Where Voices Cross

Rosemary Sullivan dances her way through the art of biography with The Red Shoes, a look at the early years of the life of Margaret Atwood.

Christmas, 1998 / No. 2
Photograph by Aaron Hawco
Aaron Hawco

Margaret Atwood is the only person I have ever seen make Pamela Wallin visibly uncomfortable. Not long ago, Atwood was a guest on Wallin’s self-titled Newsworld talk show, promoting her then-new book, Alias Grace. When Wallin asked Atwood what she thought of the real-life Grace Marks, Atwood fixed her with a piercing stare and said something along the lines of, “If you’d read the book you would know what I think of Grace Marks.”

That somewhat cold, condescending figure is perhaps whom we usually think of as Margaret Atwood. We accept the persona so often made fun of in Frank magazine and we get used to seeing Atwood collect Giller Prizes and Governor General’s awards with each new book, so much to the point that it becomes hard to imagine her as anything but a machine churning out critically acclaimed best-sellers.

Atwood is obviously intensely private, shielding her home life with a public facade. As one of the nation’s cultural icons, she is constantly under scrutiny: while daily newspaper and television reviewers fawn over her (as they do with any established Canadian writer), members of the young literary community tend to see her as head of the old guard of Canadian fiction.

For most, this scrutiny, fawning, and criticism would make the act of writing about Atwood seem a daunting task. Nonetheless, it is a task decorated Canadian biographer Rosemary Sullivan was willing to take, resulting in her recently released biography on the Annex-based author, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out.

Sullivan is no beginner when it comes to the art of biography, or writing in general for that matter. Her first biographical outing, By Heart: Elizabeth Smart/A Life, recounted the life of the Canadian author most famous for her work At Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Sullivan won the Governor General’s non-fiction award for her next biography, Shadow Maker, focusing on the late Sussex-Ulster poet Gwendolyn MacEwen. Sullivan’s other works include two books of poetry, a literary study of Theodore Roethke, and several anthologies featuring stories and poetry by Canadian women writers.

Oddly, Sullivan has been questioned on her supposed attachment to self-destructive, masochistic women: Smart had followed romantic obsession; MacEwen had creative drive, but part of that drive—the search for the perfect muse—tore her apart. Almost in answer to her previous subjects, Sullivan turned to Atwood, a woman who had succeeded in her goals.

As the title suggests, The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out gives great weight to the importance of Atwood’s childhood; one spent with a somewhat eccentric family in the Canadian woods. Sullivan continues to follow Atwood through her education at Victoria University at the University of Toronto, where she counted Northrop Frye as one of her instructors, and then on to Harvard where the question of Canadian identity began to mould Atwood’s way of thinking and writing. Sullivan follows Atwood as far as the late nineteen-seventies, when she had clearly become a strong force within the literary world. The Red Shoes does not continue past this point, focusing on the building of Atwood’s career rather than her later success.

“I thought it would be fun to write about someone who had pulled it off. And I also thought it would be really challenging to write about someone who could talk back,” Sullivan says on her approach to The Red Shoes. “In the course of writing about Margaret Atwood, the really deep, constraining factor was the discovery that I wanted to make sure that I never spoke for her. If you say to me, ‘Does Margaret Atwood like the colour blue? ’ I say, ‘Ask Margaret Atwood.’”

Ironically, The Red Shoes began to take form during Sullivan’s research for Shadow Maker. In the course of writing the book, Sullivan had long conversations with Atwood, who had been a friend of MacEwen, during which time the two discussed the nature of female creativity and the elusive search for a muse. At that time, Atwood searched through her hall closet looking for letters sent to her by MacEwen. Sullivan was struck that, while filing through MacEwen’s letters, Atwood was torn as to whether to give such personal items to Sullivan, only to decide that MacEwen would have thought it appropriate.

“That issue of female creativity came up in my discussions with Margaret Atwood about Gwen. We sat down and talked about what is the muse for a woman and how difficult it was to find a version of yourself in the sixties. It was that conversation that led me to want to write The Red Shoes,” Sullivan says. “I thought, that’s really interesting and stuff we need to know. I think if I hadn’t had that conversation with Margaret I might not have decided to go on with this.”

This examination of female creativity and the drive to write is what makes Sullivan’s biographies most interesting; in the course of reconstructing a life she also tackles life’s philosophical issues. Where many biographies consist only of tangible life detail, Sullivan explores such issues as they enter the lives of her subjects.

“The drive to write is no mystery. It’s like any art; if you can get far enough, if you’re not frustrated early, it’s the most interesting thing you can do because it’s an intelligent form of play. With Gwen, what I wanted to make clear in that book is that writing isn’t just a self-expression, it’s a search, it’s discovery. I committed myself to this notion that writing is not something hived off from life, it is life.”

Placing art within the context of life is central to The Red Shoes, which may seem obvious, given that Atwood is often considered to be a cultural critic and satirist. But Sullivan delves into the issue of what it is to be a contemporary artist, following the path of Atwood’s career instead of exploring her personal life. And although Sullivan did not have access to Atwood’s journals or personal letters, The Red Shoes does offer some unusual tidbits not widely known—Atwood is apparently excellent at reading horoscopes and has a keen interest in witchcraft.

Sullivan’s approach takes a successful writer and allows for an examination of the course of her career and the development of a Canadian literary community as well. One of the integral issues in the book is the following of Atwood as a female writer starting out in a Canadian literary community where machismo was rampant. In her early visits to the Bohemian Embassy (a downtown Toronto coffeehouse where reading and musical performances were held) a young Atwood listened to Milton Acorn bluster that to be a poet you had to work as a truck driver first. The implication was that, as a woman, she could serve only as a muse. But Atwood was single-minded about her work; the poetry came first—a dedication accepted in men but seen as calculating in women. At one time, Al Purdy said there was something cold at the core of Atwood. As Sullivan points out, that was the romanticizing of women in the arts coming to the fore.

“Al Purdy has been very single-minded about his writing. And indeed, domestic life has not been central to Al Purdy, it has been sacrificed because, as for many male writers, the poetry came first. And when you found the same impulse in a woman it was considered cold.”

Gwendolyn MacEwen had been subjected to this myth as well. As a young woman she married Milton Acorn, but left him after a few months because of her commitment to writing and her disinterest in filling the role of muse/caregiver to him. Acorn carried a great amount of animosity towards MacEwen, so much so that when he died she was reluctant to read at his memorial, feeling the writing community saw her as a woman who had used him to promote herself.

The Red Shoes works almost as a counterpoint to Shadow Maker, and Atwood as counterpoint to MacEwen. MacEwen fell into the “romantic” notion of the artist—a woman tormented by her childhood, who died an alcoholic, almost in poverty and remained relatively unknown in her own country, despite producing twenty books of poetry. Atwood, on the other hand, is internationally renowned, obviously financially stable (rumours circulated that the fee for film rights to Alias Grace were over one million dollars) and by all accounts she lives a very down-to-earth life. Atwood has rejected the stereotype of the suffering artist, as is evident in a letter Sullivan quotes from Atwood to a friend:

“Nice girls get married and have kids, they don’t write poems. Therefore if you write poems, you aren’t a nice girl and deserve to be punished. There’s another version of that: artists suffer….But basically I don’t like suffering very much. So I evolved a rationale that permits less of it.”

For Sullivan, part of the point of writing The Red Shoes was to reject that myth as well. “We have a very romanticized version of the artist, that the artist is someone alone in an attic, following her genius, and it usually leads them in destructive directions. Why do we consider that artists must suffer? I had somebody say, ‘But what price did Atwood pay? ’ and I wanted to say, ‘What cost did you want her to pay? ’ The work itself is hard enough. This model of the artist suffering means they’re never supposed to live from their work. You don’t pay them because they have to suffer. What lawyer has to moonlight as a lawyer? ”

With The Red Shoes, her third biography in eight years, Sullivan is clearly having fun with the form. She notes that with By Heart she situated herself as an omniscient narrator, because, although she had known Elizabeth Smart in the later years of her life, she had to reconstruct the seventy years prior. It was in writing By Heart that Sullivan fell in love with the form of biography, feeling the complexity and texture of life come together so suddenly. She was also fascinated with the discovery that very little in one’s life is ever lost—answers to any question can usually be found. In writing about Smart, part of the joy for Sullivan was discovering that the crazy stories Smart had told her were true, including taking her children across the U.S.-Canada border by pretending they were royalty.

As with Smart, Sullivan had been friends with Gwendolyn MacEwen. One would expect that their relationship would have formed through Toronto literary circles but instead they met through the men in their lives. Sullivan’s partner of almost two decades played in a band with MacEwen’s then-husband, Nikos Tsingos. The band played at Greek restaurants along the Danforth and Sullivan spent many nights listening to the band and talking with MacEwen. Sullivan says that MacEwen was a bit suspicious of her at first, thinking of her only as an academic (Sullivan currently teaches English at the University of Toronto).

After MacEwen’s death and after writing about Smart, Sullivan decided to write about someone she knew to be filled with a creative spirit and someone who had managed to produce a large volume of work over thirty years but still remained relatively unknown in her own country.

Serendipitously, when the author started research for Shadow Maker, she found that MacEwen had left her papers and notebooks with the instructions that they be given to her biographer. With that, Sullivan felt as though she had MacEwen’s permission, or even blessing, to complete the book. Shadow Maker was an unqualified success, winning the non-fiction Governor General’s Literary Award that year. (Although, it’s sad to note that, while researching this article, I searched numerous Annex bookstores for any book of MacEwen’s and came up empty-handed each time.)

Because Sullivan had known MacEwen for a significant period of time, her approach to Shadow Maker was somewhat different than her approach to By Heart. Throughout the book, Sullivan’s own voice often enters the story, as if to remind the reader that she is putting the puzzle together. The book includes several passages in which Sullivan discusses the trail of research she is following; looking up names in school registries and discussing how she picked the photographs. Sullivan denies following any sort of post-modern discipline in writing biography. Including herself in the book is far more personal than theoretical, although she quickly points out that “this issue of truth is exaggerated in biography in the sense that we don’t really believe in truth, there isn’t really one truth.”

If anything, the switch from omniscient narrator in By Heart to post-modern “I” in Shadow Maker could be attributed to an incident that happened when Sullivan was promoting her first biography. In following Smart’s life, Sullivan recounted a time when she was caring for four children in Ireland in absolute poverty because her lover, George Barker, had left them and taken all of their money. While under such strain Smart hit one of the children when he was misbehaving—an act which apparently shocked Smart, who was known for being a somewhat over-indulgent mother.

During an interview for the book, a journalist told Sullivan he had quite liked Elizabeth Smart until he found out she had beaten her children—a comment that surprised Sullivan but also reinforced the realization of how much responsibility she carried as a biographer.

“It made me very, very aware that you have an enormous responsibility as a biographer when you are talking about other lives—not just the subject, but the people who surround the subject. So the intrusion of my voice as biographer saying, I can know this, this is my speculation, or I can’t know that, seemed to be necessary to get the information across the way I wanted to,” she explains. “I do feel that there is a certain slipperiness to biography. Biographies make enormous speculations about people who aren’t there. I actually think I was pretty careful to resist that impulse in my books. I don’t say categorically that this happened or this happened unless I knew it happened.”

With The Red Shoes, Sullivan seems to be moving away from conventional biography even more. Instead of trying to recreate Atwood’s life, Sullivan specifically formed a structure around Atwood’s childhood and the route she took in becoming a writer. As Sullivan sees it, she has become “the place where voices cross,” as she was careful not to make any assumptions that she somehow knows the inner life of Margaret Atwood.

“My function was to record these voices and speculate about the bottom line with questions like, ‘what shapes the imagination of a child,’ ‘what does a family do in terms of one’s confidence,’ ‘how does one deal with the fear of failure as a writer? ’ All those things were the background questions rather than, ‘what does she think about this? ’ I’m not sitting here saying I’m going to give you the whole story about Margaret Atwood. It’s not Margaret Atwood: The Life. I’m exploring my obsessions which have to deal with the nature of the artist and what writing is.”

It is the building of a career and the desire to write that Sullivan is so obviously entranced by.

“To me the drama of beginning is always interesting. The drama of success is harder to write. I decided early that I wanted to frame the book in terms of the story of the movie The Red Shoes. The point of that was this idea that you couldn’t be an artist and a woman without somehow violating the code of art,” Sullivan explains. “One reviewer said The Red Shoes has nothing to do with Margaret Atwood. I think that misses the point. She started out like many women of her generation, thinking if you want to be an artist you have to abdicate from conventional life, so I wanted to pull you through to the point where she actually pulls it off.”