Questions for Margaret Atwood
In the Red
Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON
Published: September 26, 2008
As one of Canada ’s most esteemed novelists and poets, you are about to deliver a series of public lectures on a seemingly nonliterary subject, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth,” which is also the title of your latest book. Your timing is perfect. Well, I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s not my fault. I didn’t make those banks collapse.
I thought maybe you made the banks fail in order to help your book sales. I didn’t even consider it. When I came up with the idea two or three years ago and planned out the lectures, this was not on the horizon. Everybody was happily buying subprime-mortgage vehicles.
So what led you to take up the subject of debt? Long ago, I was a graduate student in Victorian literature. When you think of the 19th-century novel, you think romance — you think Heathcliff, Cathy, Madame Bovary, etc. But the underpinning structure of those novels is money, and Madame Bovary could have cheerfully gone on committing adultery for a long time if she hadn’t overspent.
Are you saying we should view her as a pioneer of deficit spending? You can examine the whole 19th century from the point of view of who would have maxed out their credit cards. Emma Bovary would have maxed hers out. No question. Mr. Scrooge would not have. He would have snipped his up.
What about you? Have you ever carried credit-card debt? No. I am very picky about that because you have to pay such large sums in interest. There’s a little bit of Scrooge in all of us, but apparently not enough in some.
Right, there’s a lot of Madame Bovary out there now, with people blithely sliding into debt. When did that shift happen? I can actually tell you. When the credit card came in. It made you feel richer than you were. The credit card in its present form — a piece of plastic that arrives in the mail — didn’t come in big until the early ’70s, as I recall.
I read somewhere that the average American household now has nearly $9,200 in credit-card debt, which is not a small amount. No. A great many people are spending more than they are earning.
How would you compare household debt to the budget deficit run up by the federal government, which is now more than $400 billion? Sooner or later, the householder has to pay up or declare bankruptcy. The federal government, on the other hand, has what they think of as an infinite source of money — namely, you. You can’t say, “I’m not going to pay my taxes.” You’re a cash cow.
Why do you think the Bush administration has spent so extravagantly? They’ve been allowed to get away with it. Nobody has held them to account and whoever did was called not patriotic and a bad person. So, Spend-O-Rama.
In 1985, you published “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a much-discussed classic set in a future in which the U.S. government has come to be controlled by right-wing fundamentalists. Do you feel you anticipated the likes of Sarah Palin? Ha. You can order action figures of her now.
Do you own any? No, I am afraid of what the actions would be. Read the book by Antonia Fraser called “The Warrior Queens .” You will see that no woman ruler has been successful if she has been an advocate for women at large. Not one, ever. It’s the Thatcher model, which is, “All women should stay home and take care of their babies except me.”
On the other hand, Palin is tapping into Madonna iconography by appearing in public with her infant. The Virgin Mary was known for being modest and demure. She is not a gun-toting mama. I’m sorry.
Well, thank you for your time and insights. I feel indebted. Next time, you have to let me interview you. Then the debt balance will be even.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY DEBORAH SOLOMON