The oft-misquoted line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" – comes to mind listening to Brendan O'Connor talking to Margaret Atwood. The multi-award-winning Canadian writer has published more than fifty books, from novels to poetry collections to short story collections and essays. She is a legend.
Atwood’s newest publication is a collection of short stories called Old Babes in the Wood, the title story of which, Brendan told her, made him well up. And when Brendan wonders if, given her long career, Margaret is, of necessity, preoccupied with death and grief, she is admirably pragmatic:
"Whether I like it or not, I’m 83. So, people of my age, should they be so lucky as to reach it, naturally are occupied with that because they know a lot of people who are dying or who are dead. That’s just what happens in life."
Brendan quotes a phrase from the book to Margaret: "When you're old, you’re off the hook for almost everything." Is getting to be an Old Babe a liberating experience? Brendan asks her. Atwood's response is, again, to the point:
"In a way it is, you know. I think we worry less because what’s to lose?"
Atwood’s new book is dedicated to her late partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019 and at the centre of the collection are stories that follow a married couple, Nell and Tig, as they navigate their life together until Tig dies and Nell finds herself alone. But is she really alone? It’s a common experience, Margaret says, that people who’ve lost partners feel their presence, in a way that's reminiscent of magical thinking:
"Since I know a lot of widows – and some of them widowers – it seems to be something that happens to a lot of people. And people of my age will back me up on that... It’s part of human experience, but you can’t know that when you’re younger unless you’ve had somebody very close to you die when you were a young age."
Margaret writes in the book that "grief is not a tunnel." She expands on that thought for Brendan:
"So it’s not a tunnel, it’s an intermittent experience. It comes and goes. Think of the ocean waxing, the moon waxes and wanes. So, the moon’s always there, but sometimes you see a lot more of it."
When the conversation turns to the current culture wars and the attitude of revolutionaries from the 1960s and 70s to the younger activists and what Brendan calls the 'progressives' and the 'wokeness', Margaret steps in to covey her distaste for the labelling that’s so common these days:
"These terms get thrown around as terms of abuse by people on the right, so I prefer not to use them. Instead of progressives, I’d rather say fair-minded, even though they sometimes aren’t. And rather than woke, I would prefer to use aware of things like class differences and money inequalities and racial discrimination, rather than just applying a kind of catch-all label which has now become so vague as to be practically meaningless."
Hard to argue with that. And Margaret followed that with another knowledge drop, this time on the subject of revolution – and it’s a doozy:
"We also have to be careful of the word revolution. Why is that? Because people think it means that everything is going to be equal. But what it really means is the revolution of the wheel of fortune. It’s where we get the term revolution. And the wheel of fortune – a very ancient device going back to Rome – would have a king at the top, somebody crushed underneath at the bottom, somebody going up on one side and somebody coming down on the other."
So it isn’t that everything gets to be equal, it’s that the people at the top get smashed and the people at the sides get moved around, while the people at the bottom rise up. Today was a school day. Read the legend.
You can hear Brendan’s full conversation with Margaret Atwood – and it will make your day – by going here.
Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood is published by Chatto & Windus.