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The writer's tale: how a story chose an author and wowed the critics

Canada's top author tells Catherine Pepinster about her new book's spiritual inspiration
Margaret Atwood's ninth novel was published yesterday to universal welcome from the critics and predictions it will become one of the top selling books of the autumn. Alias Grace is her first attempt at historical fiction; she previously tried her hand at satire, investigations into paleontology and science fiction.

The 56-year-old Canadian may be a feminist icon on both sides of the Atlantic, but in an exclusive interview with The Independent she questioned the feminist label. She also talked about the precariousness of existence, temptresses and fiends, why children should read Shakespeare and how she was "chosen" to write Alias Grace.

Set in her native Canada, Alias Grace recounts the story of Grace Marks, a 15-year-old girl arrested with fellow-servant James McDermott for the double murder of their employer and his mistress. They ran off, only to be captured. McDermott was hanged; Grace's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

After 30 years she was pardoned. In her afterword to the novel, Atwood explains: "Attitudes towards her reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women: was Grace a female fiend and temptress, the instigator of the crime and the real murderer

It is not the first time Atwood has written of women capable of more than goody-two-shoes-subservience or being the victims of men. In Cat's Eye, there was Cordelia, the school bully; in The Robber Bride, she created Zenia, who stole her friends' men.

This latest novel is a far cry from green-spined Virago volumes in which the heroines cope with the infidelities of double-dealing men. Atwood is suspicious of labels, such as feminist writer, which has been attached to her since she published Surfacing, an account of a woman finding her self in the Canadian north, more than 20 years ago. "Every woman who appeared in the early Seventies was called a feminist writer. Suddenly we noticed women in a different way than they'd been noticed before - as neurotic, with their heads in the oven or strange spinsters. I am a writer who writes for people who read books," she said.

Meeting her made me realise that one always expects to like the authors of the books one likes, and I'm not sure if I do like her. I think she probably uses her intelligence as a weapon when she's put on the spot by people of whom she's suspicious. And she seems instinctively suspicious of journalists.

Like many writers today, Atwood is no longer just a novelist and poet. Next week she appears at the Royal Festival Hall in London to talk to an audience of 1,000 fans and read excerpts from her novel. After that, she returns to Canada for a reading tour.

Concern with the unconscious is one of the key aspects of Alias Grace. Grace is perceived through the eyes of a progressive psychiatrist, a doctor, a spiritualist, a clergyman and a hypnotist. One of the novel's most telling scenes is of her under hypnosis, revealing that she was possessed of a spirit.

Atwood's explanation of writing fiction veers towards the spiritual. "I didn't choose to write about this subject," she says. "It chose me. In a hotel room in Zurich. There it was."

She is a passionate believer in the need to encourage reading, especially among children. "It's easy to underestimate kids' potential," she said. "Small kids can understand Shakespeare, particularly if they see it done on stage."

Although Atwood is keen to emphasise that she is a novelist, not a historian, Alias Grace is the work of someone fascinated with minutiae of life. "I'm interested in how ordinary people lived. People have no idea of the precariousness of people's lives. The trouble is the 20th century came upon us like a thunderbolt. Now we're going so fast and nobody's steering."

Canada - the two-sided nation of Francophone Quebecers and Anglophone Ontarians - reflects the light and dark of both Grace and Atwood's characters. Atwood has lived in both parts of Canada, in commercial Toronto and northern Quebec, part of the mythology of the North that all Canadians are steeped in. The North is the place where you find yourself, and get in touch with nature.

The days are long gone when Canada could be written off as a literary outback. Atwood's fellow writers include Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler and Carol Shields - and the women are noticeably dominant.

Atwood puts this down to the lack of overpowering male literary figures.

"Canadians never developed the concept of women as mere brainless decoration. Canadian folklore is still full of tales of our grandmothers' generation when women ran farms, chased off bears, delivered their own babies in remote locations and bit off the umbilical cords.

"Whatever the reason, if you're looking at writing in Canada, you can't just footnote the women."