Geoff Hancock : What do you think your strengths are as a writer?
Margaret Atwood : I used to say in the usual Canadian way, "Well, aw shucks, I don't know." We're trained to be modest. But now that I'm middle-aged I'm going to allow myself to say, "Well, maybe I'm good." Not all the time, but enough times, I can get the words to stretch and do something together that they don't do alone. Expand the possibilities of the language.
Geoff Hancock : And your weaknesses?
Margaret Atwood : Weaknesses? We can't afford to think about those kinds of things. Most writers are tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls all the time. Look down and you've had it.
Margaret Atwood talking in 1983 and all recorded along with many other enlightening interviews she gave in Conversations edited by Earl G Ingersoll, one of those books that sits neglected on the shelf and suddenly yields gold.
My complete read of every single Margaret Atwood novel bar one three years ago, start to finish, in the order they were written, now the stuff of legend here and I'm wondering just how I managed it. One after another, it was a complete addiction and Conversation arrived in the midst of that addiction when I bought an unwanted post-phD box full of books by and about Margaret Atwood on eBay for a mere £16.
But until the last few weeks I hadn't read The Robber Bride.
Love Peggy as I did, and hallowed though the earth she walked on became, suddenly the gorging at the feast had left me feeling slightly sated and a bit on the literary bilious side and I decided to save just one book for a rainy-must-read-Peggy day.
Bit like those days as a child (or this might just have been me) when you went to a friend's house where there was a swing. We didn't have a swing and so I would sit and swing for hours and hours, have to be prised off it for someone else to have a go and then I'd be back on it, but suddenly, and I never knew the moment because it was instant, that was it, I was swung out and never wanted to look at a swing again (well for about a week or so).
So swings aside it was time for The Robber Bride about a month ago.
Things got off to a slowish start and I wasn't in my usual un-putdownable Peggy mode, I could take or leave this book and mostly I left it, took it to London for train reading, read the newspaper instead. But I knew better than to give up and so I soldiered on slowly but quite happily until suddenly it happened, I was on the Peggy swing and nothing but nothing was going to get me off until I had turned the final page.
Zenia, the friend from hell returns, supposedly from the grave, to haunt her student friends, Tony, Ros and Charis in true gothic fashion. Lives she has left precariously in shreds once are threatened yet again and this particular house of fiction is one of those clever constructs where the roof goes on first and then the rest of the house is built from the eaves down as the story stretches further and further back in time, filling in more and more of the cracks and crevices of finer detail as events unfold. Zenia the rather resilient mortar, the common denominator that binds it all together and who had me wondering with a hundred or so pages to go quite what was going to be left of all this by the time we reached the foundations.
I'm probably one of the few on the planet who hasn't read this one and there can't be much of an original thought left to express about it, but if you are one of the few we'll just have a little conflab amongst ourselves and I'll tell you that it's magnificent Margaret Atwood at her best and also her wittiest with the added bonus of that piercingly searing hot-brand insight for which we hold Peggy up as the exemplar.
Supremely clever writing had me wondering whether this just flows effortlessly off Margaret Atwood's pen or does she sweat and toil to get it just right?
I almost think too much toil and it would never work as well as it does, then I read in Conversations that most of it goes through at least six drafts.
There is not a shred of doubt in my mind, Peggy's right, she's good at this.