Margaret Atwood on Envy and Friendship in Old Age
The author of The Handmaid’s Tale read my story about losing friends in midlife. She had some thoughts.
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So this is something you don’t experience every day as a writer: You post a thread about your new story on Twitter, a medium with which you have a love-hate relationship at best (essential to publicity, but also a forum for cruelty, an open pasture for a firing squad), and suddenly, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale appears in your timeline. She has read your story. She has some thoughts.
Wait till you get Really old. It will all change again. :)
This is what Margaret Atwood wrote to me on February 9, about 14 hours after I’d tweeted an essay I’d just completed about the heartache and complexity of friendships in midlife. Weirdly, no one else had made this observation. Atwood is 82.
How? I asked.
Her reply: Your old enemies may become pals because there’s only the two of youse left who can remember the Dark Ages
before there were computers. :D Or pantyhose. :D :D
Or plastic bags. :D :D :D
She added that she liked the part of my story about envy. I know no writers who’ve had some success who have not encountered it.
I wrote her an email: Would she chat with me for a bit about this? About envy in friendship, about friendship in old age?
She would. Margaret Atwood in real time is very much who you would expect the author of her 17 novels, 18 books of poetry, and 11 works of nonfiction to be: game, associative, energetic. (Her latest collection of essays, Burning Questions, publishes on March 1. I drank in the book this past weekend, in two warm slugs.) Also, she speaks in perfect aphorisms, just as she so often does on Twitter. Mythology is everything that happened before you were born, she wrote in our February 9 exchange. When your parents were gods and heroes. Legend is your life until approx age 7. History begins after that. :D
Here is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Jennifer Senior: Let’s start with: You wrote to me that when you’re much older, some of your enemies become friends. At the risk of being too personal, is there somebody in your life who migrated from one category to the other?
Margaret Atwood: I don’t think they migrate from being your enemy to being your dearest friend. They migrate from being a person you possibly wouldn’t speak to to someone with whom you might share rueful anecdotes. If you read Phyllis Chesler’s book about early-’70s feminism, you’ll realize that people were fighting all the time. But she says, nonetheless, we remember these battles because we shared them. And I suppose you could move to something like [Wilfred] Owen’s poem about World War I, in which two dead people are encountering each other, one from either side. I think the line is, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”
Senior: If it’s not too delicate, I was wondering whether the shape of your friendships also changed once your partner, Graeme Gibson, died. They must change …
Atwood: Well, of course they change. But things had not been quite the same for a while.
Senior: Because of his dementia.
Atwood: That’s right. But it wasn’t a sudden surprise. My friends were great. I would arrange for him to go out to lunch with people. I think the best exchange that happened was with a woman we’d known for a very long time. She arrived to take him for lunch. And he said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know that I know you, and I know that I like you.” And she said, “Well, that’s all we need.” And off they went to lunch.
Senior: My God, I love that. Do I know this person? Would our readers?
Atwood: She’s actually a very interesting person. Her name is Sylvia Fraser. She wrote probably the first book to talk openly about incestual sexual abuse, called My Father’s House.
Senior: One of the most popular replies on Twitter to my piece—in addition to yours!—was a woman who said that after she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, her closest friend just … vanished. And how very hurtful that was. To which many cancer survivors or people living with cancer said, more or less, “This is much more common than you think.”
Atwood: I think it’s more common in a younger generation. People are afraid of it.
Senior: Ah. That makes sense. I don’t know how old this person was.
Atwood: I’m going to tell you a slightly long but interesting story: This young German artist turns up one day, and he has a project that he wants me to do. He’s going around the world, talking to writers and taking them into cemeteries of their choice and photographing them. And then he wants to interview them for a radio show about death.
Atwood: So we get the photograph done; we have the interview. And then he tells me that the people who agree to do this are quite young people and people over the age of 55. But in between, they didn’t want to do it. And why is that? Because in the middle of your life, that’s when you’re likely to have young children and also be in the middle of your career. You don’t want to think about death.
Atwood: So that middle generation—somebody’s got cancer and it’s We don’t want to deal with this. But later on, somebody’s got cancer: This has happened to you before. You know. You’ve seen your parents die. You’ve seen people in your generation die. You’re not afraid of it in the same way. And you order the flowers and send the notes.
Senior: Let’s talk about envy. I want to know which books you think are best on the subject of envy.
Atwood: You can’t beat Shakespeare. I’ll give you the opening speech of Richard III: “All of those other people are having a great time, but not me. So watch me be bad. I’m gonna really mess them up.”
Senior: Why do you think writers are better about envy than psychologists?
Atwood: I think psychologists don’t want to admit it; they want to explain it. “You were too attached to your squeaky toy when you were 3.” Or “You didn’t get invited to Janie’s birthday party.”
Senior: Maybe that’s it. How dull.
Atwood: Fairy tales are full of envy. I give you Sleeping Beauty: “You forgot to invite me! Well, that was a mistake.” Think of how many there are in which the unfavored sister envies the favored one.
Senior: Do you think writers envy excessively?
Atwood: Probably no more than other people. But they write about it more, because they’re writers. Though we can talk about the groves of academe. And we can talk about small-press publishing. I think that in structured, hierarchical, expanding corporations, where there’s room to move up—and moving up is fairly rapid—envy is less likely to happen. My theory is that the smaller the piece of cheese, the more the mice fight over it.
Notice I’m carefully not saying rats. And also, if you put too many animals in an enclosed space and with no exit, you’re gonna have fights, because there’s no way of getting out. So I think in closed systems, without much room for expansion, where the pieces of cheese are quite small, you’re gonna get ferocious resentments over who got the tiny piece of cheese.
Senior: I think that that generally describes a writer’s world. But there’s also this blockbuster phenomenon where suddenly a writer gets a huge wheel of cheese.
Atwood: Yes. And in the peer group of that writer, there is unbelievable resentment.
Senior: Did that happen to you?
Atwood: My ascent was much slower. But it did happen to me in 1972, after, you know, 12 years of little magazines and small publications—in a small way. You wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t in Canada. But I published two books that year and they were both successful by the terms that existed. And [the writer] Farley Mowat, who was well known at the time, said to me, “Now you’re a target and people will shoot at you.”
Senior: Did it happen?
Senior: Did you find yourself also trying to manage your own joy in front of your friends who were still struggling?
Atwood: That’s a given. Anybody who isn’t a complete jelly bean does that.
Senior: In Burning Questions, your latest collection, you wrote two beautiful appreciations of Alice Munro, including one about a statue that was erected in her honor in her hometown. You’re so successful that I don’t imagine you envy her, though I guess you could, if you were some other kind of person. But I didn’t detect a molecule—
Atwood: No, no, no. I’ve known her for a very long time.
Senior: Are there people you have envied, in your life?
Atwood: I’m not very good at that emotion.
Senior: Oh, lucky you.
Atwood: As I’ve often said, I was improperly socialized. If you don’t live in a world in which frilly party dresses are a thing, you don’t envy frilly party dresses. You think, What’s that?
Senior: I also wonder if you achieved success early enough in your career—
Atwood: I certainly wasn’t festering, that’s for sure. If anything, I was, What just happened? We didn’t expect to be successful in popular terms. If you have low expectations, everything else is a surprise. Whereas if you have really high expectations and suddenly, as you graduate from creative-writing school, the six-figure advance does not materialize—that’s when you get resentful.
Senior: Is there something about being a writer apart from envy that might make it harder to have friendships?
Atwood: Writers are many and varied, from those writing a true romance under a pseudonym—one of the people I knew who did that was 6 foot 8 and a biker—all the way to Flaubert. So it’s just not one personality type. If you look at the beginning of my book Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, I tried to look for motives, and they ranged from “to justify the ways of God to man” to “to get back at the people who were mean to me in high school.” And there’s no reason why it can’t be both.
Senior: Final question. What’s the best novel that you can think of about a friendship?
Atwood: Oh boy. There are a lot. I need advance warning for that kind of thing.
Senior: I’m sorry. I know. That was unfair.
Atwood: No, it’s not unfair. Well … let’s go back to the old ones. Probably Sense and Sensibility will do to start with. They’re sisters, but they certainly are quite loyal to each other in their own ways. That’s off the top of my head.
(She reflects for a moment.)
I like to choose dead people, because if you choose living ones, others will resent the fact that you didn’t choose theirs. Because of envy!
Senior: Perfect. I know you have to go, but I want you to know this will be the highlight of my week.
Atwood: I hope not, Jennifer. You know what Miss Manners said about weddings? “I suppose you have been told that your wedding day will be the happiest day of your life. Miss Manners sincerely hopes not.”
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