In conversation with Margaret Atwood

In anticipation of her sold-out Beatty Memorial Lecture on Oct. 27, legendary novelist Margaret Atwood spoke with the McGill Reporter about the bird population crisis, cats and her new comic book series.
/ Photo: Jean Malek
On Oct. 27, celebrated author Margaret Atwood will give a lecture titled “Environmental Crisis and the Humanities.” / Photo: Jean Malek

By James Martin

On Thursday, Oct. 27, Margaret Atwood will give the sold-out 2016 Beatty Memorial Lecture in Pollack Hall. Her topic will be “Environmental Crisis and the Humanities.” In addition to being a bestselling, award-winning novelist – her honors include the Booker Prize and two Governor General’s Awards – Atwood is a longtime environmental advocate. Her activism frequently informs her art. Her “MaddAddam” dystopian trilogy, for example, explores a world in which most of humankind has been wiped out by natural disaster. Atwood’s latest project is a comic book collaboration with artist Johnnie Christmas and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. Angel Catbird is a superhero fantasy with a real-world message: The world’s bird populations are in grave decline and humans—and, often, our pets—are to blame. (Even though Canadian strays kill some 120 million birds each year, our domesticated felines cause an estimated 80 million additional bird deaths.) The annual Beatty Memorial Lecture is a presentation of McGill’s Office of the Vice-Principal of Research and Innovation. In advance of her lecture, Atwood spoke with the McGill Reporter.

Your latest novel, Hag-Seed, reworks Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there’s a bit of a trend of literary writers reimagining classic superheroes (e.g., Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther, Jonathan Lethem doing Omega the Unknown). Is there an established comics character you’d like to tackle?

It’s not that I suddenly came to comics. I’m an older consumer of comics and my history with them goes much further back than most of the people who read them today because they’re not that old. So it wasn’t too much of a stretch to write a professional one. But, at heart, this is a bird conservation project I’m doing in parallel with Nature Canada. The thing about Angel Catbird is it addresses itself to a very particular and delicate problem, so a comic book is the best way to do that in my opinion. Otherwise, I would not be writing a comic book.

So you’re not itching to reboot Little Lulu?

No, it was very well done the first time.

Or write a few issues of Spider-Man?

No, I think maybe not.

So why is a comic book the best medium for what you want to say about bird conservation?

Because basically you can put things in pretty simple terms but in an exciting narrative form that people find entertaining. It is the old Greek conundrum: should literature or art of any kind be instructional or should it be entertaining? And the answer has always been both. Comics are a tried and true form for conveying certain kinds of narratives. In the ‘40s, it was war comics. Wonder Woman started as a Nazi fighter, and turned into the most successful of a whole string of Nazi fighters, like Captain America – she was the one that was most followed. So comics have always been, for quite a long time, a way of inserting one’s message into popular discourse and opening conversations. And the conversation about cats is one that really needs to happen.

The way you present that conversation in the comic, it’s not anti-cat, either. It’s about care and responsibility.

I thought we might get some pushback from people saying we hate kitty-cats, but you can’t do that with Angel Catbird because it’s so cat friendly. If you want your kitty to live a long and healthy life, you should be aware of some of those things that we have put in the comic. For instance, if a cat goes missing you have a five per cent chance of getting it back. And there are people who go around at night and pick up cat corpses and cats that have been hit by cars – cats are not as smart about cars as you’d think, especially as they get older. We get all the science [used in the comic] from Nature Canada. Their website, has a lot of useful stuff and they run a twitter account called @SafeCatSafeBird. They also do community outreach and education projects, but they’re in parallel with us. They do not give us any money; we are self-standing as a comic.

In the introduction, you write about owning cats for most of your adult life…

I was a cat person for thousands of years and the only reason I don’t have one now is that I would fall over it on the stairs. The cat would probably fair better than I.

…how long ago did you become aware of the role that cat ownership plays in the decline of the world bird population?

Not all that long ago. We’ve worked for about 10 years with BirdLife International, which is the largest global bird organization. It’s a ground-up organization that takes direction from its member organizations, which are 120 in number, from that many countries. It gives you a very good overview of what’s happening around the world and they have the red list of endangered species. We’re involved with a bird-monitoring station called the Pelee Island Bird Observatory [in Ontario] – that’s the micro, and BirdLife is the macro. Between the two of them, you get a pretty good idea of what we think is going on.

Cats are only one factor. Habitat loss is big. Poisoning is big, whether poisoning of the birds themselves or poisoning of their food. And the other one is glass window strikes and lighted high-rises during migration – those kill a lot of birds. So, birds are in decline and that’s going to be bad for Canada. Who weeds the boreal forest? Migratory birds. And the more insect infestations you have, the more likely you are to get forest fires, and the more forest fires you have, not only does it affect business and income – forestry – it pours a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Everything’s related. Not incidentally, restoration of seabird colonies creates more fish.

But don’t the birds eat the fish? Wouldn’t more birds mean less fish?

If you restore offshore seabird colonies, of which there’s been a major push to do – if you want to read about that, it’s in a book [by William Stolzenburg] called Rat Island – you will find that the fish come back. Why is that? It’s because the nutrients are restored to the water by the birds. In two words: bird poo! In a word: poo.

So can we expect to see bird poo in upcoming issues of Angel Catbird?

Volume two is coming in February and volume three is coming in July. We’re putting some of those bird-related facts into the comic. Including poo.