Margaret Atwood Talks Her 2114 Novel and Coping with Real and Fictional Dystopias in Her Reddit AMA

Margaret Atwood’s dystopias are starting to come true—and as disconcerting as that may be, at least we get to talk to her about them. In addition to predicting the future, Atwood is also very keen at getting with the times: Her Twitter account is filled with witty gems, and more than once she’s been game to talk about her work with her fans on Reddit.

For two hours today, she chatted with the folks at r/books about her newest project, writing a book for the Future Library project that won’t be read until 2114; how The Handmaid’s Tale reflects current legislation around the female body, and some of Oryx and Crake’s science and technology have changed from theoretical to actual; and which of her dystopias most frighten her. We also learned fun facts about the author, including which of her book covers she designed, and that time she reviewed one of her own books under a pseudonym. Read on for the highlights of Margaret Atwood’s Reddit AMA!


The Question She Can Never Answer:

shoot-the-wendybird: Which was your favourite book to write?

MA: I never, never answer that! The others will hear, and think I’m ungrateful if I don’t choose them. Each was enjoyable in its own way. (The utmost tact is required. Books can be touchy.)


Everything You Wanted to Know About The Handmaid’s Tale:

Not surprisingly, many of the questions centered on The Handmaid’s Tale, which for many readers is the gateway book to Atwood’s oeuvre. cgerb88 wanted to know where Atwood got her inspiration for “such a terrifying tale,” and they got a bevy of answers:

I got the inspiration from several sources: 1) my study of previous dystopias and utopias, must of which had male protagonists. What would such a story look like from a female POV? 2) my interest in dictatorships and tyrannies… 3) My study of American history and religion, especially that of the 17th C in New England; some of those Quaker-hanging, witch-hunting Puritans were my ancestors, so I’ve always been fascinated by them 4) My “be careful what you wish for” nervousness, which keeps me ever alert to the fact that for every One the One Hand there is also an On the Other Hand. Thus: to “protect” women too much would involve imprisoning them in some way. 5) my study of Victorian literature and history, and my knowledge of the laws, then, applied to women, and to men in relation to them. That wasn’t so long ago! And more….

In a similar vein, stormy_conditions asked if it were emotionally taxing for Atwood to write such bleak fates for the female characters in the novel:

It was indeed taxing, because one of my rules for writing the book was that I would not put anything into it that had not happened in human history, or for which we did not already have the tools. So I was drawing upon some very discouraging chapters in the human story. Having been born in 1939 and therefore having been a small child during the war and a less small one right after it, I was aware of the suddenness with which things we think are stable can change for the worse. So I have never thought, “It can’t happen here.” That can make a person quite nervous most of the time.

Finally, mermaidtears asked the author to clarify the book’s polarizing epilogue—does it symbolize change and forward progress, or just the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction?

Well, things Have changed for the better.. just as at the end of 1984 there is an article on Newspeak written in standard English and in the past tense, so 1984 did not last. And Gilead did not last, which is a hopeful thing. However, people are evaluating that past in ways that we might find frivolous and wrongheaded, and they are using it for their own purposes. Which happens all the time… how DO we understand the past? What ARE its uses? Do we ever learn from it, or do we learn enough, or do we sometimes learn the wrong things?


On Crafting Chillingly Realistic Dystopias:

Another book that got plenty of mention was Oryx and Crake, the beginning of Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. When asked about how she felt about the novel being compared to Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein’s work, Atwood responded, “The book is as it is because that seemed to me the only way to approach it…” She also pointed out that “the other strange thing about Oryx and Crake is that when it was written a number of the new things in it were theoretical… but now some of them have come true. Which can be disconcerting.”

However, when rabidbunnyrabbit asked which of her fictional dystopias she found most frightening, Atwood pointed toward her work on the Future Library: “Perhaps the most frightening one is the one I’m writing now… But I wouldn’t want to be stuck irrevocably in any of them.”


What She Can Tell Us About the Future Library:

themigraine: I’m really intrigued by The Future Library and it’s causing the completionist in me a lot of anxiety that I’ll never read your contribution to it. How did you get involved in the project and what do you think the reaction to your work will be when it’s finally read?

MA: Hello: Wow. I got involved because they wrote me a letter and I was intrigued by the idea. I can’t tell you anything except the title—that will appear next May/June, in Norway, where I will hand over the sealed box—because there are two conditions if you accept: 1) No images 2) You can’t tell. Who knows what the reaction will be? We don’t know what people will be like then; even their parents have not yet been born!


How Stone Mattress Came to Be:

Danuscript wanted to know what it was that got Atwood back into writing short fiction with Stone Mattress, her new collection. Atwood’s answer reveals multiple points of inspiration based on her various travels:

I began writing the title story in the location where it’s based—on a boat in the Arctic—to amuse my fellow travellers by supplying an answer to that question that always comes up on such boats: if you were to murder someone on this boat, how could you do it without getting caught? Then I went on to collect/write some other short fictions that were somewhat less like social realism and somewhat more like tales, though sometimes the tales are embedded within the realism. I had been to ComicCon recently, and that was a whole new world that seemed to me worthy of a fictional exploration… and one thing led to another. As it does. The final story: I did know someone who had Charles Bonnet’s Syndrome, in which you see The Little People. I find those tricks of the brain pretty fascinating. And an astonishing number of people have had experiences like that of Constance, in “Alphinland,” in which their recently dead spouse talks to them. Those things haven’t happened to me…. Yet.


On Canada, Literature, and Survival:

IAmtheRedWizards: In 1972 you set the tone for future discussions of Canadian literature by showing that the central motif of the field was one of survival. Given the face of Canadian literature today, do you feel that “survival” is still apt?

MA: Hello: Oddly, a motif that was once markedly (though not exclusively) “Canadian,” in that it was linked with a hostile Nature, has expanded vastly, since many are now treating of ‘survival,’ both in a serious way—dystopian futures based on climate change—and an entertaining way—zombie apocalypse. What interests me about the Survival (1972) book now is the ends of the chapters, where I was speculating about how the motif was changing, and what might happen next. For instance, at the end of the chapter called First People, I anticipate a generation-to-come of First Nations writers, and that is now happening, with Tomson Hiway, Joseph Boyden, Lee Maracle, and many more. John Ralston Saul’s book, Comeback, points to the same phenomonon. So, I wasn’t right about everything—can’t win ’em all—but I was right about some things. Not too shabby for a book that came about because the little publishing co. I was working with (House of Anansi) needed a way of supporting the poetry and experimental fiction that were its raison d’etre. :)


On Social Media and Writers:

pete081: What role do see social media playing in the lives of writers?

MA: I don’t think writers should feel forced to use social media if it’s something that interferes with them or makes them feel uncomfortable. I got into it by accident. partly because I like exploring new gizmos of all types, partly because I built a website for The Year of the Flood. I like Twitter because it’s short, and because I can put things there that I like, or that I think people should know about. But it’s not for everyone.


Fantasy Fictional Date!

CorporalButtermilk: You must date one literary character. Long term relationship. Who do you choose?

MA: Naughty CorporalButtermilk! Hmm, let’s see. Some fine upstanding young man, pure in thought and deed, like Daniel Deronda, or a sexy scamp like Rhett Butler? Maybe a good conversationalist, at my age? I fancy Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn’t date much, and anyway the date would be interrupted because he would have to rush off in the middle of it to trap some criminal. Lots of choice! I’d have to give it about two weeks of thought.


Coping with Fictional and Nonfictional Dystopias:

happilyemployed: Given the current state of politics in the US, how would you advise a young person who wanted to make a positive impact on society to proceed? Alternately, how would a protagonist in a hypothetical book deal with the apathy, binary thinking, thoughtless resource use, and general malaise of our times?

MA: Wow. What a difficult question. First: a person can get overwhelmed. Where to start? Identify a manageable project or aspect—that is, don’t try to take on too much, or you will sink under the weight. We ourselves (spouse Graeme Gibson and I) have concentrated on conservation and the environment, partly because it gets the least help, partly because when push comes to shove it’s very important (if the ocean dies so do we all, through lack of oxygen).

As for responses to the things you cite: In the MaddAddam trilogy, Jimmy more or less ignores them, Zeb takes to biocombat, Adam One is a pacifist although concerned, and Crake chooses to make a better human and do away with old ones (us). Toby concentrates on staying alive and helping others. But that’s my book(s). Other characters in other books will make other choices, depending on their circumstances.


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