Margaret Atwood: 'I'm either kindly granny or wicked witch'
When we found out that Margaret Atwood would contribute cartoons to Hope Nicholson’s Kickstarter-funded book The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, we just had to find out more. In a freewheeling conversation, Atwood, who’s conjured some of fiction’s most indelible dystopias, hints at the contents of her Geek Girls comics, ponders feminist progress in romance novels, and praises her latest read: A seven-volume series about the Middle Ages (in French!).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with Hope Nicholson’s project, The Secret Loves of Geek Girls?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Oh, it was her idea. I was talking to her about other things, so when she told me that she was doing this, I said, first of all, that I would tweet it for her. She knows that I’ve been a cartoonist in my day — and you can see some of those, if you go [to my website]. In order to help her out, I said I would do something for her and also contribute some perks.
What will your cartoons be about?
I’m not going to tell you! That’s going to be a surprise.
They will be obviously about one’s youth, since I’m unlikely to have any secret loves at this age. I think one of them will probably be about being, number one, very nearsighted, and number two, vain, in the age before contact lenses. So I never actually saw any of my boyfriends. I know their shirt buttons. Seeing someone across a crowded room was not something I could actually do.
So, it was just a matter of how well the blurry blob attracted you?
[Laughs] Of course. I wouldn’t wear my [whispers] glasses, my horrible glasses. I wouldn’t wear them to a dance. Contact lenses didn’t come in until the ‘60s — and neither did pantyhose. Anyway, this is a little far from the subject. You asked me what one of my cartoons was going to be, so one of them is going to be about that: Being nearsighted, and not being able to see your boyfriends.
When did you first start drawing cartoons?
Probably when I was six years old. Remember it was the comic book generation, and there wasn’t any television then! But there were comic books, and they came roaring back right after the war, colored ones, because we couldn’t get colored ones in Canada in the war years. One of the tragedies of life is that my mother found my brother’s comic book collection after he had gone off to graduate school and she threw them out!
What were some of your favorite comics?
In those days, there were all kinds of comics, and if you go to [my book] Cat’s Eye, you will find the horror comics in the chapter called “Half a Face.” The Comics Code came in, but it applied only to colored comics. So all of the frightful things that were now not done in colored comics were still done in black and white. So all of the Tales from the Crypt, and monsters rising out of swamps, and fangs and drooling… those took place in black and white, as did extreme crime comics. But as kids, of course, it was Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel, who later got involved in a lawsuit with Superman, I think, and lost it, unfortunately.
There was Plastic Man, who could transform himself into any object, but you could tell that it was him because of the colors. So he might be a lamp, or he might ooze under your door in a long string. His way of capturing criminals was to wrap himself around them. He was very stretchy. [Laughs] He wore dark glasses and talked jazz talk, so I thought he was pretty cool.
And then there were some lesser-known ones that have probably not remained in the public consciousness. Then there was a whole line of, for instance, the Human Torch. Have you ever heard of him?
He’s in Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four didn’t come along until later. We’re talking late ’40s, early ’50s. Wonder Woman was very popular during the war, apparently. She continued on—she was still pretty hefty in the late ’40s. I think in the ’50s, there was an attempt made to domesticate her. The ever-popular Archie was on the list. The original Little Lulu—it’s actually very funny. And of course, the Donald Ducks and Mickey Mouses of this world were around then. Also, true crime and true romance comics, although they weren’t as fun for kids.
Did you feel excluded from comics in any way, being a girl?
No. We all read them! They were adventure heroes. It was like, in a way, Treasure Island: Kids identify with kids, rather than gendered kids. Girls have no problems reading stories about boys. Boys have some problems reading stories about girls, but that seems to be equalizing somewhat, as the superheroines of today get more muscley and active.
In the olden days of Batman, the person who was like that was actually supposed to be sort of an enemy: Catwoman. She leapt about and had a cloak and a mask and everything. And he never actually beat her up, to my recollection. There wasn’t any “Sock! Pow!” going on between Catwoman and Batman. In fact, I always sort of suspected maybe there was a little thing between them. Don’t you think?
I do, but I’ve seen the movies now, so that kind of ruins it.
Oh, well. If you want to read my Freudian and Jungian analysis of Batman, you can look in my book called In Other Worlds. So the provenance of things like why did all these superheroes wear tights? Where did the cloak come from? All of the little bits of paraphernalia that went into these things came from somewhere.
What are you reading right now?
I have a big pile. Hope just sent me a big box full, including Avatar: The Last Airbender, Harlequin Valentine, Bandette, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story, Sin City, A Hard Goodbye, and something called Hellboy, which I actually was familiar with before. I’m also reading Storm of Steel, the definitive World War I account from the German point of view.
What can I say about that title? It sounds a bit more like a graphic novel. But it is a translation, more or less, of what it says in German. So it’s a very straightforward, very detailed, unsentimental account, which I will add to the library that I see right here in front of me of strange books of military history.
How did you meet Hope in the first place?
In a bar! No, I met Hope via Twitter. She was running a Kickstarter to bring back a comic book called Brock Windsor, one of those derring-do black-and-whites of the war. And therefore, I was interested in it, because one of my very old friends, who’s now dead, called Allen Walker, wrote a book called The Great Canadian Comic Book about those black-and-whites during the war years. So I looked at her Kickstarter, gave it some tweets, and met her through that campaign of hers.
She has dedicated herself, in part, to bringing back things that have fallen from view and aren’t available. And therefore she has a lot of graphic artist connections, so that when she started this Kickstarter that she’s doing now — which has been hugely successful — she already knew of the players.
I hear you’re a Game of Thrones fan.
The interesting thing about Game of Thrones is that it’s not finished yet, so you can’t find out what happens next. Some of us don’t believe that Jon Snow is really dead. And others of us are placing our bets on the Mother of Dragons.
She’s pretty ferocious.
Well she is, after all, the rightful heir. That would really be bad form to let somebody else get it. But after all you’ve heard of it, you think, “Why would anyone want that?” But they do!
[George R.R. Martin] says a French series by Maurice Druon, which starts with The Iron King, was inspirational for him. Everything that’s in Game of Thrones—disembowelments, dismemberments, hangings, beheadings, poisonings, infanticide—took place in real life during the reigns of these kings. I had fun reading Druon’s series in French, thereby learning words that I didn’t know, “evisceration” and “cut off his genitalia” and “broil them under broilers.” Not things you can use in ordinary conversation.
You’ll find a way.
Well I just did, didn’t I?
Do you read a lot of romance books?
I’ve made a study of Harlequin romances over the years. I dip into them, just to see what’s changed. Once upon a time, men never said much. They were very silent. Strong, but extremely silent. Now they chat quite a lot more. And it used to be that the climactic scene was when they got engaged. But there wasn’t any sex before marriage: They were quite proper in that way. But I think a lot of that has changed, too.
It used to be that the job range of the heroines was quite limited, so they could be nurses, they could be governesses, like Jane Eyre, and a really nifty one that I liked a lot was “picture restorer.” They would get invited to the mansion, hired by the mansion people to restore their paintings, thus bringing them in contact with Mr. Rochester, in his new form.
But now they’re allowed to run their own businesses. They have much more lucrative and responsible jobs than they used to have, they can have tattoos, and all sorts of things that, once upon a time, would have been unheard of.
Yes, they all have tattoos on the covers now.
I liked, by the way, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a lot. She was very good.
Are you going to read the new one?
Yes, of course I shall read the new one! To me, one of the interesting things about that series was if a woman had written it, she would have been denounced as a very anti-male person. It’s extremely feminist — to such an extreme that I think only a male writer could have gotten away with it.
I hadn’t thought about it like that, but that’s true. It might have been seen as “too militant.”
Oh yeah. I found that pretty interesting, that the creator was a guy. Books, and the characters in them, are judged, to a certain extent, by the gender of the author. You could probably do a whole sociobiological study of that. So that a bad male character created by a woman is considered anti-male, in some quarters, whereas a bad male character created by a man is just a standard villain. Similarly, age-related things also play into it.
Do you think it discriminates against younger writers?
Well, it can go either way. It’s an equation involving the age and gender of the reviewer, in relation to the age and gender of the reviewee. With men, a man reviewing a woman can either be on the attack or somewhat patronizing, et cetera. There’s all sorts of possible combinations, but it’s never not a factor.
And how has it changed?
Well, I’m either kindly granny or wicked witch.
You don’t get to be the grand dame?
I can be that, too. If you’re an icon, that either invites worship or iconoclasm. But it’s not the same as being reviewed by somebody your same age. When they’re your age, they either they really understand where you’re coming from, or else you’re a rival.
And then when they’re older?
When they’re older than you, you’re either going to be a protégé that they’re helping along, or a young upstart who is viewed as a callow, inexperienced, not old enough, silly, youthful person.
You seem to be taking the protégé route.
Well, not protégé. I think possibly “helping hand,” which is a bit different. The protégé thing can be difficult, because that might be trying to tell people too much what to do. Or how they should be.
So it’s more about just giving them a tweet.
Yeah. A leg up. Do you what “leg up” means?
Yeah, helping someone … I picture helping someone up a tree.
Okay, picture again: What do you think it might really actually come from?
I have no idea.
Getting onto a horse. So, onto the horse and away you go. Sometimes it can apply to helping someone climb over a wall.
You could be in a tree as a lookout or something…
The horse is probably more likely.
A version of this story appears in the August 14, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on newsstands now, or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess.