Margaret Atwood On Payback And The Concept Of Debt

The Booker Prize-winning author had no idea just how timely her 2008 lecture series would turn out to be.

When Margaret Atwood proposed ‘debt’ as the subject for her Massey Lecture series back in 2008, organizers were flummoxed.

“I told them what I wanted to write about and I understand they had a backroom meeting saying, ‘Why is she writing about money?!’ But then when I gave them my outline they realized it wasn’t about money,” Atwood told

Her timing couldn’t have been better. Because although her work Payback is about the concept of debt throughout history in literary, religious, and societal terms, it was published at a time where debt – the financial kind – was on everyone’s minds: October 2008, the same month as the global economic meltdown.

Interestingly, Atwood was originally slated to do the Massey Lecture series in 2009, but when her U.S. publisher convinced her to push the publication of her latest book, The Year of the Flood, back a year due to the federal election, and 2008 Massey speaker Wade Davis had to back out, she agreed to speak a year earlier.

“It was serendipity, because if we’d done it in 2009 it wouldn’t have been quite so timely,” she says. “Although it isn’t about money – it’s about how money is just a symbol of exchanges that human beings make. It’s a handy token. You get the idea when you play Monopoly – Monopoly money is money within the game of Monopoly because we say it is. We trade it for the Water Works and other things we might wish to have. Within our human understanding, the stuff we call money has value because we say it does. But it’s not actually worth anything unless you can change it back into things you can actually use in your physical, and indeed intellectual, life.”

Atwood’s lecture series and book have now been turned into a documentary film, also titled Payback, directed by Jennifer Baichwal. Baichwal, who previously helmed Manufactured Landscapes and Act of God, admits she was nervous at first to work with Atwood.

“I’ve never adapted a book before, or a lecture for that matter. I didn’t commit to making (the film) until I’d spent a year writing, reading, thinking about it, trying to figure out if I thought it could be made into a film,” she notes. “[But Margaret is] a very generous person and also very funny. She’s like that Mark Twain quote, that you can always tell a great person because they make you feel that you can also be great.”

Payback, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opens in Toronto and Montreal on March 16 (other Canadian cities to follow), intertwines four stories, among them two Albanian families entrenched in a blood feud and Florida tomato farm workers battling their bosses for increased wages, that illustrate the concepts of debt Atwood touches on.

The award-winning scribe behind The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, and Alias Grace says she started thinking about debt in its various forms while studying the Victorian novel.

“It’s clear to any objective reader that Madame Bovary could’ve kept on committing adultery to her heart’s content if she hadn’t been so bad at double-entry bookkeeping,” she laughs. “Otherwise she would’ve been free and clear because no one was noticing her behaviour – what gave her away and finished her off was her bad accumulated shopaholic debt.”

Atwood adds that when you look closely at other works from that time period, they seem, on the surface, to be about love and romance, but really they’re about financial arrangements.

“In [Jane Austen’s] Sense and Sensibility, Marianne can’t marry the love of her life because he needs to marry a rich person. He doesn’t have any money. She’s devastated by that and gets a bad cold,” Atwood muses. “You start following the money in these novels and it takes you to the most amazing places. Where did Heathcliff get the money that he uses to buy Wuthering Heights, or I should say to gamble the owner of it out of it? How does he do that? We’re not quite sure but it’s something pretty shady.”

From literary references to debt and how it affected relationships, Atwood went on to examine the concept of debt in society – the feeling of owing someone something, or taking revenge for a debt you feel is owed you.

“What I was interested in was exchanges of all kinds and who owes what to whom. What kinds of things do we owe, because it’s far beyond money,” she says. “Sometimes we owe gratitude, sometimes we owe revenge, or they owe us. Revenge is what happens when it can’t be settled with money, and you feel that the scales have to be evened, the slate wiped clean, in some other way. Balance and fairness is the platform on which all of this operates. You know, yourself, when you feel you’ve been treated unfairly, or when something happening out there is unfair. Little kids get on to that very early. ‘That’s not fair.’ ‘His is bigger than mine.’ It’s really primal.”

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth is currently available in bookstores and online.

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