Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared along with her a household legend a couple of attainable seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan city of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. “The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,” Atwood mentioned just lately. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” Webster turned referred to as Half-Hanged Mary. The maiden title of Atwood’s grandmother was Webster, and the household tree will be traced again to John Webster, the fifth governor of Connecticut. “On Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn’t,” Atwood mentioned. “So take your pick.”

Atwood made the artist’s decide: she selected the story. She as soon as wrote a vivid narrative poem in the voice of Half-Hanged Mary—in Atwood’s telling, a sardonic, independent-minded crone who was focused by neighbors “for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin . . . a weedy farm in my own name, / and a surefire cure for warts.” Webster’s grim endurance at the finish of the rope (“Most will have only one death. / I will have two.”) grants her a perverse form of freedom. She can now say something: “The words boil out of me, / coil after coil of sinuous possibility. / The cosmos unravels from my mouth, / all fullness, all vacancy.” In 1985, Atwood made Webster one of two dedicatees of her best-known novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian imaginative and prescient of the close to future, during which the United States has turn into a fundamentalist theocracy, and the few girls whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental air pollution are pressured into childbearing. The different dedicatee of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was Perry Miller, the scholar of American mental historical past; Atwood studied beneath him at Harvard, in the early sixties, extending her information of Puritanism nicely past hearth tales.

Having embraced the heritage of Half-Hanged Mary—and having, at seventy-seven, reached an age at which sardonic independent-mindedness is permissible, and even anticipated—Atwood is winningly recreation to play the function of the clever elder who may need a spell up her sleeve. In January, I visited her in her house city of Toronto, and inside a couple of hours of our assembly, whereas having espresso at a crowded café, she carried out what mates know as a well-recognized occasion trick. After explaining that she had picked up the precepts of medieval palmistry a long time in the past, from an art-historian neighbor whose specialty was Hieronymus Bosch, Atwood spent a number of disconcerting minutes poring over my fingers. First, she famous my coronary heart line and the line of my mind, and what their relative positions revealed about my capability for getting issues performed. She wiggled my thumbs, a take a look at for stubbornness. She examined my life line—“You’re looking quite healthy at the moment,” she mentioned, to my aid—then instructed me to shake my fingers out and allow them to fall right into a resting place, going through upward. She regarded them thoughtfully. “Well, the Virgin Mary you’re not,” she mentioned, dryly. “But you knew that.”

Atwood has lengthy been Canada’s most well-known author, and present occasions have polished the oracular sheen of her status. With the election of an American President whose marketing campaign trafficked brazenly in the deprecation of girls—and who, on his first working day in workplace, signed an government order withdrawing federal funds from abroad girls’s-health organizations that supply abortion companies—the novel that Atwood devoted to Mary Webster has reappeared on best-seller lists. “The Handmaid’s Tale” can also be about to be serialized on tv, in an adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, that may stream on Hulu. The timing couldn’t be extra fortuitous, although many individuals may need that it had been much less so. In {a photograph} taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held an indication bearing a slogan that spoke to the second: “make margaret atwood fiction again.”

If the election of Donald Trump had been fiction, Atwood maintains, it might be too implausible to fulfill readers. “There are too many wild cards—you want me to believe that the F.B.I. stood up and said this, and that the guy over at WikiLeaks did that?” she mentioned. “Fiction has to be something that people would actually believe. If you had published it last June, everybody would have said, ‘That is never going to happen.’ ” Atwood is a buoyant doomsayer. Like a talented physician, she takes evident satisfaction in offering an correct analysis, even when the cultural prognosis is bleak. She attended the Toronto iteration of the Women’s March, carrying a wide-brimmed floppy hat the colour of Pepto-Bismol: not a lot a pussy hat as the chapeau of a lioness. Among the indicators she noticed that day, her favourite was one held by a girl near her personal age; it mentioned, “i can’t believe i’m still holding this fucking sign.” Atwood remarked, “After sixty years, why are we doing this again? But, as you know, in any area of life, it’s push and pushback. We have had the pushback, and now we are going to have the push again.”

Unlike many writers, Atwood doesn’t require a specific desk, organized in a specific means, earlier than she will be able to work. “There’s a good and a bad side to that,” she instructed me. “If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.” The good facet is that she will be able to write anyplace, and does so, prolifically. She is equally uninhibited about style. Atwood’s bibliography runs to about sixty books—novels, poetry, short-story collections, works of criticism, kids’s books, and, most just lately, a comic-book collection a couple of part-feline, part-avian, part-human superhero referred to as Angel Catbird. She is offhanded about her versatility. “I always wrote more than one type of thing,” she mentioned. “Nobody told me not to.” On one event, over tea, she confirmed me her left hand: it had writing on it. “When all else fails, you do have a surface you can write on,” she mentioned.

Atwood travels steadily, and has typically spent months at a time residing in overseas nations, typically beneath situations {that a} much less versatile artist would possibly discover impossibly distracting. She began writing “The Handmaid’s Tale” on a clunky rented typewriter whereas on a fellowship in West Berlin, in 1984. (Orwell was on her thoughts.) She spent a winter in the distant English village of Blakeney, in Norfolk, the place her solely means of calling North America was a phone kiosk that was normally used for storing potatoes, and the place the stone-floored cottage during which she wrote was so chilly that she developed chilblains on her toes. When her daughter, Jess, who was born in 1976, was eighteen months outdated, Atwood and her companion, the novelist Graeme Gibson, made a round-the-world journey. After winding by Europe, they visited Afghanistan—a eager pupil of navy historical past, Atwood wished to see the terrain the place the British had been defeated—in addition to India and Singapore. They proceeded to Australia, for the Adelaide Literary Festival, then returned to Canada, through Fiji and Hawaii. They made do with carry-on baggage the complete means. ^^

Home is a mansion in the Annex neighborhood of Toronto, close to the college. She and Gibson have lived there for greater than thirty years, and a basement workplace serves as the headquarters of Atwood’s firm, O. W. Toad, Ltd. (The whimsical title is an anagram of “Atwood,” however typically there are postal inquiries as to the existence of a Mr. Toad.) Atwood doesn’t drive, and, for train in addition to for effectivity, she likes to stroll round her neighborhood; she typically encounters en route some pal of a half-century’s standing, and they’re going to cease and focus on the previous and future surgical procedures of family members—the inevitable discourse of the septuagenarian. Sometimes she drags a heavy buying cart, loaded with books, for donation to the native library.

“Let me know when those two kids across the street start crying.”

Atwood is enormously nicely learn, and is an evangelist for books she admires, particularly by younger writers. When I used to be visiting, she pressed into my fingers “Stay with Me,” a novel by the twenty-nine-year-old Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo. Sarah Polley, the Canadian movie director and author, who’s a pal of Atwood’s, instructed me, “Usually, after seeing her, I come home with a full notebook, half in her handwriting and half in mine, of every movie and book I had heard of while talking to her—a full course load.” Polley just lately wrote the script for a six-part Netflix adaptation of Atwood’s 1996 novel, “Alias Grace,” which is predicated on a true-life homicide thriller in nineteenth-century rural Canada. The e book earned Atwood her third of 5 Booker Prize nominations.

Atwood is warmly acknowledged in Toronto, whether or not she is on the avenue, in a restaurant, or in the subway. (She as soon as slipped me one of her senior-citizen tickets, with a sly arch of the eyebrow.) Traffic cops nod to her in crosswalks, and each encounter I had along with her was interrupted by a supplicant autograph hunter or selfie seeker. She by no means declined. “In the age of social media, you cannot say no, because you’ll get ‘Mean Margaret Atwood was rude to me in a restaurant,’ ” she instructed me one lunchtime, after graciously signing yet one more younger girl’s pocket book. (Atwood speaks in a low, ironical monotone however adopts a querulous squeak when impersonating imagined detractors.) She would look hanging even when she weren’t acquainted. She owns an array of brightly coloured winter coats—jewel purple, imperial purple—with faux-fur-trimmed hoods that body her face, as do her plentiful curls of silver hair. She has excessive cheekbones and an aquiline nostril, the form of options that age has a tough time withering. Her pores and skin is evident and translucent, of the type that writers of well-liked Victorian fiction related to good ethical character.

One morning, I accompanied her to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, at the University of Toronto, the place she has donated her archive: 4 hundred and seventy-four bins’ value of papers, to date. She had requested upfront to see supplies associated to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and a small school room had been reserved for our use. Boxes had been rolled in on a cart, and one of them contained Atwood’s handwritten draft. On an early web page, she describes the plain contours of the room during which Offred, the novel’s narrator, lives—“A chair, a table, a lamp”—although Atwood had not but refined the element that, in the printed model, offers the opening paragraph of the second chapter a menacing energy: “There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.” Another field was labelled “Handmaid’s Tale: Background,” and Atwood pried the field open to disclose recordsdata containing sheaves of newspaper clippings from the mid-eighties.

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“Clip-clippety-clip, out of the newspaper I clipped things,” she mentioned, as we appeared by the cuttings. There had been tales of abortion and contraception being outlawed in Romania, and experiences from Canada lamenting its falling delivery charge, and articles from the U.S. about Republican makes an attempt to withhold federal funding from clinics that supplied abortion companies. There had been experiences about the menace to privateness posed by debit playing cards, which had been a novelty at the time, and accounts of U.S. congressional hearings dedicated to the regulation of poisonous industrial emissions, in the wake of the lethal gasoline leak in Bhopal, India. An Associated Press merchandise reported on a Catholic congregation in New Jersey being taken over by a fundamentalist sect during which wives had been referred to as “handmaidens”—a phrase that Atwood had underlined.


In writing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood was scrupulous about together with nothing that didn’t have a historic antecedent or a contemporary level of comparability. (She prefers that her future-fantasy books be labelled “speculative fiction” fairly than “science fiction.” “Not because I don’t like Martians . . . they just don’t fall within my skill set,” she wrote in the introduction to “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination,” an essay assortment that she printed in 2011.) The ritualized procreation in the novel—successfully, state-sanctioned rape—is extrapolated from the Bible. “ ‘Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her,’ ” Atwood recited. “Obviously, they stuck the two together and out came the baby, and it was given to Rachel. No kidding. It is right there in the text.” In Atwood’s e book, the Handmaids are cultivated, like livestock. “I’m taken to the doctor’s once a month, for tests: urine, hormones, cancer smear, blood test,” Offred recounts. “The same as before, except that now it’s obligatory.” Only after finishing a number of chapters does the reader queasily notice that Offred’s innocuous-sounding title is a designation of possession: the Commander in whose family the narrator serves is known as Fred. A decade in the past, the e book was banned from excessive faculties in San Antonio, Texas, on the floor that it was anti-Christian and excessively express about intercourse. In an open letter to the faculty district, Atwood identified that the Bible has a great deal extra to say about intercourse than her e book does, and defended her fiction’s important truthfulness, speculative or not. “If you see a person heading toward a huge hole in the ground, is it not a friendly act to warn him?” she wrote.

With the novel, she supposed not simply to pose the important query of dystopian fiction—“Could it happen here?”—but additionally to counsel ways in which it had already occurred, right here or elsewhere. While residing in West Berlin, Atwood visited Poland, the place martial legislation had solely just lately been lifted; many dissidents had been nonetheless in jail. She already knew members of the Polish resistance from the Second World War, who had gone into exile in Canada. “I remember one person saying a very telling thing: ‘Pray you will never have occasion to be a hero,’ ” she mentioned. Atwood’s longtime literary agent, Phoebe Larmore, instructed me of seeing Atwood throughout the writing of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “I had been quite ill that year, and Margaret came and sat on my sofa, and I think she looked worse than I did,” Larmore recalled. “I asked her what was happening. She said, ‘It’s the new novel. It scares me. But I have to write it.’ ”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” turned a best-seller, regardless of some sniffy critiques, like one in the Times, by Mary McCarthy, who wrote, “Even when I try, in the light of these palely lurid pages, to take the Moral Majority seriously, no shiver of recognition ensues.” It has since bought so many thousands and thousands of copies that Atwood considers them uncountable. Her pal the novelist Valerie Martin was the first to learn the completed manuscript; they had been each educating in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “There is kind of a disagreement about what I said,” Martin instructed me. “She says that I said, ‘There is something in it.’ But what I think I said is: ‘You are going to be rich.’ ” The e book rapidly turned canonical. Atwood’s daughter was 9 when it was printed; by the time she was in highschool, it was required studying for commencement.

Despite the novel’s present air of timeliness, the contours of the dystopian future that Atwood imagined in the eighties don’t map intently onto the current second—though current information pictures of asylum seekers fleeing throughout the U.S. border into Canada have a chilling resonance with the opening moments of the tv collection, which exhibits Moss, not but enlisted as a Handmaid, making an attempt to flee from the U.S. to its northern neighbor, the place democracy prevails. Still, the U.S. in 2017 doesn’t present rapid indicators of turning into Gilead, Atwood’s imagined theocratic American republic. President Trump will not be an adherent of conventional household values; he’s a serial divorcer. He will not be recognized to be a person of spiritual religion; his Sundays are spent on the golf course.

What does really feel acquainted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the blunt misogyny of the society that Atwood portrays, and which Trump’s vocal repudiation of “political correctness” has loosed into frequent parlance in the present day. Trump’s vilification of Hillary Clinton, Atwood believes, is extra explicable when seen by the lens of the Puritan witch-hunts. “You can find Web sites that say Hillary was actually a Satanist with demonic powers,” she mentioned. “It is so seventeenth-century that you can hardly believe it. It’s right out of the subconscious—just lying there, waiting to be applied to people.” The legacy of witch-hunting, and the sense of disgrace that it engendered, Atwood suggests, is a permanent American blight. “Only one of the judges ever apologized for the witch trials, and only one of the accusers ever apologized,” she mentioned. Whenever tyranny is exercised, Atwood warns, it’s clever to ask, “Cui bono?” Who income by it? Even when those that survived the accusations levelled towards them had been later exonerated, solely meagre reparations had been made. “One of the keys to America is that your neighbor may be a Communist, a serial killer, or in league with satanic forces,” Atwood mentioned. “You really don’t trust your fellow-citizens very much.”

Now, Atwood argues, girls have been placed on discover that hard-won rights could also be solely provisional. “It’s the return to patriarchy,” she mentioned, as she paged by the clippings. “Look at his Cabinet!” she mentioned of Trump. “Look at the kind of laws that people have put through in the states. Absolutely they want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and they will have to deal with the consequences if they do. You’re going to have a lot more orphanages, aren’t you? A lot more dead women, a lot more illegal abortions, a lot more families with children in them left without a mother. They want it ‘back to the way it was.’ Well, that is part of the way it was.”

Atwood was born in Ottawa, however she spent formative stretches of her early years in the wilderness—first in northern Quebec, after which north of Lake Superior. Her father, Carl Atwood, was an entomologist, and, till Atwood was nearly out of elementary faculty, the household handed all however the coldest months in nearly full isolation at insect-research stations; at one level, they lived in a log cabin that her father had helped assemble.

Her mom, additionally named Margaret—amongst her intimates, the novelist goes by Peggy—was a dietitian. In the months in the woods, she secured workbooks from faculty for Atwood and her brother, Harold, who’s three years her senior. “The faster you could do them, the sooner you could go out and play, so I became very rapid and superficial in my execution of those sorts of things,” Atwood mentioned. In inclement climate, the kids amused themselves by making comedian books and by studying. A favourite e book was “Grimms’ Fairy Tales,” which Atwood’s dad and mom purchased, by mail order, in 1945. “I don’t remember finding any of them frightening,” she wrote later. “By and large, bad things happened only to bad people, which was reassuring; though children have a bloodthirsty sense of justice, they don’t learn mercy until later.”

Her father had grown up poor, in rural Nova Scotia. Her mom, whose household was additionally from Nova Scotia, grew up in barely higher circumstances: Atwood’s maternal grandfather was a rustic physician, and an aunt had been the first girl to get a grasp’s diploma in historical past from the University of Toronto. Atwood’s dad and mom had been resilient and curious and dedicated to the open air, and the Atwood kids had been inspired to be the similar. They sledded throughout a nonetheless frozen lake at the begin of the season, and canoed throughout it throughout the summer time months. In Atwood’s second novel, “Surfacing,” a psychological thriller threaded with twisted household relations that was printed in 1972, she depicted the panorama of her youth with unsentimental, sensual precision: “The water was covered with lily pads, the globular yellow lilies with their thick center snouts pushing up from among them. . . . When the paddles hit bottom on the way across, gas bubbles from decomposing vegetation rose and burst with a stench of rotten eggs or farts.” When Atwood was about ten, her father constructed a trip cabin on an unoccupied island in the lake. The household nonetheless retreats there in the summer time.


In 1948, Margaret’s father obtained an appointment at the University of Toronto. (Three years later, one other daughter, Ruth, was born.) Margaret, having been raised as her brother’s peer by an unshrinking mom, was unschooled in the conventions of little-girl society. “In the woods, you wore pants not because it was butch but because if you didn’t wear pants and tuck the tops into your socks you would get blackflies up your legs,” she mentioned. “They make little holes in you, into which they inject an anticoagulant. You don’t feel them when they are doing it, and then you take your clothes off and find out you are covered with blood.” In “Cat’s Eye” (1988), Atwood drew on the expertise of being transferred from a navigable wilderness to the extra treacherous civilization of prepubescent ladies. The e book’s narrator, Elaine, explains that she has a classmate who “tells me her hair is honey-blond, that her haircut is called a pageboy, that she has to go to the hairdresser’s every two months to get it done. I haven’t known there are such things as pageboys and hairdressers.”

Atwood began writing in earnest in highschool. Her dad and mom, who lived by the Depression, had been encouraging however sensible. She instructed me, “My mother said, caustically, ‘If you are going to be a writer, you had better learn to spell.’ I said, airily, ‘Others will do that for me.’ And they do.” She adopted her brother to the University of Toronto. (A neurophysiologist, Harold Atwood is a professor emeritus in the division of physiology.) Atwood enrolled in the philosophy division, however after discovering that logical positivism was its mainstay, fairly than ethics and aesthetics, she switched to literature.

The college’s literature curriculum was unapologetically British: she began with “Beowulf” and took it from there. Canadian literature had but to be thought of worthy of research. A decade later, in 1972, Atwood made a contribution to its institution as a correct area, along with her lucid survey “Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.” In that e book, which made her a family title in Canada, she persuasively posited that, whereas the controlling concept of English literature is the island, and the pervasive image of American literature is the frontier, the dominant theme in Canadian literature is survival: “Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else.”

As an undergraduate, she audited Northrop Frye’s celebrated course on the Bible and literature. Frye helped her safe a fellowship at Harvard, the place, in the sixties, she started to jot down a doctoral thesis on what she referred to as the “English Metaphysical Romance”—the gothic fantasy novels of the nineteenth century. She by no means completed it. Atwood had launched into an educational profession not for the love of educating or scholarship however as a result of making a residing as a author appeared an implausible aspiration. “It was thought presumptuous—this is way before the age of creative-writing programs, and writers, to be serious, ought to be dead,” she recalled.

Atwood began her profession as a poet. Her first professionally printed assortment, “The Circle Game,” gained the Governor General’s Award in 1966, and has by no means been out of print. The poems, which take the ring-around-the-rosy kids’s recreation as a place to begin for an exploration of male-female relationships, present Atwood’s early aptitude for the unflinching, visceral metaphor. A lover examines the speaker’s face “indifferently / yet with the same taut curiosity / with which you might regard / a suddenly discovered part / of your own body: / a wart perhaps.” Atwood’s first novel, “The Edible Woman,” which was written in 1964 and printed 5 years later, is a recent satire during which a younger girl, having simply turn into engaged—her husband-to-be is clearly the mistaken man—finds herself unable to eat.

Some reviewers hailed Atwood’s work as a voice of the burgeoning feminist motion. (A reviewer in Time mentioned that the novel had “the kick of a perfume bottle converted into a Molotov cocktail.”) She resisted the identification. “I was not in New York, where all of that kicked off, in 1969,” she mentioned. “I was in Edmonton, Alberta, where there was no feminist movement, and would not be for quite some time.” Atwood was then married to Jim Polk, who had been a classmate at Harvard, and whose educating job had taken them to the Canadian Northwest. (They divorced in 1973.) “I had people interviewing me who would say, ‘How do you get the housework done?’ I would say, ‘Look under the sofa, then we can talk.’ ”

In the typically divisive years of second-wave feminism, Atwood reserved the proper to stay nonaligned. “I didn’t want to become a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs,” she mentioned. “Having gone through that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick—I never had any use for that. You should be able to wear them without people saying you are a traitor to your sex.” In a 1976 essay, “On Being a ‘Woman Writer’: Paradoxes and Dilemmas,” Atwood described the combined emotions skilled by girls writers sufficiently old to have solid a writing life earlier than representatives of the girls’s motion got here alongside to say them. “It’s not finally all that comforting to have a phalanx of women . . . come breezing up now to tell them they were right all along,” she wrote. “It’s like being judged innocent after you’ve been hanged: the satisfaction, if any, is grim.”

“Instead of eggs, you’re going to look for lost balls in the water hazards.”

Given that her works are a mainstay of girls’s-studies curricula, and that she is clearly dedicated to girls’s rights, Atwood’s resistance to a simple affiliation with feminism can come as a shock. But this wariness displays her bent towards precision, and a scientific sensibility that was ingrained from childhood: Atwood desires the phrases outlined earlier than she’s going to state her place. Her feminism assumes girls’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes. “My problem was not that people wanted me to wear frilly pink dresses—it was that I wanted to wear frilly pink dresses, and my mother, being as she was, didn’t see any reason for that,” she mentioned. Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a way of self-determination, and with a crucial distance on codes of femininity—a capability to see these codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as vital situations to be accepted unthinkingly. This capability for quizzical scrutiny underlies a lot of her fiction: not accepting the world as it’s permits Atwood to think about the world because it may be.

Atwood and Gibson, who met in Toronto publishing circles, spent the seventies residing on a farm outdoors the metropolis. The countryside was low-cost, and it supplied a congenial setting for Gibson’s two teen-age sons; it additionally offers the setting for what Atwood acknowledges as some of her most autobiographical writing, in the short-story assortment “Moral Disorder” (2006). The title story particulars the much less picturesque facets of nation life. “Susan the cow went away in a truck one day and came back frozen and dismembered,” Atwood writes. “It was like a magic trick—a woman sawed in half on the stage in plain view of all, to reappear fully restored to wholeness, walking down the aisle; except that Susan’s transformation had gone the other way.”

Atwood resists critics’ makes an attempt to search out parallels between her life story and her fiction, and has no need to jot down a memoir. “I am interested in reading other people’s, if they have had fascinating or gruesome lives, but I don’t think my life has been that fascinating or gruesome,” she mentioned. “The parts of writers’ lives that are interesting are usually the part before they become a well-known writer.” In the mid-eighties, shortly earlier than she began to jot down “The Handmaid’s Tale” however was already Canada’s most celebrated novelist, a documentary filmmaker named Michael Rubbo spent a number of days with Atwood and her household at their island retreat in northern Quebec. Rubbo sought to find the supply of Atwood’s inspiration and to uncover the origins of her typically gloomy themes, however most of his movie is dedicated to displaying the ways in which Atwood politely declined to evolve to her inquisitor’s thesis. “I use settings, but that is not to be confused with using real people, and things that have actually happened to those real people,” she tells the filmmaker, whereas his digital camera lingers on her fingers: she is slicing by the blood-red stalks of rhubarb crops with a chef’s knife and casually discarding the toxic leaves.

At one level, the Atwoods are given management of the digital camera, and conduct a wierd pantomime during which Atwood sits with a brown paper bag over her head whereas different relations provide sentence-long characterizations of her. “That woman is my daughter, and she’s incognito,” Atwood’s mom says, in the most illuminating of the remarks. Atwood, after eradicating the bag, says, “Michael Rubbo’s whole problem is that he thinks of me as mysterious and a problem to be solved. . . . He’s trying to find out why some of my work is sombre in tone, shall we say, and he’s trying for some simple explanation of that in me or in my life, rather than in the society that I am portraying.” At one other second, she means that her novels needs to be thought of as being in the custom of the Victorian realist or social novel, and needs to be learn in the mild of goal details, fairly than subjective expertise.


Some of her most perceptive readers have taken this strategy. The novelist Francine Prose, reviewing “Alias Grace,” famous that “Atwood has always had much in common with those writers of the last century who were engaged less by the subtle minutiae of human interaction than by the chance to use fiction as a means of exploring and dramatizing ideas.” At its finest, Atwood’s fiction summons an intricate social world, whether or not it’s a disquieting imaginative and prescient of the future, as in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or a vividly rendered previous, as in “Alias Grace” or “The Blind Assassin”—a genre-bending tour de power set partly in small-town Canada in the nineteen-twenties, for which Atwood gained the Booker Prize, in 2000.

Like her Victorian forebears, Atwood doesn’t shrink back from the concept that the novel is a spot to discover questions of morality. In an e-mail, she wrote to me, “You can’t use language and avoid moral dimensions, since words are so weighted (lilies that fester vs. weeds, etc.) and all characters have to live somewhere, even if they are rabbits, as in ‘Watership Down,’ and they have to live at some time . . . and they have to make choices.” The problem, she famous, is avoiding moralism: “How do you ‘engage’ without preaching too much and reducing the characters to mere allegories? A perennial problem. But when the large social issues are very large indeed (‘Doctor Zhivago’), the characters will act within—and be acted upon by—everything that surrounds them.”

At the similar time, Atwood’s finest fiction is sustained by a specificity of element—a capability for noticing—that may be anticipated from one whose scientist father launched her to a microscope at a younger age. One morning, whereas we had been strolling in her neighborhood, Atwood ran into an outdated pal, Adrienne Clarkson, a school modern who went on to have a distinguished profession as a broadcaster, and, for six years, as the governor normal of Canada. “We are going to crawl into our eighties together,” Clarkson mentioned, inviting us to her house for tea. The girls reminisced about finding out with Northrop Frye. “He is the person who talked me into going to grad school instead of moving to Paris, and living in a garret and drinking absinthe,” Atwood mentioned. “But, Adrienne, you did move to Paris.”

“You came to visit,” Clarkson mentioned.

“And you were painting your fingernails a beautiful shade of red,” Atwood continued.

“How frivolous of you to remember that,” Clarkson mentioned, fondly.

“How novelistic of me to remember it,” Atwood mentioned.

Not way back, a historical past society at the University of Toronto, which was compiling a video archive of notable alumni, requested to interview Atwood about her school days. On a cold afternoon in January, she discovered her approach to an higher room in the college’s Gothic Revival pupil middle. Four keen undergraduates, all girls, had been there to movie and quiz her. Atwood sat by a leaded-glass window towards a grey sky, and amiably answered questions on what it was like being a younger girl on campus in the fifties. “Whatever things are like when you are young, they seem normal, because you have nothing to compare them to,” she mentioned. “For instance, I would not ever have worn jeans to high school. It would not have been permitted except on football days. They wanted us to wear jeans on football day, so we could sit on the hill and not have anyone looking up our skirts. It takes a while to figure this out, but now I realize that must have been the reason.”

In these days, Atwood mentioned, there was no worry of rape on campus, as there gave the impression to be in the present day. “I am not saying that it didn’t happen, but you would never hear of it,” she mentioned. “And I would suspect that the chances of that happening were quite low, because what everybody was afraid of then was getting pregnant. The boys were afraid of getting pregnant, too, because you could end up married at an early age that way, and people didn’t particularly want that. But there was no Pill.”

One younger interviewer, wide-eyed, mentioned, “It is very interesting to consider the importance of the Pill, not just for women but in changing society. I hadn’t really considered it.”

Atwood continued speaking about altering mores—the supplanting of the panty girdle by nylon tights, and the consequent innovation of the miniskirt. But when one of the college students fumbled with the digital camera, in an effort to resume its reminiscence card, Atwood took the alternative to show the tables.

“I was astonished to see that the Polaroid camera has come back—why? What do you do with a Polaroid picture?” she requested.

The college students, delighted, provided a refrain of explanations: such pictures mixed the immediate gratification of the selfie with the pleasure of a bodily object that could possibly be pinned on a wall. Atwood went on to hunt their views on different surprisingly resurgent applied sciences—vinyl information, even cassette gamers—after which shifted to one thing extra up-to-date. “Do you know an exercise app called Zombies, Run?” she requested.

“Is that, like, where you go for a run and zombies chase you?” one pupil requested. Yes, Atwood mentioned: the app, a form of interactive podcast, performs an apocalyptic story line in a listener’s ears as she jogs, thus making a exercise extra entertaining, for those who like that kind of factor. “I’m in one of the episodes,” Atwood introduced. She has a cameo as herself: her voice is supposedly being transmitted over a crackling telephone line from Toronto.

“If we carpool, we can all save some money on our midlife crises.”

Finally, the college students’ digital camera was working. Atwood confronted it once more, and mentioned, brightly, “So, let’s see. What else do you want to know?”

Her openness to youthful individuals is, partly, a consequence of the passage of time: there are lots of extra youthful individuals round than older ones, so she’d higher be open to them, if she’s going to be open to anyone. But additionally it is temperamental. Zombies, Run! was co-created by Naomi Alderman, a British novelist in her early forties, who can also be a video-game designer. She and Atwood turned mates after Atwood selected to be her mentor, by a program sponsored by Rolex. “She was intrigued that I might know about something she doesn’t know about yet, and I might be able to tell her about it,” Alderman mentioned. “I don’t think she judges anything in advance as being beneath her, or beyond her, or outside her realm of interest.” Alderman has accompanied Atwood and Gibson on a number of bird-watching holidays, together with one earlier this 12 months in the rain forests of Panama. “We stayed in tents,” Alderman instructed me. “And the first night I was going back to my tent and my headlamp caught these blue shining glints on the jungle floor, and every single one of these glints was a pair of spider’s eyes staring at me. When I told Margaret, she was very disappointed—she really wanted to see the spiders.”

Atwood’s embrace of technological innovation is typically extra theoretical than sensible: she has but to grasp streaming video, so she nonetheless watches DVDs. Occasionally, her fascination with technological processes, mixed with an incomprehension of them, can have productive outcomes. A dozen or so years in the past, when videoconferencing expertise was nonetheless a novelty, Atwood puzzled whether or not it may be attainable to develop a way of conducting e book signings remotely. “I thought of the writing flying through the air, and materializing somewhere else,” she mentioned. Her flight of fancy, mixed with some technical and advertising know-how assembled by Matthew Gibson, her stepson, resulted in the LongPen, a robotic system that allows a author—or anybody—to signal a paper remotely in a way that replicates the velocity and stress of the authentic autograph, and is indistinguishable from it. (Gibson has since created an e-signature firm, Syngrafii, and it sells the LongPen, which is marketed much less to weary authors than to monetary and authorized firms.)

Atwood was an early adopter of Twitter, signing up in 2009; she now has about 1,000,000 and a half followers, although she is conscious that some of that quantity should be bots. “I do sometimes get ‘I miss your dick’—they don’t read the fine print,” she mentioned. She appreciates followers who’ve a specialised curiosity in the sciences; they assist her maintain abreast of current developments that may be of curiosity for a future writing mission, or resonate with a previous one. She engages, typically cheerily, along with her followers and others, typically on matters that one other author would possibly keep away from. “Only ‘race’ is the human race, sez me. (And says science.),” she wrote in response to at least one consumer’s hypothesis that she was Jewish. “But no, I wouldn’t have ended up in a Hitler death camp for that reason.”

For years, Atwood has argued that Twitter particularly and the Internet usually have been good for literacy. “People have to actually be able to read and write to use the Internet, so it’s a great literacy driver, if kids are given the tools and the incentive to learn the skills that allow them to access it,” she mentioned, whereas being interviewed at a digital-media convention in 2011. She has been a champion of Wattpad, a story-sharing website based in Toronto a decade in the past. In her view, it not solely offers a spot for North American teen-agers to publish their very own zombie tales; it additionally presents cell-phone-equipped readers in the creating world with an entry level into fiction, even when they haven’t any entry to libraries, faculties, or books. Her 2015 novel, “The Heart Goes Last,” which takes the premise of for-profit prisons to monstrous, comedian ends, was excerpted on Wattpad. Atwood has additionally printed a set of poems, “Thriller Suite,” serially, on Wattpad; the e book has been considered greater than 300 and eighty thousand occasions since then, presumably reaching many readers who had by no means purchased a quantity of poetry.

She believes that early fears, amongst some observers, that the introduction of the Web would imply the finish of books had been misplaced. “I think we know now that, neurologically, there are reasons why that isn’t going to happen,” Atwood mentioned. “Installments on a phone—those, the brain can handle. ‘War and Peace,’ maybe not. Though ‘War and Peace’ was first published in installments, by the way.” She is fond of saying that, with all expertise, there’s a good facet, a foul facet, and a silly facet that you simply weren’t anticipating. “Look at an axe—you can cut a tree down with it, and you can murder your neighbor with it,” she mentioned. “And the stupid side you hadn’t considered is that you can accidentally cut your foot off with it.”

A number of years in the past, Atwood turned the first writer to take part in a conceptual artwork mission, the Future Library, which was conceived by a Scottish artist named Katie Paterson. In the course of 100 years, 100 writers will contribute a manuscript to the mission. The manuscripts will stay unread besides for his or her titles—Atwood’s is “Scribbler Moon”—till 2114, when they are going to be printed on paper comprised of a thousand pine bushes which were planted in the Nordmarka, a forest not removed from the place the library will likely be maintained, in Oslo, Norway.

“Being the kind of child who buried things in the back yard in jars, hoping that someone else would dig them up sometime, I of course liked this project,” she instructed me. Atwood has a eager curiosity in conservation: she makes use of her Twitter feed to spotlight ecological points starting from the decimation of the bee inhabitants to ocean air pollution. The optimism inherent in the Future Library—the perception that there will likely be readers, and a world for them to inhabit—appears at odds with some of the darker eventualities in Atwood’s fiction, and I advised as a lot to her.

“This is not a question of expect,” she mentioned. “It is a question of hope. It is a question of faith rather than knowledge. You wouldn’t do it unless you thought there was a chance.” Humans, she mentioned, “have hope built in,” including, “If our ancestors had not had that component, they would not have bothered getting up in the morning. You are always going to have hope that today there will be a giraffe, where yesterday there wasn’t one.” At the similar time, Atwood likes to entertain notions of how degraded our future would possibly turn into, and what impact which may have on the human race. She speculates that, if our environment turns into too carbon-heavy, with a dwindling in the oxygen provide, one of the first issues that may occur is that we are going to turn into quite a bit much less clever.


But a novelist essentially imagines the destiny of people; the human situation is what the novel was made for exploring. “We just actually can’t bear the idea of nothing,” Atwood mentioned. “I think that is partly to do with grammar. You say, ‘I will be dead,’ but there is still an ‘I.’ There is still a subject.” Her novels, she went on, are usually not with out hope, both. “The Handmaid’s Tale” has a coda, in the kind of an tackle given, in 2195, by a keynote speaker at an educational convention, the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies. Civilization has survived, even to the level of sustaining groaningly unhealthy educational puns. (Women fleeing Gilead, a professor notes, cross the border through “The Underground Frailroad.”) “I have never done everybody in,” Atwood mentioned. “I have never polished them all off so that there’s nobody left alive, now, have I? No.”

In the early aughts, she started an bold cycle of novels exploring a special form of dystopian future. The Maddaddam Trilogy—“Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of the Flood,” and “Maddaddam”—was printed between 2003 and 2013. The books depict a North American panorama that’s ravaged by ecological catastrophe and inhabited by a genetically modified race of quasi-humans, the Crakers. As common, Atwood researched her topic voraciously, and this time she was additional enabled by the Internet. The trilogy crackles with a gleeful inventiveness that’s typically tonally at odds with its apocalyptic content material: the Crakers’ pores and skin cells have been modified to repel ultraviolet rays and mosquitoes, for instance, and the capability for sexual jealousy has been edited out of their genome.

“Vinnie, we gotta talk about what ‘bookmaking’ means.”

One night in Toronto, Atwood invited me to her house, the place we sat in its spacious kitchen on tall stools at a counter, overlooking her wintry, barren-looking backyard. Graeme Gibson poured three glasses of whiskey whereas Atwood sorted by Christmas playing cards, allotting with the chore as effectively as if she had been slicing rhubarb. I remarked on a facet of “Oryx and Crake” that had moved me. The protagonist, Snowman, apparently left alone in the world, strives to recollect uncommon phrases he as soon as knew. Atwood writes, “Valance. Norn. Serendipity. Pibroch. Lubricious. When they’ve gone out of his head, these words, they’ll be gone, everywhere, forever. As if they had never been.” Reading this passage in current months led me to consider the catastrophic devaluation of intellection that appears to have occurred in American society: the willful repudiation of rigorous pondering, and goal details, that helped propel Trump to victory. I remarked to Atwood that it felt like a prescient metaphor.

“It feels like real life,” Atwood replied, rapidly. “I am sure every generation feels that way, as they see younger people coming up who don’t know what they are talking about.” She requested if I knew Edith Wharton’s quick story “After Holbein”: “This old gentleman in New York society goes off to visit this hostess of his youth, and they sit at this enormous table, and everything is as wonderful as he remembers it, and there are bouquets of flowers, and this delicious food, and they have this wonderful conversation and she looks as beautiful as ever. And you see it all from the point of view of the servants, and it’s two old people sitting at a table eating gruel, and the flowers are all bunches of newspaper.”

News comes typically to Atwood of mates who’ve died, or are ailing. Gibson has been given a analysis of early dementia, and they’re each supporters of the Canadian dying-with-dignity motion. “The story of Wharton’s that really terrifies me is ‘The Pelican,’ ” she went on, recalling a story during which a well-born widow takes to giving public lectures to assist her younger son, after which continues to offer them for many years, even after the son is a grown man. “People are very sympathetic, but the lecture itself is like watching someone unreeling from her mouth a very long spool of blank paper,” Atwood mentioned. “That’s the metaphor that frightens me—that I am going to be up in public, unravelling from my mouth a long spool of blank paper.”

In March, Atwood got here to New York City, for the annual National Book Critics Circle award ceremony, the place she was being given a lifetime-achievement award. (Atwood just lately remarked, on an Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit, that she is at the “Gold Watch and Goodbye” section of her profession.) The ceremony was held at the New School, and the collective temper of the assembled editors, critics, and writers—a focus of New York’s liberal intelligentsia in its purest kind—was celebratory, as such occasions all the time are, but additionally agitated and galvanized. That morning, President Trump had issued his first federal finances plan, and he had proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, in addition to ending funding for public broadcasting, and shutting businesses dedicated to social welfare and environmental oversight. The crowd felt like bruised defenders of a civilization that they hadn’t realized was vulnerable to assault.

Trump’s agenda was criticized by many of the award recipients. Michelle Dean, a younger Canadian author who gained the affiliation’s annual prize for excellence in reviewing, declared, “The struggle we presently find ourselves in is not a mistake, and not a fluke. . . . It crept into our lives while we were napping. Power sometimes works that way, but I still wish we hadn’t missed it.” Lately, Dean added, she’d been rereading “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the first time since highschool: “There are so few books like that being published right now. The application of literary intelligence to this question of power—it’s kind of out of style. And many writers just seem more interested in exploring the self.”

Two days earlier than Trump’s Inauguration, Atwood had printed an essay in The Nation, during which she questioned the generalities typically made by left-leaning intellectuals about the function of the artist in public life. “Artists are always being lectured on their moral duty, a fate other professionals—dentists, for example—generally avoid,” she noticed. “There’s nothing inherently sacred about films and pictures and writers and books. ‘Mein Kampf’ was a book.” In reality, she mentioned, writers and different artists are notably vulnerable to capitulating to authoritarian stress; the isolation inherent in the craft makes them psychologically weak. “The pen is mightier than the sword, but only in retrospect,” she wrote. “At the time of combat, those with the swords generally win.”

At the New School, when Atwood, carrying a protracted black costume with a patterned black scarf draped round her shoulders, was summoned to the stage, she took a cheekier tack than she had taken in the Nation essay. “I’m very, very, very happy to be here, because they let me across the border,” she mentioned, her voice low and deliberate. Atwood characterised literary criticism as a thankless activity. “Authors are sensitive beings,” she noticed, to titters of amusement. “You, therefore, know that all positive adjectives applied to them will be forgotten, yet anything even faintly smacking of imperfection in their work will rankle until the end of time.” An writer whom she had reviewed as soon as berated her use of the adjective “accomplished,” she recalled. “ ‘Don’t you know that “accomplished” is an insult?’ ” she deadpanned. “I didn’t know.”

Then her remarks took an exhortatory flip. “Why do I do such a painful task?” she mentioned. “For the same reason I give blood. We must all do our part, because if nobody contributes to this worthy enterprise then there won’t be any, just when it’s most needed.” Now is one of these occasions, she warned: “Never has American democracy felt so challenged.” The vital situations for dictatorship, Atwood famous, embody the shutting down of unbiased media, which mutes the expression of opposite or subversive opinions; writers kind half of the fragile barrier standing between authoritarian management and open democracy. “There are still places on this planet where to be caught reading you, or even me, would incur a severe penalty,” Atwood mentioned. “I hope there will soon be fewer such places.” Her voice dropped to a stage whisper: “I am not holding my breath.”

In the meantime, she thanked the e book critics, although even her gratitude carried a word of subversion. “I will cherish this lifetime-achievement award from you, though, like all sublunar blessings, it is a mixed one,” she mentioned. “Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did this lifetime go?” ♦

An earlier model of this text misstated the metropolis in Texas the place “The Handmaid’s Tale” was banned. It additionally mistakenly cited the date of first publication in the U.S., fairly than in Canada.


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