Edinburgh International Book Festival: Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood’s novels have provided some of the most harrowing depictions of our apparently imminent descent into dystopia as well as offering tales that shed an equally cynical light upon our past. The sombre, often quite brutal tone of her work couldn’t be more at odds with the woman herself, bantering easily with interviewer and audience, offering fascinating insights into her inspirations, writing process and reading habits. She also reminisces playfully about some of the odder questions posed to her at similar events down the years by readers adamant that bathtubs, eggs and the colour mauve held the key to deciphering the mysteries of her prose.
Her Booker Prize winner The Blind Assassin does require some deciphering, with a plot spanning the best part of a century, told through a mixture of named and unnamed narrators, interspersed with newspaper reports and containing a Chinese box of stories within stories. Even the title is somewhat enigmatic, spawning various theories as to who exactly the Blind Assassin really is and, while Atwood is quick to emphasise the undesirability of establishing a single ‘correct’ answer, she does suggest the interesting culprit of time itself: an answer made all the more interesting by her admission that it was inspired by the famous ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene from Tolkien’s The Hobbit in which it is described as “This thing all things devours”.
It would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her work to hear Atwood pluck inspiration from such a random source: she describes herself as an “omnivorous reader” and her willingness to delve into every corner of the literary world shows clearly in works like The Blind Assassin, a novel whose inspirations range from Jane Austen to the pulp science fiction magazines of the nineteen-thirties. Though her own sci-fi always retains a basis in actual science, creating Orwellian-style dystopias that are all the more unsettling for their plausibility, she confesses a preference for more fantastical fiction, “those stories which are more like fables” which aim more to enflame the imagination with outlandish visions of our future rather than satirise the present.
On the subject of writing itself, her advice is simple: “anyone who can put down words on paper is a writer." She advises anyone with stories to tell just to get them down in ink and worry about the wording later, comparing the process to playing the piano: you have the keys in front of you, just keep practising and you’ll work out how to get the order right. Between her status as one of the most acclaimed female authors of her time and the prevalence of gender as a theme within her work, she is in a better position than almost anyone else on the planet to offer advice to aspiring female writers, using her final comments to pass on a simple suggestion for when dealing with publishers: “If there are no flowers in the story, don’t let them put flowers on the cover.”