Diane talks with Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert in race and electoral politics.
A murderess goes on an Arctic cruise and finds her long-ago high school prom date on the same ship. He destroyed her life 50 years before. Now she has the chance to destroy his. That’s the title story in Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short fiction, “Stone Mattress.” The book is peppered with odd but believable characters whose lives often take bizarre turns. There’s a fantasy writer who survives an ice storm with the help of her dead husband, a man who finds the corpse of a bridegroom in a storage locker and a woman whose retirement home is under siege by a violent group trying to rid the world of old people. Please join us for a conversation with author Margaret Atwood.
- Margaret Atwood Conservationist and author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Her internationally best-selling novels include "The Handmaid's Tale," "Cat's Eye" and "The Blind Assassin," winner of 2000 Booker Prize.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted with permission from “Stone Mattress: Nine Tales” by Margaret Atwood. © 2014. Nan A. Talese. All Rights Reserved.
Read Margaret Atwood's Unpublished Poetry
“Newsstands blow up for no reason. Bookstores as well,” begins Margaret Atwood’s “Thriller Suite,” one of several unpublished poems she has released in a new series on Wattpad. Follow the link to read all of them.
Appearing serially for the first time on Wattpad , Margaret Atwood has gathered these new poems.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Margaret Atwood has a new collection of short fiction for the first time in nearly a decade. One reviewer called the stories wicked, each contains elements of darkness and playfulness in almost equal measure. A woman who's murdered several husbands now has the chance to knock off an old boyfriend as well. A young man writes a hit novel about a chopped off hand that terrorized the woman who jilted him.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd three lovers of the say poet meet up at his funeral. The book is titled, "Stone Mattress" and Booker Prize-winning author, Margaret Atwood joins me in the studio. I'm sure many of you are fans of Margaret Atwood's. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. How good to see you again.
MS. MARGARET ATWOODLovely to see you, Diane.
REHMMargaret Atwood, you must have had fun with these stories.
ATWOODI had wicked fun.
ATWOODVery wicked, yes. I saw -- I recently saw the movie, "Maleficent."
ATWOODDid you see that?
REHMNo, I haven't seen it.
ATWOODOh, I so identified.
REHMDid you really?
ATWOODIt was quite wonderful. Angelina Jolie flying around in the air. It was great. You have to see it.
REHMYou know, throughout this book, older women feature very strongly.
ATWOODSome older men, too.
REHMAnd some older men, but they are not as likeable as the older women.
ATWOODWell, opinions are divided on that, Diane. It kind of depends who's reading it, doesn't it?
REHMIt really does always.
ATWOODYeah, (word?) yeah.
REHMWould you read for us from the title story, "Stone Mattress"?
ATWOOD"Stone Mattress." And I really did start writing this on a cruise ship in the Arctic to amuse my fellow passengers. And the murder method really was thought up by my partner Graeme Gibson so you can see that I always have to be very, very nice to him. So this is "Stone Mattress."
ATWOOD"At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple. Take a breather. Do some inner accounting. She had worn skin. The Arctic suits here. There's something inherently calming in the vast cool sweeps of ice and rock and sea and sky, underserved by cities and highways and trees and the other distractions that clutter up the landscape to the south.
ATWOODAmong the clutter, she includes other people and by other people, she means men. She's had enough of men for awhile. She's made an inner memo to renounce flirtations and any consequences that might result from them. She doesn't need the cash. Not anymore. She's not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself. All she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her.
ATWOODSurely, she has at last achieved this modest goal. But old habits die hard and it's not long before she's casting an appraising eye over her fleece-clad fellow travelers dithering with their wheelie bags in the lobby of the First Night airport hotel. Passing over the women, she ear tags the male members of the flock. Some have females attached to them and she eliminates these on principal.
ATWOODWhy work harder than you need to? Prying a spouse loose can be arduous as she discovered via her first husband. Discarded wives stick like burs. It's the solitaries who interest her, the lurkers at the fringes. Some of these are too old for her purposes. She avoids eye contact with them. The ones who cherish the belief that there's life in the old dog yet, these are her game.
ATWOODNot that she'll do anything about it, she tells herself, but there's nothing wrong with a little warm-up practice, if only to demonstrate to herself that she can still knock one off if she wishes to. For that evening's meet and greet, she chooses her cream-colored pullover, perching the magnetic northward name tag just slightly too low on her left breast.
ATWOODThanks to Aquacise and core strength training, she's still in excellent shape for her age or indeed for any age, at least when fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring. She wouldn't want a chance a deck chair in bikini. Superficial puckering has set in despite her best efforts, which is one reason for selecting the Arctic over, say, the Caribbean. Her face is what it is and certainly the best that money can buy at this stage.
ATWOODWith a little bronzer and pale eye shadow and mascara and glimmer powder and low lighting, she can finesse 10 years. Though much is taken, much remains, she murmurs to her image in the mirror. Her third husband had been a serial quotation freak with a special penchant for Tennyson. Come into the garden, Maud, he'd been in the habit of saying just before bedtime. It had driven her mad at the time."
REHMWonderful. Just wonderful. But that woman eventually meets...
ATWOODDon't spoil -- yes, well, we know she's gonna kill somebody because it's in the first sentence. Yes.
REHMAnd she meets up with someone who has been part of her life in the past.
ATWOODIn a very, very negative way.
REHMIn a very, very negative way.
ATWOODVery, very negative way. So Graeme Gibson, when he was telling me how he would go about murdering somebody on a boat, you know...
REHMWell, is he the one who came up with -- how do you pronounce it, Stromatolite?
ATWOODNo. The Stromatolites are real and "Stone Mattress" is an exact translation of that term so Stroma from mattress and atolite from the same root that gives us lithograph, you know, stone, and they are fossils and they're 1.9 billion years old and they are the life form that made the oxygen that we're breathing today and that continue to make it. It's marine algae.
ATWOODSo they look like little cushions and if you cut them in four, you can see that you would have four very sharp-edged, heavy instruments. So one of these is, in fact, the murder weapon and I got to take it home with me. I asked the geologist whether I could. I did put the good-looking geologist with his flock of devotees into the story. He was very pleased. He's not vain.
ATWOODHe said, oh, Margaret, this is wonderful because finally geology is in a piece of fiction.
REHMWonderful. I must say, you are wearing a red poppy and I have a feeling I understand its significance. Talk about that.
ATWOODYeah, so all Canadians at this time year, you'll see a lot of red poppies in Canada because tomorrow is what we call Remembrance Day. So the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month marks the end of World War I and in World War I, Canadians went in in 1914 and lost a very large number of young men. And because we had the regimental system, all of the young men from the town or a region would go over the top and attack.
ATWOODAnd the casualties were enormous so people would wake up the next morning and they would find out that all of these young men had been killed so the poppy day, Remembrance Day, came into being because of a poem written by a Canadian, "In Flanders Fields." His name was John McCrae. And shortly after writing that poem, he himself was killed. So that's where we got the poppies and that’s why we do it.
ATWOODAnd there's always a big ceremony at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
REHMIsn't there also a huge artificial poppy display in London?
ATWOODThere is now a huge artificial poppy display in London, which is an art installation. You've probably seen pictures of it. It's like this river of red pouring out. And if you want to know more of poppies, there's a book, "Weeds," by a botanical writer in England and he explains that whenever earth is disturbed as it was very much by bombs and explosions in World War I, the next season, there's this amazing display of flowers.
ATWOODAnd it happened in World War II on the bomb sites in London. So "In Flanders fields, the poppies blow between the crosses row on row," it was true. This amazing sort of wave of poppies came up.
REHMAnd now, you have just understood another aspect of Margaret Atwood's mind, brain, breadth of thinking. She is a conservationist and author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Her internationally bestselling novels include "The Handmaid's Tale," "Cat's Eye," and "The Blind Assassin." In the year 2000, she was the winner of the Booker Prize. Now, a brand new collection of short stories, some of them quite linked together around a gentleman whose name is Gavin.
REHMAnd after we take a short break, I'll ask Margaret Atwood to tells us a little about Gavin. He's one of the characters in her nine tales that make up her new book, titled "Stone Mattress."
REHMAnd welcome back. My guest is Margaret Atwood, who just happens to be one of my personal favorite writers. She has a brand new collection of short stories. She calls them nine tales. And the title of the book is "Stone Mattress." You have Constance. She is the protagonist of the first story, "Alphinland." She's not treated very well by the literary community or by her early boyfriend, the poet Gavin Putnam. Tell us about "Alphinland.
ATWOODWell, "Alphinland" is a fantasy series, which has sense that time become very successful. But at the time when Gavin, Constance and Marjorie were young -- that would be in the early '60s -- nobody was thinking of fantasy as a serious thing at all. I mean, you were even hard put to admit that you were a reader of "Lord of the Rings." It had a certain literary flavor. You had to mention, you know, Scandinavia and mythology in the same breath.
ATWOODBut the other things were pretty sub-literary. However, Constance is writing them back in the early '60s as a way of making a bit more money.
ATWOODYeah, she and Gavin are living in one of those -- there wasn't any air-conditioning then. In one of those steamy rental, very small apartments. And she's working in fried chicken place and Gavin is a poet. So she's helping to support his poetry. And she firmly believes in his genius, and so does he.
REHMHe does and he does -- he's sort of tolerates her writing.
ATWOODWell, he -- they look down on it, all of the poets do, of course. Which they did and would and that's what it was like. So this is pretty much a description of Bohemia of that time, what with the folk singing, you know, out of coffee shops and night places and people coming through town singing folk songs and whatnot and writing poetry. And that was what they did. But they did not pay any serious attention to other genres.
REHMSo read for us from "Alphinland."
ATWOODYeah, so by this time, we see these people quite a lot older time. So Constance has since become pretty successful. And Gavin has done what poets did and do, which is he's gone off and taught for a while and now he's retired. And he has married, I think, and Reynolds is his third wife. He's married three of his students, one after the other. And now he's -- now he's got Reynolds, who is a lot younger than he is. And he is suffering for it. But I have to say I love Gavin. He's extremely…
ATWOODOh, as a character, yes. He's so grumpy.
ATWOODAnd in the head, out the mouth. He does not restrain himself. So "Reynolds bustles into the living room carrying two pillows. An indeterminate number of years ago, these two pillows, billowing upward from raised and circling arms like two, plump, inflatable breasts soft, but firm, would have suggested to Gavin the real breasts, equally soft, but firm that were hidden underneath. He might have hammered together a clever metaphor incorporating, for example, two sacks of feathers and by way of them, two sexually receptive chickens.
ATWOODOr possibly, because of the bounciness, the resilience, the rubberiness, two trampolines. Now, however, these pillows recall, in addition to the breasts, an over avant-garde production of Richard III they'd seen in a park the previous summer. Reynolds made them go. She said it was good for Gavin to get out of his rut and be in the outdoors and expose himself to new concepts. Then Gavin said he would rather just be in the outdoors and expose himself.
ATWOODAnd Rey nudged him playfully with her elbow and said, 'Bad Gavvy.' It was one of her kittenish tropes to pretend the Gavin was a dysfunctional pet. Not so far from the truth, he thinks bitterly. He hasn't yet taken to crapping on the carpet and destroying the furniture and whining for meals, but close. On their expedition to the park, Reynolds took a packsack with plastic sheet to sit on and a couple of car rugs in case Gavin got chilled.
ATWOODAnd two thermoses, one of hot cocoa and one containing vodka martinis. Her plan was transparent. If Gavin complained too much she would dose him with alcohol and cover him up with the car rugs and hope he'd go to sleep so she could immerse herself in the dapless bard. The plastic sheet was a good idea, as it had rained in the afternoon and the grass was damp. Secretly hoping for more rain so he could go home, Gavin settled himself onto the car rug and complained that his knees hurt and also he was hungry.
ATWOODReynolds had foreseen both of these areas of disgruntlement. Out came the RUB A535, with Antiphlogistine, one of Gavin's favorite examples of meaningless words. And a salmon salad sandwich. 'I can't read the program,' said Gavin, not that he wanted to. Rey handed him the flashlight and also a magnifier. She's up to most of his dodges. 'This is exciting,' she said in best Miss Sunshine voice. 'You are going to enjoy it.' Gavin had a twinge of remorse. She has such a touching belief, as in his innate capacity to enjoy himself.
ATWOOD'He could do it if he tried,' she claims. His problem is that he's too negative. They've had this conversation more than once. He'll reply that his problem is that the world reeks. So why doesn't she stop trying to fix him and concentrate on that. And she will reply that reekiness is in the nose of the sniffer or some other exercise in Cantium subjectivism. Not that she'd know Cantium subjectivism if she fell over it.
ATWOODAnd why doesn't he take up Buddhist meditation and Pilates. She's strongly urging Pilates. She's already lined up a girl Pilates instructor who's willing to give him private sessions, contrary to her usual practice, because she admires his work. This idea is dismaying. Having some estrogen-plumped babe a quarter of his age contort his stringy, knobbled limbs, while comparing the dashing protagonist of his earlier poems, replete with sexual alacrity and sardonic wit, to the atrophied bundle of twine and sticks he has become.
REHMLook on this picture, then on this. Why is Reynolds so key to hook him up to the Pilates torture apparatus and stretch him upon it until he snaps like an outworn rubber band? She wants to know if he's suffering. She wants to humiliate him and feel virtuous about it at the same time. 'Stop trying to pimp me out to all these groupies,' he tells her. 'Why don't you simply rope me into a chair and charge admission?'"
REHMOh, Margaret, they are wicked stories, truly. Margaret Atwood reading from her new collection of short stories, "Stone Mattress." Gavin must really have been quite something as a young man. Clearly, he has grown older. And in one of your stories it would seem that there is a group of individuals who wants to do away with older people.
ATWOODWell, needs to weed them out a bit. They're using up quite a lot of the taxpayer's money. So, yes, that would be the last story, called "Torching the Dusties." And in it, we have, we have a central character who has got Charles Bonnet's syndrome. You've probably read about that. People who are losing their vision quite frequently develop it. And you see little people. And they're stingily costumed, often in green.
ATWOODIt makes you wonder about where the myths about fairies and elves came from. They quite frequently danced or march. And they come in groups, but they don't pay any attention to you, they go about their marching and dancing. And if you talk to them they don't answer. They're just not really interested in you at all. But she has these and they appear from time to time. And she's really very interested in them. She would like them to respond.
ATWOODAnyway, there she is in the old -- in the retirement home. A very nice one. It's called Ambrosia Manor. And she has a friend who's name is Tobias, who has a shadowy past. He's from Europe and regales her with stories of his seductions as a youth. I don't know why, but a lot of men seem to like to do that. It's sort of like showing you their photo album or something. And so she listens to all this because in fact he's very useful.
ATWOODHe tells her -- he looks out the window and tells her what's happening. And one day sees this demonstration outside the old folks' home. And then they listen to the news and they hear that several establishments have been besieged and burnt down. And it is a movement of young people who are very annoyed that they don't have any jobs or money. And here are these people from the baby boomer generation, having accumulated quite a lot. So they -- they're going about getting rid of them.
ATWOODLuckily our central characters escape. But I think one of my -- one of the parts that would appeal to you is that there's a radio panel, of course, as there would be people discussing this. And they have a sociologist and they have an economist and they have -- and they're talking about it and why people might be doing this, but actually nobody's raising a finger. I'm sure this very familiar to you.
REHMNow, Margaret, do you think that with the growing elderly population, certainly in this country -- that percentage above 85 apparently growing more quickly than any other -- I don't know if the same is happening in Canada. Is…
ATWOODI think it's happening to some extent in the developed Western worlds. And, of course, and especially those who had the baby boom. Because that -- if you think of it as the bulge going through the snake, that bulge is now reaching that age. And, of course, they're going to vote for things that favor them. And they're not going to be very sympathetic to things that favor youth. But, of course, the people that are going to be paying the taxes to support all of this are younger people.
ATWOODSo think about that unbalance. And instead of worrying about older people and this and that we should worry about younger people and creating education and jobs for them because you don't really want a lot of very angry people under 30 figuring out that you're not doing a thing for them.
REHMSo do you regard your story as a metaphor for the way the younger generation is beginning to view the older people?
ATWOODI think it's a -- it opens the door to the way they're beginning to view a lot of things. So maybe people in the baby boomers -- and I'm not one of them because I'm older than that, but people in and around there should start thinking about how those younger people are viewing things and what sorts of consequences that might have for them.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. I'm sure many of you would prefer simply to listen to Margaret Atwood, but do join us with your questions, comments. Once again, that number, 800-433-8850. Here's a tweet from Lydia, who says, "Ask Margaret about her earlier days as a writer and moving more solidly into the sci-fi genre in more recent years."
ATWOODRight. Well, my very, very early days as a writer were in the sci-fi genre because in the '40s my -- I had an older brother. And he was actually a much more prolific writer than I was. And all of the stories that he wrote were set on other planets. They frequently involved wars. In fact, he would trade the colored pencils. He would get the red, the orange and the yellow to make all the explosions. And I would get the pink and the silver and the gold to make the princess outfits because he had no use for them.
REHMI see. I see.
ATWOODBut we had a -- we had these imaginary worlds, as kids do. And they were sci-fi. And remember when this was. It was in the '40s during the war, which was why there were so many wars. But it -- we also, of course, had the benefit of the bug-eyed monster, space odyssey kin do sci-fi that was in pulp magazines in the '30s. And then when I was a teenager along came Ray Bradbury, whom I read as soon as he would publish one of these books.
ATWOODAnd John Wyndham was also very active at that time. And if you look at my Twitter feed you'll see that I've just tweeted a virtual sci-fi festival that's happening in England in connection with the British Film Institute, Sci-Fi Movie Retrospective. And the topic is going to be the interaction between literature and films. And there are, of course, a lot of classic, classic films. A number of them I saw when they came out.
ATWOODSo this is something I've been interested in for a very, very long time. And so it's not that recent. As I started I wrote some pretty odd stories, it's just that they never got published, Diane.
REHMHere's the other part of that. When you came in, I mentioned to you -- you asked me how I was. And I told you I was well, but that I had lost my husband earlier this year and you said to me, "Is he talking to you?" First question out of your mouth, "Is he talking to you?" And I said, "Well, yes. We talk quite a lot." I talk to him. He talks with me. He gives me thoughts. He offers advice. He offers counseling as he had always done. And, of course, in your first story -- which we'll get you to read a bit of after the break -- you have Constance, who has been left a widow and finds herself in the midst of a terrible ice storm.
REHMAnd who then receives guidance from her husband. Funny how all these connections you are able to make throughout these stories. Margaret Atwood. Her latest collection is called "Stone Mattress: Nine Tales." And after a short break we'll be back with your calls, your thoughts. Stay with us.
REHMAnd just before the break, Margaret Atwood who's written a new collection of nine tales titled "Stone Mattress", she and I were talking about her first story in the collection where a widow named Constance who actually has become quite successful at writing science fiction, she is caught in her house in the midst of an ice storm. She's recently widowed and what happens, Margaret?
ATWOODWell, what happens is that she continues -- well, I'm going to tell you but I'm also going to tell you that this is normal. It happens to a lot of people.
REHMI'm glad to know that.
ATWOODAnd there's a book about it called "The Third Man Syndrome" by a man called John Geiger. And it's people who hear an entity helping them out and telling them things. So John Geiger "The Third Man Syndrome," people, for instance, in lifeboats or lost in the mountains. You know, this has been well-documented, this phenomenon. And people have lost their spouses, also happens.
ATWOODSo this ice storm, I really went through and I did go and get the kitty litter and put it on the ice on the front steps. And it's impossible to get off. It stays for months and months.
ATWOODAnyway, here we go. "Constance turns off the TV. She crosses the room, dims the lamp then sits beside the front window starting out into the street-light illuminated darkness watching the world turn to diamonds. Branches, rooftops, hydro lines, all glittering and sparkling. 'Alphinland,' she's says out loud. 'You'll need salt,' says Ewan, right in her ear. The first time he spoke to her it startled and even alarmed her, Ewan having been no longer in a tangibly living condition for at least four days. But now she's more relaxed about him.
ATWOODUnpredictable though he is, it's wonderful to hear his voice, even if she can't depend on having any sort of a conversation with him. His interventions tend to be one-sided. If she answers him he doesn't often answer back, but it was always more or less like that between them. She hadn't known what to do with his clothes afterwards. At first she left them hanging in the closet but it was too upsetting to open the door and see the jackets and suits arranged on their hangers waiting mutely for Ewan's body to be slipped inside them so they could be taken for a walk.
ATWOODThe tweeds, the woolen sweaters, the plaid work shirts, she couldn't give them away to the poor, which would've been the sensible thing. She couldn't throw them out. That would've been no only wasteful, but too abrupt like ripping off a bandage. So she'd folded them up and just stored them away in a trunk on the third floor with mothballs. That's fine in the daytime. Ewan doesn't seem to mind and his voice, when it turns up, is firm and cheerful. A striding voice showing the way, and extended finger voice pointing, go here, buy this, do that. A slightly mocking voice, teasing, making light. That was often his manner towards her before he became ill.
ATWOODAt night however, things got more complex. There have been bad dreams sobbing from inside the trunk, mournful complaints, pleas to be let out. Strange men appearing at the front door with all the promises of being Ewan but who were not. Instead they're menacing with black trench coats. They demand some garbled thing that Constance can't make out, or worse, they insist on seeing Ewan, shouldering their way past her, their intentions clearly murderous.
ATWOODEwan's not home, she'll plead despite the muted cries for help coming from the trunk on the third floor. As they begin to trample up the stairs she wakes up. She's considered sleeping pills, though she knows they're addictive and lead to insomnia. Maybe she ought to sell the house and move to a condo.
ATWOODThat notion was being pushed at the time of the funeral by the boys who were not boys anymore and who live in cities in New Zealand and France, too conveniently far for them to visit her much. They'd been backed up in spades by their brisk but tactful and professionally accomplished wives, the plastic surgeon and the chartered accountant. So it was four against one but Constance stood firm. She can't abandon the house because Ewan is in it, though she'd been smart enough not to tell them about that.
ATWOODThe boys thought she was slightly borderline anyway because of Elfin land. Though once such an enterprise makes a lot of money, the whiff of nuttiness around it tends to evaporate."
REHMSo Ewan is doing lots of talking to Constance.
ATWOODHe's very helpful.
REHMHe's very helpful.
ATWOODHe tells her to go out and get some kitty litter because the salt's all used up.
ATWOODAnd he tells her not to forget the flashlight, you know, things that you would want to be reminded of.
REHMAbsolutely. Here's a tweet from Johnny that says, "Diane, you must ask Margaret Atwood about her salacious Twitter affair with Rob Delaney.
ATWOODWell now, Rob Delaney is a standup comic who has also written a memoir which is pretty hair-raising because he went through some hard times. So he's basically picked me up on Twitter. He's a reader and it seems that he likes my work a lot. So it was a Twitter pickup. And then the Rob Delaney fans started pushing the notion that we should get a room. And I said, what's the matter with the dumpster where we usually meet? So things went on like that.
ATWOODAnd thrill of thrills I did a show in London, England at the Apple Theater there right, you know, the center of London, and Rob was there. So he was part of the Apple show. We had an interchange there. And I have to tell you, he's awfully tall.
ATWOODSo we did get a picture together in which he had to crouch a bit and I had to stand very, very tall indeed, just...
REHMYou think he's as much as 6'8".
ATWOODI wouldn't put it past him.
ATWOODHe's extremely tall.
REHMHow fun for you.
ATWOODIt was a lot of fun.
REHMI should say.
ATWOODHe's a really good guy, I have to say.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. Let's go first to Judy in Richmond, Va. Hi, you're on the air.
JUDYHi. I enjoyed your reading just now. That was wonderful. I came in in the middle of the program so I may have misunderstood, and I apologize if I did, but the part I can in on was I think you were saying that the baby boomers, you know, were going to vote and act in their own interest and that would be very bad for youth. But I think it misses the point that we, as a generation, have been extremely concerned with our children, putting our kids first more so than my parents did, you know. That's been the culture.
JUDYAnd that we're still extremely concerned with our kids who are young. They're in their late 20s or their 30s. And they're struggling in this economy and they don't have some of the advantages that we had. Jobs are different now. Work weeks are longer. Pay is stagnant. So we're actually helping them and I can't imagine a time when we won't put them at least equal with us, if not before ourselves. We're trying to arrange things so that, you know, they don't have to help us do too much but we're -- they're certainly front and center. We have -- I can't see that that would change so I kind of object to that line of thinking.
REHMAll right. Judy, thank you.
ATWOODSo I think what you say is perfectly correct of people with a certain income and disposable income. But move down a little and also move down a little in the age group. So there's a boom, a bust and an echo. The baby boomers are the big boom. Then after that the birthrate fell and then there was a miniboom. So think of the generation right after yours who are already feeling the pinch and how much disposable income have they got to help their kids? And then think of people without any disposable income.
ATWOODSo that's, I think, what you say about your group is true and I know a lot of people like that. But as somebody said to me the other day, you're not -- you should never regard yourself as the sample because there are a lot of other people in the world who aren't like you.
REHMAll right. To Paul in Orange Park, Fla. Hi, you're on the air.
PAULGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Ms. Atwood.
PAULExcellent program you've got on here.
PAULI don't know if you've seen the picture that was posted on the Diane Rehm website of you. I assume you have. If not, you should look at it. You know, the beautiful purple -- light purple felt hat and a swirly scarf and a pink blouse. And it's quite a work of art.
ATWOODWell, thank you. I posted another picture on Diane's show which is quite different.
REHMGo ahead, sir.
PAULI'm 64. I'm kind of in the middle of the bloom. And, you know, maybe I was oblivious to this for 40 years or so of my life, but it seems to me that the rate of suicide has increased. And I apologize for not hearing the first part of the program, so if I'm being repetitive forgive me. But it seems like the rate of suicide has increased. And my theory is that the baby boomers know there's not going to be enough money. I mean, congress is already talking about cutting Medicare and Medicaid and, you know, a lot of other programs that we paid through through our life. And...
REHMSo your question, sir?
PAULMy question is, do you think the increase in the rate of suicide is related to the awareness of the baby boomers diminishing resources?
ATWOODNo, I don't know because I don't know in what age group that increase is happening. So you'd have to look at the statistics on that. And also sometimes it's an increase in reporting rather than an actual increase in suicide. For years and years and years it was considered a disgrace in a family if somebody committed suicide. And they would really cover it up so that you would see, died of natural causes or you would see died suddenly at home. And people just weren't being forthright about that. So I think they are being more forthright now.
ATWOODBut there's also quite a lot of suicides being reported in quite younger demographics, and particularly in parts of the communities that feel really marginalized. So we'd have to look and see -- I think there's always -- it's either a depression factor or it's economic.
REHMMargaret Atwood. Her new collection of short stories is titled "Stone Mattress," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And here's a question from Alexandra in Waltham, Mass. "Why the return to short stories now, or rather why the hiatus since "Moral Disorder?" For some of us your short stories are the most delicious of all."
ATWOODWell, thank you very much. I never can predict what I'm going to be writing next but sometimes I don't write short stories because something else is front and center, and that has been the case over that period of time. But I always seem to return to them. And Canada has a high rate of production of short story writers partly because it was so freaking hard to get novels published in the '60s. People were writing stories.
ATWOODAnd one of the first big publishers for people my generation in Canada was a man who ran a radio show. It was called Anthology. And for people like myself and Alice Monroe, that man called Bob Weaver was the first person who, quotation marks, "published" us and actually paid us. That was a big deal. Not much but he paid us.
REHMNow I wonder whether in Canadian society, is there a certain amount or a great deal of resentment against older people, a feeling that they're stealing jobs that younger people could do well at?
ATWOODNot as much as here, I would say. And that's partly because Canada still has a more built-out social safety net so people are less likely to feel -- I don't know, maybe I'm quite wrong about this -- what about some Canadian listeners, they're sure to set me straight -- but I don't think as much. And I also think that families tend to be inter-generationally cohesive, particularly in places like the Maritimes. So, I don't know. I mean, it's -- it would be an interesting study for somebody to do.
REHMYou and I are both now in our 70s. Do you feel that as a woman you're treated any differently now than you were when you were in your 50s or even 60s?
ATWOODWell, Diane, people are very nice about putting my bag in the overhead on the airplane.
REHMMe too. Me too.
ATWOODAnd I'm happy about that...
REHMYeah, me too.
ATWOOD...because I'm short, Diane. And before that time I would have to climb up on the seat. You can break your neck that way.
ATWOODSo, yes, that's very nice. Again, I think we went through several turns of the wheel on manners of it long ago, you know, open the door for a woman, blah, blah. Then along came, what do you think I am, a weakling? I open my own door and people are rather rude about it. And then we had a period when everybody was opening the door for everybody. And I think that's very nice. Canadians are door-openers. They often frequently open doors. I'm not against manners. I think there's a lot to be said for manners. And if somebody offers to put my bag in the overhead, I say, thank you very much.
REHMAnd that's about it as far as age is concerned?
ATWOODWell, no, no. There's a lot more to be said. I think that as writers or as female artists of any kind, and I was just reading a book which mentioned this and I think it's true, and the book is called "The Blazing World" and it's by Siri Hustvedt. And it's got an older female artist in it. And at what point she says, it seems that older -- that women artists are taken more seriously the older they get. And it really helps if you're dead. That's my footnote. But it's not a sacrifice I'm prepared to make yet.
REHMMargaret Atwood. Her nine tales all in her new book titled "Stone Mattress." Margaret Atwood, what a delight to talk with you.
ATWOODAnd what a delight to talk with you. And I have to say you're looking fabulous.
REHMThank you so much. And you.
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