Margaret Atwood: Once in August is a documentary film made in 1984 by Michael Rubbo. In the early 80s Rubbo set about interviewing Canadian novelists for the National Film Board of Canada and Margaret Atwood is one in the series.
Atwood invited Rubbo to her summer home for the interview. The first thing that struck me was that I couldn’t think of a more different writer to me! Atwood lives in a quiet pastoral setting and is very connected to her family and the land. We see scenes from a country life; a log cabin on an island, mother and daughter swimming in the lake, her daughter calling the birds across the still water, baking pies in the kitchen. It might be an idyllic life for some, but would be sheer undiluted hell for me!
The documentary is unstructured and informal and mostly takes the form of conversations between Rubbo and Atwood. Rubbo admits that he is not a educated literary critic and so approaches the interview series as more of a reader. Atwood has a view of her own novels and characters that is almost incontrovertible. She listens patiently to Michael’s viewpoint but strongly disagrees at times. She knows her characters and their motivations and one gets the sense that she writes deliberately with a clear vision of what she wants to communicate and that his interpretations of her literature are often wrong in her mind.
They debate the biographical school of criticism in which Rubbo believes, i.e. that every writer is working in an autobiographical way and much is taken from their own lives, versus the craft of writing in which Atwood believes, i.e. that writers are creating from scratch and that it is work not therapy. She rejects the idea of the novelist as a tortured soul; for her it is a craft, a job. She writes the way she does because she is interested in it, not because she is trying to work out her own psychological issues.
Rubbo has a stubborn and naive sense of her work. There’s a push and pull between them and she tries to educate him in a gentle way but at times her frustration comes through. The most fascinating part of the film is when he turns the camera over to the Atwoods and they film themselves with no intrusion, the conversation becoming more scholarly and more revealing.
I’d love to have seen this as a conversation between a critic who was more educated about Atwood’s work and who could draw her out. She is a fiercely intelligent woman, very articulate with fluent fast speech, and is quietly self-assured. Having read and enjoyed many of her novels (in particular The Robber Bride and Alias Grace) I gained a new appreciation for this prolific and talented woman.