Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CCOOntFRSC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, and environmental activist. She has published seventeen books of poetry, sixteen novels, ten books of non-fiction, eight collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and one graphic novel, as well as a number of small press editions in poetry and fiction. Atwood has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize five times, winning in 2000 for The Blind Assassin.  She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award,Prince of Asturias Award for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award 10 times, winning in 1966 for The Circle Game and 1985 for The Handmaid's Tale. In 2001, she was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. Atwood is the 2016 recipient of The National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2017 recipient of the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Among innumerable contributions to Canadian literature, Atwood was a founding trustee of the Griffin Poetry Prize, as well as a founder of the Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community.
Atwood is also the inventor and developer of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents. She is the Co-Founder and Director of Syngrafii Inc. (formerly Unotchit Inc.), a company that she started in 2004 to develop, produce and distribute the LongPen technology. She holds various patents related to the LongPen technologies.
As a novelist and poet, Atwood's works encompass a variety of themes including the power of language, gender and identity, religion and myth, climate change, and "power politics." Many of her poems are inspired by myths and fairy tales which interested her from a very early age. Atwood has published short stories in Tamarack Review, Alphabet, Harper's, CBC Anthology, Ms., Saturday Night, and many other magazines.
Early life and education
Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, as the second of three children of Carl Edmund Atwood, an entomologist and Margaret Dorothy (née Killam), a former dietitian and nutritionist from Woodville, Nova Scotia. Because of her father’s ongoing research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and travelling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old. She became a voracious reader of literature, Dell pocketbook mysteries, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Canadian animal stories and comic books. She attended Leaside High School in Leaside, Toronto, and graduated in 1957. Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six.
Atwood realized she wanted to write professionally when she was sixteen. In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. Her professors included Jay Macpherson and Northrop Frye. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English (honours) and minors in philosophy and French.
In late 1961, after winning the E. J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poems, Double Persephone, she began graduate studies at Radcliffe College of Harvard University, with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. She obtained a master's degree (MA) from Radcliffe in 1962 and pursued doctoral studies for two years, but did not finish her dissertation, "The English Metaphysical Romance".
Atwood's first book of poetry, Double Persephone, was published as a pamphlet by Hawskhead Press in 1961. While continuing to write, Atwood was a lecturer in English at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver from 1964 to 1965, Instructor in English at the Sir George Williams University in Montreal from 1967 to 1968, and taught at the University of Alberta from 1969 to 1970. In 1966, The Circle Game was published, winning the Governor General's Award. This collection was followed by three other small press collections of poetry: Kaleidoscopes Baroque: a poem, Cranbrook Academy of Art (1965); Talismans for Children, Crankbrook Academy of Art (1965); and Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, Cranbrook Academy of Art (1966); as well as, The Animals in That Country (1968). Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969. As a social satire of North American consumerism, many critics have often cited the novel as an early example of the feminist concerns found in many of Atwood's works.
Atwood taught at York University in Toronto from 1971 to 1972 and was a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto during the 1972 - 1973 academic year. A prolific period for her poetry, Atwood published six collections over the course of the decade: The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), You Are Happy (1974), Selected Poems1965-1975 (1976), and Two-Headed Poems (1978). Atwood also published three novels during this time: Surfacing (1972); Lady Oracle (1976); and Life Before Man (1979), which was a finalist for the Governor General's Award. As with The Edible Woman, Surfacing, Lady Oracle, and Life Before Man explore identity and social constructions of gender as they relate to topics such as nationhood and sexual politics. In particular, Surfacing, along with her first non-fiction monograph, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), helped establish Atwood as an important and emerging voice in Canadian literature. In 1977 Atwood published her first short story collection, Dancing Girls, which was the winner of the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction and the award of The Periodical Distributors of Canada for Short Fiction.
By 1976 interest in Atwood, her works, and her life were high enough that Maclean's declared her to be "Canada's most gossiped-about writer."
Atwood's literary reputation continued to rise in the 1980s with the publication of Bodily Harm (1981); The Handmaid's Tale (1985), winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and 1985 Governor General's Award (finalist for the 1986 Booker Prize); and Cat's Eye (1988), finalist for both the 1988 Governor General's Award and the 1989 Booker Prize. Although The Handmaid's Tale was a bestseller and would go on to much literary praise and acclaim, early reviews were mixed, with Mary McCarthy writing for The New York Times, "that it lacks imagination." Despite her distaste for literary labels, Atwood has since conceded to referring to The Handmaid's Tale as a work of science fiction or, more accurately, speculative fiction. As she has repeatedly noted, “There’s a precedent in real life for everything in the book. I decided not to put anything in that somebody somewhere hadn’t already done."
While reviewers and critics have been tempted to read autobiographical elements of Atwood's life in her work, particularly Cat's Eye, in general Atwood resists the desire of critics to read too closely for an author's life in their writing. Filmmaker Michael Rubbo's Margaret Atwood: Once in August (1984) details the filmmaker's frustration in uncovering autobiographical evidence and inspiration in Atwood's works.
During the 1980s, Atwood continued to teach, serving as the M.F.A. Honorary Chair the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa,1985; the Berg Professor of English, New York University, 1986; Writer-In-Residence, Macquarie University, Australia, 1987; and Writer-In-Residence, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, 1989. Regarding her stints with teaching, she has noted, "Success for me meant no longer having to teach at university.”
Atwood's reputation as a writer continued to grow with the publication of the novels The Robber Bride (1993), finalist for the 1994 Governor General's Award and shortlisted for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and Alias Grace (1996), winner of the 1996 Giller Prize, finalist for the 1996 Booker Prize, finalist for the 1996 Governor General's Award, and shortlisted for the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction. Although vastly different in context and form, both novels use female characters to question good and evil and morality through their portrayal of female villains. As Atwood noted about The Robber Bride, "I'm not making a case for evil behavior, but unless you have some women characters portrayed as evil characters, you're not playing with a full range."The Robber Bride takes place in contemporary Toronto, while Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction detailing the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomer. Atwood had previously written the 1974 CBC made-for-TV film The Servant Girl, about the life of Grace Marks, the young servant who, along with James McDermott, was convicted of the crime.
In 2000 Atwood published her tenth novel, The Blind Assassin, to critical acclaim, winning both the Booker Prize and the Hammett Prize in 2000. The Blind Assassin was also nominated for the Governor General's Award in 2000,Orange Prize for Fiction, and the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002. Atwood followed this success with the publication of Oryx and Crake in 2003, the first novel in a series that also includes The Year of The Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), which would collectively come to be known as the MaddAddam Trilogy. The apocalyptic vision in the MaddAddam Trilogy engages themes of genetic modification, pharmaceutical and corporate control, and man-made disaster. As a work of speculative fiction, Atwood notes of the technology in Oryx and Crake, "I think, for the first time in human history, we see where we might go. We can see far enough into the future to know that we can’t go on the way we’ve been going forever without inventing, possibly, a lot of new and different things.” She later cautions in the acknowledgements to MaddAddam, "Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory."
In 2005 Atwood published the novella The Penelopiad as part of the Canongate Myth Series. The story is a re-telling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope and a chorus of the twelve maids murdered at the end of the original tale. The Penelopiad was made into a theatrical production in 2007.
In 2016 Atwood published the novel Hag-Seed, a modern-day re-tellig of Shakespeare's The Tempest, as part of Penguin Random House's Hogarth Shakespeare Series.
Invention of the LongPen
In early 2004, while on the paperback tour in Denver for her novel Oryx and Crake, Atwood conceived the concept of a remote robotic writing technology, what would later be known as the LongPen, that would enable a person to remotely write in ink anywhere in the world via tablet PC and the Internet, thus allowing her to conduct her book tours without being physically present. She quickly founded a company, Unotchit Inc., to develop, produce and distribute this technology. By 2011, Unotchit Inc. shifted its market focus into business and legal transactions and was producing a range of products, for a variety of remote writing applications, based on the LongPen technologies and renamed itself to Syngrafii Inc. As of September 2014, Atwood is still Co-founder and a Director of Syngrafii Inc. and holder of various patents related to the LongPen technology.
In 2008 Atwood published Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a collection of five lectures delivered as part of the Massey Lectures from October 12 to November 1, 2008. The book was released in anticipation of the lectures, which were also recorded and broadcast on CBC Radio One's Ideas. The Economist called her a "scintillating wordsmith" and an "expert literary critic," but commented that her logic does not match her prose in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a book which commences with the conception of debt and its kinship with justice.
In March 2008, Atwood accepted her first chamber opera commission. Pauline, a chamber opera in two acts composed by Tobin Stokes with libretto by Atwood, premiered on May 23, 2014 at Vancouver's York Theatre. Commissioned by City Opera of Vancouver, the opera is set in Vancouver in March 1913 during the final days of the life of Canadian writer and performer Pauline Johnson.
In 2016 Atwood began writing the superhero comic book series Angel Catbird, with co-creator and illustrator Johnnie Christmas. As with her other works, Atwood notes of the series, "The kind of speculative fiction about the future that I write is always based on things that are in process right now. So it's not that I imagine them, it's that I notice that people are working on them and I take it a few steps further down the road. So it doesn't come out of nowhere, it comes out of real life."
Recurring themes and cultural contexts
Contribution to the theorizing of Canadian identity
Atwood’s contributions to the theorizing of Canadian identity have garnered attention both in Canada and internationally. Her principal work of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, is considered outdated in Canada but remains the standard introduction to Canadian literature in Canadian Studies programs internationally.
In Survival, Atwood postulates that Canadian literature, and by extension Canadian identity, is characterized by the symbol of survival. This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of “victim positions” in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the “victor/victim” relationship. The "victor" in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim. Atwood’s Survival bears the influence of Northrop Frye’s theory of garrison mentality; Atwood instrumentalizes Frye’s concept to a critical tool. Atwood continued her exploration of the implications of Canadian literary themes for Canadian identity in lectures such as Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995). The continued reprinting of Survival by Anansi Press and Atwood has been criticized as a disservice to students of Canadian Literature. (Pivato 2015)
Atwood's contribution to the theorizing of Canada is not limited to her non-fiction works. Several of her works, including The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Surfacing, are examples of what postmodern literary theorist Linda Hutcheon calls “Historiographic metafiction”. In such works, Atwood explicitly explores the relation of history and narrative and the processes of creating history.
Ultimately, according to her theories in works such as Survival and her exploration of similar themes in her fiction, Atwood considers Canadian literature as the expression of Canadian identity. According to this literature, Canadian identity has been defined by a fear of nature, by settler history, and by unquestioned adherence to the community.
Atwood's work has been of interest to feminist literary critics, despite Atwood's unwillingness at times to apply the feminist label to her works. Starting with the publication of her first novel, The Edible Woman, Atwood asserted, "I don’t consider it feminism; I just consider it social realism." Despite her rejection of the label at times, critics have analyzed the sexual politics, use of myth and fairytale, and gendered relationships in her work through the lens of feminism. She later clarified her discomfort with the label feminism by stating, "I always want to know what people mean by that word [feminism]. Some people mean it quite negatively, other people mean it very positively, some people mean it in a broad sense, other people mean it in a more specific sense. Therefore, in order to answer the question, you have to ask the person what they mean."
In January 2018 Atwood penned the op-ed "Am I A Bad Feminist" for The Globe and Mail. The piece was in response to social media backlash related to Atwood's signature on a 2016 petition calling for an independent investigation into the firing of Steven Galloway, a former University of British Columbia professor accused of sexual harassment and assault by a student. While critics denounced Atwood for her support of Galloway, Atwood asserts that her signature was in support of due process in the legal system. She has been criticized for her comments surrounding the #MeToo movement, particularly that it is a "symptom of a broken legal system."
Speculative and Science Fiction
Atwood has resisted the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake are science fiction, suggesting to The Guardian in 2003 that they are speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." On BBC Breakfast, she explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled advocates of science fiction and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed.
In 2005, Atwood said that she does at times write social science fiction and that The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake can be designated as such. She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth." She said that science fiction narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.
Margaret Atwood has repeatedly made observations about our relationships to animals in her works. In Surfacing, one character remarks about eating animals: "The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people...And we eat them, out of cans or otherwise; we are eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us, granting us life." Some characters in her books link sexual oppression to meat-eating and consequently give up meat-eating. In The Edible Woman, Atwood's character Marian identifies with hunted animals and cries after hearing her fiancé's experience of hunting and eviscerating a rabbit. Marian stops eating meat but then later returns to it.
In Cat's Eye, the narrator recognizes the similarity between a turkey and a baby. She looks at "the turkey, which resembles a trussed, headless baby. It has thrown off its disguise as a meal and has revealed itself to me for what it is, a large dead bird." In Atwood's Surfacing, a dead heron represents purposeless killing and prompts thoughts about other senseless deaths.
A large portion of the dystopia Atwood creates in Oryx and Crake rests upon the genetic modification and alteration of animals and humans, resulting in hybrids such as pigoons, rakunks, wolvogs, and Crakers, which function to raise questions on the limits and ethics of science and technology, as well as questions on what it means to be human.
In her dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, all the developments take place in the United States near Boston, while Canada is portrayed as the only hope for an escape. To some this reflects her status of being "in the vanguard of Canadian anti-Americanism of the 1960s and 1970s." Critics have seen Gilead (the US) as a repressive regime and the mistreated Handmaid as Canada. During the debate in 1987 over a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, Atwood spoke out against the deal and wrote an essay opposing the agreement.
Atwood has indicated in interviews that she considers herself a Red Tory in the historical sense of the term. Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson are strong supporters of Green Party of Canada leader, Elizabeth May. Atwood has strong views on environmental issues, and she and Gibson are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. She has been chair of the Writers' Union of Canada and helped to found the Canadian English-Speaking chapter of PEN International, a group originally started to free politically imprisoned writers. She held the position of PEN Canada president in the mid 80's, during which she held meetings in her house and attended PEN International conferences to help the organization grow from an unknown entity with a non-existent budget into a nationally recognized cause. She currently holds the position of vice president of PEN International. In the 2008 federal election, she attended a rally for the Bloc Québécois, a Quebec separatist party, because of her support for their position on the arts, and stated that she would vote for the party if she lived in a riding in Quebec in which the choice was between the Bloc and the Conservatives. In a Globe and Mail editorial, she urged Canadians to vote for any other party to stop a Conservative majority.
Atwood celebrated her 70th birthday at a gala dinner at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, marking the final stop of her international tour to promote The Year of the Flood. She stated that she had chosen to attend the event because the city has been home to one of Canada's most ambitious environmental reclamation programs: "When people ask if there's hope (for the environment), I say, if Sudbury can do it, so can you. Having been a symbol of desolation, it's become a symbol of hope."
Despite calls for a boycott by Gazan students, Atwood visited Israel and accepted the $1,000,000 Dan David Prize along with Indian author Amitav Ghosh at Tel Aviv University in May 2010. Atwood commented that "we don't do cultural boycotts."
In the Wake of the Flood, a documentary film by Canadian director Ron Mann released in October 2010, followed Atwood on the unusual book tour for her novel The Year of the Flood. During this innovative book tour, Atwood created a theatrical version of her novel, with performers borrowed from the local areas she was visiting. The documentary is described as "a fly-on-the-wall film vérité."
Since February 2013, Atwood made it clear via Twitter that she strongly opposed the University of Toronto putting in an artificial turf field and hinted that she might write the university out of her will if it proceeded with the plan. This was not the first time she had openly challenged the university.
Atwood claims that the 2016 US presidential election led to an increase in sales of The Handmaid's Tale. Inspired by The Handmaid's Tale, the political action group The Handmaid's Coalition was formed in 2017 in response to legislation and actions aimed at limiting the rights of women and marginalized groups. Activists, dressed in red cloaks and white hats as described in The Handmaid's Tale, lobby and protest in order to bring awareness to politicians and laws that discriminate against women and women's rights.
The novel Surfacing (1972) was adapted into an eponymous 1981 film, written by Bernard Gordon and directed by Claude Jutra.
The novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) was adapted into several eponymous works: a 1990 film, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, a 2000 opera, and a 2017 television series by Bruce Miller, with episodes airing on the streaming service Hulu. Atwood appears in a cameo in the first episode as one of the Aunts at the Red Center.
Atwood's 2008 Massey Lectures were adapted into the documentary Payback (2012), by director Jennifer Baichwal.
The novel Alias Grace (1996) was adapted into an eponymous six-part 2017 miniseries directed by Mary Harron and adapted by Sarah Polley. It premiered on CBC on September 25, 2017, and the full series was released on Netflix on November 3, 2017. Atwood makes a cameo in the fourth episode of the series as a disapproving church-goer.
Atwood's children's book Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery (2011) was adapted into the children's television series The Wide World of Wandering Wenda, broadcast on CBC beginning in the spring of 2017.
Director Darren Aronofsky had been slated to direct an adaption of the MaddAddam trilogy for HBO, but it was revealed in October 2016 that HBO had dropped the plan from its schedule. In January 2018, it was announced that Paramount Television and Anonymous Content had bought the rights to the trilogy and would be moving forward without Aronofsky.
In the Wake of the Flood (released in October 2010), a documentary film by Canadian director Ron Mann, followed Atwood on the unusual book tour for her novel The Year of the Flood (2009). During this innovative book tour, Atwood created a theatrical version of her novel, with performers borrowed from the local areas she was visiting. The documentary is described as "a fly-on-the-wall film vérité."
Future Library project
With her novel Scribbler Moon, Atwood is the first contributor to the Future Library project. The work, completed in 2015, was ceremoniously handed over to the project on 27 May of the same year. The book will be held by the project until its eventual publishing in 2114. She thinks that readers will probably need a paleo-anthropologist to translate some parts of her story. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Atwood said, “There’s something magical about it,” says Atwood. “It’s like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they’ll wake up, come to life again. It’s a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years.”
In 1968, Atwood married Jim Polk; they were divorced in 1973. She formed a relationship with fellow novelist Graeme Gibson soon afterward and moved to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, where their daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, was born in 1976. The family returned to Toronto in 1980.
Atwood is a humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.
Awards and honours
Atwood holds numerous honorary degrees (e.g., from Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the Sorbonne), and has won more than 55 awards in Canada and internationally.
- Governor General's Award, (1966, 1985)
- Companion of the Order of Canada, 1981
- Guggenheim fellowship, 1981
- Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, 1986
- American Humanist Association Humanist of the Year, 1987 
- Nebula Award, 1986 and Prometheus Award, 1987 nominations, both science fiction awards.
- Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction, 1987
- Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1988
- Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year, 1989
- Trillium Book Award, 1991, 1993, 1995
- Government of France's Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1994
- Helmerich Award, 1999, by the Tulsa Library Trust.
- Booker Prize, 2000
- Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, 2007
- Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, 2008
- Nelly Sachs Prize, Germany, 2010
- Dan David Prize, Israel, 2010
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Canada, 2012
- Los Angeles Times Book Prize "Innovator's Award", 2012
- Gold medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, 2015
- Golden Wreath of Struga Poetry Evenings, Macedonia, 2016
- Franz Kafka Prize, Czech Republic, 2017
- Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Germany, 2017
- Trent University, 1973
- Queen's University, 1974
- Concordia University, 1979
- Smith College, 1982
- University of Toronto, 1983
- University of Waterloo, 1985
- University of Guelph, 1985
- Mount Holyoke College, 1985
- Victoria College, 1987
- Université de Montréal, 1991
- University of Leeds, 1994
- McMaster University, 1996
- Lakehead University, 1998
- University of Oxford, 1998
- Algoma University, 2001
- University of Cambridge, 2001
- Dartmouth College, 2004
- Harvard University, 2004
- Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2005
- National University of Ireland, Galway, 2011
- Ryerson University, 2012
- Royal Military College of Canada (LL.D), 16 November 2012 
- University of Athens, 2013
- University of Edinburgh, 2014
The MaddAddam Trilogy
Short fiction collections
Margaret Atwood is a novelist, essayist, and poet.
Q: Your latest book, The Year of the Flood, concerns the environment. Why have you taken up this issue?
Margaret Atwood: I was born into this issue. My father was a forest entomologist, which means he was aware that spraying forests for spruce budworm was counterproductive in that it didn’t really work, and it killed everything else in the forests, and it wasn’t good for the people who were exposed to it, either. So he was an early proponent of not doing that, but, of course, nobody listened. My parents were gardeners themselves, and perforce they used environmental techniques because it was during the war, and you didn’t have the new sorts of chemicals. My family was scientifically inclined: My brother did turn into a neurophysiologist, and I almost became a scientist myself. I could have gone that way.
Q: Why didn’t you?
Atwood: I started writing. It was just very compelling. My brother and I were both teenage writers, and he was, I have to say, better than I was, but he went into science, and I went into writing.
Q: What are we looking at right now as far as the environment goes?
Atwood: We’re facing growing climate change, more floods, more droughts, more crisis on a planetary level, and the systems we put in place in the twentieth century are just not going to work. We’ve run out of stuff. Our big problems are going to be energy supplies and food supplies. This is not a right-left issue. It’s a people issue, and it cuts across all our categories. The problem is huge. We’ve just added seventy-five million people to the already large proportion of people in the world who are malnourished all the time, whose bodies are being starved.
Q: In The Year of the Flood, you have a private mercenary company like Blackwater essentially taking over.
Atwood: There’s more private security in the United States than there are publicly funded forces, like police. What you don’t want is a meld of government and commerce—you really want to keep those two things separate—because once you have that meld, you’ve got megacorruption, and you have no third force to whom you can say this stuff is poisoning our kids.
Q: How did you get on your dystopia jag?
Atwood: What can I say? I was born in 1939. We were losing the war at that time. It looked very, very bleak. I couldn’t have known, I was too young, but there’s an atmosphere that kids pick up on. After the war, we were still pretty possessed by it, and I remember reading Churchill’s history of the war.
Q:You also read Orwell?
Atwood: I read George Orwell probably as soon as 1984 came out, and read Animal Farm when I was a child, thinking it would be like Winnie the Pooh, and I didn’t know it wasn’t. I thought the pigs were real pigs and the horses real horses, and I was just wracked by it.
Q: You call your work not science fiction, but speculative fiction. What’s the distinction you’re drawing?
Atwood: The distinction has to do with lineages. It has to do with ancestries, and what family books belong to because books do belong in families. The ancestor of science fiction is H. G. Wells with books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Those books involved things that are very unlikely to happen or are actually impossible, but they are ways of exploring possibilities and human nature and the way people react to certain things. And if you go to another planet, you get to build the whole society and you can draw blueprints and have fun with talking vegetation and other such things.
The lineage of speculative fiction traces back to Jules Verne, who wrote about things that he could see coming to pass that were possible on the Earth—this wasn’t about outer space or space invasions—but things that we could actually do.
There were a lot of utopias in the nineteenth century, wonderful societies that we might possibly construct. Those went pretty much out of fashion after World War I. And almost immediately one of the utopias that people were trying to construct, namely the Soviet Union, threw out a writer called Zamyatin who wrote a seminal book called We, which contains the seeds of Orwell and Huxley. Writers started doing dystopias after we saw the effects of trying to build utopias that required, unfortunately, the elimination of a lot of people before you could get to the perfect point, which never arrived.
Q: So you can’t see yourself ever writing a utopia?
Atwood: I don’t believe in a perfect world. I don’t believe it’s achievable, and I believe the people who try to achieve it usually end up turning it into something like Cambodia or something very similar because purity tests set in. Are you ideologically pure enough to be allowed to live? Well, it turns out that very few people are, so you end up with a big powerful struggle and a mass killing scene.
Q: How do you move people forward without holding up a myth of utopia?
Atwood: By going slower, more gradualist, by increments, more progressive, that’s what we have to hold onto because otherwise you descend into anarchy, chaos, criminality, and totalitarianism of a different kind: In order to keep you safe, we have to obliterate your civil rights.
Q: How fragile is the fabric of democracy?
Atwood: The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly.
Q: In your dystopias, many people quickly come to accept the totalitarian government as normal. Why?
Atwood: What is their choice? After I wrote Handmaid’s Tale, people came up to me and asked why weren’t there any protests. And I said, “You don’t understand totalitarianism.” A real totalitarianism doesn’t fool around with protests in the streets.
Q: I saw a line of yours where you said, “I don’t write pretty books.”
Atwood: No, sorry. I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels. There are novels that end well, but in between there are human beings acting like human beings. And human beings are not perfect. All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ materials. That’s where they have to go. And a lot of that just isn’t pretty. We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.
Q: Do you think everyone has the potential to be a fascist?
Atwood: Well, that’s one of those questions, “Does everyone have the potential to be a cannibal, if you were stuck on a lifeboat and your choice was dying or eating somebody else, which one would you do?” We do not know how we’d behave. But a lot of people facing fascism didn’t become fascists. I don’t happen to believe that we are all monsters.
Q: Yet you like to set up lifeboat situations.
Atwood: I think we’re in a lifeboat situation. Not in the United States yet, but a lot of people in this biosphere are in lifeboat situations right now.