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Interview with Margaret Atwood

BROADCAST: Feb. 28, 1989 | DURATION: 00:50:35


Discussing the book "Cat's Eye," (published by Bantam Books) with the author Margaret Atwood.


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Margaret Atwood "Wild things are smarter than tame ones, that much is clear. Wild things are elusive and wily and look out for themselves. I divide the people I know into tame and wild. My mother, wild; my father and brother also wild. Mr. Benerji wild also, but in a more skittish way. Carol, tame; Grace tame as well; though a sneaky vestiges of wild. Cordelia, wild pure and simple."

Studs Terkel A passage somewhere in the middle of the book read by the author, Margaret Atwood, a passage from her new novel, and I think I think it's a very revelatory and deeply moving one, and a haunting one, "Cat's Eye," its published by Doubleday. You may recall him the last couple of times Margaret Atwood went on as a guest, I suppose the word is distinguished Canadian writer, I'd simply say writer, excellent writer. "The Handmaid's Tale" you remember was a very disturbing one about a world that could be, but and then her poetry and other of her books. "Life on" -- not "Life on Man."

Margaret Atwood No, that would be wonderful. "Life," "Life Before Man."

Studs Terkel "Life Before Man." "Life on Man" would be

Margaret Atwood "Life on Man" would be

Studs Terkel Would it be [unintelligible], a feminist's dream. Now, I was thinking, "Cat's Eye," and of course the cat -- we'll come to cat's eye, that little marble, that glassy marble that a number of us played as kids that figures in this book, but that passage you just read, I'd deliberately asked you to read that. It has to do with a girl who becomes a successful painter in Canada, in Toronto, a new Toronto. You talk about old and new and you're talking about changes, an old Toronto and a new glitzy Toronto, but also a grown woman and her three friends, but one particularly [can be?] described as among the wild, Cordelia.

Margaret Atwood Yes, Cordelia is I would say her her best friend worst enemy when she is nine and ten, and later on becomes her best friend but with a difference, because when they're nine and ten, Cordelia has the upper hand, but when they're teenagers the power shifts, and it's Elaine who is much more in control and Cordelia starts to fall apart.

Studs Terkel This particular point you make is one of the themes of the book. The key, as what's happening to the put-upon Elaine who is the protagonist here. By her three friends, especially the leader, Cordelia, who is so strong, and so much energy! It's about a shift in energy, i.e., power.

Margaret Atwood I think that's the energy, yes.

Studs Terkel But that's what, but also it's childhood evocations, you fooled around with time, I notice you quote in your, I prepared, you quote Stephen Hawking, "Why do remember the past and not the future?". And this goes back and forth into past and present.

Margaret Atwood So it's about a, the childhood part of it is in the '40s, which is just post-war, back in the days when schools had boys' doors and girls' doors, and you sat in rows in school and got hit with a ruler or got the strap. Mostly boys got the strap. And when childhood was somewhat different from the way it is today, I think more secretive and more bound by a kind of mafioso oath of loyalty. You didn't tell, no matter what happened, and this is the world that Elaine enters at the age of eight. She hasn't had much to do with little girls before this. And then she enters a world in which little girls have their own brand of power politics. Little boys have theirs, too, but it's much more out on the table, it's much more physical. They throw snowballs and they have clearcut friends and enemies, whereas the little girls are not physical, they're verbal. And the alliances are much more Byzantine and much more shifting and complicated, much more like Renaissance court life.

Studs Terkel That's funny, We're talking about kids in Canada.

Margaret Atwood Kids in the States, in England,

Studs Terkel In everywhere, but I mean you can -- it won't be a metaphorical circumstance, it's everywhere of course, but that's interesting that there is a Byzantine air to it, secrets that the adults don't know. There is one though, the mother of one, Smeath.

Margaret Atwood Mrs. Smeath. The Dickensian Mrs. Smeath.

Studs Terkel But she is kind -- the central figure is put upon very often by the leader, Cordelia, and the other girl, Gracie, and

Margaret Atwood -- Well, what she believes, Elaine, is that all this is very secret and that nobody knows, and particularly at -- the adults don't know that she has one moment of a sort of blinding horror when she realized that, realizes that Grace's mother has very rigid sort of Christian, has in fact known all along and approves of the kinds of torments that these other girls are putting her through. She has a kind of judgmental Christianity that believes that people deserve things, people get what's coming to them. An attitude I'm sure we have all encountered in our lives.

Studs Terkel That God is, and then she realizes Mrs. Smeath really is her enemy in a way representing, but she becomes an artist. We jump here and there, this is not going to be chronological, and she, Elaine Risley becomes an artist.

Margaret Atwood A painter, yes.

Studs Terkel And of course all these figures of the past find themselves one way or another in this gallery where she has a retrospective, and of course she's misinterpreted, too, as strictly feminist.

Margaret Atwood Well, her paintings of Mrs. Smeath in which she arranges Mrs. Smeath in ways that Mrs. Smeath would have been horrified to have found herself arranged in real life, coming out of a white gift package, for instance, stark naked and things like this, it is revenge and a way of controlling Mrs. Smeath as well. She was, she was unable to do it as a child, but as a grownup painter, she can paint Mrs. Smeath any way she wants to.

Studs Terkel But she's always -- somehow she's still haunted by it. Not just Mrs. Smeath, by the past, by especially Cordelia.

Margaret Atwood I'm glad you used the word "haunted," because in a way, this novel is a ghost story. And in each of the present sections, the Cordelia, who has vanished out of her life, she doesn't know what has become of her. The last time she saw her she was in quite desperate shape and she's just lost touch with her. But when she comes back to Toronto, every corner she turns, she sees someone who might be Cordelia vanishing around another corner, or she's trying on a dress and a hand comes in under the, under the partition. You know, how if you leave your purse on the floor, somebody is likely to stick their hand in and try to pinch it, a hand comes in. She steps on it, but she thinks as she does so, "Cordelia." So she has these almost Cordelia encounters but she can't actually find Cordelia. She's expecting Cordelia to turn up at the opening of her art show.

Studs Terkel It is a ghost story, isn't it? The ghosts of a certain memory or a certain childhood, and terrible at moments, but that longing, what happened to her or for that matter, she saw a woman furious, some quote unquote "Christian woman" furious at some of her paintings which this woman found offensive, who'd like to slash and tear, and she's sure that was Grace Smeath, Mrs. Smeath's daughter, the other one who went along.

Margaret Atwood Grown up and come back. It isn't, of course, but

Studs Terkel -- She's always looking around at the gallery, successful it seems, but

Margaret Atwood You know, we did a phone-in show in Toronto when this book came out there in the fall, and what the man asked people was, "Do you have a Cordelia in your life? Do you have someone from your childhood who's particularly tormenting to you, and can you remember that?" And the switchboard just lit up, and all these people phoned in. They knew exactly. They knew the street corner, they knew what the weather was like, they knew what all the houses looked like, they knew what the person was wearing, it was just indelibly engraved on their memories. And then we would ask them things like, "What would you say to that person if you could meet them now, or would you like to meet this person again and be able to say what you felt?" And they were still carrying that anger around with them after all those years, and I think we probably all do have a Cordelia or judging from the mail I've got, I've got letters

Studs Terkel You've hit something that's rarely been touched on that person, and in a way this whole thing is a catharsis for for Elaine. When she does meet Cordelia who has fallen on such bad times, and lost that, see the word haunts me, haunt again. The word haunts me, power, shift of power but also energy. So when you read in the beginning of wild and tame sorts of people, Cordelia was obviously the wild species and so to some extent was this protagonist, this, she puts herself down as that even though she was being smacked, I mean really humiliated by Cordelia, there were also the followers, weren't they, the other two girls were more or less following the lead of

Margaret Atwood Well actually, I think it -- Cordelia was the active one. Grace was the one who manipulated behind the scenes. And Carol was the quisling, the one who under any totalitarian regime would be the collaborator to avoid having whatever it was done to her. She would, she would rat on other people like Kate thinking of that scene in "1984" in which Winston Smith says, "Don't do it to me, do it to Julia."

Studs Terkel You know, that's your power, I think, one of, one of your powerful attributes, Margaret Atwood, is just that, that there's the figure and the figure is true, as this people called up, who lit up the switchboard. At the same time the figure becomes metaphorical, too. It's real and metaphorical at the same time. It's there. And others, because all of us do recognize that one, and so the quisling you say. Sure, she informs to the enemy, the older, the elders.

Margaret Atwood She is the spy in the

Studs Terkel The authorities!

Margaret Atwood Yes. Yes, she informs to the authorities. That's right.

Studs Terkel But the, you spoke

Margaret Atwood of Of course, what these kids are doing, among other things, is just passing on to Elaine a system of authority to which they themselves are subject, both in their families and at the school, which is one of those schools which I'm sure don't exist anymore, but very regimented. You all sat in rows. The strap was the punishment, and it was rather a fearful place for children, school. I think that some schools may be fearful now, but for other reasons.

Studs Terkel You're also talking about changes, too, here. She, the central figure, Elaine, we have to speak of her family, all speak of social differences, too, and economic differences in these families. She's from way up in Vancouver, right?

Margaret Atwood Well, originally she's from up north in Ontario. She moves to Vancouver as an adult because it's as far away from Toronto as she can get, as she says, without drowning. But she's from up north and she has not been socialized like little girls of the '40s. She hasn't done the dresses with puff sleeves and the hair bows and the movie star coloring books. It's all new to her when she hits that, and the comparisons of the furniture and the twin sets and who has a better decor inside their house. She just has really not encountered that. But each of the families is as you say of a different social level, and Cordelia's is the one with the more artistic pretension, that's why Cordelia's name is Cordelia. The mother has named all three of her daughters after characters from Shakespeare. The other girls have much simpler, plainer names.

Studs Terkel The shifting back and forth also adds to the haunting, or the ghost-like quality, too. It's, she is the artist returning to a glitzy Toronto, and describing the differences here again something that people will recognize changes as she comes to this department store, how it's become modernized, how you can't find, you cannot find a restaurant or whatever it is, you cannot find what it is, and certain amenities that seemed to be there are gone. The trivial stuff is there. And so you find that of course is happening here. In fact, this e very building we're

Margaret Atwood in I've

Studs Terkel Don't need to go into that.

Margaret Atwood Even since the last time I was here, it's changed, hasn't it?

Studs Terkel Much has changed. Not for the better. This is one of the aspects of it. So, several things happen, there's a changed relationship, there's the -- it's also the growth of an artist, of story the development of an artist, a universal tale. But what happens to all those acquaintances and friends who dominated, one who dominated her. When we heard talk about the families, prac-- just because they're in and out, the families of these three, four girls. We're talking to Margaret Atwood, whose books always, I'm going to use a phrase now, "provocative," because in the book there's an interview of one of these who I needn't -- you know there's a new kind of journalist in the art and politics, and they're obviously of a different wavelength from me and I'm happy to know from Margaret Atwood, too. And there's a scene in there in which she the artist is interviewed by this Andrea; we'll come to that. But Doubleday are the publishers of the book called "Cat' eye," we have to come to "Cat's Eye" in a minute, too, after this message. [pause in recording] So resuming with Margaret Atwood and her new novel, a ghost story called "Cat's Eye." Although "Cat's Eye" it's, that's the reference of course to Elaine's brother's jar of marbles, the glassy ones.

Margaret Atwood Well now, marbles was very very widely played in North America I figure until about 1965. Pre-1965 was the marble generation, and after that it seems to have petered out, but marbles came in various values. And for us it was, water babies were the highest, they were clear glass with little filaments in them, and cat's eyes were second, and they were clear and they had something that looks like a flower from the top and like an eye from the side, and below that came things like piries and aggies and bowlies, which were ball bearings. And Elaine isn't very good at marbles, but she treasures one particular marble which she saves out. And again, I've had an awful lot of people tell me that they did that very thing. They saved out a favorite marble which they would not gamble with or shoot to try to win more, but they would just keep it.

Studs Terkel But the cat's eye also had an attribute.

Margaret Atwood Well, it was her talisman during her darkest period with Cordelia, and then she just forgot about it. She put it in a drawer somewhere, and it turns up much later in her life when she has really repressed that whole period of being nine, ten and eleven, she just doesn't remember much about it, but when she finds this cat's eye marble in her mother's trunk in the basement, all of that comes back.

Studs Terkel Then there's a looking for her brother. Well, the family, her father is sort of an entomologist, he teaches, doesn't have much dough but I take it he's interested in nature and the outdoors, and

Margaret Atwood Well, he is a professional entomologist, he's a, and then he teaches that at a university. And as for the entomology, I know a lot about that, and it was just too good. I just had to use it in this book. It's wonderful material, as is the old zoology building full of pickled dogs' eyeballs and lizards in jars. Fascinating for children and very gothic, too. One of those dark old Victorian buildings.

Studs Terkel And he's economically razor's edge sort of.

Margaret Atwood I'm not sure whether I would say that. Of the families, I would say in order of richness that Cordelia's family is the richest and has the most pretensions. Carol's is second, and Elaine's is probably third, although in an unconventional way, and Grace's family is fourth. They are a family originally from a rural area who have moved into the city and they have kept a lot of those sort of rural fairly fundamentalist viewpoints, and there are several children and you can go down in their cellar and see whole gradations of underpants hanging on the clothesline.

Studs Terkel And it's the brother also; Elaine the central figure who is interested in art becomes one eventually, adventures of one form or another, learning periods. She -- her brother's interesting. He's, he's

Margaret Atwood Her brother becomes a physicist. He goes in the direction of pure science and cosmology. So he ends up being one of those people who studies the nature of the universe. I have a nephew who is a physicist and that's, that was my gateway into the world of physics. Every time I see him I say, "How's the universe these days?" And he says, "Well, right now the universe is made of little bits of string," or "Right now the universe is bubbles," or whatever it happens to be.

Studs Terkel And the father of Elaine, this entomologist thinks well, he [seems?], the roaches will inherit the earth.

Margaret Atwood Well, I don't know whether you've been around biologists a lot, but we're beginning to see a lot of those chickens come home to roost now. The biologists have been saying it for years that we've been polluting our atmosphere too much and we've been dumping too many PCBs and we've been killing off too many species, and we've just generally been doing too much of that. And sooner or later it's all going to catch up with us. Well, Elaine's father was doing that 30 years ago. At which time everybody thought he was eccentric and weird for saying those things.

Studs Terkel We knew we need those it seems to me that your book touches. It's there. It's organically right. It's integrated, but it seems like we'll need that cat's eye after all, and of course it was kind of a, it was a talisman of some protection for Elaine throughout, and she -- and there's a very moving scene as she looks there's a bridge where her brother who dies in

Margaret Atwood But we're not going to say how.

Studs Terkel No, but it -- but looking for that jar.

Margaret Atwood As a, as a boy he buries his jars of, two jars of his best marbles

Studs Terkel You know

Margaret Atwood Underneath this bridge, but he won't tell anybody where he's

Studs Terkel You know what we should do. I think oh, well you should, read maybe some of the dialogue. As it goes back and forth, se's visiting Toronto, the new Toronto.

Margaret Atwood Glitzy Toronto.

Studs Terkel For her retrospective, and she's -- looks like she's getting a reputation.

Margaret Atwood Do you remember the way people used to regard Toronto?

Studs Terkel Used to regard what? Toron--

Margaret Atwood Toronto.

Studs Terkel Toronto was a plain city.

Margaret Atwood Boring.

Studs Terkel Vanilla. Boring. And now you would describe it, not exactly the grea-- not always for the best. You describe it as very glitzy and hot stuff city. But what, but what else is

Margaret Atwood Too much traffic.

Studs Terkel But also finding these especially in these department stores, I'm using that as part of Toronto and the area of all the

Margaret Atwood Downtown. Downtown money area.

Studs Terkel Down,

Margaret Atwood Renovation

Studs Terkel It

Margaret Atwood No, it, Toronto was the one city in Canada that was regarded as the most boring. The jokes about Toronto were like, "First prize a week in Toronto, second prize two weeks in Toronto." It was known as Hog Town. Chicago is known as "Hog Butcher to the World," but Toronto was known as

Studs Terkel Hogtown, So it was Hog-- it was known as -- but now it's a very I take it cosmopolitan town.

Margaret Atwood Well, I just about fell off my chair when somebody from Detroit or Buffalo said to me several years ago, "Oh, Toronto; the Paris of the northeast," and having been used to the old attitude towards Toronto, I found this quite shocking. Toronto, the people from Toronto used to go to Buffalo for the weekend.

Studs Terkel To Buffalo.

Margaret Atwood For a good time, yes. You could drink at an earlier age, and they used to buy cheap clothing and put on about five dresses and come back across the bridge. This was having a good time on the weekend. But now it's the other way. People from Buffalo go to Toronto for the weekend.

Studs Terkel So you're, so in the novel are the changes of a place

Margaret Atwood Over

Studs Terkel A city.

Margaret Atwood Forty years.

Studs Terkel As well as changes in the persons whom we know and follow. But as we go to present she is now an artist and she's trying -- she's in no one school. She's, she's I'm guessing representational after a fashion, but not literal.

Margaret Atwood Right.

Studs Terkel And so there's the art gallery owner. Charna. You've got a great description of the gallery. Almost anywhere. And and she's interviewed by this young art critic. Why don't you set the scene and maybe read part of that so

Margaret Atwood Well,

Studs Terkel Readers get a part of your style, too. Elaine

Margaret Atwood Elaine has gone to the hanging, which is not what it sounds like. It's when you hang the pictures on the wall, and she has never met these people before. And this is before the opening, so she has worn her powder-blue jogging suit, and she realizes as soon as she gets there that she shouldn't have worn that, because these women are got up in very artistic ways and she looks sort of like a jogging housewife and feels rather dowdy by comparison, and Charna springs something on her, which is an interviewer called Andrea. Elaine didn't know this Andrea was going to be there. "Andrea," says Charna, walking over to her, "You're late." She gives Andrea a kiss on the cheek and walks her over to me holding her arm. "Andrea wants to do a piece on you," she says, "For the opening." "I wasn't told about this," I say. I've been ambushed. "It came up at the last minute," says Charna. "Lucky for us. I'll put you two in the back room, okay? I'll bring you some coffee. Getting the word out, they call it," she adds to me with a wry smile. I allow myself to be herded down the corridor. I can still be bossed around by women like Charna. "I thought you would be different," says Andrea as we settle. "Different how?" I ask. "Bigger," she says. I smile at her. "I am bigger." Andrea checks out my powder-blue jogging suit. She herself is wearing black: approved, glossy black, not early '60s holdover as mine would be. She has red hair out of a spray can and no apologies, cut into a cap like an acorn. She's upsettingly young. To me she doesn't look more than a teenager, though I know she must be in her 20s. Probably she thinks I'm a weird middle-aged frump, sort of like her high school teacher. Probably she's out to get me. Probably she'll succeed. We sit across from each other at Charna's desk and Andrea sets down her camera and fiddles with her tape recorder. Andrea writes for a newspaper. "This is for the living section," she says. I know what that means. It used to be "the women's pages." It's funny that they now call it "Living," as if only women are alive, and the other things such as the sports are for the dead. "Living, eh?" I say. "I'm the mother of two. I bake cookies." All true. Andrea gives me a dirty look and flicks on her machine. "How do you handle fame?" she says. "This isn't fame," I say. "Fame is Elizabeth Taylor's cleavage. This stuff is just a media pimple." She grins at that. "Well, could you maybe say something about your generation of artists? Your generation of woman artists and their aspirations and goals?" "Painters, you mean," I say. "What generation is that?" "The '70s, I suppose," she says. "That's when you started getting attention." "The '70s isn't my generation," I say. She smiles. "Well," she says. "What is?" "The '40s." "The '40s?" This is archaeology as far as she's concerned. "But you couldn't have been--" "That was when I grew up," I say. "Oh right," she says. "You mean it was formative. Can you talk about the ways, how it reflects in your work?" "The colors," I say. "A lot of my colors are '40s colors." I'm softening up. At least she doesn't say "like" and "you know" all the time. "The war. There are people who remember the war and people who don't. There's a cutoff point. There's a difference." "You mean the Vietnam War?" she says. "No," I say coldly. "The Second World War." She looks a bit scared, as if I've just resurrected from the dead and incompletely at that. She didn't know I was that old. So she says, "What is the difference?" "We have long attention spans," I say. "We eat everything on our plates. We save string. We make do."

Studs Terkel You know, that -- that's got everything. A certain kind of reportage, but also different wavelengths. And you said we also as attention span that's longer. We know we're accustomed now to what you call "bites."

Margaret Atwood Right.

Studs Terkel TV, but, but the matter of history, no past. You see, it's interesting you have the epigraph of Hawking.

Margaret Atwood "Why do we remember the past and not the future?"

Studs Terkel Yeah, where we don't really -- there is no past to many, that's precisely the point.

Margaret Atwood Some people don't remember the past.

Studs Terkel But there isn't any, to say Andrea.

Margaret Atwood Well, she has her own past, but it only goes back 25 years. Anything before that she doesn't remember.

Studs Terkel So this is also in the book for others, a different wavelength involved here. I gotta tell you a quick story, you don't mind about bites? You know, so I was in a movie called "Eight Men Out" a baseball film, and part of the film is shot in Cincinnati, and so a guy recognized me from a local TV , says "How about a bite?" and I think of Cincinnati, because the great German restaurants are there, you know, roasts, I've envisioned roast duck and red cabbage and German potato salad and maybe strudel, forget cholesterol, I mean forget calories and all that, it's great German food, beer. He takes me to a TV station for a TV bite. So I'm still hungry, and so he, it sounds like a gag but it's true, and so this is what we're talking about, also different wavelengths involved here. We have to come back to Margaret Atwood and "Cat's Eye," and that haunting quality you, what happened to her, how it happened, the people she met and also this one strong energetic girl who dominated and what happened to her. How come. What is it in our lives that makes this happen? The book is "Cat's Eye," and Doubleday the publishers, and we'll resume after this message. [pause in recording] So resuming with Margaret Atwood and "Cat's Eye." So it's a gradual thing, as we go back, even though it shifts in time, the shift in energy and in power.

Margaret Atwood Between Elaine and

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Margaret Atwood Well, I think first you have to say the shift into Cordelia's power. And I think when -- I think that age, eight on, is the first stage in which children really encounter the social world outside their families. They really start interacting with one another rather than primarily with their families, and they have really no experience, because everything that happens to you in childhood is happening for the first time. It's new. So somebody like Elaine, who has not been around little girls a lot before, doesn't know the little girls' rules. She doesn't know the ways that things are done, and Cordelia I think at first is just kind of trying out her power. And Elaine does not push back, because she doesn't know how, and Cordelia gradually gets more and more carried away. She, her sense of her own power becomes really quite vast. She can do anything to this person and meet with no resistance. And that's when things become actually quite physically dangerous for Elaine.

Studs Terkel Well, there is that. Now we come to something. There is a danger physically. In fact, there is one spot that is a turning point I think when they're in their relationship, of Elaine toward Cordelia when

Margaret Atwood When Elaine almost freezes to death. You know, since publishing this book in Canada, in England, and now in the States, I've got some very interesting letters from people that begin with things like "As one who was put into a hole by my friends," "as one who was packed into a snow bank," "as one who almost drowned," these are all from women talking about their childhood with other girls. I think we have a mistaken view of girls as sweet and angelic, left over from the 19th century. We've pretended to ourselves that girls are somehow impossibly good and well-behaved. Probably why a movie like "The Bad Seed," remember that with Patty Duke?

Studs Terkel "The Children's Hour."

Margaret Atwood Shocking impact. Yes.

Studs Terkel The children of Lillian Hellman, by the way, I thought of that throughout. Of course there was that [makes disgusted sound] little girl who dominated the others, you know, to wreck the lives of these two teachers. But "Bad Seed," too, but it's the strength but the danger! You said as Cordelia leads the other two in throwing Elaine into a ravine, you know.

Margaret Atwood Well, she doesn't throw her in, she by force of will causes her to go down into the ravine in winter, which is, first of all the ravine was something you were never supposed to go into, because there were bad men down there.

Studs Terkel Oh there again, you got a ghostly aspect. That's the dark region.

Margaret Atwood Yes indeed. And if you go to Toronto, you will find that there are a number of ravines in it, and if you talk to children who grew up in Toronto, you'll find that they're all -- they were always told not to go down there, and a number of them did anyway. But that was the place that you were not supposed to go to, because unspoken horrors lurked there.

Studs Terkel Coming back to the ages of what? Between eight and eleven, around there. And here we find you say not just simply Byzantine thinking and conspiracies and secrets, but also dangers, and we don't think of this among little girls, do

Margaret Atwood We think of it among little boys. There have been a number of stories about little boys doing fairly dangerous things. We tend to think of little girls as being more socially acceptable somehow.

Studs Terkel I haven't read Marianne Wiggins' new book

Margaret Atwood That's about little girls, too.

Studs Terkel Now known as Rushdie's wife. Dealing with that theme, I take it.

Margaret Atwood Yes.

Studs Terkel "Johnny Dollar"[sic - The book is "John Dollar." "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar" was a radio drama from 1949 to 1962.]

Margaret Atwood Yes, that's right. Except in order to produce that among those little girls they have to be under fairly bizarre circumstances, they get isolated on an island. My little girls are not isolated on an island, they're just functioning in normal social ways.

Studs Terkel That's interesting, the response you've been getting, though, from these women who have

Margaret Atwood A lot of women have said "This brought back to me things I would rather have forgotten." Most of them say that they knew Cordelia, a couple of them have admitted to being Cordelia, which is, which takes quite a lot of courage to admit that.

Studs Terkel We haven't talked about other people around and about who influence the central figure, Elaine. Her father we know the sort of guy, mother rather easygoing and literate, sort of, her brother. Now we come to the two husbands and that first guy who is [where she's staying?], he's also a touch of Cordelia. That is, he's also slipped into a

Margaret Atwood Oh, you mean the art teacher that she has an affair with.

Studs Terkel Oh, well, the art teacher, too, I was thinking of

Margaret Atwood Oh, I think her, I think her first marriage is just as, is the kind of marriage that if it begins in the 20s and the people aren't really ready for marriage particularly, but it comes also out of that whole end of the '50s, early '60s quasi-bohemian life, that there were two kinds of people then; there were the ones who wore camel-hair coats and pearl button earrings and stockings with seams, and then there were the ones who wore black turtleneck sweaters and no makeup and went in for existentialism. And I think those two kinds of people were were more visibly separate than you might find today, although there is a culture, a sort of punky culture among the young, the artistic young now, which is a lot more like the late '50s.

Studs Terkel Oh, well you find that.

Margaret Atwood Yeah. I've seen people on the street that could have been right out of 1959.

Studs Terkel You think there is sort of a return to some extent or

Margaret Atwood Well, when

Studs Terkel What

Margaret Atwood Well, when the younger generation is far enough away from whatever it was, that thing becomes glamorous, whatever it may have been. I've been enormously tickled by the resurgence of interest in the '50s among adolescent kids, for instance, they will have '50s parties. My daughter said to me, "Do you have a poodle skirt?"

Studs Terkel So when you say '50s parties, that's the party of the, what we called "the Silent Generation."

Margaret Atwood I know. Here again

Studs Terkel -- The non-concerned generation.

Margaret Atwood Yeah, I think that was a misnomer. That's not what I remember the '50s as being. I think in the States it was awash in the in the aftermath of McCarthy. But underneath that, remember that's the generation that the Beats came out of, who unlike the hippies that came after were active artists. They were actually producing.

Studs Terkel You're talking about an encore of sorts. Cordelia has two children, two daughters. And they're how old?

Margaret Atwood Are they, are they in the now time? They're in their early 20s.

Studs Terkel Oh, they're in their early 20s at this time.

Margaret Atwood Yes, and then

Studs Terkel -- My daughters both of them went through a phase when they would say, "So?" meaning "So what?" And then you start and think about your daughters have a Cordelia touch to them.

Margaret Atwood No, I just say that Cordelia used to say that, too.

Studs Terkel Yeah, but when the first one hit 12 or 13, talking about the similar period, they'd fold their arms, stare at me or their friends, and "So?" "Don't do that," I'd say. "It's driving me crazy. This --" No doubt a memory of Cordelia

Margaret Atwood I think it drives any mother crazy when the kids say "So?"

Studs Terkel So accord-- then you say Cor-- then she, that is, Elaine, this Cordelia did the same thing at the same age, the same folded arm, the same immobile face, the blank-eyed stare. "Cordelia!" And then Cordelia I think made me believe I was nothing. "So?" To which there's no answer. and so we have -- again she is haunted by a ghost. Back and forth in her mind there's the reality and the memory. These things happen, there's a woman on the street who appears to be drunk, a bag lady, and here too is a traumatic moment for her. Why don't you read the scene?

Margaret Atwood "Ahead of me there's a body lying on the sidewalk. People walk around it, look down, look away, keep going. I see their faces coming towards me bearing that careful rearrangement of the features that's meant to say, "This is none of my business." When I get up even, I say that this person is a woman. She's lying on her back staring straight at me. She says, "Lady," she says. "Lady, lady." That word has been through a lot. Noble lady, dark lady, she's a real lady, old lady lace. Listen, lady. Hey lady, watch where you're going. Ladies' Room. Run through with lipstick and replaced with women. But still the final word of appeal. If you want something very badly, you do not say, "Woman, woman," you say "Lady, Lady" as she is saying now. I think, "What if she's had a heart attack?" I look. There's blood on her forehead. Not much, but a cut. She must have hit her head falling and no one stopping. And she's lying there on her back, a bulky 50-odd woman in a poor person green coat gabardine and lamentable shoes all cracked, her arms outflung. The tan-looking skin around her brown eyes is red and puffy, her long black and gray hair is splayed across the sidewalk. "Lady," she says, or something. It's a mumble, but she's got me now. I look over my shoulder to see if anyone else will do this, but there are no takers. I kneel, say to her, "Are you all right?" What a stupid question. She so obviously isn't. Vomit and alcohol are around here somewhere. I have visions of myself taking her for coffee, and then where? I won't be able to get rid of her. She'll follow me back to the studio, throw up in the bathtub, sleep on the futon. They get me every time. They can spot me coming, pick me out of the crowd no matter how hard I frown. Sidewalk rap artists, Moonies, guitar-playing young man who ask me for subway tokens. In the clutch of the helpless, I am helpless. "She's only drunk," a man says in passing. What does he mean, "Only?" It's hell enough. "Here," I say. "I'll help you up." "Wimp," I tell myself. "She'll ask you for money and you'll give it to her and she'll spend it on cheap sweet wine," but I have her on her feet now. She's slumped against me. If I can lug her over to the nearest wall, I can prop her up, dust her off a little, think how to get away. "There," I say, but she won't lean against the wall. She's leaning against me instead. Her breath smells like a bad accident. She's crying now. The shameless abandoned weeping of a child. Her fingers clutch my sleeve. "Don't leave me," she says. "Oh God, don't leave me all alone." Her eyes are closed. Her voice is pure neediness, pure woe. It hits the weakest, most sorrowing part of me. But I am only a surrogate for who knows what lack, what loss. There's nothing I can do. "Here," I say. I fumble in my purse, find a ten, crumple it into her hand, paying her off. I'm a sucker. I'm a bleeding heart. There's a cut in my heart. It bleeds money. "Bless you," she says. Her head rolls from side to side, back against the wall. "God bless you, Lady. Our Lady bless you." It's a slurred blessing, but who's to say I don't need it? She must be a Catholic. I can find a church, slide her in through the door like a packet. She's theirs, let them deal with her. "I have to go now," I say. "You'll be all right," lying through my teeth. She opens her eyes wide, trying to focus. Her face goes quiet. "I know about you," she says. "You're Our Lady, and you don't love me." Full-blown booze madness and absolutely the wrong person. I draw my hand back from her as if she's a live socket. "No," I say. She's right. I don't love her. Her eyes are not brown but green. Cordelia's."

Studs Terkel There it is again. Always Cordelia, but that scene, though. She spotted you, says "Our Lady," and then you use the phrase "Our Lady of Lost Things," or the Virgin of Lost Things. that's Elaine, she can't get away from Cordelia, can she?

Margaret Atwood Well, let's just say it's a very unified novel.

Studs Terkel It's very what?

Margaret Atwood It's very unified.

Studs Terkel It is, but it's you know Frank Lloyd Wright always speaks of organic, architecture is organic. This is organic. It's of one piece, which makes it so so good. Let's one last pause and then another few moments. We're talking to Margaret Atwood who's dynamite as a writer, it's an excellent novel, it's another one I should say. You remember "The Handmaid's Tale" and the previous books and poetry, too, "Cat's eye" is this one. [pause in recording] And so it is in the brief time remaining, Margaret Atwood it's again we come back to the tale of this of this artist and as we do that, we have to I suppose we haven't talked about some of the influence in her life as an artist, and there was this teacher, was this art teacher.

Margaret Atwood Yes.

Studs Terkel With which she became involved.

Margaret Atwood Her Grade Four teacher is really a terror and is very frightening, but her Grade Five teacher is a wonderful Scottish eccentric.

Studs Terkel Mrs.

Margaret Atwood Miss Stuart, who wears a nurse's mask over her nose to keep the chalk dust out and has an unerring aim with the chalk and chalk brushes which she can hit the boys with at quite some distance, and they actually rather loves her. They love her. Miss Stuart likes art. She has us bring old shirts of our fathers from home so we can do messier art without getting our clothes dirty. While we scissor and paint and paste, she walks the aisles in her nurse's mask looking over our shoulders. But if anyone, a boy, draws a silly picture on purpose, she holds the page up in mocking outrage. "This lad here thinks he's being smart. You're got more between the ears than that!" And she flicks him on the ear with her thumb and fingernail. For her we make the familiar paper objects, the pumpkins, the Christmas bells. But she has us do other things, too. We make complicated floral patterns with a compass. We glue odd substances to cardboard backings: feathers, sequins, pieces of macaroni, garishly dyed lengths of drinking straw. We do group murals on the blackboards or on large rolls of brown paper. We draw pictures about foreign countries: Mexico with cactuses and men in enormous hats; China with cones on the heads and [seeing-eye boats?]. India with what we intend to be graceful silk-draped women balancing copper urns and jewels on their foreheads. I like these foreign pictures because I can believe in them. I desperately need to believe that somewhere else these other foreign people exist, no matter that at Sunday school I've been told such people are either starving or heathens or both. No matter that my weekly collection goes to convert them, feed them, smarten them up. Miss Lumley saw them as crafty, given to the eating of outlandish or disgusting foods and to acts of treachery against the British. But I prefer Miss Stuart's versions, in which the sun above their heads is a cheerful yellow, the palm trees a clear green, the clothing they wear is floral, their folksongs gay. The women chatter together in quick incomprehensible languages. They laugh showing perfect pure white teeth. If these people exist, I can go there sometime. I don't have to stay here. "Today," says Miss Stuart, "We are going to draw what we do after school." The others hunch over their desks. I know what they will draw: skipping ropes, jolly snowmen, listening to the radio, playing with a dog. I stare at my own paper, which remains blank. Finally I draw my bed with myself in it. My bed has a dark wooden headboard with curlicues on it. I draw the window, the chest of drawers, I color in the night. My hand holding the black crayon presses down harder and harder until the picture is almost entirely black, until only a faint shadow of my bed and my head on the pillow remains to be seen. I look at this picture with dismay. It isn't what I meant to draw. It's unlike everyone else's picture. It's the wrong thing. Miss Stuart will be disappointed in me. She'll tell me I have more between the ears than that. I can feel her standing behind me now looking over my shoulder. I can smell her smell of hand lotion and the other smell that is not tea. She moves around so I can see her. Her bright blue wrinkly eyes looking at me over the top of her nurses mask. For a moment she says nothing. Then she says, not harshly, "Why is your picture so dark, my dear?" "Because it's night," I say. This is an idiotic answer. I know that as soon as it's out of my mouth. My voice is almost inaudible, even to me. "I see," she says. She doesn't say I've drawn the wrong thing or that surely there's something else I do after school besides going to bed. She touches me on the shoulder briefly before continuing down the aisle. Her touch glows like a blown-out match."

Studs Terkel That's very moving. It's very beautiful, too but the fact is there she was, look at her drawing darkness, and so the dark is there. Again we have a ghost quality, a dark and that memory.

Margaret Atwood Well, that's what children do. In fact people, looking for children

Studs Terkel -- Your Scottish accent is pretty good.

Margaret Atwood Emotional -- no, not that good.

Studs Terkel As we know there are many Scots settled in Canada.

Margaret Atwood Yes they did, and many are resettled in the States. You got the Irish, we got the Scots.

Studs Terkel Galbraith speaks of that a lot, but the teacher. She just understood. But it was, to me what what got me there was the darkness of it, see. And even though we won't talk about the pictures, what they are at the end of Mrs. Smeath, this fundamentalist woman she remembers, I thought of something crazy. This some, sound goofy to you, because she had him flying sort of thing, I thought of an evil kind of Chagall, but Chagall without the gentleness, you see?

Margaret Atwood Yes, Well, that's good.

Studs Terkel A kind of rotten, no-good Chagall. But it's a very moving book, by the way. Margaret Atwood's book is called "Cat's Eye," and Doubleday the publishers, and it, I guess the word is haunting. And just to quote some of the critics, are quite a few of them, and they have spoke about it in that particular vein, "Atwood's most empathetic work," writes Aritha van Herk, and Douglas Glover of -- of Canadian critic, speaks of "Vintage Atwood, dry, deadpan and deadly." And of course, superb. And thank you very much.

Margaret Atwood Thank you.