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Big Think Interview With Margaret Atwood
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: Does technology scare you?
Margaret Atwood: First of all, The Year of the Flood is about a future in which, due to a man-made virus, to which nobody has any immunity, the human population has dwindled to almost nothing. And of course, in books like this, it can never be really nothing because we have to have somebody in the story we are following. People ask me: "Is this science fiction or what is it?" And I say, well you can think of all science fiction as a great big banner and then you can think of subsets. And the science fiction proper subset involved things that we can’t do right now, such as be in a galaxy far away.
Speculative Fiction involves things that we can do right now, so I would call my book speculative fiction stretched a bit. It’s made from components that we already have, but those are pushed forward into the future and expanded. A lot of my Twitter followers send me strange science stories that they think fit in with my book, and I have to say, there are more and more of them coming along and we do now have the ability to do a man-made virus. And we certainly have the ability to, to change or morph viruses that we already have, that is scary.
Will anyone deploy this? You can’t actually deploy it unless you’re willing to take out your own side. So people doing biological warfare plans, and of course there are some, have to take that into consideration and probably unless you wanted to self-destruct you wouldn’t do that unless you’ve already developed an antidote for yourself.
So the question is, is there going to be anybody both knowledgeable enough and angry enough at the human race to do that? That’s a big question and I am not the only person who has thought that this might be a possibility. Bottom line is we’ve got the tools. Good part is, we’ve had atomic bombs for many decades now and we have not yet blown up the planet with them.
Question: Why does apocalyptic fiction become popular in waves?
Margaret Atwood: Okay, I think there’s two kinds of novels under discussion. One is the "ustopia," which is a combination of utopia and dystopia. Generally they turn out to be pretty much almost the same thing. And the other one is what you call an apocalypse. So one is about controlled societies, the other is about total breakdown. And you’re talking about the total breakdown thing. It seems to be so that they often come at turns of centuries. But they also often come when people have suddenly realized that things may not necessarily go on along the same set of assumptions that they have been going on for the last little while.
So I think what’s kicked off these ones is the realization that global warming is here and is already having consequences, and we’re going to have to either adapt to those consequences, or they’re going to be some pretty horrific social consequences; social and environmental consequences which turn out to be connected at the hip.
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.
Question: Why does Twitter appeal to you?
Margaret Atwood: Twitter is a very interesting phenomenon because you get all kinds of things going on and it’s not just one thing. You have people writing Haiku on it. You have people yelling at other people and they probably should realize that Twittering is publishing. And you can end up with a libel suit on their hands. That hasn’t quite sunk in, in some areas, but it’s true; so is blogging.
So people are interacting in these unprecedented sorts of ways that were not possible before the invention of social media like this. And we’re in the early stages of it. The good sides of it are, for instance, if you want the answers to a question and you put it out there, you’ll get the answers. Some of them may be wrong, but you’ll get a whole bunch of answers and then you can then sift through them and see which ones fit your question.
If you want help with something, and people often send out cries for help for their various causes over Twitter, it works with that too. So there are all kinds of good uses for it and everything has a dark side; there are bad uses for it too. It doesn’t depend on the technology, it depends on the users, but the technology does facilitate a kind of instant communication that can just go viral and become a new story.
So Twitter is now part of the news. Twitter is not part of people making news. And all of the news outlets have got their blogs and online versions and Twitter feeds.
Question: What makes for a good tweet?
Margaret Atwood: There’s all kinds of good tweets. Some of them are just people replying to other people’s questions. Sometimes you get a joke going. For instance during the Canadian Olympics, the Canadians were saying, “own the podium,” and I put out something that said, “Oh, it’s a brash to say... it’s a bit un-Canadian, it’s a bit brash to say, 'own the podium,' what do you suggest?” And the Twitter folks piled all these pretty hilarious suggestions that they could follow by a hash tag that said, '@podium.' So they were saying things like, “A podium for me meant the podium, “Maybe squeeze over a bit so I can just snuggle up to the podium.” So they went on like that for a while. And right now, we seem to be proposing a turnip for the Prime Minister due to a remark made in an article saying, “I would vote for a turnip if it were transparent, accountable, listened to people, and wasn’t Parliamentary Democrat.” So the turnip is now under some pressure to become a write-in candidate or possibly form its own party. But being a vegetable, it’s taking a bit of time to think this over.
Meanwhile, we are learning a bit about it, this turnip, its likes and dislikes. And it did go to a publishing lunch today to discuss its book deal.
He’s not usually this spiffy-looking. He put on his special New York outfit to go to the publishing lunch. You can see it looks a bit like a cabbage, but that’s what’s in this season for turnips. And he did have a nice lunch and I think he’s going to my reading and interview tonight at the the 92nd Street Y and I think he’ll be in Portland, Oregon talking to Ursula Le Guin, and I think he’s going to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he hopes to meet with Stephen King. I shouldn’t say "he" because he doesn’t actually have a gender. I should say, "it." He's an all round candidate.
Question: What do you make of the need to perform one’s life on Twitter and Facebook?
Margaret Atwood: Well it is just an extension of the diary. And there is a wonderful book called, "The Assassin’s Cloak," which takes diary entries from all centuries and arranges them according to day of the year. So you can turn to January the 1st and there will be an entry from Lord Byron, and there will be one from somebody during World War II, and there will be one from Brian Eno. And then on January 2, there will be somebody else.
People used to perform their lives this way to themselves in their diaries, and also through letters to other people. So for me, anything that happens in social media is an extension of stuff we were already doing in some other way. So, it’s all human communication. And the form that most closely resembles the “tweet” is the telegram of old, which also was limited because you paid by the letter. And so short communications very rapidly sent.
So all of these things, the postal service, et cetera, they’re all improvements, if you like, or modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form. Even African tribal drums, for instance, could send very complex messages over great distances. They were very rapid, they were very well-worked out and communications could just go like wildfire using that medium of communications.
So all of this stuff is what we do now, but it’s not different in nature from what we have always done, which is communicate with one another, send messages to one another, and perform our lives. We’ve been doing that for a long time.
Question: But it’s no longer just about sending a message; it’s about being seen sending a message, right?
Margaret Atwood: It’s very interesting. Once upon a time in social lives, say before the 19th century, people coded themselves or were coded by the authorities according to their clothing. Unless they differentiated themselves that way or they were differentiated, people were forbidden to wear this or that or the other things and they had to wear this or that or the other thing. And therefore, it was a visual performance for the benefit of anybody looking at them.
And we have reduced clothing, I think, to a much more horizon... it’s much more horizontal. You can’t tell by looking at somebody what level of society they come from unless it’s really at the bottom or really at the top. The kind of jeans and... the jeans outfit is pretty ubiquitous.
So maybe we feel the need to perform ourselves in some other way. And if you think that what goes up on people’s blogs is really the full content of their lives, of course, you’re quite wrong. It’s what they’re doing in the spotlight. It’s their turn. And this spotlight they can shine it on themselves and they can go in there and sort of dance about and create a persona for themselves. Of course it’s not the whole story.
Question: How do you begin working on a new book?
Margaret Atwood: Okay, where does a book come from? People have been thinking about that for a long time. How do you begin? How do you get into it? I would say that if you’re not finding this happens somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity. I mean, a lot of people say, “I want to be a writer.” And you say, “Well, what do you want to write?” And they say, “I don’t know.”
So for me, I think it’s not a question of sitting around wondering what I’m going to write. It’s a question of sitting around wondering which of the far-fetched and absurd ideas I’m going to try to tackle. Sometimes, I think I should be a lot safer and less risk-taking and stick to somebody, or something, a little bit more manageable.
But those aren’t the things that appeal to me, unfortunately. I wish I had a formula, I wish I had a way of preceding that would be kind of, you know, this is what Chapter One is always like, and this is what Chapter Two is always like. But it isn’t. I just have to plunge into it. And it’s usually the one... that the voice of sanity and reason is telling me not to write. It’s usually that one that I end up writing.
Question: What is your writing process?
Margaret Atwood: My absolute opening entry is always a handheld object with a point on one end. So it’s going to be either a pencil or a pen. And then it is applied to a flat substance of some kind, which is usually a piece of paper, but could be a piece of cardboard if one’s stuck without the paper. Or even my arm when things get really bad.
I think that people should carry notebooks with them at all times just for those moments because there’s nothing worse than having that moment and finding that you’re unable to set it down except with a knife on your leg or something. You actually don’t want to do that. So I recommend the paper and the pencil. Or if you must, some other stylus writing device that provides a permanent record of what you just set down.
When we get a bit further into it, I have to say that I do love the sticky notes. I like them. I like the bedside notebook for those thoughts that are so important at about 12:00 midnight when you wake up in the morning and can’t figure out why you thought that. So all of that goes on.
And then, do you know what a rolling barrage is? A rolling barrage comes from World War I and it’s when you run forward and then crouch down and your side fires over your head. Then you stand up, run forward and your side fires over your head again. If you get the timing wrong, of course, it’s unfortunate.
So, I start typing on a computer now. Computers were very helpful for me because I was always a bad typist and a bad speller. I start typing up my handwritten text while I’m still writing it at the back. So the rolling barrage of typing goes on while the writing creeps forward along the ground, if you will.
Question: How long does it normally take you to write a novel?
Margaret Atwood: First of all, there is no normal time that it takes me to write a novel. It very much depends on the length of the novel and how well or badly it’s going. And some of them have taken quite a long time because I have started off on the wrong foot, I have gotten quite far down the path and realized I have to change everything, go back to the beginning, start again, and that can happens several times. So that, of course, takes up time.
Some of them are quite quick because you’ve started off the right way and you can just roll with it. I don’t know if you’ve every done any white water canoeing, or surfing. But that can be an exhilarating experience, and that’s when the wave is going with you. With white water canoeing, you actually want to go faster than the water and with surfing; you want to go with it. So when that happens, it’s really terrific. But when that doesn’t happen, it could be very frustrating and could take up a lot of time.
Question: Are you a surfer?
Margaret Atwood: Am I a surfer? Not anymore dear. Not anymore. I would break my neck.
Question: What is the hardest part about writing fiction?
Margaret Atwood: The hardest part about writing fiction is the part that you know that you have to put in that is expository. You know, you have to get... it’s like the parts in a stage play where you have to get the characters on and off the stage. So you have to think of some reason why they’re now going to walk off the stage. And then you have to make sure that the timing is right to enable them to get off the stage. So the parts of the novel are the parts when you know there’s stuff the reader has to know, but it’s not very interesting stuff for you to write. Those are the parts that I don’t like and if you’re competent enough, they won’t be able to tell which those parts are, we hope. We’re always hoping. We’re always hoping that the hard parts won’t be found out, if you like.
The other hard part, of course, is when you’ve written a spectacular passage with all kinds of wonderful worlds in it and it’s just great, but it doesn’t fit and you have to take it out. Too bad.
Question: Do you write poetry as well as to prose because one is better suited for exploring certain topics than the other?
Margaret Atwood: I write both because nobody every told me not to do it. Whereas I understand for people who go to creative writing schools and things they’re told they really should specialize in one or the other, but since I never did that, I’m too old to have done that, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be writing whatever I felt like writing.
That said, I think it is partly a matter of wavelengths. That is, in a poem, everything is very condensed so the waves are very short. The things that are being rhythmically connected are quite close together. In a short story, they’re a bit further apart, and in a novel, the waves can be like that, and something that you set up on page 100 and reprise on page 200 may not actually culminate until page 300. So it’s different from line four reprising line one and then connecting with line eight. Poems are very condensed, lyric poems. If you’re writing a long narrative poem, that’s different. It’s more like a novel.
So that’s about all I can tell you about that except that the structure is different because of length. And obviously in a novel you have a lot more time. In fact, novels are about time. Whereas lyric poems are not necessarily about time; novels are always about time. You have a lot more time to develop people’s characters and take them through changes. Novels are about change.
Question: What is Canadian humor like?
Margaret Atwood: Whenever you see something about Canada mentioned in a U.S. show, there’s bound to be a Canadian involved with it who is making some sort of Canadian joke. And there are quite a few Canadian jokes which are instantly understandable to Canadians and sometimes baffling to other people. Running a turnip for Prime Minister would probably be considered unbecoming levity in many countries. They would never do it, whereas Canadians have a reprehensible habit of making fun of just about everything.
Question: What is the biggest misconception Americans have about Canadians?
Margaret Atwood: That it's always cold. Let me see, what else might they have... you tell me. You tell me. I’ll tell you a Canadian joke and see if you get it.
So it’s not my joke, it’s a joke by somebody called Nancy White who said, “What does a Canadian girl say when you ask her if she’d like some sex?” She says, “Only if you’re having some yourself.”
So one of the Canadian jokes is that Canadians have this ultra-politeness, which is not always true.
Question: How are eBooks changing the way we consume books and media?
Margaret Atwood: Well eBooks are another method of text delivery. And I did run a... I ran a blog on this subject sometime ago and it was called "Three Reasons for Keeping Paper Books." And the three reasons were: solar flares which would wipe out communications, towers, and also any electronic media that you might happen to have stored. Grid overload resulting in brown-outs which would have similar effects. And internet overload. Unless people are going to build the grid out more, going to build the net out more, There’s pretty soon not going to have much space on it because of all the spam and porn to the percentage of 95, I’m told. So it’s very crowded out there.
So building out the net, building out the grid and what are you going to do about the solar flares. Well I guess a lead-lined box is about the best you can do. All of these things point out the fact that electronic storage is pretty fragile. If you want to keep something permanently, you should probably keep it in paper form and that is why an e-version of your Will is not acceptable. Another reason is it’s very hackable and forgeable. As I said, the net is leaky. And a number of other legal documents, which of course drives people crazy because those paper things take up so much room. So it’s a problem facing businesses, what to do with the paper? What is the alternative to paper? When can you use e-storage, etc.? It’s also a problem for people, for instance, with small apartments who like to read, where are they going to put all the books?
The e-reader gives you portability, it gives you instant accessibility and it gives you the possibility of having whole bunch of books with you at once on this little device. So for that, it’s very, very handy. Those are the pluses.
I personally think it’s going to increase reading because you can acquire a book very quickly. You don’t have to wait, you can just push the button and it’s there. If you really like it and want to keep it, you may then go get a paper version. It does remove the element of serendipity, by which I mean, you walk into a bookstore with the idea of getting this book and you see three or four other books that you really feel you must have, but you wouldn’t have known about them unless you run into the store. So how to create in an e-version that experience of serendipity. It’s really hard.
So people are thinking about this a lot the other virtue of the e-reader may be that it’s helpful for kids who are having reading problems because they an isolate blocks of text and make the letters bigger. So it makes it more visible. They can see it better, maybe. I don’t think they’ve done the studies on that yet, but it’s being talked about.
Question: What is happening in the brain when we read?
Margaret Atwood: The neurology of reading is another thing that people are writing about and investigating a lot. That is, what is happening in your brain when you read? It turns out because I know a friend who had this kind of stroke that you can have a kind of stroke that makes it possible for you to write, you can still write, but you can’t read what you’ve just written. So reading and writing you would think would be in the same little box in the brain, but they’re not.
Anything that we do is built on a pre-existing brain platform or program which is then adapted for other uses. So language is pretty old and it’s also built-in. So children arrive in the world and then they pick up language just by being around other people who are talking. Nobody sits down and teaches them.
Reading, on the other hand, you will not pick up unless somebody spend some time with you, and writing is even... writing by hand is apparently even harder. So what are the platforms that these things are built on, and it has been proposed that reading is built on very ancient program that had to do with reading animal tracks. So what you’re doing is you’re looking for visual signs made by somebody else and you are interpreting those back into a story that originally, of course, allowed you to track the animal or to figure out if the animal was tracking you. Equally important. You were able to tell what was around in your vicinity by reading those tracks.
So what are those marks we make? What are those marks on a sheet of paper, piece of stone, clay tablet? They’re like animal tracks in that we look at them; we translate them back into something which is language. And that language can be put together in our brains to tell a story, create a poem, whatever the writing may have been.
As for the writing, those are the tracks we make. So that’s probably based on some sort of display or marking program. And that too is pretty old. And if you go back to cave paintings, those – the hand prints on the cave, drawings on the cave, the markings, the pieces of stone or bone that they’ve now found with rhythmic scratches on them. They’re all forms of signaling, so it took awhile for that to become what we now know as alphabets or language systems, but it probably all had its origins in that form of marking. And somebody has a theory that all of the alphabets are taken from natural... that they had their origins in natural signs, pictographs depicting natural things.
Question: Why do we need to tell stories?
Margaret Atwood: Language is one of the most primary facts of our existence. It’s something that you say, what is human? Well many animals have methods of communicating with one another but none of them have our kind of extremely elaborate grammar. So it is... it’s right dead, smack in the center of what it is to be human, the ability to tell a story.
There is another theory that has it that the narrative art is an evolved adaptation on which we got in the Pliestocine because those who had it had a much greater edge. They had a much greater survival edge on those that did not have it. If I can tell you that right over there in that river was where the crocodile ate Uncle George, you do not have to test that in your own life by going over there and getting eaten by the crocodile. And I can tell you all sorts of other things that are very useful to you for survival in your world if I can tell you a story. And we know that people learn and assimilate information much more through stories than they do through charts and graphs and statistics. You might want to back up those things with the math. But what really hits people is the story because it’s not an intellectual thing and it’s not just a scream. It’s not pure emotion; it’s a melding of those two things, which is where we exist as human beings.
We’re not thought machines, we’re not screaming machines, we are thought/feeling machines, if we’re machines at all, let's pretend we’re not. We are thought/feeling entities. In fact, some people who have done studies on it say that if you remove the emotion from the person through some accident, they have a lot of trouble making decisions because they try to reason everything out and you actually can’t. It’s endless.
Question: Do new publishing tools like Twitter mean that anyone can be a writer?
Margaret Atwood: A lot of people sing in the bathtub. It sounds really good. There's good acoustics in there. But they’re not singers. By that, I don’t mean they can’t or don’t sing. I mean that it’s not their profession to sing. People do not pay them to stand on a stage and make noises come out of their mouth. So, it’s partly... it’s partly a difference of job. We love those moments in amateur night shows, which have now become so big, like “American Idol” and “Does Britain Have Talent,” et cetera. We just love that moment when the person steps forward who has been a garage mechanic, or something, and bursts into prize-winning opera. We just love it. It sort of chokes you up. Because I think it appeals to our human-ness. This is something we all might possibly do, even if we do have some other job that we don’t like very much. And people say that ordinary people aren’t interested in the arts are just dead wrong. Everybody kind of is and they all do something in their life. It’s like that, even if it’s woodworking in the cellar and knitting their own special knit patterns. They’re doing something creative because we are a very creative species.
The difference between everybody doing it, no matter what their day job may be and the people who are professionals is that the people who are professionals have somehow been able to cross that threshold to the place where they have an informed audience and where they can scratch a living out of it in some way.
So I think that’s partly it, and in order to do that, you have to be probably pretty dedicated. That is, you have to put the work in it... you have to put the practice in. So as I say to people, you can’t just sit down at the piano and be a concert pianist. There’s the part where you have to practice. And there’s the drudgery, there’s the work, there’s the hours.
I think it’s Malcolm Gladwell that has a theory about how may hours you have to put in to get really good at something. And that is why I will never, ever be a star ballet dancer. However much I may like to leap about, I am not that person because I did not start when I was 12, or whatever it was, and put in the practice.
Interviewed by Max Miller
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- Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
- "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
- In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.