elect a Conservative majority and all will be revealed. Trust me on that.

So yes, it is a question of this many people dictating policy for everyone else. And their is no way of proving that except by looking at the actions. Again, doesn't matter what people call themselves or what they say they are going to do. You look at what they actually do do.

And I was not aware of that. It is, again, some utopian extremist vision in which every act of sex should produce a child.

Mr. Gorham: Would you prefer a Liberal minority or majority?

Ms. Atwood: It depends on how they are going to behave.

What they've told us so far is pretty good. But what the Conservatives told us the first time they were elected was pretty good. I think it is a question of letting people test drive the car, because you don't actually know what they are going to do until they are in. That much is obvious. Itis going to be a minority of one kind or the other anyway, is it not?

Mr. Gorham: What would you prefer?

Ms. Atwood: What would I prefer? Politics is the art of the possible.

Yeah, I don't know. I think I would prefer almost anything except a Harper majority. So anything else, I'm willing to take my chances.

I think a Harper majority is the Dictate-o-Meter. The arrow is going in the dictator direction. And the problem with those things is once they get in, they rearrange everything so that they stay in power.

I did write a piece in the first Harper election in which I said something that was true, and that's this guy has never run an election, and what are we in now? Is it a $55-billion deficit? And he obviously doesn't know how to get his plane purchase cost out in any responsible fashion.

And thinks it's a good idea to sprinkle $55-million around Muskoka. And I guess it came out this morning another $60-million too, contact of the guy who was in the PMO office and was on the board of that organization.

So that stuff about being an economist and all that, he never actually had a job doing that. He never had an actual job doing anything but politics. He has never been on the front lines of a business. And anyone who has knows there is a lot of compromise involved. And what you have instead is a theoretician, and they always go for "we are doing this because its right," not, "we are doing this because it works."

And the second one I wrote about the arts, and the rather arrogant position, that most people weren't interested in them. And that was just ignorant.

A huge number of people are interested in them and participate in them themselves. And I got an enormous response to that particular piece because people knew that from their own lives. They may not be Beethoven but they like singing in the choir.

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