The ice queen thaws: interview with Margaret Atwood

One of the most influential and accomplished writers of her generation, novelist, Twitter user and environmental activist Margaret Atwood on the difference between an idea and a plot.

The Canadian author Margaret Atwood talks about her new book MaddAddam. Bernard Weil / Toronto Star / ZUMA Press / Corbis
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It takes about 60 seconds to realise that Margaret Atwood doesn't answer questions so much as use them as springboards for her quicksilver mind to jump into thin air, turn somersaults, twist and spin as it pleases. Atwood tends to land elegantly, without a wobble, but often a long distance from where the discussion began.

The 73-year-old has earned the right to talk in whatever way she wants. Over a career spanning 50 years, she has won the Man Booker Prize for 2000's The Blind Assassin, and should have won another for The Handmaid's Tale in 1986. A worthy future Nobel laureate, her work includes poetry and children's writing, literary criticism and collaborative zombie fiction (with the British novelist Naomi Alderman), short stories and her recently completed dystopian trilogy.

Atwood's body of work has established her not just as a great writer, but as a sort of prophet: whether she is writing about the female body in an age of consumerism (1969's The Edible Woman), reproduction and women's rights (The Handmaid's Tale), or genetic engineering and environmental collapse.

This is one theme explored in Atwood's new novel MaddAddam, the final part of a monumental dystopian trilogy that began a decade ago with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood. Yet over the next hour, Atwood skips merrily across topics that include: the gender politics of witches and wizards, teen reading habits, Twitter, demonic possession, the importance of opening sentences, The Lord of the Rings, shark fishing, re-introducing elephants into the wild, alcoholic romance writers and her daughter's childish attempts at the theatre of the absurd. She covers much of this ground before we have even sat down.

Atwood's mind, like her fiction, revels in making unexpected connections. In her writing, the results can be comic, satiric, horrific or tragic. In conversation, it makes Atwood somewhat elusive, while keeping her interrogator somewhat off balance. Her preferred form of response, aptly enough, is the anecdote, delivered with considerable dramatic flair and a gift for impersonation. "When the children were very young, my daughter [Eleanor] and her pal said they were going to put on a play. They charged us 25 cents [92 fils], or some other outrageous amount, for tickets." The entertainment consisted of Atwood and her long-term partner Graeme Gibson being served breakfast. "Did we want orange juice and toast? Some jam?" Atwood continues. "It was getting quite a lot like a Pinter play or a piece by Beckett. I thought we were going to get to it when they asked, Would you like some more orange juice? Is anything else going to happen? They said, No. I said, Then we are leaving."

Atwood tells the tale to illustrate the perils of having an idea for a story, but no plot. Atwood herself abandoned a novel after 200 pages for this very reason. "It didn't work because I was trying to be too tidy. I had it all mapped out on filing cards." The elaborate scheme organised eight characters, each of whom narrated a chapter within a five-section novel. "That makes 40 sections," she notes dryly. Atwood had completed 16 chapters before she realised the book was going nowhere. "I knew all about the characters. What they had for breakfast, what was in their bureau drawer, who their mothers and fathers were. But no events had taken place and I wasn't writing Tristram Shandy. I couldn't think of anything for them to do. They were just being."

Atwood in person is often portrayed as chilly, intellectual and remote. One recent interviewer referred to her habitual sarcasm. Another described her in terms that brought to mind the Ice Queen in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The Atwood I encounter is not so much forbidding as forthright. She doesn't, I suspect, suffer fools gladly, and foolish questions even less. When I ask what happens when she writes herself into narrative cul de sacs, I receive a figurative smack on the wrist.

"Don't tell anybody," she says, leaning in, "but you can write more than one draft. And if you come to a place where you realise that you have really screwed up." Atwood starts to whisper, "you can take it out of the manuscript. I like the idea of the wastepaper basket." Atwood could condescend for Canada, but she is also playful, engaged, irreverent and unstuffy. She has fun stirring her coffee with a Biro belonging to an editor at her London publishers. "The pen has been disarranged," she says returning it to his desk. "Who has been using my pen?" Later, when our time runs out, she cheerfully requests that I accompany her to her next engagement - a packed signing at a nearby bookstore.

At first, however, Atwood is simply late, courtesy of a television appearance at the BBC. When she finally arrives at the reception area of her publishers, Bloomsbury, my first thought, as often when confronted by world-famous people in real life, is she looks smaller than I imagined. Her impact, however, is large and immediate. As she passes through Bloomsbury's offices, every eye looks up, and every face smiles. Atwood waves with almost regal friendliness and says hi. She talks as she walks, and in fact doesn't stop talking for most of the next 50 minutes.

Again like her fiction, Atwood's conversation shuttles between the elevated (she compares Neil Gaiman's penchant for bad witches to Orestes) and the populist: she describes one of his characters by alluding to Men in Black. The reaction to Atwood at the beginning of her career could not have been more different. "I enjoy interviews a lot more than I used to. When I first started, people asked questions like, 'Writers are really weird and you're certainly one of them.' Or, 'What makes you think girls can write?' Remember, this was a long time ago. Remember how old I was: under 30. And remember what wasn't happening yet: all these girl writers selling a lot of copies. The writing scene after the war was mostly men, pretty monolithically: Norman Mailer, John Updike. There weren't many writers at all in Canada. I enjoy interviews a lot more than I used to because people know better than to ask me questions like those."

Writing for Atwood, like so many subjects she discusses today, is framed in eminently practical terms. When I ask how she found her voice in a literary landscape shaped by Ernest Hemingway and dominated by Mailer, she doesn't describe the evolution of her poetry or her first novel, The Edible Woman, but how she managed the practicalities of getting published. "I read a magazine called Writer's Market. I learnt about submitting the self-addressed and stamped envelope, about double spacing your manuscript and numbering the pages. Which is very good advice."

One could interpret such insistence on artistic pragmatism as Atwood refusing to discuss her creative imagination in any depth. "Well, you wouldn't want to [write a trilogy] while drinking," she deadpans when I enquire about her writing process. "I use a lot of coffee, a lot of Post-it notes. And there is this really handy device called the paper and pencil. You can make notes."

But I suspect this tone also reflects an eminently down-to-earth, industrious side of Atwood's nature that has enabled her to produce over 80 books (novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, libretti and scripts) in five decades. Atwood speaks comparable common sense when our conversation turns to the grant narratives raised by MaddAddam: genetic modification, the environment, and fears of imminent apocalypse. Is the planet on the brink of extinction?

"No, not quite. The area around Chernobyl is apparently a wildlife refuge at the moment. So is the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea." Atwood cites George Monbiot's new book Feral, about how de-populated areas in Europe are becoming 're-wilded'. "It has its zanier moments - I don't think the English public is going to accept the re-introduction of elephants running hither and thither. But nature comes back quite quickly, maybe not the same as before. If you doubt me, just cease to repair your house for a while and you will be amazed at the menagerie that takes up residence."

The way to reverse our over-consumption of the Earth's resources is, for Atwood, simplicity itself: "If we stop disappearing animals, they will come back," she says bluntly, before citing the re-emergence of the whooping crane, whose numbers have risen from 25 to 600, and the decimation of sharks, whose fins are a delicacy across Asia. "When the shark population gets down to near nothing, shark fin soup will disappear because nobody will be able to catch any sharks anymore. If people are really that dedicated to their shark fin soup, they should really be dedicated to the preservation of sharks. So why aren't they setting up shark parks?"

The sticking point, Atwood argues, is that short-term economic incentives always tend to override long-term plans to conserve the planet's wildlife. "That's what counts if you are poor," Atwood explains. "If you are poor, it is really crucial to the survival of your family whether you have got this much money next week. As a species we are not designed to say, I just won't eat for two years. Try that and you'll die."

Atwood doesn't mean to sound depressing. In fact, when I ask whether she is optimistic or pessimistic about humankind, she rejects the terms of the question. "It's not even optimism. It's just how human beings behave. We are usually quite nice. But it's like that shark fisherman. He's being nice to his family. He's just not being very nice to the sharks."

Atwood's fundamental, if sceptical faith in human nature is one reason she has taken to Twitter with enthusiasm. She describes the to and fro of tweeting and re-tweeting as teaching positive lessons in how to give and take. "You hope that if you re-tweet somebody, they will do it for somebody else. It's not that you expect anything in particular at that moment. Otherwise it would be commerce."

By this time, we are talking and walking towards Atwood's book signing. You can see the impressive queue from some distance. I try one final question. Does she believe that literature can still reach an audience and change people for the better? Atwood looks over at me, and says. "Let me tell you a joke. A man wants to know the meaning of life. He hears of a guru on top of a mountain. He travels for months and years. He runs out of money. He is unable to walk, and crawls all the way up the mountain. He finds the guru sitting in the cave. 'O great guru, I have sold all my possessions, and travelled for months and years. I have run out of money and have crawled up the mountain to ask you, O great guru, what is the meaning of life?' The guru says, 'Life is a fountain.' The man says, 'What? You mean I sold all my possessions, travelled for months and years, crawled up the mountain and all you can tell me is, Life is a fountain?' So the guru says, 'So, life isn't a fountain'."

Atwood looks me directly in the eye and says. "I really don't have the answer to all the questions about human nature that you are asking me. Life is a fountain. Life isn't a fountain. Writing is a way of solidifying language. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes it's by Adolf Hitler. That is writing too."

Atwood smiles and turns to meet her public. Perhaps this is why she makes sport out of answering journalists' questions. Hard experience has taught her that there are simply no easy answers, no matter how desperately people want her to provide them. As she enters the bookshop, it occurs to me that Atwood is not a prophet foreseeing our near future nor a guru guarding the meaning of life. She is much too wise and funny for that.

"We are all scared," Atwood told me earlier about writing. "You just have to overcome that moment. I'm Canadian. We go swimming in very cold water on very cold nights. It's a lot the same. You think, Am I really going to do this today? It's freezing. Am I going in or am I not going in?" She times her pause to perfection. "Then you go in."

James Kidd is a freelance writer