Community & Current Events

Q&A with author Margaret Atwood

By: Jill Buchner

Photography by Jenna Marie Wakani Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Jenna Marie Wakani

Community & Current Events

Q&A with author Margaret Atwood

By: Jill Buchner
Sure, Margaret Atwood is known for her ambitious plots and astute literary criticism, but she's also a Game of Thrones fangirl who writes commentary predicting which character will reign over the Seven Kingdoms. And when she isn't penning poetry books, novels or critical essays, she's tweeting pithy and political comments in 140 characters or less.

In fact, at age 75, she's an early adopter of just about every new technology and cultural phenomenon out there. She even published early installments of her latest book, The Heart Goes Last (McClelland & Stewart, $33), as a serial on Byliner, a literary website, nearly three years before the book's September 2015 release.

The novel opens with a world on the edge of financial ruin. Faced with record unemployment and sleeping in their car, protagonists Stan and Charmaine choose to enter a social project that offers clean, comfortable housing in exchange for spending half of their time in prison. We sat down with Atwood to learn more about the book—and the exciting things she has on the horizon.

Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for The Heart Goes Last?
Margaret Atwood: I had been thinking about prisons. Going back to early history, we didn't have prisons until we had permanent settlements, because if you have nomadic communities, you can't build prison systems. So where did this whole prison thing come from and what are they for? Are they to keep us safe from really bad people? Are they to punish people? Are they to reform them? It kicked off an exploration of prisons as profit-making schemes. There are such things today, and there are prisons where the organs of executed people are sold.

CL: Your recent fiction seems to have been inspired by real-world environmental and financial issues. Do you write about these scary scenarios because they could be our future?

MA: It's already in our past in a lot of cases. We had that financial meltdown in 2008, and what you got was sections of Detroit where all the houses are empty. A lot of people have lived this story already. I don't think we see it as a crisis until it affects us, and we're shocked when it happens to people who might be us. Stan and Charmaine might be us, and neither of them is a heroic figure—they're just regular subject-to-temptation people.

CL: Your 1972 critical work, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, has been integral to our understanding of CanLit and how survival themes permeate our writing. Do you think those observations are still true today?
MA: The motifs are still there, but a number of them have evolved. Nature in the 19th century was a monster that would probably smush you. Now, as I say in Survival, our consciousness has changed radically: We think of it as something we need to protect. Survival used to be pretty Canadian, and now, it's pan-global. We're no longer thinking about the survival of the pioneer in the forest; we're thinking about the survival  of the human race.

CL: You've written a lot of novels that have been described as dystopian. Do you think that reflects a pessimistic perspective of the world?
MA: Everybody is an optimist when they get out of bed in the morning. If you're really depressed, you don't bother doing that. We're always looking forward, and we're optimistic enough to think that there's going to be a story with us in it. So you'll notice that, in all of these dystopias, there's still somebody left standing at the end. Writing a book is a very optimistic thing to do—no matter what's in it. When you start writing it, it's optimistic to think you're going to finish. It's optimistic to think it will sell, and to think that somebody will read it, understand it and enjoy it.

CL: You were the first author to submit a book to the Future Library project, which will print an anthology of never-before-seen texts in the year 2114. Do you think printed books will still be around in 100 years?
MA: People were saying about five years ago that it's all going to be e-books, but guess what? It isn't. Apparently, there is a neurological difference in how we read onscreen and on paper. And you just  get a deeper read on paper.

CL: Even though you're so ingrained in print, you've been really active on social media and online writing communities. Why are you so eager to try it all?
 I'm curious about human tools and their multiple uses. Our first human tool was probably language. I had one of the early personal computers. I followed the digital world along and watched it evolve.

CL: How have you seen your writing change over the years?
MA: When I was 16 or 17, I wrote a story about this really old person—decrepit, dusty, mouldy, no hope, wasted life. That person was 40. So everything's relative. When you're a younger person, you don't know what it's like to be an older person. Whereas, if you're older, you've actually done all those stages of life; you can remember what they were like.

CL: You've accomplished so much in your life. Is there anything you still want to do?

MA: We're doing a graphic novel of The Handmaid's Tale, and the HBO TV series of the MaddAddam trilogy is in process. Alias Grace is also being adapted by [Canadian actor-director] Sarah Polley, who has already written the script for a six-part miniseries. But if you mean, have I got a super-new technology that will save the world? Not yet. 

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This story was originally part of "Foreword Thinking" in the September 2015 issue.
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Community & Current Events

Q&A with author Margaret Atwood