Margaret Atwood combines realism and folklore in 'Stone Mattress'
Author Margaret Atwood is pictured in Toronto on Tuesday, March 6, 2012. (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, September 8, 2014 7:15AM EDT
TORONTO -- Margaret Atwood has never been one to ground her fiction solely in the bedrock of realism, so it's not surprising that her latest collection of short stories combines strata of the purely mythical and the ordinary happenings of everyday life.
Indeed, the Canadian literary icon eschews the phrase "short stories" in describing the nine pieces of fiction that make up "Stone Mattress" (McClelland & Stewart), preferring instead to refer to them as "tales."
"The tale end of things is much more likely to have what you might consider folkloric or mythic elements in it, manifesting themselves in our modern age in, for instance, fantasy series and horror classics," says Atwood during a recent interview.
"In an ordinary, realistic short story you can't fly. People fly around quite frequently both in fairy tales and in dreams -- and in tales. I've never left that part out. I've never confined myself to, should we say, a very limited social realistic canvas.
"So I felt tales was more appropriate."
Her flights of fictional fancy take a macabre turn in "The Dead Hand Loves You," a tale within a tale about a severed appendage belonging to a jilted lover rising from the grave to take revenge; "Lusus Naturae" follows the life of a physically deformed young girl who's been decreed a "freak of nature" by the doctor, much to her family's horror and chagrin; while "The Freeze-Dried Groom" recounts what happens to a somewhat shifty antiques dealer after he discovers a mummified body in a storage unit he buys at auction.
But among the more rooted-in-reality entrees in "Stone Mattress, due out Tuesday," is "Alphinland" and two companion pieces, "Revenant" and "Dark Lady," which centre around three people -- a female fantasy novelist, a male poet and the woman who came between them during their heady youth in the '60s -- as they try to navigate the ignominious realities of their senior years.
As with all her stories, Atwood's wry humour sparkles from the pages, adding insight into her characters' all-too-human foibles.
"Alphinland" is set during an ice storm brought on by a polar vortex, an idea sparked by the destructive weather anomaly that struck southern Ontario just before last Christmas. The main character ventures out on foot from her home on treacherously slippery roads to buy salt but reverts to sprinkling kitty litter when she discovers the local convenience store has run out of the de-icer.
"I did put that kitty litter on my steps and I'm still getting it off," laughs Atwood, who was in her Toronto home when the storm hit but didn't lose power as did so many residents in and around the city.
"We were very lucky. Things were toppling all around us at the end of street, but we were spared," she recalls, likening the neighbourhood covered in downed tree limbs and other debris to a "rubbish heap."
A cruise to the Canadian Arctic -- "We love it," she says, referring to her longtime partner, writer Graeme Gibson -- was the genesis for the title story, "Stone Mattress."
The tale revolves around an older woman, still carrying the emotional scars from the rape at age 14 by her smooth-talking prom date, an event that irrevocably alters her life path. At a passenger get-together before boarding a cruise ship in the Beaufort Sea, she meets her now-aging rapist, who doesn't recognize her. Her desire for long-overdue revenge sets her to plotting the perfect murder.
Atwood and Gibson were gathered with some fellow excursionists when the idea for the tale was born: "You know how you sit around -- here again it's part of the tale-telling behaviour of human beings -- and we were speculating how would you murder somebody on this boat.
"Graeme, being of a devious criminal mind," she quips, "had it all figured out quite quickly, what you would need to do. You obviously couldn't murder someone on the boat, and then somehow store them on it. You wouldn't get away with it.
"So the stipulation was how to murder them while on the trip but not get caught."
Playing an elemental role in the tale are stromatolites -- fossilized mounds of algae that created the first oxygen in our atmosphere almost two billion years ago. The word stromatolite means "stone mattress," so-called because of its pillow-like shape.
Not only did Atwood give a stromatolite a pivotal part in the story, she also brought one home as a souvenir. "I've got it in my kitchen. I asked permission from the good-looking young geologist," she cheekily confesses.
"They're important because they created the oxygen that we are breathing," says the author of 50-plus novels, short fiction, poetry and non-fiction works, who's also an avowed environmentalist.
At 74, it's fair to say that Atwood has seen a fair bit of life. Many of the protagonists in her collection are older, and she agrees that being the age she is does inform her choice of characters and story lines.
"I've written about older people before," she says, citing 82-year-old Iris Chase Griffen, the narrator of "The Blind Assassin," which won the Man Booker Prize in 2000.
"But one of the beauties of it is that you have a whole life, or quite a lot of one, so that the people's earlier lives are always coming into play as well. So you get to write about younger people AND older people. Whereas, with young people, you only get to write about young people."
"I have a sense of them anyway," she says of those of more mature years. "They're my friends.
"I know a lot of people that age, and the only difference now is that before when I was writing about them they were my older relatives, or that was the generation. But now it's people I actually know that are of that age."
Still, she wonders how Canada and its already overburdened health system will cope with a demographic inexorably tilting toward the grey side.
It's a question she explores in the final tale of the collection, "Torching the Dusties," in which aging residents of a retirement home are besieged by a mob of young people shouting and waving placards that read "Move Over" and "Our Turn." The protesters are part of an international movement to rid society of its oldest members by burning them out.
"The situation is with us today, which is we're demographically top-heavy," explains Atwood. "There are more people of a certain age than there are young people with jobs, who are going to be paying enough taxes to sustain the health-care system.
"So that is a problem. Burning down an old-age home isn't the solution I propose, but it's always been true that if I'm thinking about something, so is somebody else."
What Atwood's thinking about now is completing her next book for publication, putting a work of fiction that had been serialized online into novel form. At this point, she doesn't want to reveal the title of the work, which will come out next year.
When that's completed, she will move on to her next literary undertaking, revisiting "The Tempest" in novel form as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project.
Canada's best-known writer is among a number of international novelists of different genres who've been asked to reimagine their favourite play from the Bard's canon. The program will launch in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death.
She chose his final work because "it has so many unresolved questions."
"Mine, of course, will not be on an island in the Mediterranean in the 17th century."
So where will it be set?
"I'm not telling you. It's a secret," she says coyly.
But first, the celebrated and much-travelled author is off to Europe for the publication in France, Italy and Greece of "MaddAddam," the final novel in her dystopic trilogy that began with "Oryx and Crake" and "The Year of the Flood."
October will see her in London for the release of "Stone Mattress."
But it is the home of the ancient Olympics and the poet Homer she is most looking forward to visiting.
"It's my first time in Greece. I've never been there before. So it will be very exciting for me."