Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone is Margaret Atwood’s choice for our new Globe and Mail Book Club for subscribers. Every week, Globe Books has looked at themes drawn from the novel to spark discussion among readers, from anthropomorphism to matriarchy. This week, Margaret Atwood explains why The White Bone has stayed with her, and what you can do for a healthier planet.
Why did you choose Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone for the book club?
The mandate was: Pick a Canadian book – not from this season’s lists – that struck you when you first read it, that has stayed with you, that you feel others should read and that many would find of interest now. The White Bone is about elephants under threat – from the point of view of the elephants. In this age of mass extinctions, what could be more appropriate? Such a book might have been viewed as whimsical by some at the time of its publication, but right now it’s more like a wakeup-alarm shout.
The novel is also a daring act of imagination. It’s hard enough to see life through the eyes of another human being, but another species? However, elephants are a social species, like ours, with a complex community organization, high intelligence and long memory. We also need to realize that a bioplanet with only one living species left on it – us – would very soon have no living species left on it. Other life allows us to live. We search outer space for intelligent life, while obliterating the intelligent life all around us. It’s time to do otherwise.
What are the five best things you as a single individual can do in your daily life to restore the bioplanet?
Other than voting for politicians who take the issue seriously? Strange how those are suddenly increasing in number.
a) Eat organic. Food grown organically is grown in living soil. Living soil sequesters carbon and sustains the nanobioforms that feed other forms. Dead soil is dead. It also blows away more easily. No-brainer.
b) The plastic. It’s everywhere, but cut down where you can. Choose the fountain and the portable cup, not the single-use bottle. Look into Blue Cities − it’s a growing movement. Why are we allowing our aquifers to be drained and put into plastic bottles?
c) While you’re at it, avoid the plastic bags. And thank A&W for using paper straws and thank anyone else who does that, too.
d) Why mow a lawn? Plant native species instead, and make a lot of butterflies happy. Native plants are more resistant to climate extremes, too.
e) Keep your cat indoors, especially during spring and fall migration, and at dawn and dusk.
What is the strangest question you’ve ever been asked?
The Handmaid’s Tale is autobiographical, isn’t it?
How detailed a plan do you have when you sit down to write a novel?
Not. Seat of pants. The plan emerges as I go along. Or else it doesn’t.
How does the writing process, and most especially storytelling, change as you get older?
Wait a bit. You’ll find out, if you’re lucky. (Also there’s a cutoff on “older.” Older people know more about more things for a while. But then they know less.) However, like nature, storytelling is very specific. There is no “general idea of a story” that you can tell. There is this story. (There is this species.) So let us say that different things interest a person at different ages. Shakespeare said that already.
What are your favourite books about birds?
I like books about bird behaviour. For instance, Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich. Crow Country, by Mark Cocker, who also wrote the monumental Birds and People. The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson is about the dark side of bird-fancying and was just recommended by a friend. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. Magic and one of the first, if not the first, extinct species books: Fred Bodsworth, The Last of the Curlews.
And on the inspirational side, Bringing Back the Birds, by the American Bird Conservancy; and The Bedside Book of Birds, by (full disclosure: my spouse) Graeme Gibson. Darwin’s Finches is pretty good too. There are a lot of them really. For seabirds, read Rat Island. Get rid of the rats, bring back the seabirds, and fish numbers go up!
How did your fascination with graphic novels and comic books come about?
I read a lot of them in the late 40s and early 50s. And I’ve drawn them and written them. I get a kick out of various reinventions of the form – Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and associated projects, for instance, and Lady Killer, and Mama Tits Saves the World. In my youth, I followed strips with political angles, such as Pogo and Doonesbury, and that line of descent goes all the way to Maus and Persepolis. The strip is another form of storytelling. The Bayeux Tapestry is in essence a comic strip.