Ben East sits down with the Canadian author Margaret Atwood before she visits Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Margaret Atwood celebrated her 71st birthday at the end of last year, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the book that is widely regarded as her masterpiece, The Handmaid's Tale. That novel's brilliance lay in its vision of an extremist future, and to this day Atwood looks forward rather than back. She's one of the most followed authors on Twitter and, before we've even completed initial formalities, she directs me towards the latest posts on her blog. I'm not surprised to find they discuss how technology will impact on book publishing.
Far from settling into benign retirement, then, Atwood appears to be more relevant than ever. A recent editorial in The Observer in the UK suggested that delegates at the climate summit in Cancun should have had Atwood as required reading, thanks to her perceptive writing on the environment, and her status as an acclaimed poet, essayist, critic, thinker and activist means there's little time for rose-tinted views of the past. But she does permit herself one furtive glance.
"When I first started, I put my books in a cardboard box, got on to a Greyhound bus and went to towns where there were no book stores," she says from her home in Canada. "I did my event in a high-school gymnasium, sold the books afterwards and put the money into an envelope before mailing it back to the publisher. This was in the early 1970s. It was my generation that invented the book tour, the festival, the reading."
So the world of e-books and digital reading must thrill her.
"Well, yes, we're in the middle of a sea-change in transmission tools for literature right now, in a way that hasn't been experienced since Gutenberg. But in some ways the problem for authors is exactly the same: how do I get my book into the hands of the reader? Because, make no mistake, you write to be read. Even if it's a diary, you're writing for the future you. Or, so you can remember what you did, which I have to say is increasingly my position!"
Atwood laughs - and it strikes me immediately that it would probably be great fun to listen to her read her books: many have been described as dark dystopias, and yet they're shot through with sardonic humour. There's a noticeable mischief in her dry drawl, and she loves wrestling with knotty ideas. So the subject of her first event at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature - what the digital revolution might mean for fiction in the future - should be an intriguing starting point because it's her fascination with what might come next for our planet that characterises her best novels. Like The Handmaid's Tale, her 11th novel Oryx and Crake was set on a future Earth, this time devastated by a virus - she's referred to it, tongue-in-cheek, as "a fun-packed, joke-filled, rollicking adventure tale about the end of the human race." That was followed by its loose sequel in 2009, The Year of the Flood. What is it that continues to intrigue her about the fate of the planet?
"I think everybody alive is interested in the future," she says, before adroitly turning the question back to me. "Tell me," she asks. "How old are you?"
When I reply that I'm approximately half her age, she laughs again.
"So a lot of the things in my books are going to be your problems. They're not my problems because I will be dead. So maybe I'm writing my books for you. That's a scary thought, isn't it?"
So if Oryx and Crake is anything to go by, I have a future beset by freak weather, strange genetically modified animals and, eventually, the collapse of civilisation. Great.
"People ask if they're cautionary tales," Atwood surmises. "And, yes, they are. Any dystopia is a cautionary tale. But I don't relish the fact that they've become truer as I've got older. You don't write books like these if you actually want them to become true.
"I mean, I'm not worried about the world not existing. We're unlikely to kill all life on Earth by blowing up the entire planet. But are we going to do away with ourselves? That's much more possible."
It's this kind of realism - she's not so much "save the planet" as "save humanity" - which sets Atwood apart from pure science fiction writers. Atwood calls her work "speculative fiction", where the setting is always an Earth we could recognise. She has no real interest in writing about "things with tentacles that talk", although that didn't prevent her from winning the first Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction writing in 1987. And such distinctions fascinate her: Atwood's next book is called In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination. It collates three of her recent lectures on her relationship with the form.
"Little did you know I have a deep background in science fiction - it was my Harvard thesis in the 1960s," she says. "There's the line of literature that descends from HG Wells's War of the Worlds, which is stuff that couldn't happen. Personally, I'm more interested in George Orwell's 1984, because it really could happen. And it has. But in the end, what matters isn't genre. It's whether it's a good book. I don't read according to genre; I read according to whether the story ropes me in."
Science - or speculative - fiction is hardly Atwood's only forte as a writer. Atwood will also appear at a gala evening during the festival with four other international poets, and poetry (her first published work was a 1961 poetry collection) continues to exert a strange pull on her.
"You can't sit down on a Monday and think 'I'm going to write a poem.' It just doesn't happen that way," she says when I ask her if the writing process - in whatever shape it takes - is about finding the form to fit the feeling. "But you can sit down on a Monday and say 'today I'm going to get through five pages of this book if it kills me'. You can't will yourself to write poetry. There's an unbidden element to it which you cannot control. It's an individual experience - and very difficult to describe, actually."
And then she tries.
"Think of it in terms of wavelengths," she begins. "Very short wavelengths in which the tops of the waves are close together and the energy is very condensed. And then think of long wavelengths where the tops are further apart. That pattern takes up a lot more space. So the first pattern is the lyric poem. The second pattern is the novel. In terms of immediate gratification, for me, it's poetry. In terms of long projects that involve you day and night for months and years, it's the novel. Which is more pleasurable depends on how you define pleasure - it's like asking whether you prefer sprints or marathons."
It's interesting that Atwood should resort to science to explain her relationship with poetry. She grew up with scientists (her brother is a neurophysiologist) and says she understands how they think. "Scientists are as creative as artists because it's the lateral thinking, the obsession with problems, which provoke ideas," she says.
Such scholarly asides litter our conversation - Atwood is formidable but always engaging. All of which should make for lively - if tangential - debate at the festival. Still, at least she's actually here this time. Famously, in 2009, she pulled out after a controversy surrounding the content of a book by Geraldine Bedell.
"I should have known better," she groans now. "I read something in a respectable newspaper that said she had been banned and took it as true. So I leapt into my superhero costume a bit too soon and said I wouldn't come.
"And then, after about a week of investigation, I found out that she hadn't been banned at all, just not invited. That's quite different. Banned to me is piles of books burning in squares, someone trying to kill you. It's exclusion. But not being invited happens to me all the time! Anyway, when I finally found this out, it was too late to come, so I went to a Toronto office building in the middle of the night and did a video discussion about freedom of speech."
This time, happily, she'll be here in person. "Yes, and it'll be very interesting. What a great time to be going with all the tumult in the Middle East. I'll hear a lot of stuff."
And, for once, not exclusively via Twitter.
Gala Evening 2, March 9, Theatre, Dubai Cultural and Scientific Association
Digital Revolution 1, March 11, Al Ras 2, InterContinental Hotel