My imaginary dinner party guest #3: Margaret Atwood

Previously on ‘My Imaginary Dinner Party’…

Now there’s a table, a rapidly depleting selection of wines, a tepid pasta bake, a smattering of Pringle crumbs in a bowl, Leonard Cohen, Lana Del Rey, and me. Leonard’s ramped up the story-telling and Lana is sitting with one leg crossed elegantly over the other, hand-rolled cigarette in hand, her longing gaze burning little heart-shaped holes into Leonard from across the table. She begins to suggest something about getting a guitar out and having a jam – but before Leonard can modestly (but probably not very convincingly) decline, there’s a quiet but curt knock at the door, disrupting the increasingly sexual dynamic of the evening. Thank god.

Margaret Atwood

I was in two minds about inviting Atwood, to be honest, because she seems a little bit scary and I have a feeling she wouldn’t like me because I’m a bit awkward and stuttery and she’s very precise and wry. I enjoyed her novels long before I knew anything about her as a person, and I still know barely a thing. This is what I do know, off the top of my head, and like most things on the Internet it may be wildly wrong so take it all with a few pinches of salt:

  • She’s Canadian.
  • Her father was a biologist (or botanist, I can’t remember which).
  • Their family spent a lot of time in the Canadian wilderness.
  • Because of this she knows quite a bit about survival and foraging and what to do about bears.
  • She is very good at writing convincingly about madness, whatever that is (see Surfacing).
  • She is very good at writing about what it’s like to be a female (and not just because she is one – I’ve read plenty of novels by women who aren’t).
  • She is a little bit eccentric – she likes colourful clothes and weird and wonderful things.
  • Young feminists today idolise her because of The Handmaid’s Tale, but I don’t believe she calls herself a feminist, which pleases me because neither do I.
  • Her husband died a few weeks ago, which is very sad, but she is continuing with her Testaments tour – fortunately, because I’m seeing her in Brighton in a couple of weeks (I’ll remind her about it tonight at my imaginary dinner party).
  • Towards the end of his life, her husband had dementia.
  • He wrote novels too.
  • She was married to someone else before him.
  • She didn’t write a novel until she was 30 – this used to please me but now that I’m nearly 30 with a barely-started novel, it does not.

I think Atwood’s arrival would shake Cohen out of his Lana Del Rey haze. She would yank him out of the cosy, pink velvet interior of his male ego and they would have some kind of sharp-tongued battle of wits that she would inevitably win.

At some point in the evening I’ll drink enough wine to not be scared of her, and I’ll asked her about Edible Woman, my favourite novel of hers, and what it was like to write, and how she kept up momentum, and I’ll ask her about men and love and motherhood too. Because being a writer (or at least, dedicating your life to writing) is a strange and all-encompassing thing that excludes practically everything and everyone else. How do you write but live as well? It’s certainly something I struggle with. It seems I’m either living – being out in the world, engaging with people and events, or I’m writing, alone, grumpy, snappy, alienating myself, wishing selfishly, brattishly that I could put everything on hold until I’m done.

“For an instant she felt them, their identities, almost their substance, pass over her head like a wave. At some time she would be — or no, already she was like that too; she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh that choked the air in the flowered room with its sweet organic scent; she felt suffocated by this thick sargasso-sea of femininity.”

Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

“Looking down, she became aware of the water, which was covered with a film of calcinous hard-water particles of dirt and soap, and of the body that was sitting in it, somehow no longer quite her own. All at once she was afraid that she was dissolving, coming apart layer by layer like a piece of cardboard in a gutter puddle.”

Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

“Madness is only an amplification of what you already are.”

Margaret Atwood, Surfacing

“A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there’s less of you. “

Margaret Atwood, Surfacing

“I leafed through all the men I had known to see whether or not I hated them. But then I realized it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both. They’d had their chance but they had turned against the gods, and it was time for me to choose sides. I wanted there to be a machine that could make them vanish, a button I could press that would evaporate them without disturbing anything else, that way there would be more room for the animals, they would be rescued.”

Margaret Atwood, Surfacing

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