Margaret Atwood has journeyed to Edinburgh by sea, thus avoiding the risk of jet lag. But it’s much more than that which explains her sharpness of mind and wit in this sell-out event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Guardian Books critic John Mullan sets out the rules of this ‘book club’ event (“I’m assuming everyone here has read it, so we’ll be talking about the ending”) before entering into a fascinating and entertaining discussion with Atwood about her classic Man Booker-winning novel The Blind Assassin.
Atwood describes a series of ‘false starts’, where the scope of the novel grew from a “hatbox” to a “suitcase” then to a “steamer trunk”, then goes on to talk about the inspiration for her characters.
“My mother was a great storyteller,” she says, “I wanted to tell about my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, but they were too nice to be in a novel by me.”
Talking of the novel’s complex, multi-layered plot, she says how the tale within a tale of the Blind Assassin was inspired by fairytale, specifically 1001 Nights and the types of pulp fiction which appeared in Weird Tales in the 30s, when much of the novel’s narrative is set.
“There are all sorts of possibilities,” she says, when asked about the identity of the Blind Assassin. Citing one of the riddles in The Hobbit, she agrees that the assassin could indeed be time itself; though admits the person in Canada who wrote to her claiming the novel was all about their own relatives was probably wrong.
After explaining how she “didn’t want to win the Bad Sex Award” and so didn’t feature any in the novel, Atwood goes on to respond to a series of questions from the audience.
She talks about her themes and motifs, citing eggs, glass jars and bathtubs as images which seem to crop up again and again in her writing — but hadn’t considered before that one of them, as she is asked about, may be the colour mauve.
Admitting unsurprisingly to being an “omnivorous reader”, she namechecks Heroditus, pulp sci-fi and the Bible as influences on The Blind Assassin, before going on to shed a little light on the writing process itself.
“Anyone who can write things down on a piece of paper is a writer,” she says. “Plunge in — if you have a story to tell, tell your story – and see how well you’ve done it.”
Atwood doesn’t particularly hold to the concept of genre and is of the opinion it’s helpful mostly to booksellers wondering where to place something on a shelf.
“I’m more interested in whether a book is good than what genre it’s in,” she says. “There are no fortresses; nobody owns the territories.”
“It’s each one for himself / herself when it comes to the blank page.”
Margaret Atwood was in conversation with John Mullan at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 24 Aug.