> Zed Book Club / ‘Old Babes in the Wood’: Margaret Atwood’s New Book of Short Stories is an Eclectic Collection
Margaret Atwood attends 'Celebrating Greatness: Canada’s Walk of Fame 2022' at Beanfield Centre, Exhibition Place on Dec. 3, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. Photo: Jeremy Chan/Getty Images
‘Old Babes in the Wood’: Margaret Atwood’s New Book of Short Stories is an Eclectic Collection
In a Q&A, the celebrated Can-lit queen talks about evil mothers, reincarnated snails, being an old crone and Twitter / BY Rosemary Counter / March 8th, 2023
On March 7, Canadian lit queen Margaret Atwood published Old Babes in the Wood, the author’s first short story collection in nearly a decade. The titular tale of two elderly sisters making do at their late father’s dilapidated cottage headlines the eclectic compilation, which features everything from an imagined interview with George Orwell to the musings of a snail that has been reincarnated as a mid-level customer service rep at a bank.
For her next project, Atwood is editing a serial novel, due out in February 2024, called 14 Days: An Unauthorized Gathering, which features a star-studded cast of writers – Celeste Ng, John Grisham, Emma Donoghue and Diana Gabaldon, among others – who each write one character in a tale about tenants who meet on the roof of a Manhattan apartment building to tell stories during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The author talked to us recently about Old Babes, writing short stories, the difference between atheism and agnosticism, and banned books.
Rosemary Counter: Congrats on the new book! Is there a theme that runs through it?
Margaret Atwood: I don’t think there is a theme, no. What do you think the theme is?
RC: First, I should say this book was a real trip. Especially the snail story.
MA: We see a lot of people transform into vampires and wolves, but not usually snails. There’s a Chinese folktale where the wife is a snail, but that’s the only one I know of.
RC: The other trip was “The Dead Interview with George Orwell.” Of all the writers in time and history, is he the one you’d like to go back and interview?
MA: No, because I already did, so I don’t have to.
RC: This is your first short story collection since The Stone Mattress. You publish in so many literary forms — novels, non-fiction, poetry — so what brings you back to short stories?
MA: They’re short.
RC: That’s why I like magazines.
MA: Do you know a book called The Snooty Bookshop? No? It’s a book of cartoons, and one’s about the short story. The writer says to the publisher, “Will you publish my short story?” And the publisher says, “No.” The next panel says “The End.”
RC: People think they’re easier, but are they?
MA: No, they’re not easier, they’re just different. All art is made of patterns, so the repetitions of the pattern are closer together.
RC: That sounds harder.
MA: Depends what your inclinations are and what you’re drawn to. They’re easier for some and harder for others.
RC: What are they for you?
MA: Shorter. It might take me three or four years to write a novel, whereas it might take a couple weeks to write a short story.
RC: You have characters here, specifically Tig and Nell, who appear throughout. That’s kind of like a novel.
MA: No, that’s a pattern. I’ve been writing stories for a very long time now. I was publishing stories in the early 60s … The internet has changed the way short stories are published. [Publishers] used to want you to have had them all published already, in magazines. That gave them a certain cachet.
RC: Wouldn’t it take a lifetime to have 15 short stories published per book?
MA: Not in those days, no, because this was before the internet. Now [publishers] don’t want things that can be found on the internet already.
RC: Is that good news?
MA: It’s both good and bad news, like everything else. Good and bad, bad and good. If it were all bad, that would be really bad, and if it’s all good, then you wouldn’t believe it. The good news is … what is the good news? You can do a book like that without having to publish all the stories first. The bad news is you can’t sell them twice. The other thing that nobody anticipated is that there are ways of publishing now that are neither magazines nor books. “My Evil Mother,” for example, was published [first] on Amazon [Original Stories].
RC: That was my favourite one in the whole book!
MA: And how’s your relationship with your mother?
RC: It’s great? She’s a bit magical, a little witchy. I loved the story because of the push and pull between the mother and the daughter: One doesn’t care at all what anyone thinks and the other one is thoroughly preoccupied with being liked. Do you care about being liked?
MA: Well, I am a writer, ha! I do care about being liked, though by whom? That’s an important question.
RC: The first evil thought that popped into my mind was Twitter.
MA: No, not Twitter. I don’t think it would have bothered Flaubert much at all.
RC: But does it bother you?
MA: Writing and reading are entirely different acts. The experience of the reader is entirely subjective. All that to say so no I don’t care much about little red hearts accumulating in various places on the internet. If everybody likes your work, as someone said, then you’re a donkey. It’s not possible to write something that everyone likes. Different strokes for different folks.
RC: Your story, “Airborne,” speaks a lot to this issue of surviving new media.
MA: Oh right, with the old biddies talking about the modern world.
RC: Not that you’re an old biddy, I would never say that.
MA: I am, I lay claim to it. I prefer to be called an old crone, actually, because biddy sounds a bit inconsequential.
RC: Mind if I circle back to the snail soul? I read that you were raised atheist.
MA: No, I wasn’t raised atheist. I’m a strict agnostic, which means simply this: We can divide things into four sections. Over here, beliefs – no evidence required. On the other side, facts – evidence required. They can be proven or disproved. In the middle are two kinds of opinions, one based on beliefs and the other based on facts. I’m a strict agnostic. If someone tells me something, I want to know is this a belief or are you proposing this as a fact?
RC: Well, your book has a whole lot of writing about souls in there. That is a fact.
MA: That is true.
RC: You asked me what I thought the book’s theme was, so I’m going to say souls.
MA: Okay, help yourself. Who am I to tell you what to think?
RC: In “Death by Clamshell,” you write: “in the afterlife, there are no secrets and everything is known.” I had this sudden thought about how disappointed I’d be if there was no afterlife and I’ll never get answers to all the mysteries I want solved.
MA: But if there is no afterlife, you won’t be worrying about it, because you’ll be dead.
RC: I’ll just feel really cheated if I never find out what happened to Amelia Earhart.
MA: Then you better find out in this life, because you can’t take chances. We all might be very surprised.
RC: If you could wave a magic wand and know the answer to one mystery, could you choose one?
MA: Oh, there’s a million of them. I’d like to know lots of answers to lots of things, but they’re usually things for which there are answers in this life. I’d like to be a fly on the wall in one of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet meetings to find out what they’re going to do about public health care.
RC: That’s what you’re using your one magic wish on?
MA: Did you want me to say something like the meaning of life?
RC: Kind of. What are you writing about next?
MA: That’s always top secret and confidential. You’d have to use your one wish to ask, “What is Margaret writing about now?”
RC: I would, you know. I see you landed three times on Utah’s new banned book list. Congratulations!
MA: Again? Oh, dear. Anyone who bans a book might as well rent a billboard that says: “Too hot to read! This one right here!” Readers just want to know why they shouldn’t read it, and then they’re going read it, aren’t they?
This interview has been edited and condensed for length. A shorter version appeared in the Feb/March 2023 issue of Zoomer magazine, with the headline ‘Short Cuts,’ p. 14.