So many queendoms, Margaret Atwood has, and so few rivals. Every Western reader knows her name, and nobody’s wrong, when they hear it, to think of feminism or futurism or environmental activism. Atwood might have devoted her life’s work to any one of these spheres, so highly does she rank in each. And yet, it’s the collision—and collusion—of all these worlds that makes her novels, stories, poems, essays, and even tweets endlessly compelling. Now 73, the Toronto-based literary legend laughs at retirement. She has just penned a new serial, Positron, for the longform fiction site Byliner, and like most of her bestknown work, it’s a sharply dystopian piece of speculative storytelling. Next spring, her first chamber opera, Pauline, premieres in Vancouver. Meanwhile, Atwood is always thinking of her next story, actively supporting her various causes, and dreaming up new inventions—like the LongPen, a remote book-signing device she patented in 2004. Will Atwood still be inscribing her Jane Hancock into copies of The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, or The Blind Assassin for tomorrow’s orange-eyed cyborgs? Let’s hope so. Here, over the course of two telephone conversations, Atwood considers the past, takes stock of the present, and praises the future (Hint: It’s the new BlackBerry 10).
I was recently thinking about your first novel, The Edible Woman , and how it shaped many of the ideas I now have about women and bodies and food and sex and survival.
It’s funny that people say that. I wasn’t even a feminist when I wrote that—that was years before feminism, as a movement, began. People also say that the book feels much more contemporary than it is.
Maybe that’s because not enough has changed for women.
Some things never will. I think we expect things to change more than they do.
When you write into the near future, thinking about how things might change, do you ever psych yourself out?
I spend a lot of time researching the basis for any prediction, whether it’s social or environmental or in some other way speculative. By the time I begin writing, there’s usually enough out there that makes my scenario a distinct possibility—but it’s only one of a set of possibilities, which is why nobody can ever predict the future. Most things are either not predictable, or not predictable from where any one individual is standing. You may think you’re basing your future on careful planning and wisdom, but then there’s a hurricane, or there’s an earthquake, or somebody flies a plane into a building
How far ahead do you plan for your own life?
Oh, not far at all—and partly for that reason. I have a will, of course, but you can’t predict every eventuality that may come along. I always have another book in me, but I can’t tell you what I’m doing next week.
Can you tell me what you’re doing after this phone call?
I’m drawing zombies.
I’m co-writing a book for Wattpad with Naomi Alderman. It’s called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home.
What is Wattpad?
It’s an online community for writers. You can be anybody you want on Wattpad. You can have a pseudonym. For young people just starting out—especially those who may have confidence issues and may not want to put it out there—I think it’s really good. If we don’t have young people writing, pretty soon we’re not going to have anybody writing.
What other advice would you give to a young writer?
Read and read and read and write and write and write. And get a day job.
In Positron, your new series for Byliner, the economy has become so dire that civilians are convinced to join prison colonies.
Well, it’s not very far from reality. I researched private prisons in America, and am very concerned that Canada, under [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper, wants to begin privatizing prisons here.
Positron’s male and female narrators are given equal “screen time,” as it were. Beyond that, the female—the wife—in the story has a higher ranking position in this prison colony than her husband. That felt like a shift in your thinking.
I haven’t written as much in the female voice as people seem to think I have. There have been male narrators. But yeah, her job is actually a bit more senior than his. He’s working in the chicken enclave, and she’s working pretty high up in the eradication enclave. [Laughs.] There is a lot of talk right now about the gender gap and where it exists and where it doesn’t. We just got our first female premier [Kathleen Wynne] in Ontario, Canada. It was very interesting that Hillary Clinton actually ran [for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008]. I don’t think any woman had run for the presidency in any serious way until then. Now Germany has a female leader [Angela Merkel, the country’s chancellor since 2005]. So things have shifted, and it’s an ongoing conversation. Another issue people are focusing on is the current gender imbalance in universities, where there are more females enrolled than males. Are young males giving up, or do they have more lucrative work elsewhere? Is it true that when women get into a field, suddenly men don’t want to do it anymore?
It’s fascinating to watch certain themes of yours evolve over decades. Do you remember the first thing you wrote?
My first pieces would have been in comic book form. Then I wrote a play when I was about 7 years old. Around the same time I wrote a chapter book about an aunt.
Was she your aunt?
An ant. A-N-T. Unfortunately, ants don’t do much in the first three stages of their lives, so it was quite boring in the beginning. That was probably a lesson in getting things started a bit earlier in a book.
At what point in writing a new work does the plot become clear to you?
I think it just develops from the setup. Basically, if it were a video game, you have the rules and then you write people inside those rules.
Do you play video games?
I played board games as a child, which is, believe it or not, the same kind of thing. Games of all kinds have a set of rules, and the action takes place within them. In narrative things, you can open that up by having somebody break the rules, or by having it so that the rules aren’t what you thought they were.
What is your own set of rules for writing?
They’re more like habits, and they’ve varied over time. I don’t think much about it, and the reason for that is this: Anybody who’s ever done any downhill skiing knows that if you stop in the middle and say, How am I doing this? you will fall over. The goal is to assimilate it to such an extent that you’re not consciously thinking about it.
What are you reading next?
What’s on my pile? I’m re-reading something called Explosion in a Cathedral by a wonderful novelist named Alejo Carpentier. I’m also reading the galleys of a book by Eduardo Galeano called Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History. It’s like a daybook in that it goes through the year and for each day there’s this weird thing that happened on it. And, as you might expect, I’m reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? I’m also reading this interesting book of stories by Drago Jančar called Joyce’s Pupil.
Do you read one after the other?
All at once. I’m a multiple type of person.
What about the future? Is it one thing, or many?
If we consider the present a dot, then the future is a number of different dots.
I thought so. Thanks for doing this—twice! I promise never again to record an interview on my phone and then leave my phone in a cab.
[Laughs] If you don’t mind my asking, what sort of new phone did you get? Because you might look at the new BlackBerry that just launched. I’m due for a new phone and am considering possibly doing that.
Is this a sponsored tweet?
No! Nobody pays me to say anything. If anything, they might pay me not to say things, but that doesn’t work either.
This and more in the Future issue, now at the Bullett Shop!
Photography by Mark Zibert