Margaret Atwood received an honorary degree at the University’s General Council event in Toronto. The Booker Prize winning Canadian author spoke to Barbara Laing about Edinburgh, writing, learning and teaching at university, and the advice she never took.

You regularly visit Edinburgh for the International Book Festival. What have been your favourite experiences of the city?

We actually lived in Edinburgh in 1978–9 – my partner Graeme Gibson was the Canadian/Scotland exchange writer that year – so we see old friends, including Aileen Christianson of the University of Edinburgh, who helped with the research for Alias Grace – one of the murder victims was Scottish. We also see friends we have made since that time, Ian Rankin [MA English Language & Literature 1982] among them. We always pay a visit to the Café Royal with its wonderful old tile murals. Edinburgh is a great city for vintage clothing shops, which we explored when I was there in 2006 as the first Muriel Spark Fellow. So far I have avoided the deep fried Mars bar, though I have tried Irn-Bru.

Place is important in your writing. Do you find you write differently when in different parts of the world? You’ve lived in Europe, but is Canada where you need to be?

It’s not where you’re writing, it’s where you’re writing about. Being in a place very different from the one you are writing about often helps improve focus. Scotland is good to write in because it’s not too hot. Drizzle helps.

What are your fondest memories of your student experiences at the University of Toronto, and later at Harvard?

As an undergraduate I did a lot of multi-tasking because few were interested in the arts in the late 1950s. Sometimes I wrote for the “arty” magazine under different names. Skit writing, acting, set painting, illustrating, poster design. At Harvard it was different: more pressure. In both places I had many excellent teachers. And the libraries were very important to me.

“Canadians like to help you in your constant struggle to keep from getting too puffed up.”

Northrop Frye is noted as an influence in your early academic career. What were the highlights of working with him?

Not much as an undergraduate – I took only half a course with him – but I knew him later. A very smart person, extremely well read and also funny.

Do you consider his advice (to go on to Harvard) to have been a seminal moment?

The alternative would have been to run away to France, drink Absinthe if I could find any, smoke cigarettes in a garret (hopeless, they make me cough), wear black turtlenecks, get TB, and expire early while composing deathless masterpieces, sort of like La Bohème. So, in a word, yes.

What other seminal moments did you have in your university days?

Maybe when my senior adviser advised me to drop all this writing and academic stuff and find a good husband instead. Think maybe that was seminal.

You took up academic posts in the 60s and 70s. Did you enjoy the nurturing and teaching aspects of these roles while you researched, wrote and published? Did you learn anything from your students?

I really did not have much interest in being nurturing and so forth. One doesn’t in one’s 20s and early 30s; usually you are still very anxious at that age (“How will it all turn out?”). I stopped teaching full time as soon as I was self-supporting through writing. As is true for everyone who teaches, however, I enjoyed some of my students very much (when they were smart and talked back). I had fun teaching, but I did not much enjoy some of the more rancorous features of departmental politics.

Video: Margaret Atwood discusses Edinburgh.

“Opening the doors to women and minorities has influenced social change.”

Mentioning your name in conversation causes sharp intakes of breath followed by outpourings about favourite reads. Do you have a sense of what your writing has done for so many people? Is this inspiring when moving into new projects?

That’s lovely, but I think it’s a feature of living a long time. At my age John Keats had been dead for 50 years. It’s better not to think too much about “the reader” when you are writing. You have to assume there will be one, but if you start anticipating the strange letters, you may freeze.

How did it feel when you won the Booker Prize? How did you celebrate? Did it make the next writing project more or less of a challenge?

Ha ha! It had been a cliffhanger for some time. Every time I didn’t win it, I could expect headlines in the gloating Canadian press – Atwood Fails to Win Booker! – as if winning it were like winning a race. Whereas with literary prizes the recipient is inert. It’s a bit more like Best Pumpkin in the garden show. So I have to admit it was much like a relief. At least I wouldn’t have to go through the Fails to Win stuff again, though of course there was immediately a piece about why I shouldn’t have won it. Canadians like to help you in your constant struggle to keep from getting too puffed up. I celebrated with family, had a dram. My next project was Oryx and Crake, which had a whole new set of challenges. As Monty Python used to say, something completely different.

Is access to education an important issue in your view? And do you believe social change can be brought about through higher education?

We could talk about the role of universities through the ages – they’ve been both radical and conservative, as you know. But we can say that opening the doors to – for instance – women and minorities has influenced social change, as it has changed the face of the knowledge-bearers in our society, and thus changed the nature of what sort of knowledge we consider worth investigating, and what sorts of judgments and evaluations we have made.

Going back to finding your feet in the publishing world, do you have any advice for our alumni who may have similar ambitions?

There wasn’t much of a “publishing world” in Canada in 1961, not for young Canadian writers. So we made one up. I suppose my advice would go something like: publishing is in flux. Don’t assume that today’s realities are the only ones there are. There’s always another way to do it. But that’s the delivery system. The writing should be the real concern. Write your book the best way you can. That’s step number one.

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