Margaret Atwood's new short-story collection Stone Mattress is filled with fascinating, late-in-life (although not exclusively) protagonists.
In Alphinland, Constance, an aging cult author of a fantasy franchise, struggles through an ice storm while speaking to her dead husband. Gavin, her first love – a poet who scoffed at her stories (even as they paid the bills) – gives an upsetting interview, set up by his "third and much younger" wife. Later the woman who broke Constance and Gavin up prepares to attend a funeral. In The Dead Hand Loves You, the "withered" author of a horror story classic is haunted by a bad contract he signed in his 20s. In Torching the Dusties, the "Our Turn" movement protests outside care homes, demanding the geriatric "parasitic dead wood at the top" just die already. In I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth, Atwood checks in, years later, with the discarded women of her 1993 novel The Robber Bride, as well as Zenia, the lying vixen who stole their men. And in the title story, a several-times widowed woman has an opportunity to exact revenge on the high-school football star who ruined her life at 14.
The Globe and Mail's Marsha Lederman spoke with Atwood, 74, about this collection of nine tales.
Your book is called Stone Mattress and it features a number of older protagonists, many of them women, who have rich histories and inner lives. I found it impossible not to think of Hagar Shipley. Is this an homage to The Stone Angel and Margaret Laurence?
Oh no, I think not. I don't think she would be in any way interested in most of these things at all. People do notice that there's women in it but they don't seem to notice that there's actually quite a few men – indeed about half the narrators.
I found the absence of the protagonists' grown children interesting – not just in the stories but in their lives. The older parent is a burden, checking in is a duty, not a pleasure. Was this a comment on what you see going on around you?
Let's talk about orphans. Why are there so many orphans in stories about younger people? There are so many orphans in stories about younger people because if you put in parents, you wouldn't have a story. So Oliver Twist with a nice mom and dad wouldn't be Oliver Twist. So a lot of these things actually have to do with the demands of plot. So if we put the Torching the Dusties character with a happy family in her own home, you'd have a different story. So the children aren't there because if they were there they would really mess up the story. If Constance's kids were living in the same city, next door, she wouldn't have to go out into the night and try to find the ice [melt] and she certainly wouldn't be bopping around in an empty house hearing her dead husband talking to her. So what we wish for in real life is often not what we wish for in fiction. There's quite a funny [YouTube] video about horror movies in which the people don't go into the empty houses. 'No I don't think I'll go in there; let's go to the beach instead.' [Then] the guy comes into the house with the axe and says, 'Where is everybody?' Genre writing figures prominently in these tales.
You get to create these wonderful stories like the pulpy The Dead Hand Loves You. Was that fun for you?
Of course it's fun but remember in the '50s, at a time when I was of an impressionable age, there were a lot of B-movies featuring cut-off body parts, ambulatory bits. Either it was a head that was still alive or a hand; in one case it was an eye. They were a trope of the era.
Were they a guilty pleasure, or were you simply aware of their existence?
I wasn't very guilty about them. They're a continuation of a lot of the 19th century fiction that I was in fact studying. Dracula and Frankenstein were both 19th century novels. So these are not new things. They came in new packages: film, pulp fiction magazines, comic books and paperback books which were quite a new thing in the '50s. So they're just everywhere in the, shall we saw, below the literary radar culture. You find these motifs a lot in folk tales and fairy tales. The version you probably most often came in contact with was the urban legend; those things that kids used to tell around the campfire.
The author of The Dead Hand is chastised by his muse for writing such pap. But it's a commercial success. Have you ever sensed disapproval from serious authors for being a commercial success?
If you're making money, you can't actually be – mais bien sûr. Yes I once had a guy in France say to me [she puts on a French accent], 'So you write the bestsellers.' At which point I said, 'Not on purpose.' I cover it in my book on writing. I talk about money and artistic excellence and there's only four forms: There's a good book that makes money, there's a bad book that makes money, there's a good book that doesn't make money, and there's a bad book that doesn't make money. So of those four, the first three I can live with. But I also like slipping references to, for instance, Stephen King into my Cambridge University lectures. And I wrote the obit for Ray Bradbury in the Guardian. I read all his stuff when it came out. I was of the age.
You also touch on the weird world of fandom – the dressed-up fans, the academics –
You would not believe what goes on. Actually you might. Out at Comic-Con at San Diego where I was a couple of years ago, there were a lot of academics. And they were dressed up. They were having conferences in their costumes. I got my picture taken with Godzilla. I've got one of me with a Klingon. I was also just at Leipzig in Germany, which has a very prestigious book fair. But I was there on the Cosplay day. Here were these extremely tall German people dressed in blue fairy costumes. And it's a point of honour with them usually to make your own costume. It's a big market for push-up bras.
You explain in the acknowledgments that Stone Mattress was developed while on an Adventure Canada tour in the Arctic as a way to entertain your fellow adventurers. So you're at dinner on the cruise and you start spinning this wild tale?
As one does. If you're going to murder somebody on this ship, how would you do it? People have various ideas which are then dismissed. One thing would be to put them in the freezer but of course then they would be found, would they not? And if you throw them overboard, somebody would be bound to see you because it's always littered with people smoking or looking at birds or at the Northern Lights. It would be very difficult to drag somebody up on board and shove them off. So it was Graeme Gibson, a person of crafty mind, who said you'd have to murder them on shore and then make it appear as if they are still on the boat. Then the question is how do you murder someone on shore in the Arctic, where there are no big bunches of shrubbery and where you can see for a very long way? Well the perfect location is of course the place with ridges, and when you go behind the ridge you can't actually see anybody and they can't see you. But you would have to murder the person very, very quickly. You wouldn't want any sound effects.
When The Walrus commissioned you to revisit a character from an earlier work of fiction, why did you go back to The Robber Bride?
You tackle things that contain unanswered questions. So I felt it would be nice for Zenia to make a reappearance, although probably nobody was expecting her in quite the form in which she appears.
There is a remarkable amount of infidelity in the stories.
Let me ask you a question: So we have two characters in the story; let's call them Patricia and Neville. Patricia and Neville are very, very nice people. And they're married to each other and they have lovely children and they live in a beautiful house. And they have a wonderfully well-adjusted relationship and that goes on day after day after day, and chapter after chapter of what they do every day. Still with the story? This is a plot device. If we give them some nice zombies or aliens or a tidal wave or a tornado or a drought, then we don't have to have infidelity; we can have Patricia and Neville making it through quite well. But they have to have some sort of conflict or obstacle or we're not going to keep reading. Cinderella can marry Prince Charming after she's gone through all of that; just not before.
I can't let you go without asking you about the HBO adaptation of MaddAddam. It will be interesting to see how they do it.
You're going to ask the big blue penis question, aren't you? And the answer is I don't know. How are they going to do that?
You're a consulting producer. Do you get involved in that sort of level of discussion?
Well we have had a discussion about structure and I'm about to meet with them again. But I doubt very much whether I'll get involved right down to the, 'shall we use a shrub or shall we do the Adam fig leaf thing?' Or 'shall we just come right out with it?' They'll do some digital blurring. A sort of blue haze will envelop.
I look forward to it.
I do too. I hope I live that long.
This interview has been condensed and edited.