Past regrets and stony truths about the present — sometimes leading even to murder — underlie many of the stories in “Stone Mattress: Nine Tales” (Nan A. Talese, $25.95), the latest offering from the Booker Prize-winning Margaret Atwood. She spoke from her office in Toronto.
There’s a lot of darkness in this collection — despite its occasional humor.
There’s darkness in every book that has a narrative thrust, because that is the nature of narrative. Let me put it to you this way: You’re on a long bus trip. Behind you, there’s a stranger who pulls out a book of family photographs and starts telling you about their trip to Paris, during which nothing noteworthy happens, but they have a lot of pictures of themselves standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. How long before you say, “Get to the point”? We assume that if someone is telling a story, something has to happen. Why is there so much darkness in Beatrice Potter? It’s very dark, but it’s very gripping.
At the end of this book, you write about these nine pieces being tales, not stories.
In fairy tales, you can have a talking wolf. But in social realism, if somebody encounters a talking wolf, they’re probably on drugs. Or asleep. So mine are sort of a blend. It’s up to you to decide whether or not Charis’s dog is really an incarnation of her dead friend.
Your characters in these stories are often haunted by their past. Do you think the past isn’t another country?
They do things differently there? It’s certainly another time and place. I think it depends on how much you have to explain yourself. I’ve embarked on an interesting project with the library in Oslo, Norway: the Future Library project. They’re inviting writers to submit a manuscript, which will go into a sealed box and won’t be opened for 100 years. So it’s a very interesting conundrum, because what can you write that’s going to be understandable in 100 years? You don’t know what will have changed.
Your depiction of artists and writers in 1960s Toronto is extremely unromanticized.
People romanticize things in which they usually weren’t present themselves. So when people were romanticizing the life of knight-errants in Middle English literature, for example, the life of knight-errantry was already gone. The people romanticizing World War II weren’t there.
Do you think it was a more fruitful time for young writers?
There was a very different attitude. Nobody thought they would make any money. In 1955 in Canada, if you announced you were going to be a writer, people just basically thought you were insane. If you wanted to do a little magazine, it meant either doing it on a mimeograph sheet or on a flatbed press, hand-setting the type, which is what I did with my first book of poetry. We went into bookstores and asked them to carry it, and they said “Yes.” That would never happen now. It would screw up their online systems. Now you publish it on a Web site, but then, how do you publicize it? It’s always the same problem.
Burns’s collection of stories, “The Missing Woman,” will be published in April.