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Conversations with Atwood

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Not everyone seems to have enjoyed Margaret Atwood's book forum in Auckland with Chloe Swarbrick. I wasn't there.But I did catch Tyler Cowen's superb talk with her. The podcast and transcript are all up here. A few highlights below. Cowen's breadth always amazes. You look across the range of folks he's interviewed, and the depth he'll cover... COWEN: I’m a big fan of your novel, Hag-Seed, which I believe is your latest. A few questions about that and Shakespeare: How sympathetic is Shakespeare to Caliban in The Tempest?ATWOOD: Shakespeare himself, when he was doing The Tempest, I think, saw Caliban as one of his comic figures. But as always with Shakespeare, nothing is two-dimensional. So The Tempest underwent a number of different metamorphoses in performance since Shakespeare. We have

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Not everyone seems to have enjoyed Margaret Atwood's book forum in Auckland with Chloe Swarbrick.

I wasn't there.

But I did catch Tyler Cowen's superb talk with her. The podcast and transcript are all up here. A few highlights below. Cowen's breadth always amazes. You look across the range of folks he's interviewed, and the depth he'll cover...

COWEN: I’m a big fan of your novel, Hag-Seed, which I believe is your latest. A few questions about that and Shakespeare: How sympathetic is Shakespeare to Caliban in The Tempest?
ATWOOD: Shakespeare himself, when he was doing The Tempest, I think, saw Caliban as one of his comic figures. But as always with Shakespeare, nothing is two-dimensional. So The Tempest underwent a number of different metamorphoses in performance since Shakespeare. We have The Tempest. Then we have Oliver Cromwell. The theater gets shut down. The tradition is broken.
When the theaters come back, they can’t actually remember how these things were done. So in the 18th century, The Tempest was an opera, and they added some people. They added a person called Dorinda, who is Miranda’s sister, so that they could have an ensemble group of singers, obviously. Then they added another guy so that Dorinda would have somebody to marry. Then they learned how to fly Ariel, and Ariel flew around.
Then when they tried to bring back the original Tempest, nobody liked it because they wanted the opera. They wanted Dorinda and the flying Ariel. In the 19th century, when Ariel was always played by a woman who flew around, Caliban became a romantic sort of Byronic hero, oddly enough. Because by that time, people had caught up with slavery in the United States, and noble savages and other things like that that were of the 19th century.
COWEN: And he has real charisma.
ATWOOD: Well, it depends how he’s played. It really depends, and I’ve seen, by this time, a lot of performances of The Tempest, including film ones. One by Julie Taymor, in which Prospero is Prospera — she’s the duchess of Milan — has a pretty good Caliban.
But he has a lot of resonance. He’s given the most poetic lines in the play, actually. There’s a big question about him, which is, what happens to him at the end? We’re not told. It’s another of these open questions. We just don’t know.
COWEN: How sympathetic are you to Prospero? There’s a line in Hag-Seed: “He would seem to be the top jailer in this play.”
ATWOOD: Well, he is.
COWEN: Do you like him?
ATWOOD: Like or dislike, it kind of doesn’t matter. Whether I like or dislike him, I’m sympathetic to him in some ways. But he says himself that he got himself into this. He was the duke. He didn’t do his dukely duties. He didn’t behave in a duke-like way. He went off to study magic instead, and he let his brother usurp the kingdom. By doing so, of course, he threw his young child into danger and ended them up on this island.
If you want to know why he wants to get off of it, look at the menus, which I did. I did a little foodie piece for a food magazine on what they were actually eating. It’s not fun.
COWEN: As Leggs suggests in Hag-Seed, is there any chance that Prospero is Caliban’s dad?
ATWOOD: Think about it.
COWEN: Someone has to be, right?
ATWOOD: Think about it. Somebody has to be his dad. So, if we’re not accepting the devil as being the progenitor of Caliban, who is? I ask you. They’re both in the magic business. Why would they have not met up at a convention? Sort of a one-night stand producing Caliban.

COWEN: Handmaid’s Tale — is it an accident that you started it in West Berlin in, I think, 1984?
ATWOOD: Wasn’t that corny? It was very corny, but I couldn’t avoid it. If I had been able to do it in some other year, I would have because, inevitably, this question comes up. But I just happened to be in West Berlin. I didn’t go there on purpose to do that. But there I was, and how handy it was because it was the wall all around. And being Canadian, I could go into places like East Germany and Czechoslovakia and Poland easier than German nationals could. So I did.
COWEN: You had had a prior trip to Afghanistan. Did that influence the book at all?
ATWOOD: A bit, yeah. I was lucky enough to see Afghanistan six weeks before the present unpleasantness started. Six weeks before they assassinated Daoud. It was clear, and it always has been a crossroads, and it’s always been desirable. It’s always been desired by China, by Russia, and by anybody else in the vicinity because things went through it.
At the time we were there, there was a great big Chinese embassy. There was a great big USSR embassy. And there was a great big American embassy. Daoud was doing quite well by playing them off against each other and getting stuff out of them. They should have stuck with him. But it’s been chaos ever since. I saw it at the last minute before a lot of things just got blown up.
COWEN: Did reading the Book of Genesis serve as an actual influence on Handmaid’s Tale? Or it’s just a connection you noticed later?
ATWOOD: Oh, no, it’s right there in the epigraph. So the question to you is, if you’re going to take the Bible literally, how literally would you like to take it?
COWEN: Is it the Jacob version of this story or the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar version of the story that grabbed you? Usually you mention the Jacob version of the story.
ATWOOD: Yeah.
COWEN: There’s the second one. Why?
ATWOOD: Because it’s got more people in it.
COWEN: But the first version has a happy ending, right? You get Isaac, you get Ishmael. They each found tribes.
ATWOOD: Why would I write a book with a happy ending?
[laughter]
ATWOOD: Yeah, it’s not such a happy ending. It’s a very ambivalent ending, I would say. Abraham is a very dicey character in the Bible. But there’s a wonderful book called God: A Biography, which is by Jack —
COWEN: The Miles book, yeah.
ATWOOD: Yeah, it’s a wonderful book. I love it. It’s got the best exploration of the Book of Job that I’ve ever read. I think it’s brilliant.
But remember where my roots are. I’m Canadian. We took the Bible in school. There wasn’t any separation of church and state. Then I went to college and studied with Northrop Frye. Then I went to Harvard and studied with Perry Miller. And for all those people, you had to know the Bible.
Go read or listen to the whole thing. I had no clue about her entrepreneurial ventures and patents.

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