Top-selling author Atwood: sometimes caustic, never without cause

by Karen Foster

She enjoys immense popularity in Japan. Twelve of her books have been translated into Japanese and more are on the way. But internationally acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood wasn’t in Japan recently to promote a new book. She was here to look at birds.

The 2000 Booker Prize winner is joint honorary president of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club, a job she shares with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson.

Their stop in Tokyo late last month was sandwiched between a Rare Bird Club trip to Hokkaido, where Atwood was impressed by the sight of red-crested cranes dancing in the snow, and a visit to Okinawa. She and Gibson came at the invitation of Princess Takamado, the honorary president of BirdLife International.

“I’m much more involved with the environment these days,” she said. “That’s something that’s going to kill us all if it goes the wrong way.”

Atwood’s concern about the environment prompted her to give some of the $40,000 Booker Prize money she won in 2000 for “Blind Assassin” to environmental groups; she gave the rest to literary charities.

She and Gibson are even friends with celebrity environmentalist and The Japan Times columnist, C.W. Nicols, a one-time Canadian whom Atwood described as “a force of nature.”

Her last full-length novel, “Oryx and Crake,” published in 2003, hints at some of her concerns. It’s a dystopian view of the future in which the world, already weakened by pollution, has been destroyed by human manipulation of nature. Even before the disaster, the intellectual elites lived in walled, sterile corporate cities designed to keep out all toxins, including the lower classes, whose bodies have adapted to the severe pollution to the point they have become carriers of contaminants harmful to corporate-city residents.

Atwood’s worries are not only found in her books. She has always been in the public eye, whether it’s working with the English-language chapter of the literary and human rights group PEN Canada, which she helped set up in 1983, or fighting against cuts to government spending on the arts. This has made people just as interested in Atwood the person as Atwood the writer.

In person, she is erudite, direct and challenging, demanding that the person she is talking to is fully engaged in the conversation. She has been described as cool, flinty and at times even caustic, and is famous for not suffering journalists gladly.

And she’s definitely more than a bit tired of talking on the subject of “women.”

“Boy, I get bored of people asking me why I write about women,” Atwood said. “I write about women because its easy to write about women. I don’t have to do as much research,” the writer said, adding that when she did write from the point of view of a man in “Oryx and Crake,” she again was asked why.

“It is not a very interesting question, because everybody writes about women,” Atwood said. “Unless they are writing about Moby Dick, they write about women.”

Also exasperating are questions on the “the situation of women.”

“When people ask me what do you think of the situation of women, I ask them. ‘Which women? What class? What country are we talking about? How old?’ ” she said. “There is no ‘situation of women.’ It varies from place to place, from class to class, from region to region. You can make statements about women at a certain place at a certain time.”

While none of her novels are overtly political, her descriptions of the complexities in women’s relationships and gender politics draw many questions about her views on feminism and her own politics.

First, Atwood wants to know what kind of feminism the person is talking about. She said she’s not interested in the kind in which “we all have to dress up in overalls and push men off a cliff.”

“For me it has to do with women being human beings,” she explained.

“Are women the same as men?” she continued. “No, actually, they’re not. In what ways are they different? People are still exploring that. Does the fact that they’re different mean that they should be treated worse? No, in fact, it does not.”

The writer said she can usually get everyone in the room to say they are feminists by asking them a series of questions, starting with whether women should be allowed to read and write, and moving through to whether women should hold jobs, but she said there will always be a problem when it comes to getting everyone to accept such controversial things as abortion, part of the reason being because neither side offers a good solution.

“If it’s a choice of evils, it drives people nuts, because they don’t want to do a bad thing,” she said. “But if they can’t avoid doing a bad thing, cognitive dissonance sets in and they decide that their bad thing is actually good, or that it’s better than the other person’s bad thing: Their choice is a better choice. And that’s where you’ll get daggers drawn. And so it is with abortion.”

Atwood had her biggest success with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” published in 1982, and which was turned into a film in 1990 with a screenplay by Nobel Prize- winner Harold Pinter. Most recently she wrote “The Penelopiad,” her 2005 contribution to publisher Canongate’s series of myths retold by contemporary authors.

In Japan, her 1996 novel “Alias Grace” is now being translated for publisher Iwanami Shoten, which expects to release it later this year, and Hayakawa Shobo recently bought the rights to “Oryx and Crake” and will publish it next year.

But her work doesn’t stop there. The 67-year-old is also a poet, illustrator, children’s writer, anthologist, literary critic and political activist — and most recently an inventor and businesswoman.

Amid all her other projects, she has found time to invent the LongPen, a device that transmits a person’s handwriting to another location.

Using this technology, a person signs a digital screen in one place and the infor- mation is transmitted via broadband to another location where a mechanical arm with an ink pen re-creates what the person has just written, precisely the same way, right down to the pressure of the pen on the paper.

Atwood’s idea came from signing the courier’s computer screen to receive a parcel.

“I got the idea because I was really ignorant.” Atwood said, laughing.

“I thought the signature was flying through the air and was being written somewhere,” she said Feb. 16 after conducting the first trans-Pacific book signing, autographing two of her works at the Toronto Public Library’s Book Lovers Ball while sitting in the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.

The writer said the experience gave her a peephole through which to look at the world of business.

“It’s like some kind of complicated sports event,” she said. “You’ve got a team and you’re cheering for your team. There isn’t really an opponent, so it’s more like a race or something. It’s very important that the team members get along.”

Her foray into the world of business also stems from the fact that as she is getting older she is less interested in doing book tours.

Atwood said she will consider whether to do another publicity tour when she publishes her next book.

“As one gets older, one is less thrilled to do these trips,” she said.