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 ingénue, 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

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