Interview with Margaret Atwood

Posted by Goodreads on November 5, 2014
Don't be fooled. Margaret Atwood knows she looks like a 'kindly granny,' but she's still just as dangerous as ever. Goodreads reviewers describe her latest work, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, as "razor-sharp," "wicked," and "vengeful." The 75-year-old author is in fine form, with no signs of slowing now that she's five decades into a celebrated career that stretches from The Edible Woman (1969) to the recent MaddAddam Trilogy, with acclaimed works in between, including the modern classics The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale. Few can transcend genres as effortlessly as Atwood, who leaps from tautly plotted historical mysteries to large-scale, end-of-the-world speculative fiction to the macabre humor of Stone Mattress, always ruthlessly exposing the tender underbelly of her intricately flawed characters along the way. The Canadian writer spoke with Goodreads from New Brunswick, taking the time to reflect on her long career, her place in history, and what she'll be up to in 2114.

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Goodreads: Hundreds of your fans wrote in with questions they'd like to ask you, and we noticed a certain crazy trend emerging: Your readers want you to predict the future. Questions like, Where are we going as a society? What emerging trends do you see? Are women going to be better off? You're seen as a visionary, a philosopher. Are writers futurists? How do you feel about that expectation

Margaret Atwood: Nobody can predict the future. Well, some writers are futurists and they bill themselves as such. Remember Faith Popcorn? She really was a futurist and did predict trends. She's probably still doing that. Very hard to forget a name like Faith Popcorn. She was not a writer of fiction. She was a person who looked at trends and worked with commercial enterprises that wanted to know how to market. I'm not that kind of writer. You cannot completely predict "the future" because the future doesn't yet exist. There are an infinite number of possible futures. You can talk about trends, but you may be even wrong about that. Probably why they are asking that question right now is that they've read the MaddAddam Trilogy and they've also read the news about Ebola. They're saying to themselves, "Is this it?"

GR: Do you have a response to that?

MA: I don't think it is, but I could be wrong. There's always some factor people haven't anticipated. They can be good factors.

GR: Readers do turn to writers for philosophy.

MA: Well, I think they read books about the future, in particular books about extreme events in the future, partly to ask themselves, "What would I do? How would I respond? What would my fallback position be?" It's probably true that not enough people have emergency preparedness training.

GR: We can be heroes in our imagination until it becomes real.

MA: Well, we can be heroes in our imagination up to the point where we encounter practical problems that we don't know how to solve. What do you do when the lights go out? I don't have any candles. What do I do now? So sometimes people make the wrong decisions. It's better to know at least those elementary things.

GR: Canadians are perhaps more in tune with preparedness.

MA: I think they're more in tune to the fact that there may be a blizzard.

GR: Stone Mattress is your first major work after coming off the MaddAddam Trilogy...

MA: I'm coming off of it and also going into it because, of course, now we have a television series in the works. That is going to cause us to think in very concrete terms. Very visual terms about what these things really look like.

GR: Are you comfortable with the story evolving in some way in order for it to jump into that visual medium?

MA: I did a lot of work in the '70s with movies and television, so I understand the difference between telling a story in words and telling a story in pictures. The thing about pictures that you shoot with a camera is that they are very, very literal. So you can't get away with vague descriptions. We'll see in great detail what things and people look like. One person's Mr. Darcy is not the same as another person's Mr. Darcy. That was true until he came out of the lake with the shirt. [laughs] For a while anyway. For one generation of Mr. Darcy fans.

GR: You've recently announced that you're writing a book for the Future Library that will not be published until 2114. Goodreads member La Petite Américaine writes, "I'd like to know if she'll give us a summary/outline of the book she's putting in the time capsule and if there really won't be another copy anywhere."

MA: For the Future Library Project, number one: You can't use any images, and number two: You can't tell anyone what's in it. There will be a title reveal next June in Norway, and that's it for 100 years. It's really, really true. In fact, I think we will have to write it out in nonfade ink on archival paper so it won't fade away. So we won't open up the box and find a few shreds. I think they want a digital version of some kind, but that is a bit futile because digital information decays over time.

GR: If given the chance, would you want to be alive in 2114?

MA: Of course I would be! Why not? Supposing I had all my marbles. I'd like to be a fly on the wall. Who wouldn't? Well, this is a pretty optimistic project because you're assuming there will be people. You're assuming they'll still be able to read. You're assuming they'll still be interested in reading books. You're assuming that the forest will grow. You're assuming that all of Oslo will still be there and the library will still be there. That's quite a bit of constants in the future.

You can look it up at "A thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years time." Katie Paterson [the creator of the Future Library], a brilliant young lady at a mere 32 years old who has done some other really interesting projects, too, said she imagined the words growing out through the trees. The project was inspired by growth rings of trees. One of her other projects was to beam Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to the moon and have it bounce back and record the bounce, which she did. When it bounced back, pieces were missing. The moon ate part of the Moonlight Sonata. So I'll be turning up in Oslo next June to hand over my box.

GR: And you're working on more than one writing project in tandem?

MA: Yes, I'm working on the Future Library one, and I'm getting ready to start the Shakespeare one. It's for the Hogarth Library in honor of his birthday. They invited a number of writers to revisit a Shakespeare play. I've chosen The Tempest, and Jo Nesbø has chosen Macbeth. Tracy Chevalier has chosen Othello, Anne Tyler has chosen Taming of the Shrew, and Howard Jacobson has chosen The Merchant of Venice. Jeanette Winterson has chosen The Winter's Tale (because of her name, I suppose), and Gillian Flynn has chosen Hamlet. That's eight, but there are a lot more plays. No one has chosen the history plays or Julius Caesar, which would be a great one to do.

GR: Shakespeare's histories don't get as much love as his comedies and tragedies.

MA: In Shakespeare's own time, the histories were his big thing. They made his fortune. It was the first time that English people had been able to see their own history. There weren't any history books as we understand them today. They could go to Westminster Abbey to see relics of kings, but the whole story, the kinds of things Shakespeare was doing, accurate or not, they didn't have that available to them. They turned out in droves to see these history plays. I think it'd be great to do Richard III as well. Of course, I kind of did Richard III in Stone Mattress.

I'm working on that and I'm also finishing another novel, which we'll talk about once I've finished it.

GR: You're keeping very busy! You're celebrating your 75th birthday this month. Are you mellowing with age or do you feel you're getting a sharper bite?

MA: Here's what I think is happening: Other people think I'm mellowing because I look like a kindly granny. I think they're less scared of me. Also, they're kind of used to me. Young women writers frighten people more if they are writing tough-ish books. Instead of thinking, "Will this nice old lady maybe give me a cookie?" they're thinking, "If I go out on a date with this girl, is she going to absolutely trample over me?" Or 'What if she were my best friend? Would she say bad things behind my back?"

GR: But older women can be dangerous as well?

MA: Well, I appear to be more mellow, and also people don't take me on in the way they used to, so I don't have to kick them in the ribs. A couple of years ago my next-door neighbor saw me sweeping up my leaves with a broom in October, and Sam said, "Margaret, if I were you, I wouldn't let people see you doing that." I said, "What do you mean, Sam?" He said, "The broom, Margaret. Don't you know they call you the Wicked Witch?" I said, "Sam, people are always more respectful of fear than of love." He said, "Margaret, you're right."

GR: On the theme of growing older, there's a line at the end of "Dark Lady," one of the tales in Stone Mattress: "She's embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes." Just like the writer studied in that tale, your books are taught in schools and they are already considered classics. You're getting immortalized before you're gone.

MA: Well, of course immortalization is relative. Once upon a time, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress was the second most-read book in the English language. What was the first most-read book? The King James' Bible. Who reads The Pilgrim's Progress to the extent that they once did? I rest my case.

GR: So you think your fame could be of short duration?

MA: Well, these things are very prone to fashion. A lot of people are interested in it in the moment. So we say immortal, but that means we're reading it right now. Shakespeare's value fell quite a lot in the later 17th and 18th centuries. He came back in the 19th. It depends what the fashions are. First of all, the theaters were all shut down, so people kind of forgot. When the theater came back, it was restoration comedy. People were not in the mood for Hamlet right around then. When the romantics came along around the end of the 18th, early 19th, it was back in fashion again.

GR: When The Hunger Games launched a dystopian craze a few years ago, we crunched the data on Goodreads: We looked at how many books were dystopian over the last hundred years, and it was fascinating to see the trend line go up and down, decade to decade.

MA: Up and down, exactly. The 19th century was all utopias. Thousands of them. So many that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a satire on them. One of their musical comedies is called Utopia, Limited. It was a very optimistic age. People really did think that things could be indefinitely improved, and all of these new inventions and discoveries were coming on stream. That went on until the turn of the century, then really plummeted after the First World War, and very much so after the Second. Dystopias came very much to the fore.

GR: Goodreads member Emilycbelanger asks, "What interests you in both dystopias and fairy tales? Are the two interests separate or are they connected somehow?"

MA: I think they're separate, but that doesn't mean they don't crossbreed. It depends on what you mean by dystopia. Do you mean the kind that really could happen or a very unpleasant world, which is not possible? Are we talking the Death Star in Star Wars or are we talking 1984? 1984, not much to do with fairy tales and quite a lot to do with Soviet social republics under Stalin. That's what it's really about. Death Star, Darth Vader are much closer to fairy tales. Very, very close, in fact. I think the interest in fairy tales is partly the same as the interest in mythology, core biblical stories, and the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are all models of how stories go. What kind of story are we in? Is it going to be a tragedy, comedy, adventure, or what? The further back you go, the closer the pieces of mythology you come across, the closer they become to fairy tale motifs. Fairy tale motifs to some extent are displaced mythologies. They are mythologies with the gods removed. I love the way people are reinventing them. I love the way Angelina Jolie plays the wicked fairy, Maleficent, in the Sleeping Beauty movie. Avatar is very closely based off 19th-century fairy tale illustrations by Arthur Rackham, a Victorian fairy painter. It's the same visual.

GR: It's been eight years since your last collection of short fiction, Moral Disorder. Do you get the urge to write in shorter form, like a muscle that needs exercising?

MA: No, I don't think anything ever gets decided in that deliberate, preconceived way. I did start writing the title story on a ship in the Arctic to amuse my fellow passengers. Five of them were called Bob. I hadn't finished it before that voyage ended, and everyone wanted to know how it was going to come out, so I finished it and published it in the New Yorker. All of the Bobs were relieved.

GR: The tale explains how one would get away with murder while on a cruise.

MA: Yes, that was Graeme Gibson [Atwood's partner], who said you'd have to do this and you'd have to do that and you'd have to make sure you killed them on the shore and not on the ship. You'd have to make it appear that they were still on the ship for days and days and days. By the time people started to figure it out, you'd be very far away. They would just think that the person had fallen overboard.

GR: A devious mind at work.

MA: Yes, well, what else could you possibly think if it appeared that Bob had been moving around in his cabin, putting clothes in the laundry bag, and brushing his teeth?

GR: Goodreads Author Michael Barakiva asks, "How do you write so many brilliant sentences? Do they come out that way? Or do you work and chip and sculpt them? Do you think about syntax as they come pouring out of your fingers?"

MA: I write a first draft and then I revise it. I go through a lot of revisions. Much of revision is paring away. So, removing excess. Sometimes you're adding things because they weren't clear the first time. I don't know how to explain where sentences come from. I think they just come from having worked in a medium, in this case language, for a very long time. I was a very early reader, and I continue to be a very wide reader. I'm very conscious of how things sound and what the words really mean. The deeper meanings of words and the textures of words. That's why it's so difficult to translate poetry into other languages because so much of it is texture and the emotional charge of a word, as opposed to the rational sense of a word. So it is a lot like a wine tasting.

GR: Are you an oral storyteller as well?

MA: Well, I grew up with people who were. My parents were from Nova Scotia, where telling stories was very much something that people did. Usually those stories were about their family or their neighbors, so they were usually funny.

GR: Do you have a strong memory of when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

MA: I have two origin stories, one of which I don't remember at all, but my aunties remember it. A lot of this is hindsight. According to them, I said when I was six that I wanted to be a writer. I have no memory of saying that. I did write my first novel when I was seven. It was about an ant. The first three-quarters of it were quite boring because the ant does nothing for the first three-quarters of its life. It's an egg, then a larva, then a pupa. All of those are immobile forms. This is not a recommended way to begin a story. I stopped writing for some years. I was into drawing and painting.

I didn't start seriously until the second origin story, when I was 16. I always appreciated my teacher from my junior year of high school, Miss Florence Medley. She was interviewed for a documentary about me as a child genius, and I've always appreciated the fact that she told the truth. She said, "She showed no particular ability in my class." Which is true. I didn't.

GR: There's hope for us all then maybe.

MA: I didn't show ability until the next year under my teacher Miss Bessie Billings, whom I put into Moral Disorder under her real name, in the story called "My Last Duchess." She thought I had special ability and thought I should go to Victoria College because she thought it had a good English department. In that generation, during the '50s, universities didn't hire women much at all, so there were a lot of overqualified women teaching high school. We got the benefit of them.

I've put Miss Florence Medley into a different book. She used to recite Kubla Khan with her eyes closed, whirling around in a circle. She had long, white hair, and it was very impressive. That's probably why I showed no particular ability in her class. I was too riveted.

GR: Were there certain books that you read at a young age that had an influence on you?

MA: Essentially there were three different kinds of books: books from school, books that were in the house, and other books that were in the houses of people you babysat for. That's how I read Peyton Place and Forever Amber, which were the scandalous books of those years. They had s-e-x, varicose veins, and other things that weren't appropriate for the dinner table. Peyton Place—it's really quite shocking.

GR: Any favorites you want to recommend?

MA: Someone gave me Pride and Prejudice as a prize for graduating from eighth grade. I also read Wuthering Heights. I read George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy in high school. I read all of the usual children's classics. I read all of the Grimm and Andrew Lang fairy tales. I also read a lot of those Arthur Rackham illustrated, turn-of-the-century children's books. I really read everything. I read Edgar Allan Poe way too early, including the one where the dead man, who appears to be alive still, gets brought out of a hypnotic trance and melts into a puddle of goo. Yikes!

I was reading those and a lot of science fiction. That was the golden age of it. Ray Bradbury was publishing all of his major works in the '50s, when I was a teenager. I read a lot of crime novels. My family were all crime novel readers. Name one of that generation. I read them all. Some westerns, although they weren't my favorite genre. The original western, The Virginian by Owen Wister, is a wonderful book. It's different from the way that things turn out now, in that the central character's consciousness is female.

GR: Can you describe a typical day spent writing?

MA: There are no typical days spent writing. Let's pretend there is one. I would get up. We would have breakfast. Then we have the coffee. That is something I really like to have to get myself started. Then I would probably sit down and type something that I had written in manuscript the day before. It's a kind of overlap method, in which I'm typing out what I did the day before to get myself going for what I'm going to add on to that. I'm revising and then continuing to write in the same day. Then I do the next bit of new writing in the afternoon. I don't go by how much time I spent at it but how many pages I managed to complete.

GR: Would you say you have any unusual writing habits?

MA: I'm not particularly obsessive about that. But I don't like other people using my computer. Who does like that?

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Lynne (new)

Lynne "Kindly granny....five decades....seventy five year old....long career? "
Why is her age so important that it must be commented upon 4 times in the first paragraph? The fact that she's an elder, a woman, a Canadian- these are all insignificant beside her gripping prose, terrifying dark vision and, thankfully, prolificacy. Sheesh.

message 2: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Disagree. I linked through to this article because I was surprised to learn Ms. Atwood was 75! It was then very interesting to read what's she's been up to, what's she's currently doing, and to hear her thoughts about the future. Age changes us in subtle as well as overt ways. Ms.Atwood's candour, humour & personality are as evident as ever ~ as is a newish development - a flicker of something else. Aging is not for sissys. Also, that she is a woman & a Canadian is irrefutable. Both attributes have profoundly shaped her character & her prose. ...... sheesh

message 3: by Laulette (new)

Laulette Hansen Want to look at a literary character based with wit and love on Margaret Atwood as a poet? Check out Canadian author Louise Penny's STILL LIFE & others in her Inspector Gamache/Three Pines series. I introduced my friends to Penny's books, & all fell in love with Atwood's poetry, which is quoted at length. Check out "Mor I g In the Burned Red House. Atwood 's poetry is wonderful... Atwood.

message 4: by Charlotte (new)

Charlotte Raye What advice can you give to new authors who trying to get their foot in the industry?

message 5: by Dianna (new)

Dianna I have been reading Ms.Atwood`s books since I was a teenager. Besides my required reading in high school(Catch22,Catcher in the Rye,Atlas Shrugged and many more that today are considered controversial)I read Ms. Atwood`s book for a school report and enjoyed her wittisism and characters so much I read many of her books through the years. You could say we grew up together with a 20 in age. I should hope as life progresses and we mature,all of us change in subtle or even dramatic ways. As a writer it is more evident to those who follow their careers and is not only appropriate but in most cases,as Ms. Atwood`s career, demonstrates that maturity in a wonderful way. How many years she's been writing and possibly one mention of her age is more then adequate to explain her growth as a person and in her career. Her books have touched thousands plus lives, for the better in my case and probably many others, and continues to do so today. My daughter's, now in their 20s and early 30s have read many of her books I saved through the years(I just can't throw a book away ;))and we have had some lively discussions as with changing times there is also changing perspective. I hope Ms. Atwood will continue her gift with words and sharing that gift with the rest of us. I would be a different person for every book I didn't read and as I like who and where I am, Ms. Atwood played a major role in my development as a person and I can't thank her enough for the gift she chose to share with the world. Bless you,ma`m and thank you.

message 6: by Le (new)


message 7: by Doris (last edited Nov 07, 2014 03:24PM) (new)

Doris Chapman I really like all her books, but the one I'm thinking of now is the one about the woman who was accused of committing a murder and how the only person who really understands her is the psychiatrist who interviews her every day. He is new to the the concept of psychology, and he is a secret feminist, so in the 19th century there is the contrast of their interviews everyday and the rest of the world who thinks she's insane and belongs in prison. It's a wonderful book.

message 8: by Jasmin (new)

Jasmin Traum Thanks for the great interview, Margaret Atwood seems to be a great author, look forward to take a closer look at her work.

message 9: by Charlie (new)

Charlie Great interview. I've just read The Handmaid's Tale, absolutely fantastic read.

message 10: by Charlotte (new)

Charlotte Raye It's always a privilege to read the experiences and advice of a famous author. Any advice given, I try to follow and apply in my endeavors to become a known author myself. It was only yesterday I had spoken to a young man who commented on how he wanted to be a writer. I smiled and said "Never say I want to be a writer!" Instead, say "I am a writer!" Just because you don't have something published doesn't mean you're not. Always, think of yourself as a writer. Believe in yourself. I feel that's the first step in becoming an author. You have to have confidence in yourself before anyone else will. And never take no for an answer!

I'm looking forward to reading Margaret Atwood's books!

message 11: by Charlotte (new)

Charlotte Raye I believe age should be miscounted against any author. If anything, it should be a bonus. With age comes experience and knowledge. I personally think older writers have more to give due to their experiences in life. As a writer myself, I take my life's experiences and use it to form and create characters. I think it makes the characters more real.

Charlotte Raye author of The Order Of The Quest

message 12: by Ruby (new)

Ruby Binns-Cagney Incredibly talented, and adored. This wonderful, engaging, humorous interview gave me even more things to love about Margaret Atwood.

message 13: by Linda (new)

Linda Doris wrote: "I really like all her books, but the one I'm thinking of now is the one about the woman who was accused of committing a murder and how the only person who really understands her is the psychiatrist..." Yes, I remember, it is called Alias Grace I loved that one too...

message 14: by Linda (new)

Linda I hope HBO do well with transferring the MaddAddam trilogy to the screen; the director is Darren Aronofsky who is wonderfully visual so fingers crossed...

message 15: by Neda (new)

Neda I do agree with you.. Age ain't no matter.. We all love her prose & her books and I guess that's enough..

message 16: by Rivka (new)

Rivka She is one of my favourite writer.

message 17: by Denis (last edited Nov 26, 2014 08:03PM) (new)

Denis That was a great interview. I dare say, more 'exclusive' than SK's on his very fine novel "Revival"-love you King. Margaret is, simply, lovely and the wittiest and 'smartest' since Asimov and Ursula Le Guin. You, Margaret, are the most Utt. Happy first 3 quarters.

message 18: by Vera (new)

Vera I've been following this lady for 5 decades.... so, yes, age matters.
I like her more every year. It's not that she becomes less intimidating over time - indeed, I believe she's absolutely terrifying now - it's that she's intimidating, and I hope, terrifying, the people who most need it. She's a formidable champion of light.

message 19: by Robert (new)

Robert Mathews I just discovered this writer and I'm going to read her stuff...she's from my age group and she's delightful!

message 20: by Rebecca Grace (new)

Rebecca Grace Lynne wrote: ""Kindly granny....five decades....seventy five year old....long career? "
Why is her age so important that it must be commented upon 4 times in the first paragraph? The fact that she's an elder, a ..."

Must disagree. When you are interviewing someone about their career, you can't do that very well without mentioning basic facts about how long they have been working at whatever it is they are doing. When is the last time you read a biography that failed to tell you how old the subject was, where they grew up, or whether they have been at the same work all their lives or have switched around from one job to another before finding their true calling? I understand that we all want to call out journalists who over-emphasize women's age in situations where we a man's age would be unimportant, but honestly -- if Margaret Atwood was a 25-year-old who had just published her first novel, we probably would not be interested in reading the interview in the first place.

message 21: by ESTELITA (new)

ESTELITA Started reading Margaret's books when I was at school and have been a fan ever since.

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