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Q&A with Margaret Atwood

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Fresh from receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Franz Kafka award in Prague, Margaret Atwood can now look forward to a brilliant six part film adaptation of Alias Grace (Netflix November 3rd). And so can we.

Margaret Atwood has published with Virago since 1979. Her editor, Lennie Goodings asked her about the novel and the film.

LG: Another film cameo for you! Must be wonderful to see this book come to the screen at long last?

MA: Yes, I play Disapproving Woman, in full Victorian kit… It took Sarah Polley 20 years to finally make the series — she wanted to do it ever since she was 17 – and it is done very well indeed! Sarah Gadon’s “Grace” is extraordinary — everyone is so good! All that plus an Irish immigrant ship of the early 1840s in all its yuckiness.

LG : You did scrupulous research for this book rather than just relying on imagination. Did you feel an obligation to be honourable to the real Grace Marks?

MA: `I had done an earlier TV play based only on Susannah Moodie’s version of events — in which Grace was the instigator. But when I came back about 20 years later, I tried to find every scrap of evidence and reporting and records that I could. My sister Ruth helped me with the research. She also drew the quilt patterns that head the chapters. 

The book itself is “pieced” like a quilt — with contrasting views — every faction at the time had their version of Grace. Demon or innocent? Even — tall or short? 

But in the gaps in the story — the places where evidence was not there or had gone missing — I felt free to invent’

LG: `There is so much sexual charge in the novel. It’s in the motive for the crimes; in the new science of psychiatry, as demonstrated by the doctor who tries to get to the truth about what Grace did and what she remembers; in the excited fascination men and women have for ‘the murderess’. Did you anticipate that before you started writing?

MA: `From the beginning, sexual motives were assumed in the way the story was reported. Also: some of the neighbours said Grace was jealous of Nancy, some said Nancy was jealous of Grace. Mrs. Moodie has Grace instigating the murder of Nancy because she was in love with Kinnear and promised sexual favours to McDermott. But she was wrong about a lot of the details. All commentators (the rest of them men) agree that Grace was good looking. So it had the ingredients for a first-class scandal — especially since Nancy was Kinnear’s mistress as well as his housekeeper. Some also assumed that when Grace ran away with McDermott after the killings, she must also have been sleeping with him. But that is not known. She herself said he threatened her; that too is plausible.’

LG: Tell us about the (brilliant) title.

MA: `When Grace ran away to the States, she used the alias of “Mary Whitney.” (There were Whitneys in the area — in fact one of the schools I went to in Toronto was called that — so I made the call that Mary was someone Grace had known.) One commentator said Grace had used “many aliases.” And when she finally leaves the prison and goes to the States, she vanishes — another name change? So who was the person concealed behind or within the name of “Grace”? In some sense, all names are aliases: they identify us, but only for purposes of stocktaking, in a way. They lead us to think we know something we don’t know: The totality of a person. (Having used three names and two aliases during my writing life, I understand that.)’

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