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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
i100
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Renewable Energy Construction Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices