From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

Payback, by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, was first published in 2008 by Toronto publisher House of Anansi Press. The text was first presented as part of the Massey Lectures, broadcast on CBC Radio. It’s subtitled “Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.”

Payback by Margaret Atwood

I know what you’re thinking. Now Phil’s going to warn us that there’s no money to be made writing fantasy—at least not much—so he’s going to warn us not only not to quit our day jobs but then advise us to read a book that’ll advise us not to go into debt.

I’m realistic enough to understand that eventually I’m going to insult your intelligence, if I haven’t already, but I promise not to do it on purpose.

There is indeed very little money to be made writing fantasy—writing anything, actually—unless you make a lot of money doing it, and you really should avoid debt, and don’t quit your day job unless you’re sure you can and you really want to, but that’s not actually what this book is about. If you’re looking for advice on how to lower the interest rates on your credit cards, this is not it.

If you’re familiar at all with Margaret Atwood, you’ve probably realized that by now. Margaret Atwood may be the most admired science fiction author in the world that no one thinks is a science fiction author. Her books, at least The Handmaid’s Tale, have been made into movies, she’s won prestigious awards, and has built a career we can all be painfully jealous of. I know I am.

I happened upon this book on one of the front tables at a local chain bookstore, and still swooning from the experience of reading The Blind Assassin (consider that required reading, too), had to pick it up. I was taken aback by the subject matter. I wasn’t aware that Ms. Atwood wrote non-fiction, though that just ended up showcasing my own ignorance, since she has done just that more than once in the thirty-seven years since 1972’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.

In Payback, Atwood examines the question of debt not in a typical how-to—or more often, why-not-to—way, but on a much larger macro level, one part philosophical essay, one part literary deconstruction.

And this is why I think every fantasy author should read it.

About thirteen years ago, not long after I had signed on as an editor at TSR, Inc. in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I appealed to my boss, then executive editor Brian Thomsen to let me try my hand at writing a short story for an upcoming Forgotten Realms anthology. He cheerfully agreed—though knowing Brian he would have had no problem rejecting the story if it wasn’t good enough, and no one was paying me a red cent up front, so why not give the kid a break?

So off I went, thinking cap on, and dug through the Realmslore, and the newly-published Netheril boxed set for a story hook. I found one that worked for me in an offhand reference to an obscure Netherese archwizard named Shadow, credited with discovering the Plane of Shadow, and how he eventually married a mysterious woman and disappeared under suspicious circumstances. The source material mentioned that Shadow was often the target of assassination attempts from rival archwizards so I took the imaginative leap and thought: What if this mystery woman was one of those assassins, but instead of killing Shadow, she fell in love with him, and they eventually ran off to—wherever—together?

Brilliant! Off I went, type-type-typing away, and proudly presented my baby to Brian, who gave me maybe twenty-four hours of hope before calling me into his office and ripping my poor little story apart in front of my eyes—not physically, mind you. Brian had a habit of reading manuscripts with a garbage can next to his chair. When he finished a page, into the trash it went. Woe to he who didn’t make copies before sending a manuscript to Brian Thomsen.

No, he didn’t tear up the pages, but he did point out to me something about my story that I have to admit hadn’t crossed my mind for a second. I don’t think I have a copy of the first draft of the story to refer back to, though I wish I did. It would be an interesting exercise if we could read it together, consider Payback, and read what was eventually published. But alas, that was at least half a dozen generations of computer ago; file, lost to the ages.

To make a short story shorter: Alashar is hired by a rival archwizard to kill Shadow and steal his secrets. In the first draft of the story, Shadow defeats Alashar, holds her captive for a little while then rescues her when the rival archwizard, assuming Alashar failed and is dead, sends a monster to kill Shadow. Alashar falls in love with her rescuer, forgets her mission (the rival archwizard almost killed her anyway with this monster of his, right?) and lives happily ever after with her victim-turned-captor-turned-lover.

What’s wrong with that? What Brian pointed out to me was that Alashar, who I establish early on in the story as a capable, courageous, sneaky, experienced, and tough-as-nails professional killer ends up “in the red.” As he took me through what was wrong with my story, over and over he used terms like, “balancing the books,” and that I needed to find a way to make sure that Shadow and Alashar were “even,” by story’s end.

I remember being a bit slack-jawed while he was speaking, not because I didn’t agree with everything he was saying, but because I was embarrassed for not having considered it from the get-go.

Had I read Payback before sitting down to write that story, I wouldn’t have had to learn that lesson from Brian. Since Payback was still a dozen years in the future, I couldn’t have, but you can. And since Brian passed away late last year, you won’t be able to learn it from him, so you’ll have to rely on Margaret Atwood.

Payback is a thin little volume, divided into five chapters. The book begins with an exploration of the meaning of the word debt, and provides considerable historical grounding in a short space of words. Atwood does an admirable job tracing back to the roots of debt from ancient times forward, careful not to judge either the borrower or the lender, though she allows others to do just that.

It’s when we get to the third chapter, entitled “Debt as Plot,” that in my mind Payback merged with that hard-learned lesson at the feet of Brian Thomsen. According to Atwood, “The best nineteenth-century [literary] revenge is not seeing your enemy’s red blood all over the floor but seeing the red ink all over his balance sheet.” She stops short of saying that all literature is a balancing of the books, so to speak, but the implication is there. This requires a broad understanding of the concept of debt, that we’re not just talking about, “Hey, man, can I borrow five bucks till payday?” but broader debts: the wages of sin, a debt of gratitude, and so on.

And no one is cast as the victim, per se. She examines the work of Dr. Samuel Johnson and concludes that he was telling us that, “both the borrower and the lender were to blame if their arrangement didn’t work out: the former for endangering his security by borrowing, the latter for seeking to make a profit—assumed to be an excessive profit—from the desperation or the excessive risk-taking of the borrower. Their contract had been entered into out of self-interest on both sides, and the bad judgment and greediness of both were therefore to blame for its failure.”

Ultimately, Atwood extends the concept of debt and personal responsibility out to the entire human race, and our give-and-take relationship with the Earth itself: “Like all our financial arrangements, and like all our rules of moral conduct—in fact, like language itself—notions about debt form part of the elaborate imaginative construct that is human society. What is true of each part of that mental construct is also true of debt, in all its many variations: because it is a mental construct, how we think about it changes how it works.

“Maybe it’s time for us to think about it differently. Maybe we need to count things, and add things up, and measure things, in a different way. In fact, maybe we need to count and weigh and measure different things altogether. Maybe we need to calculate the real costs of how we’ve been living, and of the natural resources we’ve been taking out of the biosphere.”

If you want to read a balance-sheet neutral version of that story, “The Lady and the Shadow,” Brian did publish it in the Forgotten Realms anthology Realms of the Arcane (Edited by Brian M. Thomsen and J. Robert King, TSR, 1997). Ever since then I’ve tried to keep the idea of a balance of spiritual, emotional, and other sorts of debt in mind in the interplay of my characters. Atwood asserts, and I agree, that conflict arises from an imbalance in the emotional if not literal bookkeeping between two characters.

Read this book carefully, consider the sources cited—Dickens, Shakespeare, and others—and consider what it means if your story ends and the villain hasn’t paid his pound of flesh, or the heroine falls in love with a hero who’s done nothing but defeat and humiliate her.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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