Margaret Atwood is a Canadian novelist, poet, and essayist. She is best known for her novels, in which she creates strong, often enigmatic, women characters and excels in telling open-ended stories, while dissecting contemporary urban life and sexual politics. She is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history. In addition to the Arthur C. Clark Award-winning "The Handmaid’s Tale," her novels include "Cat’s Eye," which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, "Alias Grace," which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and "The Blind Assassin," winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. "Oryx and Crake" was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature in 2008. Her most recent novel is "The Year of the Flood."
Question: Why write speculative fiction?
Margaret Atwood: I grew up with it, so I’ve read "1984" probably three years after it was first published. I read "Brave New World" around that time in my life. I read a book called "Darkness and Noon," which is actually not speculative fiction or science fiction, it’s life in the purges of the Soviet Union, but it read to me very much like that kind of book. And I just... growing up in the '40s, I was still in the golden age of sci-fi, and I just knew it. So I also did some work on it earlier in my life and I guess I always wanted to write a book like that. And the first one that I wrote was called "The Handmaid’s Tale." And I wanted, among other things, to try to solve the problem that those kinds of book have, which I call the tour of the garbage disposal plant, in which the person says to the visiting character, “Well in your day, you did this terribly inefficient thing, but now we have this wonderful garbage disposal plant.” And there’s a lot of exposition like that and I want to be able to tell the story like that without those big chunks of exposition.
So partly it was a challenge, but partly it was also a number of burning issues that have now become even more burning. And it was the same with "Mad Adam Trilogy," which begins with Oryx and Crake and we save the world of the future from within a privileged environment. Our narrator, Jimmy, is of that environment, though not good at it. And in "Year of the Flood," we move outside the privileged part of that society into a pretty criminal level of it which, nonetheless, contains the very high-minded cult of the God’s Gardeners.
And in this future genetic modification is not only the only problem, we are also in an age of advanced climate change, for instance, which will bring with it a whole bunch of other problems that people are just beginning to think about that figure out.
Question: I understand you brought along an artifact inspired by "The Year of the Flood." What is it?
Margaret Atwood: Yes, my artifact is in fact this wonderful hat, which was made last year for a performance of :The Year of the Flood" when we were launching the book. We did performances and had music and dramatic elements and narration.
The God’s Gardeners recycle everything, so we have the hat that is twisted newspaper, it’s cardboard, this is plastic bags and we have the little plastic bag bow at the back. And the Kingston, Ontario, production of this thing, they made all the costumes. And they’ve all got hats like this. Since we’re traveling in Japan and recreating it all there, I’ve got the hat with me.
Question: Why do the God’s Gardeners shun technology?
Margaret Atwood: Well, in "The Year of the Flood," the Gardeners, a green recycling group, don’t use any technology. That’s their story. And the reason they don’t use it is that if you can see it, it can see you. It’s very leaky in that way. And one thing that people are using this kind of technology for is spying on other people. So security is a big issue. If you don’t want other people to read your emails, don’t send them. Number one.
Interviewed by Max Miller