Thursday, January 23, 1997

An Interview with Margaret Atwood

A cover-story interview with Margaret Atwood, discussing her book Alias Grace
Published January 23rd, 1997, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Natural Born Quilter
Margaret Atwood Discusses Murder, Quilting,
and Her New Novel, Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood
Doubleday, $24.95

Margaret Atwood, author of such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, is back with a vengeance. Atwood publishes nearly a book a year, so she’s never really left, but she writes in so many different genres that her novels—for which she’s best known—only come out every three or four years. Last month Atwood released her newest novel, Alias Grace.

Alias Grace is the fictionalized account of Grace Marks, a notorious nineteenth-century Canadian woman convicted as an accessory in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper/mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Kinnear’s manservant, James McDermott, ultimately is hanged for the crime, but nobody knows what to do with Grace. Shuttled back and forth between prison and the insane asylum, Grace is a mystery to the authorities. They just can’t get a handle on her sanity, and none of the doctors, lawyers, or clergy drawn into the case can definitively tell whether she’s a cold-blooded killer or just a victim of circumstance.

The story is sensational, but like the Lizzie Borden or Ted Bundy cases, there are deeply rooted reasons for its appeal. “One,” Atwood says, “you have a household. They’re getting along fine. A Gentleman in easy circumstances, probably a remittance man. Younger son, doubtless sent to the Colonies because of his soft and loose ways by the older, who has inherited property and who wishes to cut a respectable figure. If [Kinnear’s] having an affair with his housekeeper in Canada, he’s probably done similar things before. … Probably unbeknownst to him Nancy is pregnant. He feels he needed more servant help. They have hired a manservant, James McDermott. And right after that, along comes Grace Marks. These two people are only in the household for three weeks when, bang, there’s a double murder. What on earth went on among those four people?

“Number two—opinion on Grace was very divided, as it usually is when there’s a violent crime involving both a man and a woman. Usually opinion is undivided about the man—he dunnit—and divided about the woman. Was she the demon instigator? Was she playing Bonnie to his Clyde? Or was she a terrorized bystander only peripherally involved, fleeing out of terror for her own life?”

Although Grace was the O.J. Simpson of her age, time has neglected her, leaving only shadows on the cultural record. “I came across [the story] first in a book by a person of the time called Susanna Moodie, who spent seven horrible years in the woods, because her family had emigrated,” Atwood says. “She wrote a book called Roughing it in the Bush, which was directed to other English gentlepeople telling them not to do it. She visited the Kingston Penitentiary, as you could in those days, sort of like a zoo tour. And there she asked to see Grace Marks, because Grace Marks was notorious in her day. And she saw Grace Marks, and then she wrote up what she remembered of the case. She wrote it from memory. Her memory wasn’t good. And then [later] she went on to visit the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, and there was Grace in that place, because she had meanwhile been transferred. Susanna Moodie’s eyewitness accounts said she was absolutely screaming out of her mind—says Susanna Moodie. But people faked those things. Especially convicts did, because it was nicer in the asylum. And Susanna Moodie ends her account of the whole thing by saying possibly Grace was deranged at the time of the crime and that accounts for it all, and therefore she will be forgiven in the afterlife.”

Atwood wasn’t satisfied with Grace’s skewed legacy, so she dug deeper. What she found was a story so warped, so mired in nineteenth-century misogyny, that she had to tell her own version. “Susanna Moodie [also] has a little Victorian play,” Atwood says. “Grace is the villain. James McDermott is the dupe. She got him into it, led him on, instigated the whole thing, because she was jealous of Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper and mistress, and in love with Thomas Kinnear, the gentleman master. So all she wants killed is Nancy, and she doesn’t really think he’s going to do it, and when he does, she [is shocked], and he says, ‘Now we have to kill Thomas Kinnear.’ She says, ‘No, no. That wasn’t part of the plan,’ and he says, ‘Ah ha, now I see it all, and now I realize what your real motive was when you promised me you in return for killing Nancy, and now you’ve got to deliver, and now I’m going to kill [Kinnear],’ and so he does. And then everything else follows along from that. And Moodie tells the whole thing from the point of view of McDermott. She tells it through his persona and ends with him sort of screaming and raving about how it was really Grace. There’s a little bit of grounds for her story, because right before he was hanged he did say that Grace was the instigator of the whole thing and that she had helped him strangle Nancy. But he was known to be a liar. Who are you going to credit?

“So that’s the Moodie story, and that’s the only story I knew for quite a long time. And I did write a little television play based on it, although I never did believe her statement that they had cut Nancy up into four quarters before putting her into the washtub. Somebody suggested that I try turning it into a play, and I did try, but I’m not really a playwright, and it didn’t really work out. I was still just using Moodie’s version. Time went by, lots of time went by, and I started working on the current novel, and at that point I went back to the historical record, such as it was, and found out that Susanna Moodie in fact had not remembered very accurately”

When Atwood recovered more of Grace’s story, she found that there were in fact three Graces: the murderer, the clueless ingĂ©nue, and the hidden Grace that nobody could discern. The disparity between the accounts fascinated her, and she wanted to explore how a public persona gets created.

“Here you have this divided opinion,” Atwood says, “and then you get people writing about her, projecting onto her all of the received opinions about women, about criminality, about servants, about insanity, sexuality. All of these things just get projected onto her. So I was interested in that. I was interested in the process of public opinion and how it’s formed, how people read into situations their own concerns. How each person, even people who are witnesses, have their own version.”

With such an elusive main character, Atwood had to completely invent a persona for Grace. Part of how she does this is by introducing Simon Jordan into the fray. Jordan, an upstart in the nascent field of mental health care, becomes interested in Grace’s dilemma, and he visits her at the penitentiary in the hopes of drawing out the real Grace. Despite Jordan’s amiable incompetence, he partly succeeds, and Grace tells him as much about her life as she thinks he can handle. Atwood writes much of the novel from Grace’s point of view, and the reader gets to see into the parts of Grace that Jordan doesn’t.

The reader, then, and not Simon Jordan, discovers Grace Marks’ story. And as in so many of Atwood’s novels, the story is astonishing. Atwood imagines Grace so full of humanity, so rich in life—and in contradiction—that even as she opens up to the reader, she still recedes. Even as she tells you point-blank what happened to her, she just becomes more of a puzzle.

Like Atwood’s other novels, Alias Grace offers a nearly encyclopedic portrayal of the characters’ world. There’s seemingly nothing that Atwood doesn’t know about nineteenth-century life, and in researching for the novel, Atwood found herself becoming an expert on everything from Spiritualism to popular psychology to quilting. By finding out what people did every day, Atwood was able to give the novel both fullness and form. As a domestic servant, one of Grace’s only pleasures is quilting, and Atwood uses this motif to divide the novel into its various sections. She names each chapter after a different type of quilt, and in looking at this vast novel as a whole, the reader gets the sense of a larger pattern.

“It got bigger than I intended it to be,” Atwood says. “I think originally there were only nine quilt-pattern titles, and then I just needed more. I needed to have more to cover the actual story as it unfolded.”

What unfolds ultimately is that no one will ever know Grace. Writers, doctors, and lawyers can take aspects of her and exploit them to support their theories, but Atwood challenges the reader to not take sides, to not simply work toward a guilty or not-guilty verdict.

“The fullness is the point of Grace,” Atwood says. “And the other point is that there are some things that, although there is an answer to them, it’s not an answer that we will ever know. We will never know the true story of the John Kennedy assassination, because even if Mr. X emerges and says, ‘Well, it was me all along,’ the waters have been so muddied that we’re not going to believe him.”

So despite Atwood’s crystal-clear vision, she leaves the story as muddy as history itself. There’s no way to recover Grace Marks fully, and with Alias Grace Atwood has done her the greatest service a novelist could do: She’s left her intact and in peace.

—David Wiley

Thursday, January 16, 1997

An Interview with Alexs Pate

An interview with Alexs Pate, discussing his book Finding Makeba
Published January 16th, 1997, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Notes of a Native Son—and Daughter

By Alexs Pate
Putnam, $21.95

Minneapolis author Alexs Pate doesn’t seem to be satisfied with writing just one novel at a time. Instead, his new book, Finding Makeba, incorporates at least two novels (and maybe three) into a labyrinthine fictional puzzle that, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, consists of both story and commentary.

Ben, an African-American writer from Philadelphia (which is Pate’s hometown), writes a successful autobiographical novel, and Makeba, the nineteen-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen for ten years, buys a copy and writes her own responses after each chapter. The novel (Pate’s, not Ben’s) begins with a third-person account of Makeba taking a train to see Ben at a book-signing, and when she arrives to give him her annotated version, Finding Makeba explodes fictionally, personally, and philosophically.

Ben’s novel, like Finding Makeba, is an intense look at the struggles of being a father, a writer, and a black man in America, and Makeba’s commentary works as an illuminating antidote to his one-sided (albeit sincere) account.

Makeba’s importance to the novel came about almost by accident. “I met a young woman who I just got in this conversation with,” Pate says. “She was really very emotional about her feelings about her father who she didn’t know. And she cried, and I went home that day and promised myself that I would keep that young woman’s pain in my book—that, yeah, my story was about Ben and his struggle, but then it really was as much her story as it was his. And so I created the character Makeba. Before she was just a, you know, just someone who he talked about.

Once Pate heard Makeba’s voice in his head, he found an entirely new angle from which to approach the story. He found that two voices, like two eyes focusing on a three-dimensional object, gave the novel new depth.

“So then I started to write her journal and to create her as a character,” Pate says. “Then the question becomes what is truth, you know, how do you tell a story about a family that dissolves like that? The form came from a series of attempts to be as truthful as I could possibly be.”

The dialogue Pate sets up with this structure allows him to present ideas and then examine them from both sides. It would be easy for Pate to make the reader sympathize solely with Ben, because of his role as tortured artist, or solely with Makeba, because she grew up fatherless, but he’s more interested in presenting a fuller picture.

“I think whenever you’re trying to portray a situation in which one person is pretty obviously guilty,” Pate says, “there are two things you can do. You can take a point of view from a character’s perspective that says, ‘Yeah, this is what a fucked-up guy does.’ Or you could say that it’s not really his fault—these are the things that happened to him. Neither one is really true. When you create another character, then you have the opportunity to present a more objective viewpoint of this person, this man who is making these decisions, because you don’t just see what he thought, and you don’t just see what other people thought. You see what happened.”

Along the way, Pate allows himself to write not just about the story, but also about how stories get told and how writers imagine themselves in their work. But the novel never sinks to mere metafiction or becomes so self-conscious that it loses its grip on the story at hand. Pate keeps an eye on the world around Ben and focuses on how these things shape the man and the writer.

“A lot of what I wanted to do was talk about the process of becoming a writer, what does it take to be a writer,” Pate says. “How does the mind of a writer evolve and develop? It evolves and develops under the pressures of day-to-day life, you know, and the struggles of making the correct decisions. And also, the environment in which Ben’s life is lived is a charged time—when you have the Black Power movement going on and the Black Arts Movement happening and you have all these incredible poets and these writers. And connected with all that is what the family needs. So you have this writing that is happening, this arts movement, and I really wanted to explore the way in which Ben came of age as a writer.”

Like Ben, who found himself in the crosshairs of so many conflicting interests, Pate was torn about where to focus the novel. Just the setting alone—racially torn 1970s Philadelphia—is a political statement. With a backdrop of Mayor Frank Rizzo and his proto-fascist police force facing down the African back-to-nature group MOVE, Pate found it hard to rein it all in.

“You’re easily waylaid by the pitfalls of the times,” Pate says. “As you come across the whole issue of MOVE, you want to stop and say, ‘What was that about?’ And then you think, ‘Well, no, John Wideman wrote about that in Philadelphia Fire.’ And you have the whole Frank Rizzo time. I could have spent more on it, but I forsook almost everything to stay on target.”

For those who know where to look, there’s plenty of social comment inherent in Ben’s journey, but the heart of the story, as much as the artistic struggle, is Ben’s search for Makeba’s understanding. It’s a story about how loss and recovery can work together to bring about change. And there definitely are casualties. For instance, Makeba’s mother, Helen, falls into the background, almost disappearing from the story after Ben leaves her.

“Men relate to their children through women,” Pate says. “And that had to be broken so that Ben could relate to Makeba directly. Because when you talk to men who are separated from their children, the issue is not with their children. I just wanted to shift the focus of the story away from Ben and Helen to Ben and Makeba.”

So ultimately the story, painful and complex as it is, offers a kind of balm to those it can and cuts its losses where it must. It’s a harsh story; it’s a humane story; but, above all, it’s a necessary story.

—David Wiley