Margaret Atwood is the writer of over a dozen novels, and multiple books of poetry and short fiction and non-fiction. Considered one of the 20th century’s most important novelists, she won the Governor General’s Award for The Circle Game in 1966 and The Handmaid’s Tale in 1986, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale in 1987 and the Booker prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000.
Besides winning many literary awards, her books are frequently commercial bestsellers too. Atwood has been an environmental activist for many years and writes in multiple genres and forms, including speculative fiction, online serialised fiction and comic books. She lives in Canada.
Books&Authors spoke to her over email recently about technology, storytelling and zombies.
We all start off as creative geniuses as children — we paint, draw, write, sing with complete abandon, we create joyfully and with a wide open heart. At some point, most of us stop creating. Some of us even stop reading or engaging with any other creative art form, but writers carry on doing it. What differentiates writers, do you think, from those who no longer engage with creativity?
All human beings are creative in some way. And, as you say, children display these gifts spontaneously. What happens when we grow up? ‘Real life’ appears, and people tell us two things: 1) We have to make a living or otherwise give up our ‘artistic’ pursuits for something more practical, and 2) We aren’t good enough at our art. So it becomes an issue of confidence.
Those who carry on will tell you that they experience their art as a ‘vocation’, something to which they are called. They will also speak of their determination and dedication, and their will to work hard at their chosen discipline. The best book on this subject is The Gift by Lewis Hyde.
What’s Margaret Atwood, the literary superhero’s origin story? Does she have an arch nemesis?
From another galaxy: so much is evident. I did in fact grow up in the backwoods of northern Canada, which amounts to another galaxy these days. So: no forms of entertainment except reading, writing and drawing … the same things I do today.
Arch nemesis? I’ve had several people who have expressed the opinion that the literary space would be better off without me, but they are no longer alive. More will doubtless appear, since icons generate iconoclasm. But I am now old enough to be seen either as a WOW (Wise Old Woman) or a WOW (Wicked Old Witch), and since people sometimes can’t tell which I may be, there’s a Fear Factor involved in being too nasty to me. Or maybe it’s my 986,000 lovely Twitter Followers? Some of them are robots, but who can tell which ones?
You write poetry, short stories and novels and sometimes it feels that one had lead to another, though I do not know that to be a fact. Has there ever been an idea or premise discovered via, say, a poem that you’ve then expanded into a longer work of fiction?
That has happened frequently. The most obvious example is the poem cycle ‘The Journals of Suzanna Moodie’, which led to a television play, which led eventually to the novel, Alias Grace. Let’s say that poetry opens the door, and the novel then goes through the doorway and explores the territory, and meets the inhabitants.
As much as I loved The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, I’ve always thought zombies in general were a slightly boring adversary, what with all the repetitive moaning and shuffling around, they don’t seem to have very diverse personalities. Are there any obvious adversaries in pop culture that you find terribly boring or repetitive? If so, would you consider writing a story about them to make them cool?
Alas, yes, zombies don’t have many thoughts, and thus are usually not narrators; unlike the Frankenstein monster of the Shelley novel, a chatty fellow; and unlike vampires, who narrate a great deal. Even werewolves are talkative in their human forms. The strength of the zombie is in numbers, not in personal allure. Adversaries, boring; cool, making of: there are hordes at work on this even as we speak, so I’ll leave them to it.
Do you have a zombie apocalypse evacuation plan in place?
Shh, but — don’t tell — the zombie apocalypse is not going to happen. Though a global pandemic is not unlikely. But for evacuation plans in general, try Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. One of the characters has a good idea. I might do that one. It involves a lot of bottled water.
Growing up reading both classic speculative literature like 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 — though we didn’t call it speculative back then — and also watching science-fiction B movies made you familiar, I assume, with a certain genre of storytelling, its benefits and its pitfalls. How did that help you when you started to structure your own novels, even those that were not speculative?
Happily I read everything, including the One Thousand and One Nights, which has much to teach about hooking the listener. There is only one essential thing: if your reader doesn’t get past page five, he or she will never discover the lovely nugget you have placed on page 57. And also: people have different tastes. Not everyone will like your tale. That’s just a fact. If you’re a writer, you must simply live with it.
You’ve written comics too, most recently for The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, but comics have appeared in your novels too, as in Cat’s Eye. You’re never afraid to have fun and one of the things I love about your work is your ability to play with ideas tongue firmly in cheek, playfully — even when the ideas are very serious. You’re frequently on Twitter, you created a superhero for a fan some time ago — you do a lot of things that are unexpected from someone respected as a literary giant. I’m assuming you enjoy these aspects of your life as a writer — do you think more writers should have this sort of fun?
Again, people have different ideas of fun. Playing with literary and popular forms is something I’ve been doing since 1956. But you can’t prescribe to other writers. Each has her or his own voice and his or her own way of being. I never took creative writing classes — there weren’t any — so no one ever gave me a firm talk about behaving like a respectable, SERIOUS, non-playful artist. However: why do we use the word ‘play’ in so many senses? All art involves some kind of ‘play’; in writing, the other player is of course the Dear Reader.
The theme of survival — whether from a bad friendship or romantic relationship, from the end of times, from a system that has broken down — has always been an intrinsic theme of your work. You’ve written about survival being intellectual or political and of course, purely physical too, in your MaddAddam trilogy and The Heart Goes Last. How do you see the human race and human relationships surviving, with so much war in the world, with so many strange technological shortcuts to relationships, to intimacy?
The biggest challenge is the oversupply of CO2. We hear a lot about ‘climate change’, but the most serious threat to our species is one of the effects of that: the potential death of the ocean, not only from warming but from acidification. If the marine algae that create 60-80 per cent of our oxygen die out, it’s very bad news for us human beings. I’m heartened by the relative success of the recent Paris summit. As for technology: most people will always prefer another human being to a simulacrum. It’s who we are.
The more I speak with writers, the more I realise what great recyclers of information they are, almost as if everything you say to them is stored away for possible future use or reference. As someone who has been writing all her life, do you find your perspective, your point of view and your involvement in conversations with other people (not interviewers, of course!), different in any way to those who do not make up stories?
I don’t know, since I’m not a person who doesn’t make up stories. But really I think everyone makes up at least one story — The Story of My Life — and they are constantly revising it and adding to it. Those studying retirement homes and end-of-life tell us that the most important thing for people at that stage is to retain control of their own narrative. Narration is a very, very human thing. We all do it all the time. Writers are just people who do it in a more expanded way.
Has your writing process changed much over the years or does it remain much the same? It must of course have changed a great deal for The Heart Goes Last, which you began as a serial on Byliner and The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home which you co-wrote with Naomi Alderman for Wattpadd. How did you find the change in process?
It’s always enlivening to experiment. But I’m still more comfortable with the usual way: finish the text and then revise it.
You’ve said that men have often asked you why your female characters are so paranoid but that it’s not paranoia, it’s recognition of their situation. Do you think women’s situation has improved over the last few years, or is it still such that we may be considered paranoid?
Which women? The situation of some has improved, yes. Many more jobs are open to them, in theory, than were open in, say, 1900.
The situation of others has become very much worse, especially in war zones. Once social order collapses, women are especially subject to predation. And there is a lot of pushback from the kind of men who want the historical status quo preserved. But many changes in gender status have to do with changes in energy sources. Ian Morris, in his book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, has a lot to say about this. Among hunter-gatherers, gender status was more equal. Agriculture fosters hierarchies. Fossil fuels — or the upcoming renewables — create more gender equality again.
What convinced you to take part in the Future Library project, given you’d never know what anyone who read that secret book thought about it, since it will not be read for 100 years. It frustrates me no end, as a reader and a fan girl, that I won’t ever be able to read it!
Ah yes, but you’ll be able to imagine it! In that way, it’s the most fully interactive text on the planet! Just say the title — Scribbler Moon — and close your eyes. Lo! The text will appear!
I’ve read you referring to yourself as “either kindly granny or wicked witch”, but I like to think of you as the wolf disguised as granny: ‘delightful but my, what sharp teeth you have’. How do you keep them so sharp? Luck. It won’t go on forever. I do come from a generation in which sharp teeth were the norm, however. Not for eating hapless rabbits, however; merely for self-defence.
The interviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com.