Margaret Atwood is telling a magazine journalist about her latest book: "I went around asking writers the following question - and these were mostly novelists. 'What is it like when you go into a novel?'

"And nobody said: 'What do you mean, go into a novel?' They all said: 'It's dark. It's like a dark room. It's like a dark room full of furniture I can't see. It's like a tunnel. It's like a cave. It's like going downstairs into a dark place. It's like wading through a river. It's like entering a labyrinth.' Isn't that interesting?"

Wisely - since Atwood can be an intimidating subject - the interviewer agrees. And if you do too, you'll love Negotiating with the Dead, the book they were discussing.

There's a ready audience for books about writing - for advice on good (well, any) work habits, the necessity of show, don't tell, and the evil of adverbs. This isn't that sort of book. It's the big questions Atwood's interested in - and her answers (which are often other questions) will fascinate avid readers as much as aspiring writers.

Negotiating with the Dead is a beautiful little book - small-format, hardcover - and into its 180 pages, Atwood compresses decades of reading (she is awesomely well-read), writing (more than 25 books of poetry, short stories and non-fiction, as well as prize-winning novels), and thinking. Above all, thinking. Each of the book's six chapters - from "Orientation: Who do you think you are?"; "What is a writer, and how did I become one?"; to, "Descent: Negotiating with the Dead"; "Who makes the trip to the Underworld and why?" - looks at the writer's relationship to politics (gender, national, and international), money and popularity, society and morality, drawing on her own experience of life, literature and work.

If she leaves you behind when she takes the odd intellectual leap, she'll be waiting around the corner with a one-liner, such as, "Moral perfection won't compensate for your badness as an artist: not being able to hit high C is not redeemed by being kind to dogs," that makes the reader smile. Most of the time, you scarcely notice how sophisticated her observations are, and how learned the evidence with which she backs them up, because she is such a mischievous, lively writer.

Telling the Time interviewer that the book is based on six William Empson Lectures she gave at Cambridge University in 2000, she is compelled to turn even this answer into a story: Empson, she says, was expelled for being found to have contraceptives in his room. "So I was happy to give the William Empson lectures in honour of this man who had been so thoughtful and filled with foresight. Because nowadays you'd be kicked out for not having contraceptives in your room."

The introduction to Negotiating with the Dead tells how Atwood found herself behind deadline, and in Madrid, and that, "The parts where profound thought and the results of decades of painstaking scholarship were replaced by sticky tape and string are not supposed to show." They don't.

Cambridge University Press


* Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer.