Margaret Atwood defines the Canadian sense of humor as “a bit Scottish,” and in this live conversation with Tyler, she loves to let her own comedic sensibilities shine. In addition to many other thoughts about Canada — it’s big after all — she and Tyler discuss Twitter, biotechnology, Biblical history, her families of patents, poetry, literature, movies, and feminism.
Is it coincidence that Atwood started The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin during 1984? Does she believe in ghosts? Is the Western commitment to free speech waning? How does she stay so productive? Why is she against picking favorites? Atwood provides insight to these questions and much more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded April 9th, 2019
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: We’re very honored to have Margaret Atwood with us here tonight. Just to be clear, this is the conversation with Margaret Atwood I want to have, not the one you want to have.
Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.
COWEN: How so?
ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.
ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.
COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”
COWEN: You think that’s still true?
ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.
The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —
COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.
ATWOOD: You think?
COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.
ATWOOD: Did it?
COWEN: Center of manufacturing.
ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?
COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —
ATWOOD: Is that what it is?
COWEN: I think so.
ATWOOD: Okay, yeah.
ATWOOD: Yeah, well, we’re not able to do that in Canada because —
COWEN: You have one.
ATWOOD: We have one, yeah.
COWEN: Used to be two.
ATWOOD: Yeah, I know. Well, things come and go. We’ve got hockey, though. We have that. You can’t take that away from . . . Just a minute, now — you did.
Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.”
I think Canada these days is when you think things are going to go pear-shaped in the States — when you think they might — Canada is a beckoning refuge, as it has been in the past. So I just want you to know, if things go too pear-shaped here, we have a lovely church basement waiting for you, and a nice hot cup of tea.
COWEN: What is funny about Saskatchewan?
COWEN: Why do Canadians read so much poetry?
ATWOOD: Where are you getting these funny questions?
Yes, Saskatchewan isn’t very funny. And Canadians used to read a lot of poetry because we didn’t have a viable novel-publishing business, or a film industry, or a music industry. But we’ve got all of those things now. So they’re reading less poetry.
COWEN: In 1972, in your famous book, Survival, you wrote, “The Canadian way of death is death by accident.” Is this still true?
ATWOOD: In fiction or in real life?
COWEN: In real life.
ATWOOD: I think it’s more likely to be true in Canada than it is in the States, where the US way of life is by gun violence. Whereas we tend to go in for falling into the lake.
COWEN: Is survival still the central theme of Canadian literature?
ATWOOD: I think it’s the central theme of the entire planet. I think we were just a bit ahead of our time. So yeah, you want to know about it, which increasingly you will need to, come to us.
COWEN: If we look back to the 19th century, the United States has Melville and Poe and Hawthorne. The Canadian tradition seems to be slower to develop. Why is that?
ATWOOD: That’s because Canada was slower to develop. So what you have in Canadian history is 1760, Quebec falls. There it is, right there. And if that had not happened, there wouldn’t have been an American Revolution.
But Canada took quite a while to get a population that was far enough away from the frontier to bother itself with literature.
COWEN: Is it fair to say that Canada was founded in debt? It had high levels of debt. The provinces unified to pay their debts. They wanted to take out more debt, build more railways.
ATWOOD: Oh, so you’re talking about 1867.
ATWOOD: Around that time, confederation happened, I think, for a couple of reasons, that being one of them. But the other one was, there was quite a lot of pressure from incoming people south of the border.
COWEN: Too many of us.
ATWOOD: They confederated partly just to keep from being annexed.
COWEN: You’re active on Twitter. Is Twitter good for literacy, on average?
ATWOOD: Okay, on average, you have to be able to read to do it. So —
COWEN: Quality of literacy.
ATWOOD: Oh, that’s different.
By literacy, I mean just the ability to read. All of these things where you have to read something and then push a button, you actually have to be able to read to do that. So people are working around it in all kinds of ways, such as YouTube and what have you. But you still have to be able to go to the website and push something.
COWEN: Is it making North Americans better writers?
ATWOOD: Oh, I wouldn’t go that far at all. But it’s made quite a few of them writers who probably weren’t writing much before they had the social media option.
COWEN: You once wrote, “Gardening is not a rational act.” Would you care to elaborate?
ATWOOD: [laughs] I think you’ve slipped over into the silly side. Okay, it’s not a rational act. Why did I say that? I don’t know. When did I say that?
COWEN: I don’t remember offhand.
ATWOOD: Well, you plant things, and you spend quite a lot of time doing it. Well, I did have a very successful garden once, but that was because I had a lot of excellent rotted cow manure, which was just close to hand. So gardening is like anything else. If you want to succeed, read the instructions. You need sunlight, good soil, and water. Those are the things you need.
COWEN: Now, as you know, you’ve written a work for the Future Library called Scribbler Moon, and it won’t be read by anyone else until 2114. Correct?
ATWOOD: That’s correct.
COWEN: How did you write differently for the far-off future?
ATWOOD: I’m not allowed to tell you what I wrote.
COWEN: No, you don’t have to tell us what, but how did you mentally approach the problem differently? Or did you just write what you would write for an audience today?
ATWOOD: No. No, I didn’t. But I can’t go into detail because when you sign up for this thing, one of the things you can’t do is tell what you’ve written. The mandate was, “Make an artifact out of words, of any length, any kind of artifact, as long as it’s words, and two copies only. Give it to the Future Library of Norway. They’ll save it up.”
They’re going to accumulate these things for a hundred years, and in 2114, they’re going to open the hundred boxes. More pressure on people who put theirs in five years before. No pressure on me. I’m not going to be there, unless something very strange happens. Then they’re going to cut enough trees from the forest that will have grown, we think, to make the paper to print the Future Library of Norway anthology.
It’s a beautiful project. It’s very hopeful, and they’re inviting writers from all the way around the world. I think they’ve had a Turkish one. They’ve had an Icelandic one. And in the case of smaller languages, she’s putting a dictionary in that box, just in case.
COWEN: Doing it in reverse, let’s say you were writing for readers from 1890. How would you think about writing for them?
ATWOOD: Well, because I don’t live in 1890.
COWEN: But you’ve read plenty of Victorian fiction.
ATWOOD: I have, yes. But that’s a different thing.
COWEN: Do you sometimes even think of yourself as a 19th century novelist?
ATWOOD: No. You can write historical fiction, but it’s always going to be of the time in which you’re writing it because you don’t have a choice. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, although it’s about the Middle Ages, is a 19th-century novel.
COWEN: I’m a big fan of your novel, Hag-Seed, which I believe is your latest. A few questions about that and Shakespeare: How sympathetic is Shakespeare to Caliban in The Tempest?
ATWOOD: Shakespeare himself, when he was doing The Tempest, I think, saw Caliban as one of his comic figures. But as always with Shakespeare, nothing is two-dimensional. So The Tempest underwent a number of different metamorphoses in performance since Shakespeare. We have The Tempest. Then we have Oliver Cromwell. The theater gets shut down. The tradition is broken.
When the theaters come back, they can’t actually remember how these things were done. So in the 18th century, The Tempest was an opera, and they added some people. They added a person called Dorinda, who is Miranda’s sister, so that they could have an ensemble group of singers, obviously. Then they added another guy so that Dorinda would have somebody to marry. Then they learned how to fly Ariel, and Ariel flew around.
Then when they tried to bring back the original Tempest, nobody liked it because they wanted the opera. They wanted Dorinda and the flying Ariel. In the 19th century, when Ariel was always played by a woman who flew around, Caliban became a romantic sort of Byronic hero, oddly enough. Because by that time, people had caught up with slavery in the United States, and noble savages and other things like that that were of the 19th century.
COWEN: And he has real charisma.
ATWOOD: Well, it depends how he’s played. It really depends, and I’ve seen, by this time, a lot of performances of The Tempest, including film ones. One by Julie Taymor, in which Prospero is Prospera — she’s the duchess of Milan — has a pretty good Caliban.
But he has a lot of resonance. He’s given the most poetic lines in the play, actually. There’s a big question about him, which is, what happens to him at the end? We’re not told. It’s another of these open questions. We just don’t know.
COWEN: How sympathetic are you to Prospero? There’s a line in Hag-Seed: “He would seem to be the top jailer in this play.”
ATWOOD: Well, he is.
COWEN: Do you like him?
ATWOOD: Like or dislike, it kind of doesn’t matter. Whether I like or dislike him, I’m sympathetic to him in some ways. But he says himself that he got himself into this. He was the duke. He didn’t do his dukely duties. He didn’t behave in a duke-like way. He went off to study magic instead, and he let his brother usurp the kingdom. By doing so, of course, he threw his young child into danger and ended them up on this island.
If you want to know why he wants to get off of it, look at the menus, which I did. I did a little foodie piece for a food magazine on what they were actually eating. It’s not fun.
COWEN: As Leggs suggests in Hag-Seed, is there any chance that Prospero is Caliban’s dad?
ATWOOD: Think about it.
COWEN: Someone has to be, right?
ATWOOD: Think about it. Somebody has to be his dad. So, if we’re not accepting the devil as being the progenitor of Caliban, who is? I ask you. They’re both in the magic business. Why would they have not met up at a convention? Sort of a one-night stand producing Caliban.
COWEN: Do you think Shakespeare believed in ghosts?
ATWOOD: Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts? We kind of don’t care.
COWEN: Do you believe in ghosts?
ATWOOD: Okay, this is another question. I believe that people have the experience of ghosts. But that’s different from saying that there are objectively ghosts that can be measured. A lot of people have ghost experiences. It’s well attested. But does that mean there is a thing out there? Again, it kind of doesn’t matter. This is people’s experience. So, in the world of Shakespeare, there are ghosts.
COWEN: And in the world of Margaret Atwood?
ATWOOD: There are ghosts. Yeah, there are ghosts. People have experiences of ghosts.
COWEN: In the world of Tyler Cowen, I’m sorry to say, no ghosts.
ATWOOD: But I bet you know people who have.
ATWOOD: This is Virginia. It’s full of them.
COWEN: Handmaid’s Tale — is it an accident that you started it in West Berlin in, I think, 1984?
ATWOOD: Wasn’t that corny? It was very corny, but I couldn’t avoid it. If I had been able to do it in some other year, I would have because, inevitably, this question comes up. But I just happened to be in West Berlin. I didn’t go there on purpose to do that. But there I was, and how handy it was because it was the wall all around. And being Canadian, I could go into places like East Germany and Czechoslovakia and Poland easier than German nationals could. So I did.
COWEN: You had had a prior trip to Afghanistan. Did that influence the book at all?
ATWOOD: A bit, yeah. I was lucky enough to see Afghanistan six weeks before the present unpleasantness started. Six weeks before they assassinated Daoud. It was clear, and it always has been a crossroads, and it’s always been desirable. It’s always been desired by China, by Russia, and by anybody else in the vicinity because things went through it.
At the time we were there, there was a great big Chinese embassy. There was a great big USSR embassy. And there was a great big American embassy. Daoud was doing quite well by playing them off against each other and getting stuff out of them. They should have stuck with him. But it’s been chaos ever since. I saw it at the last minute before a lot of things just got blown up.
COWEN: Did reading the Book of Genesis serve as an actual influence on Handmaid’s Tale? Or it’s just a connection you noticed later?
ATWOOD: Oh, no, it’s right there in the epigraph. So the question to you is, if you’re going to take the Bible literally, how literally would you like to take it?
COWEN: Is it the Jacob version of this story or the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar version of the story that grabbed you? Usually you mention the Jacob version of the story.
COWEN: There’s the second one. Why?
ATWOOD: Because it’s got more people in it.
COWEN: But the first version has a happy ending, right? You get Isaac, you get Ishmael. They each found tribes.
ATWOOD: Why would I write a book with a happy ending?
ATWOOD: Yeah, it’s not such a happy ending. It’s a very ambivalent ending, I would say. Abraham is a very dicey character in the Bible. But there’s a wonderful book called God: A Biography, which is by Jack —
COWEN: The Miles book, yeah.
ATWOOD: Yeah, it’s a wonderful book. I love it. It’s got the best exploration of the Book of Job that I’ve ever read. I think it’s brilliant.
But remember where my roots are. I’m Canadian. We took the Bible in school. There wasn’t any separation of church and state. Then I went to college and studied with Northrop Frye. Then I went to Harvard and studied with Perry Miller. And for all those people, you had to know the Bible.
It might also interest you to know that I won from my Sunday school the prize for the best temperance essay, why you shouldn’t drink. Would you like to know why?
COWEN: Why? I think I know why. But please, tell us.
ATWOOD: It’s a Canadian reason. If you drink and then go out into the cold, all of your blood is going to be in your capillaries. You will freeze to death.
COWEN: That argument doesn’t work in Russia, somehow.
ATWOOD: There’s a very interesting little piece to that puzzle, which was that Peter the Great discovered that he could tax the consumption of alcohol. This is for economists. It’s in a book called The History of Alcohol. He discovered that he could tax it, and then he made it unpatriotic not to drink. He made it a crime to agitate against drinking because he was making so much money from it. Did you know that?
COWEN: What are the aspects of conservative religious communities that you admire?
ATWOOD: They’re very stable.
COWEN: Are they stable?
ATWOOD: For a while.
COWEN: For a while.
ATWOOD: Yeah. It’s kind of a law of nature that nothing’s stable forever.
COWEN: Do you think Canada will ever become much more religious again?
COWEN: Or secularization is a one-way street?
ATWOOD: I don’t know whether it’s a one-way street, but Canada is very big.
COWEN: It is and it isn’t, though. There’s a certain concentration . . .
ATWOOD: It has a lot of different populations in it, which is why, when — people said when I published The Handmaid’s Tale in . . . when was that? 1985. The British reviewed it by saying, “Jolly good yarn,” because they’d had their religious civil war, and they weren’t going to have another one. They’re having a different kind of civil war right now, but it’s not a religious one.
The Canadians said, in their nervous way, “Could it happen here?” And the Americans said, “How long have we got?” In fact, they spray-painted on the Venice Wall in California, “The Handmaid’s Tale is already here.” And that was in 1985. So, Canada is just too . . . There’s too many different groups to probably provide the 35 percent that you need to get a really good totalitarianism going.
COWEN: Someone argued that women are gaining cultural power all the time in virtually all countries. Even Ireland has legalized abortion. Is this fear a fear which belongs purely to the past?
COWEN: What’s the trend today that worries you, then, given what appear to be many trends in the opposite direction?
ATWOOD: Everything’s joined at the hip, as you know, being an economist. My fear at the moment is essentially climate change driving droughts, floods, making places uninhabitable. When those things happen, you always get wars of one kind or another. And when you get wars, they’re always bad for women. I’m not alone in having this particular fear.
The other thing that’s going on . . . I don’t know whether you caught it, but there was a big article on the aging of populations. When you get aging in populations, you’re going to get a top-heavy population, not enough young people to support it, and a lot of pressure on younger women to have more children.
COWEN: It’s now the case, as you know, that in a city such as Toronto, more than half the population, I believe, is foreign born.
ATWOOD: That’s true.
COWEN: Does it feel to you that somehow Canada is gone? Or this is the new Canada?
ATWOOD: [laughs] This is the new Canada.
COWEN: This is the new Canada.
ATWOOD: But it’s the old Canada, too, because Canada’s really big.
ATWOOD: And it’s always been very culturally diverse, if you go back and look at the history. Before Europeans, there were numerous different indigenous cultural groups in Canada. When we say “a country,” basically it’s just lines somebody drew on a map. But to get the deep history of a place, you’re looking at populations. Who was there? What were they like? What did they do? And what kind of language did they speak?
COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?
ATWOOD: Okay, by Canadian culture, all we mean is controlling the means of production. That’s it. It’s not saying things about content. It’s saying things about who gets to say what we’re going to publish, etc.
COWEN: So the worry is that Canadian newspapers would go away.
ATWOOD: They’re going away.
COWEN: Going away anyway.
ATWOOD: So are yours. [laughs]
COWEN: That’s true.
ATWOOD: Yeah, so the newspaper is a form, but book publishing actually is where we entered this story, and we entered it in the ’60s when there were very few publishing outlets for Canadian writers. People routinely told you, “If you want to be a writer, leave the country.”
So, our generation did things like forming publishing companies and starting the writers’ union, one of the activities of which was to stop the illegal import of overruns of our own books that were coming into the country and being sold as remainder copies. That kind of basic economic stuff was what we were interested in, not in controlling what people were saying.
COWEN: About 30 years ago, you were a major defender of Salman Rushdie and the whole fatwa affair. Do you think that today — 30 years later — Western governments would have spoken up as much as they did back then to defend Rushdie?
ATWOOD: Oh, who knows what they would do?
COWEN: But it’s a very different world. How would it play out now?
ATWOOD: Well, I think people are just scared. We were in PEN at that time — PEN Canada — and my partner, Graham Gibson, was the head of it. He was the only person speaking out publicly, the only one. Governments, churches, unions, they were all saying to him privately, “You’re doing a great job.”
But they weren’t saying anything because they were frightened. This was an unprecedented sort of thing. The Norwegian publisher got shot, the Japanese translator got shot and killed. I was down here running in and out of radio stations with people saying, “There’s your car.” But Seattle was good. Seattle kept its bookstore open.
COWEN: Do you think the Western commitment to free speech is waning?
COWEN: And why has that happened?
ATWOOD: Well, you know, people eat their own. I think there’s a lot of conversations going on right now amongst people who have forgotten the ’40s. You know?
ATWOOD: They’ve forgotten the ’40s. They’ve forgotten Hitler, they’ve forgotten Stalin, they’ve forgotten purges, they’ve forgotten censorship, they’ve forgotten book burnings, they’ve forgotten all those things. These kinds of shutting down of people are always done with great flags of virtue flying overhead.
But of course, Stalin and Hitler did the same thing. Both of those societies were proposed as utopias. People were told by both of these outfits — including Mussolini will make it three — that things were just going to get better for people under them. But first, we had to purify things by getting rid of entartete art, and getting rid of bad books, and getting rid of people that weren’t desirable. That whole kind of scenario — people have forgotten about it.
Have we read recently the book — I think it’s called Hitler and Hollywood. There was an active group of Nazis in Hollywood, and they had a plan to kidnap 23 media moguls and hang them in a park. That was in the ’30s. We’ve forgotten all of that. We’ve forgotten what that kind of thing looks like. So the message is, if you go in for censorship and shutting people down, the next person that’s going to happen to will be you.
If you go in for censorship and shutting people down, the next person that’s going to happen to will be you.
COWEN: Almost two years ago, you wrote that you were not, in every way, considered an entirely proper feminist.
ATWOOD: I’m not.
COWEN: What did you mean by that?
ATWOOD: I never have been.
COWEN: What’s your greatest heresy?
ATWOOD: Oh, they’re many. They’re many and numerous. I don’t know. If you look on the internet and put “kinds of feminism,” there are now about 75 different ones. So if somebody asks you if you’re a feminist, you really have to say — same as they ask if you’re a Christian — you have to say, “What kind?” Are we talking the pope? Are we talking snakes?
ATWOOD: Well, there are snakes. You know? Are we talking Mormons? What is the category? So similarly with feminist — what kind? Answer that, and I’ll tell you if I am one.
COWEN: What was the very first business you ran?
ATWOOD: My very first business I ran, I think, was selling blueberries for five cents a pop, not per blueberry —
ATWOOD: — but for the little container of them. It was quite stupid because I was seven, and there were lots of blueberries that people could just go and pick. But nonetheless, that was one of my first businesses.
But my first real business that we actually made a profit out of was in high school. For that business, I had a partner, and we ran kids’ birthday parties. We didn’t charge enough. We did everything. We did the welcoming, we did the present unwrapping, we did wiping the tears, we did the sandwiches, and then we put on a puppet show.
The moms loved us because they were out in the kitchen drinking gin while we were doing all of this. We got so good at it, we got an agent. We were doing company Christmas parties with the puppet show.
COWEN: All of this in high school?
COWEN: And your second business was what?
ATWOOD: My second business was a silkscreen poster business, which came just before offset printing and other forms of cheap reproduction. You know what silkscreens are?
ATWOOD: You do?
ATWOOD: We all know? Okay. You have a big screen, and you squidge everything through it.
COWEN: Andy Warhol, yeah.
ATWOOD: Yeah, you have to do one color at a time. I used to do that on the ping-pong table.
COWEN: Now, we’re going to have the middle segment here. I’ll toss out the names of some authors or books, and you tell us what makes them special to you. Or if you don’t like them, that’s fine.
ATWOOD: What if I like them but they’re not particularly special? Is that a category?
COWEN: Lewis Hyde, The Gift.
ATWOOD: Oh, I love that book.
ATWOOD: Why? Because it’s the only book I ever recommend to writing students, but it’s not about how to write. It’s about what are you doing? What is this writing? And what is art? He makes a distinction . . . You probably like this book, too, because it’s got some economics in it.
COWEN: Money, reciprocal exchange.
ATWOOD: Plenty, yes. He makes a distinction between things that are gifts, which operate in a different way from things that are just commodities. Books are a very curious thing because they originate — if they’re not just formula books — they originate in the gift sphere. Then they have to pass through the valley of the shadow of the commodity before they get back in the hands of somebody who loves them, at which point they turn back into a gift.
It’s very instructive for young artists of any kind to read this book because it gives them a fix on what they’re doing. and also on their relationship to money, because if you live in a society where most things are judged by money, you can really struggle with being an artist and how your art gets evaluated and rewarded.
COWEN: H. G. Wells, Island of Doctor Moreau.
ATWOOD: Yes, well, I read all of Wells in high school because we had the collected volume, and it was in the cellar where I did my homework. Oh, tempting. It was so tempting to read Wells instead of doing my homework, which of course I did.
COWEN: But some of it’s terrible, right?
ATWOOD: Some of Wells is terrible, but Moreau is quite interesting as a book. He wrote his early works of genius in a very short period of time, this very condensed period. He wrote The Time Machine, and then he wrote Moreau, and then he wrote War of the Worlds in a very compact period.
COWEN: Chinese science fiction — do you read it?
ATWOOD: No, not yet. But I’m told there is —
COWEN: I did. The Three-Body Problem is wonderful.
ATWOOD: I read this huge volume of Chinese historical fantasy, which is, I think, the Condor Warrior series, which is very intricate and has to do with Genghis Khan and the Han Dynasty and various things like that, with some magic as well, and a lot of martial arts.
COWEN: Young adult novels — do they have lasting aesthetic value? Or are they just fun?
ATWOOD: Oh, some do and some don’t. It’s like anything else. You’ve got good ones of any kind of book, and ones that are not so good, including literary fiction. Not all literary fiction is good just because it’s literary fiction.
COWEN: The Charles Laughton movie Night of the Hunter.
ATWOOD: Love that.
COWEN: It’s not Canadian. It takes place in a small country. [laughs]
ATWOOD: That doesn’t matter. I’m very universal in my interests. I think I saw it when it first came out in the ’50s. It got overlooked. It didn’t get accorded the attention that it should have because it came in the same year as the Blackboard Jungle, and I think around the same time — what was it? An early Marlon Brando movie.
There’s a period of black and white film in the ’50s that’s actually pretty interesting, and that movie is one of them. I would say it’s Mitchum’s best role.
COWEN: Star Wars — is it interesting?
ATWOOD: It is to me, but the early ones rather than the later kind of desperate spin-offs.
COWEN: Why is birding interesting?
ATWOOD: Let’s talk about The Wizard of Oz.
ATWOOD: Now, there’s an absolutely core to the American psyche —
COWEN: It’s an economics movie. It’s about bimetallism, right? The yellow brick road is about the gold standard? This is not commonly known, but it’s true.
COWEN: It’s a monetary allegory, the whole movie.
ATWOOD: You think so?
COWEN: I know so.
ATWOOD: You know a lot of things. So, the Tin Woodman is what in it?
COWEN: He’s one of the people in the bimetallist debates. But there was a Journal of Political Economy article going through all of the parallels.
ATWOOD: And Dorothy is what?
COWEN: I think just the innocent American crying for relief.
ATWOOD: Are you buying any of this? I’m not.
ATWOOD: And the tornado is?
COWEN: Maybe depression, deflation.
ATWOOD: And Toto is?
COWEN: That one I’m stumped on.
ATWOOD: The flying monkeys are?
COWEN: William Jennings Bryan?
ATWOOD: Okay. Well, here’s the really interesting thing about Wizard of Oz. In The Wizard of Oz, the male wizard is a fraud, and all of the other male characters are missing something.
COWEN: That’s right.
ATWOOD: Yes. But the witches are real. Now, Tyler, I’m going to tell you a story.
ATWOOD: One October, my next-door neighbor — his name is Sam — came out of his house, and he saw me sweeping my leaves with a broom. And Sam said to me, “Margaret, you shouldn’t let people see you doing that.” And I said, “Sam, why ever not?” And he said, “It’s the broom.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Don’t you know that people call you the wicked witch of the annex?” And I said, “Sam, fear inspires more respect than love.” And he said, “Margaret, you’re right.”
COWEN: What do you like to watch on YouTube?
ATWOOD: Just so you don’t get too out of control, Tyler.
What do I like to watch on YouTube? Well, there’s been a little collection of Handmaid’s Tale artifacts, and one of them is a YouTube thing called “They Finally Made a Handmaid’s Tale for Men.” I recommend it. It’s very funny.
COWEN: What’s the correct search term?
ATWOOD: For it?
COWEN: For it.
ATWOOD: “They Finally Made a Handmaid’s — ”
COWEN: Okay. Why is there so little populism — if that’s the right word — in Canada? It’s sweeping many other nations, including Australia. But so far, not Canada very much.
ATWOOD: I think it’s because of the Canadian sense of humor. We make fun of them. But our turn may come. We had a conservative government before you did.
COWEN: And you had a social credit movement in the ’30s, which had —
ATWOOD: Yeah, we had this guy called Wacky Bennett out in Vancouver. Yes, he was . . . What was that called? Some other strange thing.
COWEN: What would a Canadian populism look like? Would it be funny?
ATWOOD: This is our problem, you see. As I say, Canada’s really big, and it’s very diverse, so you can have a Quebec populism, and they have had quite a bit of that in the past. I don’t know what a Newfoundland populism would look like. I’m not too sure. We sort of know what Alberta would because they had that for a while. In Ontario, we’ve got this one that purports to be that right now, but he keeps running up against a wall because he does something that’s not popular.
COWEN: What do you think of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
ATWOOD: They’re working hard.
COWEN: Are they succeeding?
ATWOOD: Well, there’s a lot to reconcile. Just for people that don’t know what that is, it’s indigenous First Nations in Canada, as in this country, except because you’ve done a lot more massacres than we had, you had fewer people left to be reconciled with. So, reconciling incomers, which means everybody who isn’t indigenous, with indigenous communities that have been badly treated in really recent memory.
COWEN: Should there be bilingual education for indigenous communities in Canada? Or should the goal be assimilation towards English or French?
ATWOOD: I would be for bilingual or trilingual.
COWEN: If possible.
ATWOOD: Absolutely. These are very interesting languages, and any language is a different way of viewing the world. If you only have one way of viewing the world, if you only have one language, only one way of viewing the world, you’re missing a lot of possible solutions and approaches that you otherwise would have.
Any language is a different way of viewing the world. If you only have one way of viewing the world, if you only have one language, you’re missing a lot of possible solutions and approaches that you otherwise would have.
COWEN: Is there, at this point, a plausible scenario where Quebec leaves Canada?
ATWOOD: Not at the moment.
COWEN: But the future? Or do you think it’s inevitable that there’ll be greater integration, more immigrants in Quebec?
ATWOOD: I think things will stay kind of the way they are. But think about this very carefully, as people did when it was a distinct possibility. You have Quebec there. The people to the north of Quebec are not French-speaking Quebecers. They’re indigenous people. And they said — and that’s where the hydroelectric power comes from, by the way — they said, “If you separate from Canada, we’re going to separate from you on the same grounds. Different language, older culture, etc.”
And Quebec said, “Oh, no, you’re not.” And they said, “Oh, yes, we are. And by the way, we happen to have a treaty with Canada that says that if any foreign power invades us, they have to defend us.” So if Quebec separates, north of Quebec separates from Quebec, Quebec invades them, Canada invades. You see what I mean?
ATWOOD: Okay, so the other one was, Quebec separates and makes a military alliance with France, a nuclear power. How happy would the United States be about that?
COWEN: Not entirely.
ATWOOD: I would think not, and maybe that’s why they had plans for invasion of Canada at that time, should Quebec separate.
COWEN: If you were to recommend to an American a Canada trip that he or she maybe hadn’t already done, something underappreciated, what would it be?
ATWOOD: Oh, something they hadn’t already done?
COWEN: Odds are.
ATWOOD: You mean not Toronto?
COWEN: Correct. Or Montreal.
ATWOOD: Not Toronto or Montreal.
COWEN: Or Vancouver.
ATWOOD: Okay, or Vancouver. Well, there’s nothing like the Canadian Arctic.
COWEN: And what should people do there?
ATWOOD: It will completely change your view of the planet. You should go with a group called Adventure Canada, which is small, so you’re not going to be on a huge, enormous cruise ship. In fact, it won’t be called a cruise at all because it cannot be guaranteed that you’re actually going to go where they say you might. You can get beset by the ice.
COWEN: Is there Twitter up there?
ATWOOD: No. There’s not. Not much, no. If you’re in a community, there is, but a lot of it, of course . . . as I say, Canada’s really big, and there’s a lot of geology. A lot.
COWEN: Earlier in your career, why did you quit philosophy?
ATWOOD: I quit philosophy because it was the age of logical positivism, and that wasn’t the part that I was interested in. I was interested in ethics and aesthetics, which had been relegated to the subbasement at that time. They’ve since been disinterred, but at that time they were quite sneered upon. I did not want to end up in logical positivism in my fourth year of philosophy.
COWEN: And quitting was the way to get out of it.
ATWOOD: I didn’t exactly quit. I moved over. I moved sideways into honors English, but I kept philosophy as a major.
COWEN: For a while, you had a faculty post at the University of Alberta. If you had somehow stayed there, in that counterfactual, how would your writing have evolved differently?
ATWOOD: Well, my more interesting one was at the University of British Columbia. Alberta was just a part timer. It was quite small. But UBC — I was teaching grammar to engineering students at 8:30 in the morning in a quonset hut left over from World War II. That was fun.
COWEN: Was it good for your writing?
ATWOOD: It was good for their writing.
ATWOOD: But it was good because what I did was, I had them read Franz Kafka’s Parables and then write their own parables. Franz Kafka’s Parables are sort of problems. They’re like engineering problems. So they had a good time doing that, and anyway, none of us were awake at that time of the day in any case.
COWEN: Do you write every day?
COWEN: How do you decide on a given day whether or not you write?
ATWOOD: Depends on what I’m doing.
COWEN: Travel aside.
ATWOOD: No, no. If I’m in the middle of a project, I work at it every day. But if I’m in between things, then, of course, I don’t.
COWEN: What’s your best work habit, in your opinion?
ATWOOD: I have no good work habits.
COWEN: Well, there’s evidence to the contrary on this table, right [points to books on bookshelf]?
ATWOOD: Yeah, but those were not produced by good work habits. I tried to have good work habits once, but it was a terrible, terrible failure. I tried to be organized and methodical, but that didn’t work.
COWEN: What’s your most unusual work habit?
ATWOOD: Most unusual work habit. Well, it depends who’s calling you unusual, doesn’t it? I don’t have any fetishes, sad to say. I don’t have some mythic fountain pen or some . . . I don’t have a cork-lined room. I don’t have to have 15 . . .
Who was it that drank 30 cups of tea? I don’t know how they could have done that. I think it was [Samuel] Johnson. He must have been absolutely mummified inside. Balzac — how much coffee did he drink? I think he must have been insane. Anyway, no, I don’t have any really terrible work habits, except possibly caffeine.
COWEN: You’ve written a great number of book reviews, more than most writers. Why has that been the case?
ATWOOD: Well, it’s this thing of coming from this small country where you kind of had to do stuff yourself. Writers were in the habit of writing reviews of books because other people weren’t doing it.
I see it sort of like giving blood. You don’t like it, and even though they give you a cookie and some orange juice, it’s not fun. That’s about all you get from writing book reviews, too, by the way. But you feel you have to contribute to the pool of book reviews, just as you have to contribute to the pool of blood because one day you may need some. Yeah?
COWEN: You gave a very positive review to John Updike. Do you feel that work has held up? Or does it look different now, looking back?
ATWOOD: I would have to go back and look. It was Witches of Eastwick — that’s what you’re thinking of.
ATWOOD: Okay. The most noteworthy thing about doing that review is that I had this big fight with the New York Times about what sorts of words I could use.
COWEN: Which words were they banning?
ATWOOD: They were banning words having to do with urine because there is urine in that book. So what were we to call it? We could not call it piss. We could not call it pee. We could not call it urine. They said, “This is a family newspaper.”
COWEN: What was in their style guide?
ATWOOD: Well —
COWEN: They have a style guide for everything.
ATWOOD: They didn’t have anything in it. So we ended up calling it bodily fluids, which was much worse in my opinion.
ATWOOD: It was what the witches were putting into their charms.
I was, at that time, living in a rectory in Norfolk, England, and there was no phone that I could phone out on. In order to phone out, I had to go outside the building into a phone booth — remember those? — that a farmer was using to store his potatoes in. I had to climb over these potatoes and put enough money into the phone in order to make a phone call. Anyway, this is what life used to be like. You’re too young to remember that, but it did.
COWEN: It seems you’re publishing — or maybe writing — poetry somewhat less frequently than you used to.
ATWOOD: That’s untrue.
COWEN: It’s untrue. It’s just being published at a different pace?
ATWOOD: I’m about to drop a great big sack full of poetry on a waiting world.
COWEN: Oh, great, wonderful. And when is that coming out?
ATWOOD: When I get it arranged.
COWEN: Tell us about your patent, the LongPen.
ATWOOD: Oh, it’s not just one patent anymore, dear.
COWEN: How many?
ATWOOD: Oh, I’ve lost count.
COWEN: You’ve circled your patent with patents.
ATWOOD: It’s families of patents.
Okay, so a long, long time ago, before you were born, and before there were any smartphones or tablets or any of these things we now use, a FedEx messenger came to my door. He had a little doodad and asked me to sign for my package. So I signed for my package, and while I was signing for my package, I thought, this signature is winging its way through the air and it’s coming out somewhere else in the form of ink on paper.
This was not true, but I thought it was. And I thought, “Why can’t I use something like this for remote book signings?” Remember, this is so long ago, there weren’t even any cameras in your laptop. In fact, there weren’t any laptops yet.
ATWOOD: So I said to somebody, “Why can’t we do a remote book signing?” They laughed at me because they were more technically knowledgeable than I was. Then I said, “See if it exists.” They went off and looked. And they came back and said, “It doesn’t exist. The closest thing to it is remote surgery.” Which is quite a different thing because you don’t want to sort of scribble on a body with a knife, unless you’re in a Kafka story.
I said, “Well, if it doesn’t exist, why don’t we invent it?” So we invented it. It took four prototypes, one of which blew up and flew across the room. But we did it. It was more difficult than we thought. We did it. And we ended up signing books remotely because the idea was to do remote book signings for people who couldn’t have them, couldn’t have real people because their publishers would never send them there.
We ended up doing that, but we couldn’t . . . Can I use a verb? We couldn’t scale it. We didn’t know how to scale it. So then it segued into another area of life. It passed through the valley of the shadow of the digital. Maybe before three years ago, there was a period when people were saying, “Everything’s going to be digital, so why are you wasting your time doing this stupid thing?” And they said all books are going to be e-books. That’s not true. It didn’t turn out to be true.
And it turns out that not everything can be digital, and we now know why. Why is that? Because it’s so screamingly hackable. The thing is that a lot of higher kinds of documents will not accept digital signatures, as such, if you can’t produce a pen-and-ink paper version.
We were the only people who, as it turned out, could do that. If you’d like to read more about that, you go onto the internet, and you put in “syngrafii.com” and there’s the whole story. So the remote signing device that was originally intended for books moved over into business and the area of security and compliance.
COWEN: Women have faced many disadvantages in history, but it seems, in the written arts, they’ve managed to overcome those disadvantages much more easily than, say, in painting. Why do you think that is? There’s even Tale of Genji, 18th century, Jane Austen. Quite early, large number of —
ATWOOD: You could do it anonymously, and you could do it at home, and you could pretend to be somebody else, as a lot of women writers did.
In painting — and I think this is hilarious — they wouldn’t let women into art schools because they might see naked women. “Oh my God, what’s that?”
COWEN: When you were living in London — I think this is after Alberta — were you ever tempted just to stay there and be part of the London literary scene?
COWEN: Why not?
ATWOOD: Because I’m not British.
COWEN: But people often move countries.
ATWOOD: They do.
COWEN: It’s probably easier to earn a living as a writer in London.
ATWOOD: No, I don’t think so. I love going there and making fun of them. So, no. I have lots of fun, but living there would be a different type of thing.
I remember when I first went there, Canada was very low on the totem pole of what you took seriously as any sort of artistic thing. People really would say to me, “Canadian literature — isn’t that an oxymoron?” Or let me do it correctly [with upper-class British accent], “Canadian literature — isn’t that an oxymoron? Ho, ho, ho.”
COWEN: And people there — they didn’t know you were Margaret Atwood, right?
ATWOOD: Well, I wasn’t Margaret Atwood yet. Yes, but I was a fly on the wall. Anyway, lots of fun. But no, I could never really be somebody else.
I have given a couple of lecture series, mainly at Cambridge and Oxford, and I took care on those occasions to be as Canadian as I possibly could. There was no point trying to pretend to be British. They find you out immediately.
I have an agent who is actually Polish. She grew up under the Soviets in Poland, and her name is Karolina Sutton. She told me this, and I said, “But, Karolina, you’ve got such an amazing British accent.” And she said, “Oh, no, it’s very fake.” She said, “I learned it off the BBC.” She said, “The British can tell immediately that I’m not British.”
COWEN: To what extent do you crave having some part of your life where people really do not know you’re Margaret Atwood?
ATWOOD: Oh, that’s easy to arrange.
COWEN: What do you do?
ATWOOD: I just go to some other country where they don’t know I’m Margaret Atwood. Although, you never can tell. You never can tell when somebody’s going to pop out of the woodwork. It’s why I can’t be an effective criminal anymore.
COWEN: Last question about your career. Overall, if you were to explain the enormous prodigious output, which people are still reading — virtually all of it. Some of it is here on these shelves. To what do you attribute that? Why are you one of the most productive writers?
ATWOOD: Because I needed to make a living out of it.
COWEN: But you’re still writing, yes?
ATWOOD: There you go. I don’t have a pension. I don’t teach at a university. What can I say?
No, I took some measures to avoid teaching at a university because I did teach at universities, but back in the grim old days when there were gender issues. I don’t like to say this, but there were. Yeah, there were gender issues. Also, there were writer issues at universities in those days because they hadn’t yet realized what a tremendous cash cow creative writing courses were. And if you actually were a writer and publishing things, they looked at you askance.
COWEN: Margaret Atwood, thank you very much.
ATWOOD: So now you have to edit that, right? You have to edit it and make it into a podcast. Or do you just run the whole thing?
COWEN: We’ll just run the whole thing.
ATWOOD: Well, there you go.
COWEN: We have two mics for questions. You may line up at the mic. We are here to hear Margaret Atwood, so this is not the time to make speeches. If you start making a speech, I will just cut you off and turn it into a question.
ATWOOD: Why did you put Edgar Allan Poe up here?
COWEN: Well, he’s an influence of yours, correct?
ATWOOD: Well, he is, yes. Absolutely.
COWEN: A strong influence.
ATWOOD: Well, he was when I was 15, yeah.
COWEN: Who in Canadian literature has been the strongest influence on you?
ATWOOD: I don’t know. Probably Alice, maybe. But we were contemporaries, Alice Munro. I think it was probably most in poetry. I was of that age to get influenced. After a while, you don’t get influenced because your brain has turned to cement.
COWEN: First question, over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, Ms. Atwood. Thank you very much for being here. I wanted to ask you . . . You are very special in that throughout your work, especially your novels — Cat’s Eye, Robber Bride, even The Handmaid’s Tale, even though it goes unnoticed — you portray the cruelty and psychological manipulation that women inflict on one another.
I wondered, in your opinion, why mainstream progressive feminism today can’t seem to acknowledge the role of intrasexual competition in the lives of the oppression of women?
ATWOOD: You mean woman-woman?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah.
ATWOOD: I don’t know. Because they’ve forgotten grade four. I think it’s an ideological thing, that it’s a piece of ideology that says this shouldn’t happen, and therefore we’re not allowed to say that it does happen.
But you know, essentially women are people, just like other people. That means that there’s a wide variety, and there are different degrees of aggression and dominance and so forth amongst them. And there are power struggles. That’s just like people. So why be surprised? And why try to pretend it doesn’t happen? It’s kind of not the point. Women don’t have to be perfect in order to have rights.
If men had to be perfect in order to have rights, they wouldn’t have any rights. It’s not perfect. Women aren’t perfect either, and they shouldn’t be expected to be perfect any more than anybody else.
It’s really a pretty simple story, and even if you get a quite heavily invested ideological female person — if you go back in her past, you will find a moment in her life when some other female person wasn’t totally nice to her. It happens. So what? It doesn’t mean that women aren’t worthy of having rights like other people.
COWEN: You still can submit iPad questions, but next question over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I thought I heard that there was going to be The Handmaid’s Tale, a sequel.
ATWOOD: There is.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was wondering if you could comment on that.
ATWOOD: I can, a bit. I can’t tell you much about it because my publishers will immediately arrive in a balloon and kill me.
But if you go on the internet and put The Testaments, you can see the cover. I can tell you it will be published on September the 10th. I can tell you that there are three narrators. That’s about all I can tell you. But they’re bringing leakages out over time, as is their way these days. Increasingly, they tend to launch books in the same way that they launch movies.
COWEN: Question from the iPad. What are you reading right now?
ATWOOD: I’m editing a book, so that means I’m not reading much. But I noticed an interesting trend. I always used to be able to depend on the Gideons because no matter what else you were doing, there would always be a Bible in the hotel room. They’re dwindling away. You can no longer read about wholesale massacres in the land of Canaan. I don’t tend to cart around big heavy books with me when I’m traveling. I used to be able to depend on one being there, but they’re failing.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I’m an annual visitor to the Stratford and Shaw festivals, and I was wondering if you could tell this audience —
ATWOOD: Good for you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I know, for about 15 years — about Canadian theater, and probably the Stratford Festival in particular, since I see that you often retweet about what they’re doing.
ATWOOD: That’s right, yeah. The Stratford Festival started in the ’50s. When it first started, it was in a tent. It was a town that had been quite a heavy railroad town and also a center of pigs. It was a pig center. If you go online and look up Slings and Arrows, you can find a very funny miniseries that sat essentially in Stratford. One of those pig jokes gets into it.
I’ve been going there for a long time. I used to take my parents and the teenage kids and everybody. It’s pretty inventive. I think it does a pretty good job.
What else can I tell you? The town fathers, when it first started — or the town citizens — looked at it askance because it was artistic, don’t you know? It was in the ’50s, and they had been used to railroads and pigs, and they didn’t get it that this might rejuvenate their town, which it has done. It’s one of the first festivals that brought the economic level of the venue up.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. What’s your favorite fairy tale and why?
ATWOOD: My favorite fairy tale? Well, there’s a cluster of them that are interesting to me. I would say probably “The Juniper Tree,” if you know that one. No, no, no, no. Have a look — that one. “The Robber Bridegroom” — I wrote a book called The Robber Bride, which takes a similar type of motif but flips it.
They’re infinitely suggestive — these folktales, fairy tales, legends, and myths — because we don’t really know what they mean. So everybody’s always reinterpreting them for their own time and in their own way. I’m working with an actress right now on a reinterpretation of Medea.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you for speaking, and for all of your writings, especially your poetry. I wanted to ask what television — or shows, because it’s not necessarily television anymore — shows and movies interest you. What do you watch?
ATWOOD: I’ll watch anything. No, I’ll watch anything, partly because my parents refused to get a television set when I was young. I always felt deprived. I felt I was a social pariah because I was not watching the Ed Sullivan Show.
So I will watch anything, but I don’t watch things very frequently because I’m too busy. But who else went off to see Aquaman? Yeah. I’m surprised at you. Why didn’t you all go? It’s an absolute grab bag of every hero myth on the planet, including the Arthurian legends. There’s a reason why the half brother is called Orm. Just letting you know.
I don’t keep up, because nobody can. There’s too much. Now that we have web streaming, there’s just a huge amount out there of stuff. But I intend to watch something called Dark (Black) Mirror when I’m not editing a book anymore. Does anybody watch that? Is it good? Yes? Is it Edgar Allan Poe–ish?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah.
ATWOOD: Yes? Okay.
COWEN: What’s your favorite classic movie?
ATWOOD: I’m really bad at favorites. These “favorite” questions — they just throw me for a loop every time. That’s because I had a young daughter who used to say, “What’s your favorite color?” And I would say, “Red.” And “What’s your next favorite color?” And this would go on.
ATWOOD: Then she would go and say, “Which of my friends is your favorite?” I’d say, “Well, I like them all.” And she would pester me until I would name somebody. And then she’d say, “Why don’t you like the others?”
ATWOOD: So if you say something’s your favorite, the next thing somebody’s going to say is, “Why don’t you like the others?” And then they’ll feel very left out. The ones who are not the favorite will feel left out. So I’m against favorite things in general. I think it’s none of anybody’s business. And anyway, I don’t have favorites, I have a sort of a range of things I like.
What’s your favorite pair of shoes? Well, why aren’t you wearing the other one?
COWEN: From Italy, question from the iPad: “Why is television, the seemingly ascendant popular art, displacing film?”
ATWOOD: I’m not sure it is. But I think they mean streaming rather than television.
ATWOOD: Because it can expand to fill the space available for the story of whatever length it may be. Films have a sort of set period of time. It’s usually 90 minutes. If you take something, even like Great Expectations, which has been made into film several times, you have to squish it, and it becomes — instead of an expansive work of art — it becomes a sort of reference to the book. So I think one reason that streaming has been popular is that things can be the length that they are.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I wanted to know, when you write, do you read it out loud to yourself, to someone else? Or do you just reread it?
ATWOOD: I’m a reader-out-louder.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: To yourself or to someone?
ATWOOD: To myself, yeah. But if you start, then, reading from your book in public, you’re bound to catch some stuff that you should have caught. “Why did I do that?”
COWEN: Do you ever read out loud other writers?
ATWOOD: Yes, I do. To other people.
ATWOOD: We were great readers to children. I was read to as a child, and I think that’s really important.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You have at least two high school English teachers here in the audience. So my question is, we are looking to expand what our kids are reading, and I didn’t know if you perhaps had some suggestions of overlooked authors, titles, anything that’s approachable for the high school student that maybe we haven’t come in contact with.
ATWOOD: How old are they?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Ninth through 12th graders, 14 to 18.
ATWOOD: Okay. I would say it’s different for each of those years. I guess people lump adolescents all in together, but that’s not true. A 17-year-old is very different from a 13-year-old. I don’t know. I’m out of touch. What are they reading now?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, the newest text that our 12th graders just got is Purple Hibiscus, and things are going well.
ATWOOD: Things are going well. Okay. I would have to give that some thought, but I don’t know them. If you’re going to recommend books to somebody, you should know that person. You should know what they like, what is really not going to do it for them, and proceed accordingly.
The ones of mine that get taught the most to that age group — sometimes much to my dismay because I think they’re a bit young, but apparently not anymore — are Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. I think some books are teachable, and other books are great but it’s hard to figure out how to teach them, if you see what I mean.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve always enjoyed the way you write about the ability of objects to evoke memory or nostalgia. Why is it that you think you’re so good at that? And how do you approach writing about a relationship with objects and memory?
ATWOOD: Wow. Well, first of all, I’m Canadian, so I’m not allowed to say I’m good at anything.
Yes, we do the puncturing of hubris in our country. Unlike you in yours.
So, thank you. Thank you, but we won’t let that get out to the general audience.
I think probably because I read a lot of Dickens. Dickens is not very good about women unless they’re eccentric, weird women. He’s kind of bad about the heroines. But he’s very good about objects. The other person who’s very good about objects is Raymond Chandler. Raymond Chandler is particularly good about furniture. In fact, I have a little prose poem called “In Love with Raymond Chandler,” which is about his handling of sofas.
Yes, objects are very evocative, especially if you’re a person who’s been a child and has a memory because children relate quite strongly to objects in their environment when they’re little.
COWEN: From the iPad. “How do you choose which nonfiction to read?”
ATWOOD: How do I choose which nonfiction to read? Generally the biology, not too much the physics, unless it’s got color and pictures. Not so much the economics, but sometimes.
COWEN: But history, right?
ATWOOD: A lot of history, a lot of history
COWEN: Surrounding what you’re writing about.
ATWOOD: Or just in general. I’ve just always been interested in history. We have a great big library of World War II, partly because Graham’s dad was a Canadian general in it, so he collected a lot of books. My dad, although he was a biologist, was very interested in history. My mother liked to read historical novels of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, of which there were a lot more than you might think.
COWEN: Another iPad question. “How much is Cat’s Eye autobiographical? And is there a bit of you in Tony from The Robber Bride?”
ATWOOD: Those are two different questions.
ATWOOD: All of the public school teachers in Cat’s Eye are real. I changed the names.
COWEN: But you had them?
ATWOOD: Oh yeah, I had them.
COWEN: They had you.
ATWOOD: They had me. I had them, they had me. That school building, although torn down, was real. It’s of a certain vintage of school building. The food is all real. What else can I say? The clothing is real. The children’s pastimes are real, so the period is real. The plot — some of the plot, not so much.
The behavior of little girls is real, but it’s not confined to me and my generation. It seems to have been pretty universal. The only difference now is that a lot of it has moved onto text messaging and that kind of thing, whereas it used to be little folded pieces of paper.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I know you said you didn’t keep up with a lot of shows, but I was wondering what you thought about the Hulu Handmaid’s Tale series?
ATWOOD: Oh yeah, I keep up with that one.
ATWOOD: Yeah, I’m something called an executive consultant. What does that mean? Nothing. It means that I have conversations with people on the phone, but they don’t have to do what I say.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I personally haven’t watched it except for a few clips because I quite like your book rather than the show. But from what I have seen, they really changed —
ATWOOD: They updated it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, they really changed —
ATWOOD: They updated it. They made Serena Joy younger.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, Serena Joy — they made her younger. They made her friendlier.
ATWOOD: They have a multiracial cast, whereas in the book, it’s much more of a South African pattern in which they’re white supremacist segregationists.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I noticed they also made Offred pregnant. She actually did get pregnant in the show, and I was wondering —
ATWOOD: She gets pregnant in the book.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Really?
ATWOOD: Yeah, it’s at the end.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Oh my God. I didn’t know that. Okay. That’s something new.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, you know what —
ATWOOD: In the last two chapters.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I also just found out that you actually did provide Offred’s name in the book; I’m shocked. On social media —
ATWOOD: No, I didn’t.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: June isn’t her name?
ATWOOD: No. She doesn’t have a name in the book. The readers figured out what the name was, so I had to accept their verdict. They did a piece of reasoning which goes like this: There are a number of names mentioned in the first chapter, and of all of those names mentioned, only one of them isn’t mentioned again. So they figured it had to be her. But that was them; it wasn’t me.
However, the show adopted that, so it’s a question of readers adding in something that is in the book, but it wasn’t in the mind of the writer consciously. I’ve got nothing against that because it doesn’t contradict the text. It adds something in.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, I didn’t like that because I was like, no, the whole point is that she never gave her name and her daughter’s name.
ATWOOD: No, she doesn’t.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah.
ATWOOD: She doesn’t in the book, but the readers decided that that must be her name. But they’re not in the book.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, so I just wanted to know what was your take on how the show was going. I know that they kind of have your blessing, but I was just wondering how…
ATWOOD: Well, the show is going very well because, I think, for the people in it, it’s not just a show. The showrunner’s name is Bruce Miller — decided when he was 19 that this was what he wanted to do when he grew up. He pitched himself at the time when they were looking for a showrunner. So people are quite passionately involved with it.
And it has given rise to an international protest symbol — which is not confined to this country; it’s popped up all over the world — in which people put on the outfit. It’s kind of brilliant because you can’t be kicked out for being dressed immodestly, and you can’t be kicked out for causing a disturbance because you’re not saying anything. But everybody looks at it and they know what it means.
So there again, it wasn’t anything I thought of. I think it started in Texas, to tell you the truth, and it has since spread. That is entirely due to the show.
COWEN: Question from the iPad. “After Testaments, is there a project you’re working on that you’re able to talk about?”
ATWOOD: Well, let me get through one thing at a time.
COWEN: But you finished Testaments, right?
ATWOOD: I’m editing it.
COWEN: You’re editing it.
ATWOOD: It’s never over.
COWEN: And what comes next?
ATWOOD: Well, probably this big sack of poetry.
COWEN: Big sack of poetry.
ATWOOD: Big sack of poetry.
COWEN: Another reader question. “Would Margaret choose to live forever if it were possible?”
ATWOOD: No, absolutely not.
COWEN: Why not?
ATWOOD: Well, first of all, if everybody else was also living forever, we would have a big problem. There are a lot of people I don’t want to have live forever. So, if I could have them not live forever, I’m going to have to agree to not live forever, either.
But I think people have written about this a lot, the living forever theme. And it always turns out to be a very dicey proposition. Number one, you get bored. Number two, you’re probably a vampire. Number three . . .
Have you seen the brilliant . . . Here’s a film I have seen, which is quite brilliant — Swedish version only, please — Let the Right One In. Anybody?
ATWOOD: Very well done. It’s the Swedish vampire film about a 12-year-old vampire that Ingmar Bergman would have made if he’d ever made a Swedish vampire film about a 12-year-old vampire. It’s got one of the all-time best lines in it where the little boy says to this 12-year-old vampire, “How old are you, really?” And she says, “I’m really 12, but I’ve been 12 for a very long time.”
COWEN: Last question. If you were giving advice to someone starting out today as a writer — not that they would be growing up in the times you grew up in — but what advice would you pass down to that person, regardless?
ATWOOD: Keep doing it every day.
COWEN: Keep doing it every day.
ATWOOD: Yes. I don’t, but you should.
ATWOOD: Because if you’re a starting-out writer, that’s good for you.
But the main thing to remember is, nobody’s going to see it until you let them. So you need not be inhibited when you’re actually writing. It’s just between you and the page. And if you don’t like what you wrote that day, the wastepaper basket is there for you.
COWEN: Margaret Atwood, thank you very much.