Nothing but the truth Writing between the lines

profile : Margaret Atwood. Her ninth novel promises more grief, but millions will devour it. By Geraldine Bedell

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The lat time Margaret Atwood read aloud in London, the theatre took 900 people and they still had to turn 200 away. The queue afterwards for signed copies of her latest book doubled back on itself four times. This was adulation of a kind rarely given to writers.

Atwood's - mostly female - audience heard her read passages from the recent novel, her laconic Toronto delivery making the words sound funnier than they otherwise might be. They asked detailed, knowledgeable questions about the previous books (she is also a poet, short-story writer and critic), which she answered with a reticence bordering at times on spikiness. On the difference between short stories and novels, for example, she said merely, "Short stories are short. Novels are long." If her readers couldn't get their answers from her books, she seemed to be saying, there was no point in her trying to help them.

This month Atwood will be back, with a new novel - her ninth - and more readings around the country. The response is likely to be similar, because her audience is growing all the time, while for those who have admired her for a long time, she has acquired an almost iconic status. She may not be recognised in airports and shopping centres here, as she is in Canada, but her books are bestsellers and her admirers regard her almost as a guru.

Some of this is a hangover from her early status as the feminist fiction writer. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was an extraordinarily prescient story of a woman with an eating disorder, written in 1965, before anyone was talking about anorexia, before, even, anyone was talking about feminism.

Surfacing (1973), the book that did most to turn her into a cult figure, is partly about a woman asserting her identity and daring to be wild.

In reality, Atwood's novels were always too complex, ironic and multi- layered to be feminist tracts. And in the more recent, she has explicitly shown feminism, like any philosophy, to be only a partial solution to the ills of the individual. The weird and hurtful future of The Handmaid's Tale (1986) is brought about partly by puritanical feminists; while Cat's Eye (l989), which is about childhood bullying, and The Robber Bride (1993), in which the cruelty is more adult, show just how unsisterly women can be.

Atwood's popularity cannot be accounted for simply by hardcore feminism. Nor can it be due to anything comfortable about the books. Her fiction is unsettling, infused with grief; she is always setting up possibilities for pain. So many children go missing or drown, so many friends are faithless, that it comes as a surprise to discover that she has lived happily with the same man, the Canadian writer Graeme Gibson, for more than 20 years, and that they have a daughter, Jess, who is not only alive, but tall, blonde and at university doing languages.

But perhaps this is partly why audiences flock to see her, this diminutive woman with a frizzy halo of dark hair and resistant, sardonic manner. She writes in so many voices, she gets under the skin of her characters and exposes their nerve-endings, but we don't know very much about her at all. She doesn't even write under the name - Peggy Atwood - by which she is known in real life. Her characters are so prone to suffering, you wonder how their creator can get up in the mornings. But Atwood the writer, up on the platform, aloof and hidden behind mordant humour, isn't about to tell us.

She was born in 1939 and spent much of her early childhood in the Northern Ontario and Quebec bush country. Her father, an entomologist, spent every spring, summer and autumn with his family in a log cabin with no electricity or flush toilets, studying the insects that, often disastrously, invaded the forest. Atwood has wondered since that he could remain so benevolent when he spent so much time thinking about things that were in jeopardy.

The family was a mile by water from the nearest village. There was no radio, television, cinema, or children, other than her brother, who was two years older. (Later, when they moved to Toronto, there was a sister, 12 years younger.) Peggy read "all kinds of things I shouldn't have read at far too early an age - Edgar Allan Poe, gory fairy-tales and lurid detective novels. I was completely traumatised by Animal Farm". And in Bronteish fashion, she and her brother composed their own serials, mainly about space travel. With typical dryness, Atwood says of this: "It was war-time. He was a boy, so his ideas usually took precedence."

She has attributed her outsider's eye to this unconventional childhood; when she finally got to the city, all social groups seemed to her "equally bizarre, all artefacts and habits peculiar and strange". Her parents were keen that she should develop her observational, scientific bent, and her brother did, becoming a neurophysiologist. But although Atwood now reads scientific journals for pleasure (paleontology is a theme of one of her books, and astrophysics of another), by the time she left high school, she had decided that she wanted to write. Her graduation yearbook announced her intention "to write the great Canadian novel".

The first thing she published however, was a book of poetry, The Circle Game, for which she won Canada's E J Pratt Medal for Poetry in 1961. It was at around this time, according to her English friend Xandra Bingley, that she spent a summer vacation delivering census forms in a poor area of Quebec, "and decided that though she wanted to be a writer, she definitely didn't want to be poor".

She has been anything but. Her books have sold millions, are translated into 20 languages and sold in 25 countries. They are taught, according to one newspaper report, in 78 per cent of British universities. Peggy and Graeme, whom friends describe as "a Donald Sutherland lookalike - tall and bearish", live in a fine Edwardian house in Toronto, where they write in facing studies in the basement.

The Edible Woman was written while she was a graduate student at Harvard, but then lost for four years by the publisher to whom she sent it. She claims that when she became "marginally visible, having won an award for poetry", he took her out to lunch and promised to publish. She inquired whether he had read it and he said, "No, but I'm going to". The book finally came out in 1969 - a delay that may have worked to her advantage, because its appearance coincided with the stirrings of campus feminism, for which it was claimed as a vital text.

Since then, Atwood has been Canada's most eminent writer, an accolade that might at one time have sounded faintly laughable. Lennie Goodings, who has been Atwood's publisher at Virago since 1979, and is herself Canadian, recalls British newspaper articles from the early days that "talked about her like she was from outer space". Today, she heads an increasingly grand pack of compatriots, including Robertson Davis, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and Carol Shields.

Atwood has never been content to stick with what she knows. She is an impressively, even recklessly adventurous novelist, who has had a go at science fiction (The Handmaid's Tale), and the spy story (Bodily Harm, 1981), though both of these are less genre-writing than genre-busting. Given her preoccupation with the past and its awkward habit of intruding on the present, it was probably only a matter of time before she tried her hand at a historical novel. Her latest book, Alias Grace, is the true (ish) story of Grace Marks, who was convicted of a double murder in 1843.

Truth, for Atwood, is never simple. She wrote in one of her poems: "The true story is vicious/ And multiple and untrue"; and perhaps her greatest achievement is to ventriloquise for her characters, to present events from their point of view, so that the reader is left to decide. She is always altering her field of vision, creating hypotheses.

This makes her difficult to know. It may also be partly why she keeps herself so well hidden, so that she doesn't prejudice readings of her books. What we do know about Atwood is that she still likes the outdoor life - hiking, camping and, especially, birdwatching; and that she is politically active in Canada for International PEN, supporting persecuted writers, and for a range of environmental causes, from pedestrianised Toronto streets to anti-nuclear protest. She runs her life in a disciplined fashion, devoting herself to those things that she considers matter, and shutting out the rest. In recent years, she and Graeme have rented a house in Provence between January and April. This year, however, following French nuclear tests in the South Pacific, they went to Ireland.

She takes the global threat to the environment very seriously, according to Xandra Bingley, who also believes that the grief that infuses her books has less to do with her outlook than with observable fact. Atwood said with some asperity in a recent interview: "Everybody gets up, listens to the news and it's war, catastrophe, Bosnia ... taking all that into account, I think I'm remarkably cheerful. Much more cheerful than I have a right to be!"

Atwood's books (she would probably insert "if we survive") will be read for a long time to come. There is no doubting her intellect, nor the acuity of her social satire, nor the precision of her observation of physical detail. But not many pages into Alias Grace, the heroine's mother has died, her only friend has died, of a botched abortion, while Grace herself, forced to desert the small children who depend on her, is shut up in a lunatic asylum and prison for 16 years. From a writer who is so powerful, so moving, this is an awful lot of pain to take.

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