Canada’s best-selling author internationally and at home is the 2007 Grand Prix winner for the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, April 25-29. The $10,000 Award recognizes a lifetime of achievement. Previous recipients have included; Michel Tremblay, Carlos Fuentes, Paul Auster, Maryse Condé, Mavis Gallant, Norman Mailer and Marie-Claire Blais. Miss Atwood has a wry sense of humour, although she finds nothing humorous in the recent funding cutbacks for the Arts communities to develop lucrative export markets.

The Montrealer: In reviewing some of the biographical material available about you – and listening to a CBC interview, I was struck by your sense of humour. Is this a trait you have always had, or has it developed with maturity as a writer and with your success?
Atwood: It’s a family sense of humour – my sister and I laugh at the same things – and a Nova Scotian one. Nova Scotians love to tell tall and ridiculous tales.

They also like to tell straight-faced lies to see if they can get the other person to believe them. My best one was about the nipples on the underside of mother ducks that allow the baby ducks to feed underwater, like dolphins. (Score: 100.)
The Montrealer: In the recent CBC interview, you spoke eloquently about your father’s ability to gain an education and rise out of the 19th century living conditions he grew up in. Is this where you gained your determination to succeed as a writer?

Atwood: Not particularly. I think I was just ignorant. I didn’t know how hard succeeding as a writer was supposed to be. But it’s true that he was confident and resourceful: if you can’t do it one way, try another. This is useful in writing.

The Montrealer: Your books sell well because readers relate to the characters and the themes you create. Do you believe that your readers go to the same places you do in your writings, and that you are in fact a kind of spokesperson? (I imagine that you have received feedback from your readers on this.)

Atwood: I don’t think of myself as a spokesperson except in some of my newspaper writing. But you know what Pope said: “Wit is but Nature to advantage dress’d, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” (He meant human nature.) If no one else shares your feelings, you’re from Mars. If everyone else shares them and says so in the same way, they’re platitudes. I try to steer between the rocks.

The Montrealer: Of all the awards, honorary degrees and recognitions that you have received, are there any that are more special to you – and if so why?

Atwood: They’re all special. The statue I have on my desk is the Dashiell Hammett – a Thin Man in a suit, with the head of a Maltese Falcon. It’s pleasingly Egyptian.

The Montrealer: “We have a government that doesn’t understand the value of culture. A country is more than a series of economic statements”. Margaret Atwood on CBC radio. Here’s your chance to voice and expand on that opinion to our readers. Away you go….!

Atwood: Away I went, in the Globe and Mail last Saturday, and away I will go again, this Saturday. You are welcome to quote from either!

From the Globe & Mail, Jan. 27: “The axing of culture abroad is even stranger when you consider the following facts: The money generated by Canadian-based artists’ works that sell abroad flows into the country and is taxed here, a net gain to the economy. The arts and creative industries in Europe now earn “more than double the cash produced by European car-makers and contribute more to the economy than the chemical industry, property or the food and drink business,” according to The Independent of Dec. 26. There are comparable statistics for Canada — some say $40-billion, but even if it were half that it wouldn’t be a number to blow off easily. Or so you’d think.

“So why had the Conservatives taken the weed whacker to Canadian arts promotion abroad? Was it just part of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s shoot-first, ask-afterwards habit — familiar now to anyone with money in an income trust — of slicing the heads off anything in sight, leaving the mangled stems to be dealt with by later regimes?

“Due to the impenetrability of Fortress Harper — colder than the Kremlin, more secret than the Inquisition — it was unlikely we’d get any answers. But we are still free to speculate, so here’s what I came up with to explain why they did it:

1) Ignorance. The Harperites have no idea how much money the arts generate.

2) Willed ignorance. They’ve seen the figures, but have labelled them “junk economics” in the same way they once labelled global-warming statistics as “junk science.”

3) Hatred. The Harper Conservatives think artists are a bunch of whiners who don’t have real jobs, and that any money spent on the arts is a degenerate frill.

4) Frugality. There’s lots of arts around. We can get them cheaper from across the border than it costs to make them here, and if you’ve seen one art, you’ve seen them all.

5) Stupidity. They thought they were gassing a hornet’s nest, not poking it with a stick.

6) More hatred. They tried to slash local museums, until too many people screamed. They’ve cut the Canada Council top-up proposed by the Liberals down to a sixth of its size. They’ve stuck the knife into the National Literacy Program, perhaps on the theory that they won’t be able to set up a working dictatorship if too many people can read. And that’s just for starters. If these things can be done in a minority government, lo, I say unto you, what things shall be done in a majority?

The banner under which the Conservatives have been ditching stuff that displeases them has been “waste.” They’re trashing programs that “don’t work.” They want things that “get results.” (That went for the environmental plans they once binned, and have now hastily revivified.) Arts promotion is like supporting entrepreneurs, or local hockey teams, or school systems. But how do we define “results” in relation to the arts? And what exactly does “work” mean? Does it mean that money must flow back in the same year it’s invested? If so, the Conservatives should get rid of all primary education, since no 10-year-old marches right out of Grade Five and gets an executive job.

“Typically, cultural money is arranged so that younger artists who need to build their audiences can piggyback on old poops like me who have already done that. That’s how you support the next generation, and the one after that. Not to do so is truly wasteful. Yes, you might save a lot of money by killing all the children: You’d cancel those pesky education expenses. But you wouldn’t survive long as a society.

“But maybe the Harper Conservatives don’t want a society in which the arts and the creative industries are important. Maybe they don’t want the jobs in those fields to exist. Maybe, as in so many other areas of their thinking, they want to turn back the clock to the good old days — some time back in the golden fifties, when there wasn’t all this bilingualism and multiculturalism, or indeed any lingualism or culturalism at all, and most Canadian artists left the country, and those who remained could be referred to jokingly in Parliament as a bunch of fruits jumping around in long underwear.

“That’s a lot of maybes. But maybes are all we have in the absence of any coherent cultural policy or even any explanation for the lack of one. Who was it said that there’s more culture in a cup of yoghurt than in the Harper Conservatives? Let’s hope that person was wrong.

The Montrealer: Can you tell us what you like to do on down time, such as vacations. What kinds of places to you like to visit? Are you active on holidays or do you lay low?

Atwood: The Devil comes to the writer and says: You will be a writer, just as you have wished. There’s that little matter of your soul, however – it will have to go into the writing, so you won’t have one left – and there’s one more catch.

What’s that? says the writer.

You won’t ever get any down time.

None? says the writer.

None, says the Devil. Not ever. It will look to other people as if you do. But while gardening, hiking, sleeping, or staring out the window, you will still be writing.

Oh, says the writer. Okay. Hand me the pen.

And the pen was like the Red Shoes…. the hand that grasped it could never put it down. So it was just scribble, scribble, scribble, from that day on.

Be warned.

The Montrealer: In addition to being a prolific writer, you are also politically active. Do you have time for pastimes or hobbies?

Atwood: (See above.)

The Montrealer: I noted that you participated in the Key West Literary Seminar earlier this month. In addition to being a very agreeable place to visit, do you find it creatively stimulating to interact with other writers during such an event?

Atwood: I got to see some old writer friends – some of which I hadn’t seen for 20 years – and I met some new ones and read their books. It’s a laid-back event and very well attended. Also we watched some birds.

The Montrealer: You have achieved great success as a writer, and have been able to be a positive influence and advocate for issues that are important to you. At this time of your life, do you have a sense of accomplishment? Do you allow yourself?

Atwood: As I kept telling the Key West folks, Canadians are not allowed to get puffed up. If they do, some other Canadian is always ready with the pea shooter. So I dodge such questions.

The Montrealer: This is your space. Say what you want to your readers (and potential readers) in Montreal.

Atwood: You are lucky to live in a bilingual city, because the brain scientists have told us that having two languages makes you smarter.

The Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival tales place from April 25 – 29 at the Delta Centre-Ville Hotel, located at 777 University Avenue (across from Victoria Square at the edge of Old Montreal). There is a wonderful line-up of writers and cartoonists, including Barbara Gowdy, Michael Ondaatje, Noel Richler, Margaret MacMillan (who wrote Nixon in China), and Terry Mosher (Aislin) with well-known cartoonist Pizaro Jane Urquart. Tickets are available at ADMISSION by telephone at: 514-790-7245 or 1 800-361-4595 or on their website, The Blue Metropolis website is:

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