Structo talks to Margaret Atwood
“I was the person who wrote, directed and acted in the only Home Economics opera ever written”
This interview first appeared in issue 12, published August 2014.
The author of more than 30 books, including novels, poetry and essay collections, and other non-fiction, Margaret Atwood doesn’t need a great deal of introduction. We talked in London the day after she gave the annual Sebald Lecture at the British Library. The title of her talk that night was ‘Atwood in Translationland’ and it was a fascinating—and frequently very funny—autobiographical journey through many different kinds of translation: from the reality of growing up between Anglophone Ottawa and Francophone Quebec, through to the problems translators face when confronted with her own writing. We picked up some of those threads for this interview. — Euan
No. I’m a UNESCO City of Literature Visiting Professor at Norwich. They have the Writers’ Centre there and they also have the writing programme at UEA, so the two of them collaborated on this. James Lasdun is the other one this year. I think they’ve got two a year. Ali Smith has been one. It is basically a way of getting people to come and interact somewhat with the community, and we did it because we used to live in Blakeney. We wanted to revisit our old haunts and connect with our bird-watching pals who were in Cambridge: BirdLife International. We’re associated with that.
It’s good that you could come over and talk about translation, because that is something that we are particularly interested in it.
In that one [indicating a copy of Structo issue 11 on the table] we have four pieces of poetry in translation. We print both the original and the translation. The question of translation accuracy came up a little bit [at the lecture] last night. What level of oversight is there for you or your publishers?
Well, the publishers know the translators that they use, and if somebody’s done a rotten translation then they’re going to hear about it and they’re not going to use them again. They all speak their own language—they’re publishers—so they can read the book in the translated version and see whether it’s well written, whether it’s interesting. Even if they’re not that fluent in English, they can tell whether the translation that they’re going to put out is something that, ‘hey, this really is French!’ or ‘really this is not French’ or ‘French it may be, this other kind of French, but our audience is not going to understand it’. This is the problem that Québecal literature has had in France. People within Québec understand it very well, but people in France often think, ‘this is weird’. It’s like somebody writing English and putting a lot of Appalachian locutions in.
You mentioned that [the translators] email you a lot.
Some of them do. You actually worry a bit more about the ones who don’t. You think: what is it that they think they understand that they don’t actually understand?
Something that comes through, especially in your poetry, is the—and take this the right way—the straightforward nature of your writing. It is not overly complex when it doesn’t need to be. Is that helpful for translators, or is that making it a lot more difficult, because of the subtlety?
It very much depends on the language that it is being translated into and what that language allows, how that language operates. You just marvel at people translating into languages like Japanese which are just so different. One of the weirdest language events we did was we had a musical and dramatic and bird life conservation event, to launch The Year of the Flood.
Was this the hymns?
We did the whole shoot out. We had a script, and all it took was a singing group and three actors. We sent that to everybody who was going to do it and it was up to them how. In Bristol they had a full a cappella: about twenty singers raising the roof. Astonishing. They had rearranged the music to suit themselves. The only common thing was that I would be the narrator. But I would never know what they were going to do, so the day of the event was the day when I saw it. [Laughs] We had everything from sensational to, ‘we are going to get thrown out of here it’s so bad’. [Laughs] You just never knew and luckily it wasn’t Hamlet so people couldn’t say, ‘it’s supposed to be this other way’, because they didn’t know how it was supposed to be. Some of them made all their own costumes, some of them wore church choir gowns; it was just very, very different kinds of things. I think we did it in six or eight places [in the UK]. We launched in Edinburgh, at St John’s. It was fantastic. They made banners out of orange Sainsbury’s bags, which they blew up and put on sticks. [Laughs] Quite amazing. They were great.
There is a version on Spotify. Is that an official one? Did you work with the composer?
You mean the hymns? The hymns you can find through my website, they’re on the audiobook and you can, I think, digitally download them. I didn’t work with the composer, the composer was my agent’s partner—who happens to be a musician and songwriter—and he got into the manuscript before it was published and started channelling it at once, and so he wrote a couple of these things and I said, ‘go and write the others’. And so he did. So therefore we were able to do this because we already had the music. We would send the music to the people and they would do with it what they would. The ones in Bath—it was a girls’ school—they had to rearrange it all for sopranos. The most amazing language event was when they did it in Japan with three astonishing Japanese actors. Since their drama tradition is pretty weird anyway they didn’t have a problem with how odd it was. [Laughs] And we brought three Canadian singers. The text was in Japanese, the acting was in Japanese, the singing was in English but with the lyrics in the programmes in Japanese so [the audience] could read it. And then I was the narrator, and I spoke in English but I had a Japanese mini-me who would do each paragraph into Japanese, right on the stage. [Laughs] I thought, ‘this is never going to work’, but actually it worked a treat—it was great—partly because the actors were so good and because I knew what they were saying. I could follow their expressions and how they were putting it across. They were just superb.
That’s amazing. And it leads me perfectly on to talk about The Penelopiad. It was simultaneously released in dozens of languages?
Yes, it was the largest simultaneous translation book launch ever. It’s young Jamie Byng, I call him young Jamie Byng—I suppose he’s not that young any more. Mr Thousand Ideas, who also started World Book Night. I think some people got drunk in Frankfurt [at the International Book Fair]—I think this is how a lot of these projects start. So he and Louise Dennis and the guy from Grove Press in the States, and Grove Atlantic, and Arnulf Conradi from Berlin Verlag… I think it was the four of them who cooked this up. They were going to ask all of these writers from all around the world, and the stipulation was that it can only be this long and you’re all getting paid the same. He jumped out at me from behind a potted plant in Edinburgh before I’d had any coffee and he talked me into doing this. Then a long time went by during which I was unable to do it because my first idea was that I was going to do a Haida myth.
Haida, a language group of one. People familiar with the Haida mythology would be about two. So if I had done The Mouse Woman, which is what I started with, I would have had to have explained the whole thing first, so they would understand what it was I was rewriting. It’s kind of hard to rewrite a myth that people don’t know, or don’t know really anything much about, so most of the ones that have been done have been ones that are at least somewhat well known. It was going to be me, Jeanette Winterson, and a short history of mythology by Karen Armstrong. She wasn’t writing a story, she was writing a kind of overview. But I said, ‘you know I really can’t, I’m not getting on with this’. So I asked my agent, ‘do you think that Jamie would really mind a lot if I just didn’t do this?’ Frosty transatlantic silence. [Laughs] ‘Well’, she said, ‘I think Jamie would be gutted, but do as you please’. I thought, ‘I better do this’. So then it was The Penelopiad.
And you then translated it into a play.
Let me put this in a frame for you: I’m so old that I come from a very do-it-yourself background. Everything that is out there and commercialised now was once was just stuff you did in the living room yourself. They’ve even commercialised something we used to play, called ‘dictionary’, in which you took the Oxford Shorter—I’m sure you know this, it was a graduate student game—you’d sit around the Oxford Shorter, and you’d pick the most obscure, stupid-sounding word that you could find. And if you were ‘it’ you would propose that word, okay, the word is this. The word is ‘vola’. Then the contestants, who are everybody else, would write out not what they thought the word really meant, but a definition of the word that would convince everybody else that it was from The Oxford Shorter Dictionary. The derivations, the usages from Old Middle English and some cognates. And then they would put them all in a hat and they would read them out. One would be the real one and the others would all be fraudulent. You would vote on the one that you actually thought was the real one and if your fraudulent one got the most votes you got a whole bunch of points. [Laughs] If your real definition didn’t get voted for you also got a whole bunch of points.[Laughter] Are there any that you remember?
Well ‘vola’ was one of them. It was everything, including an obscure Siberian mole. It’s actually, I think, something to do with windows, but I can’t now remember what it really means. And so the idea of putting together a weird dramatic performance is not foreign to my background and mentality. I was the person who wrote, directed and acted in the only Home Economics opera ever written.[Laughter] You’re going to have to expand on that!
Alright, it was a mistake of the Home Economics teacher who allowed us to vote on something. This is what happens when you’ve got democracy. [Laughs] She wanted us to vote on making stuffed animals for a sick children’s hospital but I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to put on a Home Economics opera instead. And because enough people voted for it she had to let us do it.
How old were you?
I would have been 16. This was 1956.
How did it go?
It went very well. This is a person with no sense of humour. Grudgingly she said we could do it but it had to really be about the Home Economics subject. So it was.
It’s about these three fabrics called Orlon, Nylon and Dakron who lived with their parent Old King Coal, because they were all coal derivatives. The dramatic interest was that a wandering knight came by whose name was Sir William Woolly—he had a terrible problem which was he shrank from washing. He came in somebody’s sheepskin rug. We did the costumes out of bed sheets and paper bags painted silver and it was a howling success. Of course I cribbed all the music from real pieces of music; the director of the Canadian Opera Company, when I sang him one of these songs having to do with washing—Wash Day—to the tune of Hoffman’s Barcarolle, he said it was ruined for him forever.
Who directed Mamma Mia? Phyllida Lloyd. Phyllida Lloyd was the director of The Handmaid’s Tale opera when it premiered in Copenhagen in the year 2000. It was actually pretty good—I thought this is either going to be terrible and never seen again or it’s going to be pretty good—and it was pretty good. It had four other productions and one of them was in Toronto and she came over to tune it up. I was talking to her about it and I had The Penelopiad manuscript and I said, ‘this is something that has got a lyric dimension and how interesting would it be to change its form and turn it into a play?’ She got pretty into that and, to launch the book, we put on—in St James’s, Piccadilly, just down the road—we put on, for one time only, [a production of The Penelopiad] up until the point where Penelope sails away. I played Penelope, but I got to have the actual text—I wasn’t going to memorise all that! [Laughs] Then we had three brilliant actresses who could all sing and play an instrument, they were wonderful and of course they switched characters. We had little changes of costume, like sunglasses and for the naiad mother, I think she had a rain coat. [Laughs] Things like that. And that went jolly well. Phyllida was going to do [a theatrical run of The Penelopiad] but then she got diverted into directing Mamma Mia so we had to change those plans, but then it turned into a joint production between The Royal Shakespeare [Company] and National Arts Centre in Canada, with half of the actors from each one. It went on from there, and it’s been performed all over the place. When we did it the first time, she took the two acts that I had written and squashed them into one, which lost a few dramatic threads, but then we separated them again and made it into two acts, which is actually much more comprehensible.
The most recent one that I have seen was in Toronto with Megan Follows, who played Penelope, having debuted in the Anne of Green Gables TV series. She was the original Anne. She was great. You need a cast of one Penelope and twelve other people, although you could do it with fewer, but that works really well, especially in the hanging scene when you see them all getting hanged one after another. Heart-stopping. That was so successful that they brought it back again in the following year because it was completely sold out the first time.
How did you find the process of writing a play?
I have a long deep dark background in various sorts of japes and pranks of this kind. I ran my own puppet show in high school. You don’t need to know all this. But then I acted in college, and it was always comedy. I was not for the dramatic, tragic, parts. And then after that I did some writing for television.
What was that?
It was The Edible Woman, my first novel, which got optioned by this producer called Oscar Lewenstein, here in London. He said, ‘we would like you to write the script’, I said, ‘well, I’ve never written a script, surely you want real script writers’. ‘We don’t want some broken-down hack from Hollywood.’ Actually they wanted someone cheap and malleable. [Laughs] Anyway, it was very great fun, I should write about it one day because it was just a circus. I did a number of those things over the years.
But you first surfaced in print as a poet.
I know, because it was easier to surface in print as a poet! But it wasn’t that I wasn’t writing the other things, they were just harder to get published. So I wrote my first novel, which didn’t see the light of day praise the Lord. These days you would stick the thing out as a self-published digital [book] and then you would be really sorry later. Because it wouldn’t be very good, which [mine] wasn’t. But that was 1963. I was 23 years old. You don’t necessarily want to publish what you write at 23, but on the other hand sometimes you do. The poetry we could churn out in the cellar, or do it with an offset press or mimeo machines. Some of the first were published on the mimeo machines. I first published something that got sold in a book shop by hand, setting it myself on a flatbed press. There weren’t any computers, so you took the ‘a’ and you set it backwards… This must sound like the dark ages to you.
No, I love this kind of thing. Did you enjoy the process?
Oh, yeah. But I’m an old fixer person. I did grow up in the woods—you had to be able to fix lots of things when they broke. You couldn’t go the shop. You can do wonders with a piece of wire and a couple of rubber bands.
It’s one of the reasons we are still a print magazine. It’s wilfully anachronistic.
It’s coming back. The reason it’s coming back is that people have realised that you don’t get as deep a read online—it’s a neurological thing—they now have the studies, which is something we suspected earlier, because we experienced it. It’s great for reading the newspaper, you can scan the news, find this find that, it’s great for looking stuff up on Google, it’s awful for reading War and Peace.
Do you read Medium or Matter?
Matter. Yeah, I subscribe to Matter. I think all of these things should be encouraged, because they are all outlets, they’re outlets for writers. And it’s the usual problem, it’s always the same problem, people think that they’re gonna provide a different platform and it’s gonna solve the problem, but it never does, and the problem is simply this: there’s this many people doing it, the day has twenty-four hours, and you cannot read this many people. I could read everything published in Canada in 1960 easy peasy. You knew exactly who was doing what, because only this many people were doing it, but now, what with all the writing schools and various other things… Everybody is always whining about people not reading—that’s not true, they’re reading a huge amount, it’s that the market is fragmented, so they’re not all reading Charles Dickens. You can’t say, ‘wow, look at all these people reading, they’re all reading Charles Dickens’. Well they’re not, they’re reading this, they’re reading that.
It’s changing so fast.
It’s changing fast but one of the things that hasn’t changed is people still read paper books and there’s a reason for that. We saw the ebooks go up, they went up to about 30%, and now they’re back down.
Did they drop again?
Yeah, they’re down around between 20 and 25% and that’s kind of where they’re sitting. The people that are gonna get knocked out of the paper books are probably the read-and-throw romance junkies. You know: read-it-read-it-read-it. The same sector that knocked out that kind of book in cheap hardback is going to get knocked out by that kind of book in digital. The Folio Society had the brilliant idea—which is what the record companies should have done at the first get go—instead of making their stuff cheaper and tackier they have made it more wonderful and must-have.
I’ve noticed cloth-bound books coming back. A great format.
Yeah, cloth luxury editions of various kinds which are often pretty bogus but the Folio do a good job because—and they have a smart business model—you subscribe to it, and they work really hard matching the artist up with the text. I thought they did a brilliant job with The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s illustrated by two Italian identical twins. They picked a sort of Mussolini-era colour palette. It’s really brilliant. They won an award for it. I work a bit with the Folio. I did an introduction to Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales.
It leaves me thinking about genre and categorisation, the thing that you and Ursula Le Guin talked about.
No one ever used to talk about genre at all.
Exactly. Is the conversation useful? I mean I know it’s useful—I used to work in a bookshop—I know it was useful for me as a bookseller, and as a publisher I can see it being useful…
It’s not useful to readers, unless you only read one kind of thing. For me—and it always has been so—there are good books and I don’t care what genre they are. They’re good or they’re not good. I think a lot of this stuff that goes on is a kind of defence of, corralling off of, territory and saying, ‘you can’t come in’. ‘I know sci-fi and you’re not allowed in.’ I think that’s pretty much broken down. The people who started it never thought like that. H.G. Wells didn’t even think, ‘I’m writing science fiction’. That term didn’t even appear until much later. He just thought he was writing interesting, weird books. I suppose that is what he thought. He actually thought, with [The Island of Dr Moreau], ‘I’m writing a piece of blasphemy’.
That was a very interesting piece in Other Worlds—the different takes on Moreau.
I think there are a lot of connections there. And when The New Yorker starts publishing sci-fi you know that that barrier has gone. Did you see that Egan one called ‘Black Box’? It’s screaming brilliant. She published it originally as a Twitter novel, so I’m told, I didn’t see it in that form. Jennifer Egan, ‘Black Box’, very brilliant piece.
Our tastes tend towards what I’ve had to call slipstream.
Oh yeah, slipstream is fine, we know that term. Who was it that thought that up?
Yeah, Bruce Sterling.
But that got me into trouble.
Some people then thought that because they weren’t writing slipstream then they wouldn’t be interested in the magazine, or we wouldn’t want to publish them. We publish all kinds of things; it’s just that we happen to publish possibly slightly more slipstream than anything else.
Why don’t you say we publish things that hold our attention?
That’s good. I used to phrase it as ‘writing we love’…
No. Make me turn the page. I’m an addictive reader so I will turn the page, so don’t use me as the model. But give the reader a reason to turn the page. Lead me on and I don’t care how. Maybe you are just very funny. Maybe you have a wonderful way of sucking me into the landscape, maybe you put a corpse on page one. Whatever it is, give me a reason. The class that I’m doing at UEA is on first chapters only. Because I live, as I said to them. I don’t have a university job, I live in the real world and my real world includes the book shop. So what do you do when you walk into the book shop, whether it’s online or physical, and you see a book? You’ve never heard of the author, or you might have heard of them a little bit but you haven’t read them or encountered them, and there’s their book, and luckily it has a good cover on it—struggle number one—and a good title. Title is part of the book, by the way, it’s why we’re willing to stick with the narrator of Dracula through his tedious journal on the first page, you think, he doesn’t know does he? He hasn’t read the title, but we have! [Laughs] So. First chapters. You go into a book shop; you pick it up, you open it. What do you do first? You read the description of it on the inside flap. This has originally been written by an intern. You have to rewrite it yourself. So the author has rewritten the inside jacket flap. And then you turn to the title page. You might even skip the epigram, the dedication. Chapter one. You read the first page. If you can get the reader to turn the page, you can get them through five pages, you’ve probably got them. But if you can’t, that’s it, they’ll never get to your brilliant description on page fifty, they’ll never get to the meaning of life on page seventy-five, because you haven’t given them a reason to keep reading your book. So if I were you, I would describe it as we publish writing that makes us turn the page.
I’m glad I came to talk to you about this!
Nobody can argue about that. ‘I’m sorry, but your story didn’t make me turn the page.’ It’s not that it’s slipstream or not slipstream, or this or that category or not. ‘Whatever it was; it didn’t suck me in.’ The usual cop out for rejection letters is ‘not suitable for our purposes at this time’.
The other way of teaching writing we have done is we divide the class up into groups of five or so, and then get them to invent a magazine. Everything about it: the title, what kind of thing it publishes, how many times a year, how big it is, who funds it. Do you publish advertising? Have you got a patron? Do you have donations? Subscriptions? How are you going to run this thing? And then I make them read each other’s work and decide whether they’re going to publish that piece in their magazine. And then I want them to write the kind of acceptance, or rejection, that they themselves would like to get. That’s the unreal part: even if it gets rejected, I want you to tell them why, and if it’s not suitable for your magazine, suggest one of the others. And that was so interesting, because some of them would say, well, we decided our magazine was going to be for dog lovers, and we don’t publish anything that doesn’t have a dog in it. So: ‘we love your story, but it doesn’t have a dog in it!’ [Laughs] Things which got rejected by one of the magazines would be lovingly published by one of the others. It’s a very good exercise. And it’s in the real world, because they had to think about who’s paying for it. These things don’t just exist.
I think that’s really useful, because several of the others who work on the magazine are writers, and I think it must be incredibly valuable, not only to see the kind of basic mistakes to avoid—
Yeah, and the ‘this is pretty good but we rejected it anyway’. That there isn’t some big god person in the sky saying ‘this good; that bad’, it’s not any sort of absolute judgement. It’s just that this group of people didn’t go for that thing.
I rejected my own fiction editor once.
You rejected your fiction editor?!
Yeah. He submitted under a pseudonym.
Happily I gave him a very good rejection, and said ‘probably more suitable for somewhere like McSweeney’s’.
And did he send it to McSweeney’s?
Yes. He got rejected. [Laughter]
How many submissions do you get?
We publish about five percent of what we get.
Yeah. It’s hideous. We started in the 60s, and because we didn’t have a lot of outlets, writers started publishing companies. Not with magazines but with books. We would read our own slush piles because there weren’t any agents in Canada then. And that was then. Imagine what it would be like now. But at least there are now some intermediaries, at least there are some agents. But some of them don’t even take on unsolicited manuscripts any more. They can’t.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of the ‘gatekeeper’. Whether it’s a good thing or not. But I do think it’s a necessary thing, when it comes to some degree of filtering.
The world is now very, very diverse, so if you want to publish your thing you can put it into print, you can stick it up as a single on a number of different websites. You do a Lulu or any number of self-published books. Help yourself, you’ll learn a lot, including, ‘okay, here’s the book; how do I make it known? Now what?’ But gatekeepers, sure, there have to be gatekeepers, but there are a lot of different gates. So when you stick it up online, the gatekeepers are basically the readers, but of course that doesn’t really work because you have no way of letting the readers know that you even exist. So on Wattpad—which is free-for-all, anyone can join—there’s a certain amount of selection and promotion and stuff done by Wattpad itself. They read all this stuff and say, ‘this one has really got something, let’s put it on the front page’. They’re still gatekeeping, it’s just that it comes in different forms.
And how did you find the process of writing Positron? The serial.
It didn’t start as one. [Laughs] It started as a single thing. A lot of things that we now regard as deathless classics were enabled by a certain publishing platform. Had it not existed, that would never have been written. Had it not been for the magazine, no Sherlock Holmes. Dickens published serially in the first part of his writing life. That’s why there are three chapters and then a cliff-hanger. It has to be so. [The Canadian philosopher of communication theory] Marshall McLuhan was ‘McLuhanising’ just down the road when I was an undergraduate, so I understand how the means available is going to influence what is produced. Had there been no theatre at the time of Shakespeare there would have been no King Lear. It’s not that the platform automatically generates this stuff, but it permits it to happen. It gives a new set of toys that people can then play with, and produce things out of playing with those new toys. I think the ‘play with it’ era of the internet may almost have peaked; people have explored almost every niche that’s there to be explored—I may be wrong—and so now it’s a question of building on and elaborating those niches that already exist.
It’s great to see someone embrace so many forms of writing.
Explore, not embrace. Some work, some don’t. Explore. You’re read [McLuhan’s] The Gutenberg Galaxy? It’s all in there. But again, radio does work differently from television. Print books do work differently from online. And all these things have different ways of working. I’ve written in film too, and film is a different way of presenting a narrative: in pictures. We’ve just had a big hoo-hah about graphic novels. A graphic novel which has been made from a words-only text is not the same thing. You and I understand this, some publishers don’t. They think it’s an edition. It’s not an edition, it’s a new thing. A story told with pictures.
Have you been involved in any graphic novels?
We’re setting one up right now for The Handmaid’s Tale. But of course I have a deep background in cartooning…
Ah yes, I remember your drawings in The Tent. I have a question about that book. Are your poems sparked from a markedly different source from your short fiction? Because, to me, The Tent felt like it was on that border between the two forms.
It is. Think in terms of wavelengths. In a novel, the waves are very far apart, so you might put in something on page 50 that has an echo on page 125 and then pays off on 250. Because all art is pattern. All art involves pattern. In a short story the crests of the waves are closer together, and in a lyric poem—but not in an epic poem—the crests of the waves are very close together indeed. Ripples like this [waves hand] rather than tsunamis like that. That’s number one. Number two: I think a different part of the brain is involved. I can’t prove it, because you can’t wire up a poet and say, ‘compose poetry now’. You can wire up a novelist and say, ‘work on your novel now’. We can do that. But I think the poetry part is probably closer to the same kind of patterning which goes into music, mathematics—
It’s more structural?
Very structural. Maybe closer to song. I can’t prove it, but I think so. I think it’s a different part of the brain, and most people are not ambidextrous in that way. They’re either good at poetry and don’t write prose fiction, or they’re novelists who don’t write poetry. There have been a few, like Thomas Hardy. There are a number of Canadians, because no one told us not to do it. We were pre the writing school where you had to do this or that.
Is that what you ascribe your wide-ranging exploration to?
No one told me not to. No one told me it was bad. [Laughs] I lived in a biological household, but my parents liked to read, and my dad liked a wide range of things. So we would have the collected H.G. Wells, all of Sherlock Holmes… just interesting stuff to read.
It does make life more interesting.
The funny thing with him… he was a fan of Georgette Heyer, because he thought she was funny. [Laughs] She amused him. You usually think of girls reading that, but a lot of men like Jane Austen pretty well because she’s funny. Georgette Heyer is a kind of reincarnation of that.
That was a revelation, finally reading Austen.
The social commentary is great, but she is genuinely funny.
Yes, well, pretty acerbic.
I struggled with Emma.
Because she’s such a goodie-goodie. She’s so bossy. I shouldn’t say a goodie-goodie. She’s bossy. That’s her thing. She thinks she can run it all.
I’ll have to try that again when I’m feeling a bit more patient.
The one I had trouble with was Mansfield Park, because Fanny is such a goodie-goodie, but I’ve come around to it. I get it now. Sort of.
Just a few other things… Firstly to completely agree with your comment [at the event] about teaching [the Roman poet] Martial when teaching Latin.
It’s so filthy! [Laughs] You probably know that online there’s this site called The Well, where you can find all of Martial’s most filthy epigrams translated. So dirty. If Martial were alive today he’d be a stand-up comic called Rob Delaney. Another thing that you would probably enjoy would be… Did you know Chaucer has a blog?[We go completely off topic for a few minutes and laugh about some of our favourite websites, including Marie Antoinette’s blog (mainly court gossip), Slushpile Hell, and Old Finnish People With Things On Their Heads]
The internet can be such a source of joy.
And a source of procrastination.
How do you manage that, as a writer? I know you refer to your—
The writing burrow. ‘Goodbye! I’m gone.’
Do you literally just disconnect?
Well you have to, otherwise you’d get nothing done. It’s the same thing as reading the back pages of the newspaper with all the peculiar articles. There was a good one the other day about a US cheerleader who was suing the football company who employed her because she had calculated the amount of time she was putting in and the amount she was getting paid, and it was well below the minimum wage. They also have a list of things they have to do, to adhere to, which included, ‘no slouching breasts’. [Laughs] ‘No white lipstick, no slouching breasts. Support accordingly’. Now what did you want to ask? Something quite serious?
This is probably the most serious question I had. [Laughter] Can you say a little about Payback and where your interest in the subject of debt came from?
I’m a Victorianist. You cannot read Victorian literature without the subject of debt coming up. A lot of the plots turn on that. It’s about money. It was the first age of full-blown capitalism, and people didn’t really understand how it all worked. So some were going up like bubbles, and some were sinking like stones. Even in Cranford, that village idyll, one of the characters loses all her money and she doesn’t know why. Something has gone bust. Anne of Green Gables: how does that end? Matthew has a heart attack because he gets a letter saying the bank has foundered and all of his life savings are gone. So this was happening to people. The Custom of the Country—Edith Wharton—this girl who was the daughter of a guy who has struck it rich on the goldfields social climbs her way all over Europe by marrying husbands and then divorcing them. It’s just about money. The Portrait of a Lady, it’s what it’s about. Dickens… Thackeray… Vanity Fair, what’s it about? Family number one loses their fortune and suddenly the daughter is not supposed to be married by this other guy. Heathcliff. Wuthering Heights. Where does he make his money? What’s going on there anyway? We know he’s probably made it in some kind of shady fashion, but we don’t actually know. Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch… who’s got the money? A little bit [in Middlemarch] but in The Mill on the Floss very much so: the family loses its money and that sets in train all these different things that the descendants have to deal with, and that’s the whole plot really.
What made me do it? What made me do it is that there’s a lecture series in Canada in which you have to do something pretty complex: you have to write the book, you have to then shorten it, and then give five lectures, which you then have to deliver across Canada, in different cities. And Canada is really big. And then those get condensed even more, and put out as a radio programme. This dates back to the 50s—the lecture series, the Massey Lectures. They were asking me to do it for years and years and years, and I said, ‘no thank you, I’m washing my hair’. But then it became so—through a publishing failure actually—the series was going to be taken away from publishing company A, which was not the publishing company which failed but had been distributed by it, and given to publishing company B. Publishing company A was the one which I helped found back in the 60s; I have a certain loyalty to it. I said, ‘if you do this terrible, terrible thing, I’ll never ever give the Massey Lectures’. [Laughs] They didn’t do the terrible, terrible thing, so then I had to give them. Then I said, ‘okay, it’s going to be about debt’. I think they then had a backroom meeting in which they tore out their hair because they thought I was going to write a book about economics. It’s not about economics, it’s about how we exchange things as human beings; how things get exchanged.
The novel chapter is the third one, I think. The first is at a very basic level: how things get exchanged, what primates do, and what we understand. If I scratch your back you’ll scratch mine. It’s real scratching among the chimpanzees so they know that you owe them something. If you’ve been given something, you owe something. They know that, and they expect it. The higher up you go in terms of brain cells, the more that enters: how are we going to balance this out? Who gets the most? The biggest one generally gets the most, but the others have to get something. How does it all get spread around? Then there’s the religion [chapter], which is built on metaphor. Christianity is built on metaphors of death and payment. I’m very interested in the way that books get into that: signing a book, the contract. The devil’s contract: it’s very interesting to me that that is a piece of paper. The fourth chapter is about criminal activities, which is when it gets even more basic: what happens when you don’t pay, can’t pay, won’t pay? What happens then? And the fifth one is about the natural bank, which we have already heavily overdrawn.
It seems to draw together a number of threads of your interests.
Which are wide-ranging. [Laughs] James Buchan has a brilliant book about money called Frozen Desire. He started thinking about it because he was living in Saudi Arabia and making all this money, but there was nothing he could spend it on that he actually wanted. [Laughs] It’s the Midas story: money is not good for anything until you can turn it into something else. It has to flow otherwise it’s not anything. It’s a made up thing. We made it up. But [the lecture series] was a work out because we went hither and thither around Canada, but it was a lot of fun because at the very moment that—actually I shouldn’t call it fun, it was horrible for other people—but for me it was very interesting to be the only person who had a book out on that subject just when the big financial meltdown was happening.
When did it go out?
In 2008. October. Everyone said, ‘wow, were you ever clairvoyant!’ I said, ‘actually not, I’ve been interested in this for a long time’.
And the film [version of Payback]?
Oh, those people are wonderful. Jennifer and Nick. She’s a deep thinker, but she is also just wildly fearless. They were in the mountains of Albania with the translator saying to them, ‘we need to leave. We need to leave now’. [Laughs] ‘We need to get out of here.’ She just made another [film] called Water. Brilliant. Very brilliant.