Monday, September 5, 2011

Answering Questions with Questions

Perhaps you noticed in the introductory post on Atwood, during her interview with Bill Moyers, that Atwood answers a lot of questions with more questions. Moyers asks something like “Are the myths true?” and Atwood answers something like “What is true?”

The interviews with Atwood that I’ve found online are all like this. A question gets asked, and she responds with a question. I’m sure this is a very frustrating trait for interviewers. I’m sure they’d like nothing better than to reach across the interview space and smack her around. Because journalists are about getting answers.

But novelists are about asking questions.

Any story, any novel, is a presentation of a question – the What If? – and the exploration of a possible answer: these characters in this situation would do this (maybe). Take a group of novelists and give them a situation and watch them ask a million questions of their characters, of the situation, of the setting, of the ‘theme.’ Whenever they answer, it’ll be with a story, but something interesting will have occurred. Their stories will be riddled with further questions – the story isn’t an answer at all, it’s just a way to ask deeper questions.

In my opinion, Atwood is a strong writer because she asks so many questions.

I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale recently, and that’ll be the example book for this week and probably next week – so just fair warning that I’ll probably ruin some stuff for you if you haven’t read it, but I’ll try to be careful about that.

Imagine that you’re in a group of novelists that has been asked to answer the following questions with a story:

1. Women no longer have rights. Their personal incomes are shut down, they are completely reliant on men for support. How did this happen in the late twentieth century?

2. What does this new society look like? How does it function? Does it look like the late 19th century? Medieval times?

Atwood’s answer to these is The Handmaid’s Tale. Her answer to the first question defines a lot of the structures in the book: everything collapses after a violent massacre of the U.S. government – congressmen are killed, the government can’t really function, and voila – a whole new regime that Atwood actually keeps fairly small and in the early stages, the struggle for control is still ongoing. And her answers to question two (the societal structures and purposes of the Handmaids, the Wives, etc.; clothing based on Mid-East garb; religious totalitarianism) define the other questions that need to be asked.

But what’s really interesting are the questions that The Handmaid’s Tale brings up: Could something like this happen? Has something like this happened already? How is the similar or different to today, or yesterday, or what we’re expecting for tomorrow? How realistic is it?

Good literature makes us ask questions – even today we talk about the questions brought up in, say, Jane Eyre regarding marriage/violence/mental illness. But I also think that good literature is only created when the writer explores questions. Exploring questions is different than answering questions. Exploration is similar to experimentation – you start with a question and then start digging into what the answer could be.

It’s sort of like the new theories of time travel and different lines of time. Say, for example, that a Yankee really did go back to King Arthur’s court. One of the theories circulating at the moment is that the Yankee won’t have changed this timeline…he would have created an entirely new one, so nothing is predictable anymore. Thomas Edison may or may not invent the lightbulb. Columbus may or may not discover America. The entire planet of Vulcan could be destroyed! Stuff changes when different questions are asked.

So, as writers, it’s up to us to ask questions of our work. Would our characters behave this way? Why? Why not that way? How can something work differently? What are my options? What is truth? What am I trying to say? How else could it be said?

***And, speaking of interviews, here's a great one from the New York Times: Margaret Atwood interviewed by Joyce Carol Oates in 1978. (There are fewer questions asked in this one...but she's younger, and younger people know it all, right?)


  1. Oh no! Not alternate timelines and time travel and moebius strips! [g]
    I do like the idea of asking questions, however. That's where Rosa's story came from - what would happen if a girl was exiled in 1492, only to find out that she wasn't Jewish or converso after all...


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