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Margaret Atwood on the utopias hiding inside her dystopias and why there is no “the future”

18th Annual LA Times Festival Of Books - Day 1 Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for LA Times

“Good luck with the future,” was the last thing Margaret Atwood said to me, after I’d shaken her hand and stammered profusely over what an honor it was to talk with her. She didn’t mean my personal future; she meant the future of the planet and of the human race, the same future she’s imagined so grimly in The Handmaid’s Tale and in her MaddAddam trilogy. She meant, basically, “Good luck not dying because of global warming.”

It was an oddly touching sentiment.

For Atwood herself, the future doesn’t look too bad. Hulu has announced its plans to develop a second season of its critically acclaimed adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s dystopian classic. Netflix recently announced that it would be getting in on the game with an adaptation of Alias Grace, Atwood’s 1996 novel of murder and witchcraft. Earlier this year, she won the National Book Critic Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and it’s widely expected she’ll only rack up more lifetime achievement awards over the next few years.

At New York City’s BookCon last Saturday, I sat down with Atwood to discuss her work, the changing political landscape of North America, and — of course — the future. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

Your work has been getting snapped up into all kinds of prestige TV outlets for the past little while. Why do you think that people are reacting to your work so strongly at this particular moment?

Margaret Atwood

First of all, we have a new platform, which is streamed television series, and that has allowed a lot of complex and longer novels to be adapted for screen that probably would have been harder to do as feature films. That is something that started in the ’80s, with British television doing classics, but originally they would just be on television, and you would have to watch them on the night, whereas now you can catch up on things and binge watch and all of the new behaviors that we have seen. That means that a lot of people are interested in making these things. So once upon a time, they would have found it much more difficult to make, for instance, Alias Grace, which is quite complex, into a 90-minute film. As a six-part miniseries, there’s a lot more amplitude.

So why are people interested in them right now? In both cases, it’s people who got very attached to the books when they were 19. And then time passed, and it became possible for them to make these things, which otherwise it wouldn’t have been. Sarah Polley made Alias Grace, and she has wanted to do that for 20 years.

As for why people are interested in watching them now, that would be another question. But I think these things go in cycles. So, the first wave women’s movement resulted in getting the vote. Then there was a pause while other things happened.

Then the second wave came along at the end of the ’60s, partly as a result of the various protest movements that had gone on in the ’60s. Their interests were in quite a few things, but included job parity and legal entitlements and property settlements; body image kinds of things; equal pay for work of equal value; a whole cluster of those things.

And then there was another pause. People get burnt out; they get tired; generations succeed each other; people don’t want to be their mothers. And then along comes another wave. By that time, the people having done the second wave are their grandmothers rather than their mothers, and that’s cooler.

And now we have another wave, which I think kicked off sometime in the late ’90s, and gathered steam in recent years, I would say the past five to eight. Let’s call it third wave. Third wave has been very energized by the election of Donald Trump, as we saw in the extremely large and widespread Women’s March.

It is a coincidence of sorts that these novels are coming along just at this time. Nobody could have predicted this exact kind of thing. But it may explain why the amount of attention has been extreme. It would have been a good show anyway, but it would have been a more hypothetical show. People feel now that it’s a few steps closer to reality, and a few steps closer than they are comfortable with. So it’s not just entertainment.

Constance Grady

Does it feel to you as though it’s a few steps closer to reality?

Margaret Atwood

There’s no question. It’s going state by state, and part of the interest of the federal government in devolving health care onto states is exactly that. Some states will never do such a thing, and other states will do it in a flash.

Constance Grady

Part of the narrative about your work recently has been that you examine power in a very literary way that not many other novelists do. Do you agree with that reading?

Margaret Atwood

“A literary way,” what does that mean?

Constance Grady

This is a different writer’s take, so I’m paraphrasing, but her argument was that the preoccupation of a lot of literary novelists tends to be on an individual, familial level, and that you take the beautiful sentences and the careful character-building and apply it to larger social questions.

Margaret Atwood

Well, we all live in the middle of larger social questions. Everything that goes on is actually affecting us in some way.

One thing I do for my characters is I write down the year of their birth, and then I write the months down the side and the years across the top, and that means that I know exactly how old they are when larger things happen. So, if you’re born in 1932, you’re born into the Depression. That’s going to have an effect on you. If you’re born in 1939, you’re born into the Second World War. Particularly if you were born in Canada, as I was, because that’s when we went in — I was born two months after the Second World War began. My joke is that I would have been taller if it hadn’t been for rationing, but that’s just my joke.

Everything that you experience as a child is related to when you were born, and that happens to every single human being on the planet. It’s different depending on where you are, but for instance, if you were born today in Syria, you are going to be born into a certain set of social conditions, and that is going to have an effect on your entire life: What’s possible for you, what social class you’re in, what location you’re in, which of the factions you belong to. It cannot help but affect you.

So when we have literary novels that don’t do those kinds of things, it’s because we’re taking the social milieu for granted. This is normality. The milieu that’s being described is the way life is.

But then all of a sudden it isn’t. Then all of a sudden it changes. So there are people alive today — How old are you?

Constance Grady

I’m 28.

Margaret Atwood

28. So we subtract from today … you were born around 1990.

Constance Grady

I was born at the end of ‘88.

Margaret Atwood

You were born one year before the Berlin Wall went down. So you have no experience of the Cold War. This is what I mean. You don’t remember it. So seeing a series like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that’s ancient history to you. To me, it’s very contemporary, because I remember it. [Old lady voice] “I remember those Cold War days…”

Handmaid’s Tale is a “what if” book, but it’s a “what if a lot of things that have already happened happen again, only in a different place.”

Constance Grady

Moving back a little bit, I know that one of the first books you published was about survivalism within nature being fundamental to Canadian literature as a field.

Margaret Atwood

Survivalism and my book Survival are two quite different things. I wrote Survival because at that time there was no general understanding of Canadian literature, and most people were told there wasn’t any, which wasn’t true. Or they were told that there was Canadian literature, but it was just a pale imitation of English literature or American literature. And I didn’t think that was true, so my book is about how those three things are different from one another.

I examine that question by taking certain motifs and seeing how they are handled differently in classical American literature, classical English literature, and Canadian literature. And why should they not be different, because the geographical location and the demographic mix are quite different in all three places. That was a 1972 book, the first of its kind.

Constance Grady

I wondered if you feel that the idea of — I want to put this correctly — is it survival within the frontier, per se, or survival within an unforgiving natural world?

Margaret Atwood

Classical Canadian literature is survival within an unforgiving natural world for sure. People get trees falling on them, lost in blizzards, drown in large bodies of water.

Constance Grady

And that’s definitely something that’s really operative in a book like Surfacing. Do you see that as still being present in your work, or have you moved away from that in later years?

Margaret Atwood

One of the arguments in Survival is not that Canadian literature should be that way. It’s just that it was that way. But that was in 1972. How many years have since intervened? 45 years. A lot has happened in 45 years, and we can go into what some of those things are, but that would be a whole other college paper. A lot of people have written a lot of books since 1972, and a lot of people have written a lot of different kinds of books.

One of the most noteworthy things that has happened since 1972, which really didn’t start happening until the ’80s, is that indigenous writers have appeared. In 1972, people wrote about indigenous people, but indigenous people were not telling their own stories, and now they are. That would be a whole other chapter, just for instance.

1972 was about year two of the second-wave women’s movement, so the depiction of women has radically changed since that time. Different immigrant groups have come in, and Canadian politics has always been different from American politics anyway, and now it’s even more different. One of the big issues in 1972 was the Quebec separatist movement, and we don’t seem to have that with us much anymore.

So all of those things have changed around. And countries are always changing. The vision the United States had of itself in, say, 1960 is radically different than the vision it has of itself now.

One of the things that has happened in the United States is that the gap between poor people and rich people has become huge, whereas the ’50s were a decade of the middle class, in which children expected to do better than their parents and in large part did do better. That’s no longer true.

So, land of opportunity … not anymore. Not letting people in, not seeing itself as a world leader anymore, abdicating from its role as world leader. Going back to the ’20s, an isolationist time. What happened in 1928? The last time there was a Republican Congress, a Republican Senate, a Republican president. They put in isolation policies and what did that produce? The Great Depression.

Constance Grady

One of the repeated tropes across a lot of your books is the presence of a character who functions as a shadow self to the protagonist. In your criticism, you’ve sometimes read that kind of character as a metaphor for the relationship between the writer as a person and the writer who’s doing the writing. How would you apply that reading to, for instance, the character of Zenia in The Robber Bride?

Margaret Atwood

Zenia is the shadow self of all three of the characters, but she functions in a different way for each one, because each one of them is different. But if you know anything about supernatural creatures like that, you’ll know that they can’t come into the house unless you invite them over the threshold.

But novels are often constructed in that way. Not just my novels, but anybody’s novels. They have various characters in them. You have to be able to tell one character apart from the other one, so we usually give them different names, different hair colors, they look different from one another. Otherwise you can’t tell them apart. They’re usually counterparts in some way, and that goes for everybody’s roles.

There’s a structural principle at work somewhere. That’s just something that has to do with works of art: You have a basic rhythm and then you have syncopation. It’s true of music and it’s true of painting, and it’s true of anything that involves any sort of pattern.

Constance Grady

You’ve written in one of your essays on the dystopia that every dystopia contains —

Margaret Atwood

— a little utopia, and every utopia contains a little dystopia. It’s very true.

Constance Grady

What do you think are the little utopias hidden within Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam books?

Margaret Atwood

In the MaddAddam books, the little utopia of course is the God’s Gardeners. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it is the life before. The flashbacks to the previous life, which of course nobody recognizes as a happy place until it’s gone.

It’s the same in 1984. In 1984, it’s the paperweight that contains the beautiful little thing, and it’s the rather unpleasant piece of the forest, the piece of nature that they go to. It’s about the only thing that remains, because that 1984 dystopia is so pervasive. That’s us grasping at something better.

In any dystopia, the utopian part is the something better, and in a utopia, the dystopian part is the something worse. It quite frequently has to do with, “What are we going to do with those people?”

What are we going to say about Brave New World? Well, as it turns out, there’s this other part of Brave New World that is unregenerate. The interesting thing about that book is that from the point of view of John the Savage, Brave New World is a dystopia. From the point of the people in that brave new world, the previous arrangement is the dystopia.

Constance Grady

Partially, probably, because of the focus on your dystopias, there’s been a narrative that you’re a somewhat pessimistic writer.

Margaret Atwood

Oh, I’m hideously optimistic. I haven’t killed everybody off at the end. Some people do.

Constance Grady

Very true! One of the projects you did a few years ago was the Future Library.

Margaret Atwood

A very optimistic project.

Constance Grady

Do you think that there will still be people around, ready and willing to read your book in a hundred years?

Margaret Atwood

The project assumes that there will be; that’s why people liked it so much. It assumes that there will be people alive in a hundred years, that they will be interested in reading, that the Future Library in Norway will survive, and that it will all come to fruition as the inventor of it has supposed. That would be Katie Paterson. They just had the third handover in the Norwegian forest. An Icelandic writer called Sjón handed over his manuscript. And who will it be next year? We’ll soon find out!

Constance Grady

The project assumes optimism, but do you agree with its optimistic take on the future?

Margaret Atwood

There is no “the future.” There is an infinite number of possible futures. Which one will actually become the future? It’s going to depend on how we behave now. So it’s not actually going to be up to me, what sort of future we are going to have. It’s going to be much more up to you. You’re going to be around for it, whereas I’m actually not.

I would say, should we manage to solve the crisis of the oceans, therefore securing ourselves a supply of oxygen, other problems are solvable. Should we not manage to solve that one, there’s no point thinking about any of the others. Women’s rights will actually be irrelevant, because there won’t be any women, or men either.

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