Recently, your fiction has emphasised the urgency of the
environmental problems we face. Can you recall when you first
became aware of such issues?
I grew up with it, because my dad was a biologist - not
only a forest entomologist but a student of ecosystems - and also
an early environmentalist. In fact, both of my parents were. The
Sierra Club, the Ontario Naturalists, they were into all of
those kinds of things as far back as the Forties. People of that
generation were witnesses to, already, a huge decline in numbers
What we're seeing now is whole species just vanishing from the
face of the earth. If you had gone to, for instance, the Arctic 10
years ago and you go back now, it is very, very visible what is
happening. You can see where the glacier was; you can see where the
glacier is now.
What other, moral values were instilled in you by your
parents and your teachers?
Oh, I think environmental awareness is moral, because
what it says is, there's a connection between us and other living
beings - which is true. There is a connection between how we care
for our space and how other people are then able to live in it -
not only other people in the future but other people now.
If you live in the woods, it is moral as well as practical to
learn how to put out a fire properly, because if you don't know how
to put out a fire and you start one by accident, you're going to
cause a lot of destruction.
If you examine a lot of the things we think of as moral ideas,
we consider them moral because if you don't do them it causes
Some of your fiction is very critical of the
relationship between technology and commerce. Are you to a degree
suspicious of science per se?
I have no suspicion of science per se, any more than I
have a suspicion of hammers and saws. Science is a tool and like
any tool it can be used for good things or bad things. You can use
a hammer and a saw for building a house for someone who doesn't
have a house or you can use them for murdering someone and cutting
them up into pieces. It's not the hammer and the saw that make
moral decisions - and in fact you can murder somebody quite well
with a stone.
Is there something that compels us as human beings to make
a choice between good and evil?
I think it's built in - it's one of the things little
kids are very interested in. If you tell them stories, they want
very much to know who are the good guys, who are the bad guys,
who's going to be OK at the end. That's why fairy tales are so
popular - as a rule, Cinderella comes out of it all right (although
Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother doesn't always fare quite so
Kids like to know that the wolf is shot by the hunter (in the
old version) or becomes a vegetarian or something like that (in the
modern versions). They like to know that it's all fixed and they
can go to bed feeling safe. And, by the way, it's no good to tell a
small child that there is no monster under the bed. It doesn't
work. What you have to say is: Well, there is a monster under the
bed but it's OK because we've made friends with him and he's not
coming out tonight.
How do you yourself prefer a fairy tale to end?
On Mondays, I prefer the vegetarian outcome, although it
is not realistic. Mondays are rough. By Wednesday, I am feeling
strong enough to face the sterner version, in which the grandmother
gets eaten. But I'm not in favour of the vilification of wolves:
an ecosystem without wolves falls prey to the ravages of too many
So, there's a kind of moral function to storytelling
I think it's built in. In fact, we talk about it quite a
lot in the writing community. Generally, readers don't like being
preached to, not because they have no moral sense but because they
like to make up their own minds, and if you don't supply the moral
for them, they will put it in themselves. They always do.
As a writer, you have always in some sense been socially
aware. Even your first novel, The Edible Woman, finds a
strong link between the political and the personal -
Well, I certainly was not aware of doing that at the
time. We didn't have the women's movement when I wrote it in
1964-65, and I thought I was writing about anthropomorphic
Still, it was very prescient and it anticipated -
Absolutely, but who knew? Not me. I didn't know then what
anorexia was, either; but then people discovered it and all of a
sudden [The Edible Woman] became a central text. That happens quite
If you don't believe in preaching to your readers, do
you ever yearn for that kind of Wildean
all-art-is-quite-useless-and-should-be-quite-useless point of
Oscar Wilde was a total preacher. That was his sermon, you know?
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an almost over-the-top moral
book. All of this about aesthetics having its own value - you can't
actually say that without making a moral statement. It's a
contradiction in terms.
Yes. Art always has a kind of moral function, if you
Well, people have built-in attitudes about morality.
Unless you are what is known in psychiatric circles as 'a
psychopath', you have an empathy function, a brain program that
makes you feel sad when you see another person unhappy - rather
than just finding that unhappy person annoying - and therefore
you're going to have a moral sense whether you like it or
Does literature nurture that ability in us to
That's one of the excuses often made for it. People are always
looking for reasons why literature and art are OK and should be
allowed, but actually they have the wrong end of the dog, as it
were. Literature and art are another of those things that are
built in, and just as you see little children saying 'Is it good or
is it bad?', you see them doing all those kinds of things: they
tell stories, they sing songs, they learn language automatically if
they are around people who talk, they draw pictures - it just comes
very naturally to them.
The thinking now is that art is an evolved adaptation that became
part of our make-up because it gave us a survival edge. If you have
the ability to understand a story and I tell you about Uncle George
being eaten by a crocodile right over there in that river, you
learn from that - you don't have to go there and go swimming and
test it out and get eaten. And groups that could exchange
information in that way were much more likely to make it through
than those that couldn't.
As for singing, dancing, acting out rituals and all the rest of
it, they help to unify a group - as you could see at the world
Don't you find that rather a reductive account of
Oh, art can do all sorts of other things, but I'm
addressing the well-meant but misguided attempt to tell people why
they should have it. It's not a question of why you should have it
- you've got it, whether you want it or not. It may be a question
of what kind of art you find enjoyable or wish to create, but you
can't take the art out of the human being unless you do something
pretty radical to the insides of people's heads.
Can we talk a bit more about your contribution to what is
broadly termed 'the women's movement'?
Again, I'm a bit too old to have thought any of that
You have been foundational in it, nonetheless.
But not on purpose!
Well, do we always have to live deliberately in order to
achieve interesting things? The Handmaid's Tale, which is
very much part of the British curriculum now, was very prescient
when you wrote it. Do you feel that anything has changed for the
better for women in the 25 years since then?
Well, at the moment when I wrote it the religious right in the
United States was coming to the fore, having been rather knocked
off its horse by the late Sixties and middle Seventies, and was
saying things such as 'Women's place is in the home.' It is my view
that nothing in human life ever comes from nothing, and when you
go back to the foundation of the United States of America in the
north-east, what you find underneath the Declaration of
Independence, the revolution and all of those things is another
foundation: the Puritan theocracy that gave us, as it turns out,
Harvard University. A theocracy that, not incidentally, hanged
Quakers, because the Puritans wanted to be the ones calling the
So, the kinds of things that were being said in the mid 1980s
were a lot like the things that were being said in the 17th century
- a century in which I have been particularly interested because my
ancestors were some of those very same Quaker-hanging,
Salem-witch-trial types of people. So, my theocracy [in The
Handmaid's Tale] - which we pretty much almost got under
George [W] Bush, by the way, and which underlies things like the
Tea Party movement - I placed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which
now is thought of as the home of liberal democracy. And I put into
it nothing that people haven't already done at some time in some
place. There is nothing invented out of my twisted imagination.
Actually, what shocks people is not so much the things that are
done [in the book] but where they're done. But I never have
believed the words 'It can't happen here.' Whatever 'it' is, it can
happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.
The reactions to the book at the time were interesting. The
English, having done their civil war, were not in any mood to do it
again and so they said, 'Jolly good yarn!' The Canadians, always an
apprehensive bunch of people, said: 'Could it happen here?' And the
Americans said, 'How long have we got?' It's much closer to a
possibility for them - considering the way their politics goes and
the extremes of the polarisation that you have right now, some sort
of coup is not out of the question.
Do you think things are better now for women or
Which women? You know, you can't generalise like that,
any more than you can about men. Are things better or worse for
men? Well, which men? Pick a country. Generally speaking, when
things are bad for everybody, they're also bad for women.
Worse for women?
Bad. Sometimes they're worse - in the Congo, they're probably
worse, but a state of anarchy, chaos and continuous war is actually
pretty horrible for everybody.
I think you have described yourself as 'a strict
I think that religion is one of those things that are probably
built in, like art - like the brain pattern that makes you feel sad
when you see somebody crying in a movie. It may just be part of
being human. It's not a question of whether people are going to
have religion or not, so then it becomes a question of 'What kind
are they going to have?' And who is going to try to grab hold of
that and manipulate it for their own ends? Because all of our
emotions are manipulable, there's no question.
The people who put slogans on buses saying 'God doesn't exist' -
if you're going to the trouble and expense of doing that, it's a
religion. That's the belief - because it's not a piece of
demonstrable knowledge - that you have invested yourself in.
So, what is your take on the hard-headed New Atheists,
such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett?
I think they're misguided: if religion is an evolved
adaptation, it's no good to tell people they shouldn't do it.
People have a predisposition to believe things they can't actually
prove. In good circumstances, that can be very unifying and
motivating; in bad circumstances it can unfortunately be
manipulated and can do a lot of harm.
So, again, it's not a question of whether 'religion' is 'good'
or 'bad'. It's a question of how people are using it and to what
ends. Are they using it to increase their own affluence or to
further their military or political aims? That often happens. Or
are they using it to achieve a relationship with a numinous world
that they can't point to as existing in solid objects? What is that
hammer be-ing used for? Is it being used to build a house or to
murder a neighbour?
If we can't help but have religion, what kind of religion
would you say you have?
If we take 'religion' to mean 'the numinous realm to
which you feel emotionally committed to the point of making
sacrifices for it, but which you cannot justify on the basis of
empirical knowledge,' I am probably some sort of modified North
American animist, crossed with a certain kind of Blakean
A shorter answer is: the religion that would probably get me
burnt at the stake or strung up from a lamp post by most of the
others. Except the Buddhists - they don't do too much burning at
the stake, not as a rule. Or the Jains. Or the Spiritualists. Or
the Quakers. Or some of the First Nations - I'd be safe with them,
Christianity needs to regreen itself, don't you think? Northrop
Frye used to say that the Bible is a book that judges you (rather
than you judging it), by which he meant that it gives you a great
many choices, from sadistic punishment to forgiveness, and which
version you pick out for yourself defines you.
We're all painfully aware of too many terrible examples
of bad religion. Have you seen any examples of religious practice
that you think are actually valuable?
We hear most about the bad ones because, of course, it's
bad news that makes the papers; but that doesn't mean that the good
stuff isn't going on. As a teenager, I went around to every
religious organisation I could find to see whether I wanted to
belong to any of them. (I sampled them all, including the
Spiritualists, who were a hoot.) And you do find the good stuff
being practised - it's all around you. It is often small and
practical and on the ground and hard to see - it's not like a big
What did you learn as a teenager as you sampled all the
Baptists are great singers; Presbyterians not so much.
Anglicans have terrific choirs. Unitarians not.
To judge from your most recent books, you seem to be
biblically very literate.
Well, this is one way in which Canada is different from
the United States. Since the Declaration of Independence, they've
been pretty strict on the separation of church and state (and you
can see why - there would be a battle royal over whose theology was
going to be in there); but when I was in public school we had Bible
readings every morning and religious knowledge was part of the
curriculum. Number one.
Number two, in order to study English literature, the honours
course which went from Anglo-Saxon to about 1950, you needed to
know the Bible - very intensively in the earlier period, and
especially for Milton, and less intensively all the way through.
The Sun Also Rises - where does that come from?
Right. But if you don't know that, you're not going to
understand the title of that book.
I went to Victoria College, where Northrop Frye was the
eminence grise. He taught a course called 'The Bible as
Literature' and he went through the whole thing and stuck it all
together and had it make sense. He was a great biblical scholar. In
The Anatomy of Criticism,1 he wrote about types and antitypes and
that is just straight out of biblical scholarship. And so is the
New Criticism, by the way: it is biblical exegesis as applied to
poems.2 So, much of the literary criticism that we have today has
its roots in that kind of textual study.
That brings us, I guess, to your experience of reading the
Gospels. What do you make of Christ?
Well, obviously a very successful story. But are you
asking me whether I 'believe' in the many different kinds of
doctrines that have swirled around that figure? You actually get a
I'm just curious to know how you, as a writer, as a human
being, respond to that figure in the Gospels.
Well, I think as a story - or, as Northrop Frye would
have called it, a 'myth' - and a story of central importance to our
culture, it's an exemplary plot, if you like. It's a plot about how
people quite frequently treat their prophetic or inspirational
figures - and an example of the worst kinds of things that people
do to other people.
As that kind of story, it's very powerful. But then, of course,
you get all kinds of spin-offs from that story that emphasise one
facet of it or another facet of it. There's actually quite a range.
In Sunday school, they were very keen on Jesus, Nice Person
towards Children - the Jesus who dances hand-in-hand with children
from all over the world. Then you get Jesus the feminist… And
Jesus the person who rather deliberately didn't write anything -
that's interesting to me…
Do you have a sense of the holy or the sacrilegious, even
if it's not rooted in a particular religion?
The sacrilegious has to do with a couple of things,
probably. Number one, the violating of a group's treasured symbols
- you know, going into the church and doing weird things to the
host and stuff like that. That kind of desecration. It's not just
to do with cultic practices. For instance, among First Nations
Canadians certain places are sacred and it is very, very
counter-indicated to build a copper mine at the head of a venerated
river system, just for instance. And usually those places are
venerated for a reason: it's where their food comes from.
The idea of place, of a numinous presence… I think those are
very, very old and functional ideas, because we do depend on our
geography, we do depend on what grows on the earth, and if you
treat every place on the earth as a parking lot you're going to end
up with everyone dead. There is a connection between what we
venerate and [what we] choose to protect. If you go way back, there
is that connection between those ideas [of the holy and the
sacrilegious] and our livelihood.
Do I think that there are numinous presences of that kind on the
earth? No question. And I'm not saying that there's a flower fairy
or anything like that, I'm saying that if you destroy those places,
the results are going to be very, very bad - and if you destroy all
those places, the results are going to be terrible. So, should we
protect certain things - not necessarily as 'holy' but, let's just
say, as numinous? Sure. No question.
Do you have a sense of the transcendent?
Well, let's just say that certain places have an emotional effect
The catch is that different places have different emotional
effects on different people. Some people think, 'Oh, I'm in the
Holy Land! I feel so holy!' But if that doesn't happen to be your
religious background, you're not going to feel that. Sorry.
Some would argue that either everything is sacred or
nothing is. Is that a workable point of view?
It's workable - but if God is everywhere, then God is in the
parking lot, too, and that's not usually where you have those
feelings. (I did know a guy who had a numinous episode in a
parking lot, but he was diagnosed as bipolar, after he had taken
off all of his clothes and got arrested.)
You are one of those writers who have followed the
Romantic poets in promoting what Thoreau called 'the tonic of
wildness'. In a poem titled 'The Moment', from Morning in the
Burned House, you have the landscape tell a greedy, consumerist
humanity, 'You own nothing. You were visitors.' Do you ever feel
that the planet would be better off without us?
The planet actually doesn't care. I hate to break this to
you. So, I don't think it would - And what do we mean by 'better
off'? I mean, it's a meaningless term in a way.
I suppose, that it would prosper -
But what do we mean by 'prosper'? The individual cockroach might,
if it were conscious in that way, say to itself: 'Oh good! Now I've
got much greater scope for my cockroachiness.' But I don't think
cockroaches are saying, 'Wouldn't it be nice if there weren't any
A number of people are saying that, and that's a bit scary,
don't you think? I mean, are we really at the point at which we
actively hope for our own elimination?
You seem to me to be very conscious of the implications of
your words and deeds - a sense perhaps that, in one way or another,
you are going to be judged by history.
History is a myth. There isn't anything in the sky called
'History'. I hate to break this to you. It's something people make
up. (They're supposed to make it up out of things that really
happen, but sometimes they don't even do that.)
But, also, you say 'history', but history when? You know, in 20
years? Fifty years? A hundred years? Two hundred years? Which one
of those is history?
If you could be remembered in 100 years…
I'm not really worried about that. I hope there will be somebody
around to remember something in 100 years - that would be nice. But
whether they're remembering me or just trying to figure out how to
dig up edible roots… It's not actually going to be my problem.
People say, 'Looking 30 years down the line…' and I say,
'Actually, that's your problem. You'd better start thinking about
it.' What I'm thinking about is more environmentally-friendly ways
of disposing of my corpse.
Well, that's a vivid image - I'm not saying 'bleak'…
I don't think it's bleak, it's just part of the cycle.
What do God's Gardeners say [in The Year of the Flood]?
Return yourself to the cycle of life. You got your life out of it;
you should give your life back.
So, the idea of a personal legacy doesn't interest
Not in that old Keatsian sense - you know, joining the
immortals. That stuff doesn't actually last, in geological time,
very long. The Pilgrim's Progress was once the second-most-read
book in the English language. Who has read it now, with the
exception of me?
I've read it, I have to say.
Have you read Part Two?
Christiana's journey? I have read it, yes.
Well, join the group of five!
Who or what inspires you or encourages you
Today? Probably my insatiable curiosity… If we had to pick a Greek
god or goddess I most identify with, I'm very much afraid that it
would be Hermes. Not Pallas Athene [the goddess of wisdom and
civilisation], sorry. Hermes is the god of the crossroads and
communication and the opener of doors, and I do have an insatiable
curiosity to see what's behind the next door.
To quote Scarlett O'Hara, tomorrow is another day - although I
prefer to think that today is another day…
And what, if anything, gives you hope for the
You know what? I think hope is another one of those things that's
built in. Unless you are severely depressed, you do have a
generally hopeful attitude when you get up in the morning: What's
going to happen today? That is why the early morning is such a
great time of day: it's new, it's fresh, there seems to be a space
in which there are lots of possibilities. We have inherited that
generally hopeful feeling, that sense of purposefulness, from
our ancestors - if they hadn't had it we wouldn't be here, because
they wouldn't have got up in the morning.
But if you're asking, 'To what shall we apply that
hopefulness?', that's a different question. I like to try to apply
my hopefulness to circumstances where something can, in fact, be
done to keep the planet habitable - because unless you have a
habitable planet, all of the other questions that you're asking
yourself are completely beside the point. Or (the way I like to put
it when I'm feeling very succinct) you can live three days without
water. Or (to be also very succinct) what produces the oxygen that
we breathe? What actually produces it? Green plants, and
particularly forests. So, cut down all the forests and what will
Nature can do very well without us, but we cannot do without