Margaret Atwood’s Creative Process
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: 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.
Interviewed by Max Miller
For the author, it’s not a question of sitting around and wondering what to write; it’s a question of deciding which of the "far-fetched and absurd" ideas she’s going to try to tackle.