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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable