Margaret Atwood’s future proofs and finding a modern language for magic

Whether tackling Shakespeare, writing poetry or creating a graphic novel, the Canadian author lets her social conscience shine through – and has a habit of predicting the future

Margaret Atwood: her novel Hag-Seed is a modern prose version of The Tempest. “It was absolutely my first choice. It has a magician. It has fairies. Can it even be done?”   Photograph: Liam Sharp

Margaret Atwood: her novel Hag-Seed is a modern prose version of The Tempest. “It was absolutely my first choice. It has a magician. It has fairies. Can it even be done?” Photograph: Liam Sharp

 

It is 11am in Toronto. Margaret Atwood is in a cellar, talking to The Irish Times from her home office, where an assistant helps administer her schedule, and where she barely ever writes. “I don’t actually get to write in my office,” she says in her distinctively laconic, sardonic manner. “I write in planes, hotel rooms: wherever I have occasion to be.” She will be 77 this year, but time has not slowed her down. She has just published her 17th novel, Hag-Seed, and will be travelling throughout Europe – with a stop on Sunday in Dún Laoghaire, in Co Dublin – to promote it.

Hag-Seed is one of 10 novels commissioned by Hogarth Press to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Atwood first encountered Shakespeare as a high-school student in the years after the second World War. “He is a big deal when you were studying English,” she says, typically deadpan, “no matter when, no matter where you are, so every year we did a different play.”

The first one on her curriculum was Julius Caesar – “a good choice for teenagers, because it had lots of action but no sex” – and the approach wasn’t just textbook. “There was a theatrical troupe who would come around to the high schools, performing, and when you were in your final year you could be an extra if you wanted.”

Atwood didn’t. She had already got the impulse to act out of her system, with the theatre company she ran with a friend in her midteens, staging “classic fairy tales using hand puppets. We made everything ourselves, and the stories always involved cannibals. That’s what the children liked.”

By the time Atwood started college she knew that she wanted to be a writer. Poetry was her form of choice – she still writes poetry, and has a new collection out this year – but her first commission was for the stage. “The Stratford Shakespeare Festival had just been set up” – Stratford here being the small Ontario city – “and I was commissioned to write the script for a dramatic musical tribute to Shakespeare, The Trumpet of Summer. I got paid to write something – that was the thrill.”

One of the central themes of Atwood’s libretto was the academic pedantry surrounding the work of the Elizabethan dramatist. Fifty years later it is a theme that echoes through Hag-Seed, which marries many of Atwood’s favourite themes with her inimitable style. From the futuristic feminism of The Handmaid’s Tale to the dystopian climate-change thrillers of the MaddAddam trilogy, she has always sought to democratise literary writing with popular, genre-busting storylines.

 Hag-Seed is a modern prose version of The Tempest. “It was absolutely my first choice. It has a magician. It has fairies. Can it even be done?”

Immediately, it presented a series of problems. “There are a lot of things that are not explained; there are gaps in the plot; and then there is the ending. If you were Prospero and had a brother who tried to kill you, would you really get rid of your weapons – your magic – and just forgive him?”

The magical element is a challenge in itself. “I suppose I could have written a supernatural book, where the spirits were real spirits, but that was not nearly as interesting to me as trying to find a modern language for magic, and if I can’t use actual magic there have to be explanations for phenomena in the play.” So her Tempest is set not on an island but in a theatre; Ariel is not a fairy but a “special effects guy”.

Intimate knowledge

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There is certainly a moral and social conscience in Hag-Seed, which sees Atwood cast a radical production of the play at a fictional Canadian prison. The production’s director (Felix/Prospero) has pitched up there hoping to wreak revenge on a former colleague (Antonio), who ousted him from his role as artistic director of Makeshiweg Theatre Festival.

Unable to rationalise Shakespeare’s magical plot to the modern day, Atwood sets it in a metatheatrical frame that is rich with farce. As well as Prospero’s Ariel becoming “the special effects guy”, Caliban, that controversial justification for colonial superiority, is a freestyling, gansta-rapping inmate with a knack for turning Shakespeare into contemporary slang: “What you’re gonna see, is a storm at sea: / Winds are howlin’, sailors yowlin’ / Passengers cursin’ em, cause it’s gettin’ worse / Gonna hear screams, just like a ba-a-a-d dream, / But not all here is what it seem.”

Things are certainly not all they seem. Hag-Seed isn’t merely a revenge drama; it is also a love letter to theatre. One of the best parts of researching the book, Atwood says, was getting to watch dozens of versions of the play, which she saw live and on screen as she was writing the book – contrasting, for example, Christopher Plummer’s Prospero with Helen Mirren’s Prospera (“She was really very good”).

The novel also offers a glimpse of how transformational literacy programmes in prison can be. Hag-Seed isn’t the first time that Atwood has used a prison setting for a book. Her 1996 book Alias Grace, “which I finished in west Cork, where I lived for three months in the 1990s”, tells the story of an Irish servant who is sentenced to murder in Canada in the middle of the 18th century. (Incidentally, it also features a magician.) The Heart Goes Last, meanwhile, is a futuristic riff on prison systems, which sees inmates serve alternately as prisoners and staff. In Hag-Seed, however, the prison is a recognisably contemporary one.

“I did my research on prisons, yes, but also prison literature. There are many books about people teaching in prisons, including one” – by Dr Laura Bates – “called Shakespeare Saved My Life, and there are many programmes like the one in Hag-Seed, but obviously Fletcher County Correctional Institute and Felix are fictional.”

Through Felix, Atwood shows a flair for reducing Shakespeare to its bare-bones relevance to a group of hardened criminals while illustrating what a difference it can make to the prisoners’ literacy and personalities.

Political and social beliefs

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There is nothing overtly preachy about Atwood’s prose, however. She merely understands that fiction can be a powerful weapon of persuasion.

This belief is at the heart of Atwood’s Angel Catbird, a graphic novel about a nature-loving superhero, which is also published this month. The titular protagonist is a hero with an identity complex. Part cat, part owl and part human, he has to choose between saving fellow felines or intervening in bird or human life. The project is, as Atwood explains, a collaboration with Nature Canada, which “provided the statistics that line the comic-strip boxes”, reminding readers that for every far-flung feathered battle that Angel Catbird wins there is “a deadly consequence for a real animal. Mortality figures for free-range cats are quite unbelievable. They get hit by cars, bitten by wild animals, eaten by foxes.”

The logic suggests that if people keep their cats safe they also keep the birds safe. Cats are “one of the biggest threats to wild bird life”, Atwood says.

If the premise sounds a little dry, the illustrations, by Tamra Bonvillain and Johnnie Christmas, provide just the pulp and poppy vibe Atwood wanted to soften the book’s environmental message.

Atwood could have done the drawings herself. She has published seven self-illustrated picture books, and she documents many of her travels in drawings that she publishes on her website, a brilliant interface for exploring her work that demonstrates just how tech-savvy she is. (She has more than a million followers on Twitter.) She even wrote a serial comic strip in the late 1970s. Its protagonist was called Survivalwoman, a kilt-clad supergirl who looked quite like Atwood herself: a more than apt coincidence for a woman with inexhaustible talents.

Hag-Seed is published by Penguin Random House. Angel Catbird is published by Dark Horse Books