Margaret Atwood on debt, an old Tasmanian prison, a new documentary, and why she’s not an activist

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Margaret Atwood in 'Payback' (Jennifer Baichwal/Zeitgeist Films)
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When the economy began to crumble in the fall of 2008, Margaret Atwood's book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth had just been published.

By the end of October, it was a No. 1 bestseller in Canada, and Atwood was besieged by requests to talk about the burgeoning fiscal crisis. The only problem was that she knew nothing about economics.

“But what was I going to say?” she said when we met last week at Film Forum. “I don't have the foggiest. Don't ask me for tips on the stock market.”

The claim may be false modesty as much as it is misdirection. From our interview, it became clear that Atwood knows plenty about the economy, particularly about the complex, linked systems of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption that ultimately speak to her greatest concern: the environment.

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In recent years, Atwood, who has long been known for deftly weaving social and political concerns into her fiction, has emerged as a prominent commentator on environmental issues, tweeting about how to help imperiled songbirds (for one thing, keep house cats indoors at dawn and dusk, when birds are feeding) or using the tour for her novel The Year of the Flood to stage a theater production that exhorts viewers to take responsibility for nature. The latter ended up being chronicled in a documentary called In the Wake of the Flood; its tagline: "Book Tours Are For The Birds."

This spring sees the release of two Atwood-related documentaries, and both reflect her strain of impassioned, bookish environmentalism. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Payback is an adaptation of Atwood's book and features the author prominently. Surviving Progress includes Atwood as one of a number of talking heads warning that our technological know-how and insatiable consumption have outpaced the development of our moral imaginations. (We run 21st-century software on 50,000-year-old hardware, as one commentator in the movie puts it.)

But while Surviving Progress is mostly convincing in its message, it's a scattershot affair, unevenly piecing together a picture of overconsumption, ecological devastation, paralyzing third-world debt, and unchecked technological growth. It does feature some well-crafted moments, including what appears to be a dig at geneticist J. Craig Venter, who cracked the human genome and now, the documentary notes almost ruefully, is partnering with ExxonMobil to create clean fuels out of algae. Atwood, too, has some solid lines, such as the reminder that national “debt is incurred on behalf of people who have nothing to do with it and don't know anything about it.”

Harold Crooks, the film's co-director, told me in an email that early in production he saw Atwood on the cover of Maclean's promoting the book. “Reading the article as we flew south [to a shoot in the Amazon] we realized how central were her views to our own thesis that connects bank promoted dictator debt and ecological destruction.”

He quickly asked her for an interview.

Still, Payback is the more satisfying film because of the cohesiveness of its message and its tendency to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is, in a word, the more Atwoodian of the two. Probing and philosophical, Payback weaves footage of Atwood writing and delivering the 2008 Massey lecture (a popular annual lecture series in Canada at which Surviving Progress also originated) with stories of down-and-out prisoners, migrant tomato pickers, Albanian families locked in a blood feud, and the BP oil spill. It's not as incongruous a mix as you might think: under Baichwal's keen direction, the film carries Atwood's ecumenical sense of debt as something far more expansive, and troublingly pervasive, than simply owing money.

“Economics is just the tip of the iceberg of a whole range of human behaviors that depend on our built-in programs that have to do with fairness and with equilibrium,” Atwood said. “Fairness is a human and indeed a primate thing. But equilibrium is much bigger than that.

“So I wanted to write about fairness and equilibrium, and debt and credit are part of that. Debt and credit are not just a money thing. They're about the constant interchanges that we're always doing as social beings, in which favors are done or wounds inflicted and favors are repaid or wounds are revenged.”

The writer-as-public-figure may be an extinct species in the United States, if it isn't in the rest of the world. Sure, every few years Philip Roth emerges from his rural isolation and utters a few hearty liberal bromides. Jennifer Weiner lobbies for better treatment of women in the literary world, and Dave Eggers publishes books about prisons and public school teachers. But it's been a while since the U.S. had someone like Atwood, who in stature if not attitude, is more akin to Norman Mailer or Susan Sontag. But then, she's not really ours; she's Canadian.

All the more reason why Atwood is a refreshing presence. She's a reflection of what the country once had, and, living over our northern border, she is, according to the American tendency, easy for us to lay claim to as practically one of our own. And unlike the British fraternity of Amis, McEwan, and Rushdie, Atwood rarely, if ever, sticks her foot in her mouth. Perhaps it's because, rather than speaking off the cuff about the latest cultural dustup in the War on Terror, she presents herself as an empiricist, speaking with the rigor (and armed with the data) of an amateur scientist. She's familiar with the latest news about dangerous fungi growing in the warm waters around coral reefs or a strange allergy caused by ticks. She presents these findings in a low monotone, interrupting herself with an occasional flush of laughter.

“Apparently there's a new stink bug that's arrived on the scene. It's very dangerous for fruits and apples and things like that.” She paused and then continued, with a weary sigh, “Wonders never cease.”

Atwood is the guiding spirit of Payback, but it's Baichwal's production. Even so, Baichwal astutely chose some of Atwood's most evocative remarks, such as that “how we think about [debt] changes how it works” or, more mischievously, that there's a reason why trickle-down economics uses a metaphor of a leaking tap, rather than a gushing waterfall.

The film is free of narration (Baichwal told me that she didn't have much interest in creating a polemic), and the camera lingers over soft-focus shots of the verdant Albanian countryside or a low-angle closeup of a prisoner taping his hands before boxing a heavy bag. The almost lugubrious pace allows time for contemplation, to consider debt as a matrix of concerns political, economic, anthropological, and environmental. (Atwood's piquant phrasing refers to “the elaborate fretwork of debt that surrounds us,” and the book itself is filled with disquisitions on debt in nineteenth-century British literature and ancient civilizations alike.)

What the film does rather well is build on Atwood's malleable notion of debt and draw some profoundly sympathetic portraits of people suffering under the burden of something that cannot be fully repaid. A Gulf Coast fisherman knows that BP's $20-billion restitution fund will not be sufficient when the region's ecosystem may not recover for decades. A habitually recidivist criminal, Paul Mohammed, sobs to the camera about the shame he feels at robbing people to pay for his drug habit—a shame, an emotional debt, that only spurs him to act out again. He lives in what Atwood calls “a pawnshop of the soul.”

Most surprising among these figures is Conrad Black, the disgraced Canadian press baron, who has faced an up-and-down battle against charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. In 2008, Black, then in prison, wrote a favorable review of Atwood's book for the Literary Review of Canada. When she was working on the film's treatment, Baichwal wrote to Black and asked him to be in the movie. He agreed, but the prison wouldn't allow him to be interviewed, so they had to wait until his release. (Black returned to prison in September after being re-sentenced on two charges; several others were dismissed.) The former tycoon, known for his admiring views of Nixon, expresses concern for his fellow prisoners and discusses how prisons have become divorced from the notion of rehabilitation and seemingly exist to extract a psychic toll on their inmates.

In person, Atwood is even more blunt about what she sees as the failure of North American penal systems to allow prisoners to actually “pay” their debts to society.

“If it's a job-creation program, let's be frank about that,” she said. She went on to outline a satirical scenario that she's clearly had some fun with: “Line up here. You can apply to be a criminal so that other people can make sandwiches for you and make a living. And that's the thesis of my Byliner story”—about a prison where innocent jobseekers alternate months as paid prisoners and guards. The rotations ensure that the two groups treat each other well, avoiding the hazards of the notorious Stanford prison experiment. (The only problem, Atwood noted, is what you do with the real criminals.)

Atwood mentioned that the story, “I'm Starved For You,” explores issues similar to those in Payback and her 1996 novel Alias Grace. But before I could ask more about the connections between the works, she had launched into a discussion of a draconian nineteenth-century prison, a panopticon, in Tasmania. She quickly sketched out a diagram of it on a sheet of paper.

These quick leaps from fiction to nonfiction, from contemporary issues with the legal system to their Industrial Revolution-era antecedents, reveals Atwood's mind as agile and deeply versed in the literature of her concerns. But it also shows her to be more of a politically conscious armchair scholar than an activist. Indeed, Atwood chafed when I asked if she considered herself someone on the front lines.

“What is an activist? I've never really understood. Is it somebody who votes? It's going to set you apart from a lot of the populace if you do…. There are also professional activists. That's their job. They're involved with an organization. They have an agenda. That's their job. That's fine. I'm not one of those people, although I'm frequently called upon to front this or that. And there's a very good reason for that: I don't have a job, so I can't get fired. So people like me, who are freelancers, are often called upon for that reason. So you're put in that position by the mere fact of having the freedom—which it is—not to be subject to the strictures of your place of employment.”

I asked if she found that freedom liberating. She shrugged off the question.

“It's an ability. But it does mean there's a line up around the block ... I limit myself pretty much to a fairly small group of things that I will do. Other people are doing the livers, kidneys, hearts, and arthritis. And cancer—they have a big cheering section.

“I don't think people come to any plan of action unless they come to it out of themselves. So what you're doing is you're opening windows, opening doors, which just makes life more interesting anyway.”

After all this, it's not unexpected for Atwood to say that, despite writing fiction dealing with feminism and national identity, that she doesn't consider herself a political writer.

“I just describe reality. It's got nothing to do with a preconceived philosophy. You just describe it.”

And that reality inevitably returns to Atwood's fears about the environment, which has been the subject of her last two novels. Now 72 years old, an age at which some writers turn inward and consider their own mortality, Atwood is preoccupied instead with the planet's longevity.

“It's not a question of nature liking us or not or not liking us or feeling dissatisfied with our behavior. It's that if you don't address some of these issues, you're going to die.”

She offers a slight, dark laugh.

“Nature is not going to die. Something will remain. It's been through these bottlenecks before. It's really a question of whether you as an air-breathing, middle-sized mammal wish your species to remain on the planet. Some people may think that's overblown. That's fine. How old are they? And how old are they going to be when [climate change] really kicks in? It probably won't be my problem. Because I'll be dead. I will have done my act of replenishment. But it's going to be your problem.”

She paused and looked thoughtful for a moment.

“It may even be my problem. I might live a bit longer than I think.”