Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.
See our complete list of conversations, including:
Thick Skin, where authors talk about negative reviews, from both critics and readers
Pixelated, the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined author chat
A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books
The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the marketplace
Episode VI: "Terrifyingly possible"
In this installment, Alexis M. Smith talks about the influence of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing.
Today I’m with Alexis M. Smith, a writer—her debut, Glaciers, a novel, came out in 2012 from Tin House, and her second book, Marrow Island, just came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book zeroes in on the aftermath of natural destruction, bringing to life the sort of real life West Coast disaster scenario that Kathryn Schulz wrote about in the New Yorker (“The Really Big One”, 7/20/15). Our hero here is Lucie Bowen, twenty years out of a tragedy that took her island hometown, her father, and her way of life. News comes that the island is now habitable again, but upon returning, Lucie finds that providence rarely comes unalloyed. We’ll talk more about the book in a bit, but through the lens of this conversation’s topic: Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing. When did you first come upon Atwood as a reader?
I was an aspiring writer and young feminist at thirteen. I read in Sassy Magazine that all women should read The Handmaid’s Tale. Or maybe it was all feminists should read it. In any case, I took the bus downtown to the Seattle Public Library and checked out a copy. And it blew my teenage mind.
What was the effect?
I don't think I had ever read speculative fiction before. So, as a writer it opened my mind to the idea that you could project into the near future. The strong female voice, the politics, the world Atwood evoked—terrifyingly possible, even then—all of it. I couldn't put the book down. There's a snapshot of me on the Fourth of July, brow furrowed, on the couch, reading this book while my family grilled in the back yard. I wouldn't stop reading for the party. It meant so much to me to read a story about a woman whose control of her body has been taken away. Looking back, I think being an adolescent girl really tuned me in to the horror.
It sounds like the not-quite-dissonance, not-quite-resonance that Atwood's brand of horror/sci-fi develops with reality was matched by the genre's relationship with what it felt to be a teenage girl in a world that put the female voice in the minority. Hot? Cold?
That's accurate, I think. I was becoming political, and realizing how politicized the female body is. I had already been molested by a family member at that point, so I already knew what it felt like to have my agency taken away. This is a side note, but the novel A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes has this amazing depiction of a young woman just becoming aware of how her body-in-the-space is changing, but not sure whether hiding her awareness (feigning innocence) will protect her, or entice the predators more. I was definitely in that space when I was reading Atwood at that age, and it encouraged me to embrace the political.
And so when you started writing, how much of was Atwood-inflected from the beginning? Did you have a period of imitation? Did you want to express yourself in the same way she did?
At first I wrote a lot of poetry influenced by her, for sure. Her poem "This is a Photograph of Me"—that era of her poetry that I think coincided with Surfacing and Handmaid’s Tale. I read a lot of Adrienne Rich, too, and Audre Lorde. But Atwood was always so much more atmospheric and I did tend to imitate her evocation of mood and place, I think. There was always a dark secret, a mystery to be solved, in Atwood's work. As far as prose: I don't think I had the guts yet to try to write like her. I had a zine and wrote short "essays" (read: rants) about how I had the world all figured out. My short stories were usually about getting my heart broken.
And so when did you (if you did) realize (like I presume all writers do) you had nothing figured out, and that your best writing can make only the smallest dent in a curiosity?
Ha. Yes, I did realize that. Probably in my first term at Portland State University. I was working at a coffee shop, living on my own in a studio apartment, and really bitter about having had to leave Mount Holyoke College (my Seven Sisters feminist dream, following in the footsteps of Emily Dickinson). PSU was very working class and I realized that I was very naive, and a bit of a snob. I took poetry classes from the two old-school male poets in residence (one white, one black, both a little checked out). They pointed out my failings regularly, but praised my curiosity and studiousness. I learned I wasn't a special little flower, but that I would have to work my butt off to earn a voice people would want to read. And even then...maybe not.
Is this when you first read Surfacing?
It was, actually. I had read almost all of Atwood's other books, but missed some of her early novels. The Edible Woman (not a favorite, but you can see her getting into her groove), Bodily Harm, Bluebeard's Egg (stories). I think what struck me first about Surfacing is that it's not a perfect book, but it's a great book, nonetheless. I've read it many times since, and every time I admire where it's awkward as much as where it's great.
But of course a book can only be perfect if it fails in its ambition. And you've proven yourself a well-read Atwoodian. Let's focus on Surfacing. Why was it so influential to you, even more so than everything else you've read by her?
Aside from teaching me that imperfection in literature is okay (not only okay, but can endear itself to readers) it's her evocation of the wilderness, and of people who have intimate relationships with the wilderness. Where I grew up in Alaska, the landscape was full of stories, and I was always drawn to those stories—who disappeared on a hunting trip, who went out in the storm and never came back, how did the family survive when the earthquake swallowed their house—these were always on my mind. And when I read Surfacing, here was a story about a woman in the wilderness, searching for her naturalist father who disappeared in the woods--but it's also about female agency and psychology. In contrast to Jack London, say, it's a story about a woman in the wilderness: sharp, capable, unwilling to be "civilized" if it means giving up her agency. That's my reading of the story, anyway.
And already we have quite a few threads winding between Surfacing and Marrow Island. As you were writing, how conscious were you of Surfacing?
Very much, in sensibility, but not in particulars. I hadn't read it in a couple years, and typically I avoid reading too closely to what I'm writing, so that I don't feel too influenced.
And now that you're done with the project, and perhaps can view it with clear(er) eyes, how do you feel that teenage Alexis who first encountered Atwood would have felt with Marrow Island in her hands?
I think she'd be moved to suspend herself from a bridge to block a BP icebreaker, or get herself arrested on some train tracks blocking tar sands oil trains. Or she'd rant about it in her zine. But this book was definitely scratching an itch for an angsty but idealistic part of myself. She definitely would've skipped the BBQ.
That's the only test of a good book for a teenager. As long as it isolates you from friends and family. We're nearly out of time, so I'm going to ask you to make the pitch for Atwood as a whole to the completely uninitiated. Go!
Oh, well: read her for the lesson in craft and love her for the witchery.
Thanks so much for your words Alexis, and your recommendation.
Thanks for the thoughtful questions!