Margaret Atwood on 75 Years of Life and Literature

For my 18th birthday the martinis were fresh and floral with the scent of recently squeezed raspberries (calm down, I was in Montreal at the time — it was dead legal). When I was 20, I poisoned a small portion of my family with a poorly conceived plan to host a dinner party. This year I will be 29, and at the moment my only plans include a broken alarm clock and a cozy down comforter. I'm not sure what I'll be doing when I'm 75, but if I'm lucky enough to lead a life like Margaret Atwood's, I think I'll deserve to party in style, too.

On November 18, as a Canadian literary icon (and living legend) with 14 novels, 15 volumes of poetry, 7 children's books, and 11 short story collections under her belt, Margaret Atwood celebrates 75 years in the business of being honest to herself, her voice, and her beliefs. And, yes, she's already partied.

So, on this auspicious anniversary, what does Ms. Atwood believe about female authorship, geo-caching, the business potential of Mohair sheep, and the possibilities of literature 100 years in the future? How will this particular living legend celebrate her life and times?

With her trademark honesty, wit, and more than a little humor, Ms. Atwood spent 15 minutes in New York traffic talking it over with me. The conversation, like the ride, was fast, driven, and occasionally bumpy — but more than anything, it was illuminating, like every ride you take with Margaret Atwood.

So saddle up — you're in for something special on this particular day.

BUSTLE: You have a birthday milestone approaching. Do you have any plans for your birthday celebration?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I have actually just had a birthday [party], which Doubleday threw for me last night — it was very funny, they had ornamented the tables with “Saint Margaret” candles which they got off Etsy. So, that was great, and then I’m going to have a couple of other parties — some of them are fundraisers for other people, and I’m going to be back in early December, doing a 92nd Street Y with some surprise guests, so that will be a birthday event, too. I feel that my birthday is really being extremely well celebrated.

In the past you’ve said that the actual writing is what you enjoy most, but I think because you have so many projects on the go these days you’re doing a lot of promotion and interviews — do you enjoy that?

Well, I do enjoy it now — I didn’t enjoy it so much when I first began, but that was a very long time ago, and I think it’s always harder for people when they’re young. In those days it was particularly hard for people if they were young and female people because it was still early days and it was still a bit of a freakish thing that women could write, even though of course they had been doing it since Jane Austen at least. So there were interviews in those days that were sometimes a bit confrontational, like, “What are you doing here?” …like that.

In those days it was particularly hard for people if they were young and female people because it was still early days and it was still a bit of a freakish thing that women could write.

Do you find that you still get a lot of questions, maybe a disproportionate amount of questions, about what it means to be a female writer?

Not so much — it was a [common question] in the '70s, but I think there are now so many of us that I’m not sure that conversation needs to be had quite so much anymore, although I think it changes from generation to generation. So, it would be different to ask somebody, say a first novelist who was 25, that would be an interesting question to ask. It would also be interesting to ask that person how much competition is there out there, or Do you feel you’re reviewed differently? That would be very interesting. I think that when you get to my age you become semi-respectable, and then once you’re dead you’re really respectable.

You do have to wait a little while for legacy — is that something that you’ve been thinking about at all? Your legacy?

I’m not interested in that too much, except for in relation to the Future Library Project, which isn’t really a legacy, it’s something else.

I heard that you were the first author to sign on to that project.

Yes, I’m the first one, so my book will be 100 years old, and the last person to do it, their book will be 1 year old.

When I first heard about this project it reminded me of Twain’s posthumously released work, but I’m imagining you have very different reasons for being interested in the future library project. It seems to relate a lot to your ecological concerns as well.

Yes, it has an ecological tie-in, but it’s also a vote of confidence because you’re assuming that there will be a forest, that there will be people, that they will be readers, which are pretty big hopeful things to wish.

You’ve said in past interviews that you consider yourself, and all writers, optimists — are you still feeling that way?

Yes, of course, because just the act of writing is a very optimistic thing — you’re assuming that there will be a reader. You’re assuming that first of all you’ll finish the book, which is a big assumption, and then that somebody will publish it — even more optimistic — that somebody will read it — better still — and that they will like it — the very best thing of all — so it’s all based on optimism, isn’t it.

Just the act of writing is a very optimistic thing.

I’ve talked to a lot of writers who feel that writing is sort of a personal compulsion, and a great joy when it’s finished, but who don’t actually enjoy the process of sitting down and writing. Is that something that you enjoy? Or is that something you have to get through.

Well, I happen to enjoy it.

Do you have a routine?

I don’t really have a routine, but I like to have some coffee. So instead of a routine, I have coffee. And, instead of a routine I have deadlines.

And quite a few of them these days, you’re working on so many different projects.

Well, I have a lot of deadlines, which works for me because I’m inherently lazy, so unless I have a deadline I’m just going to goof off.

Do you procrastinate?

Oh yes, that’s my specialty.

Do you have a favorite form of procrastination?

Watching movies.

Do you have a favorite movie? Or something you’ve enjoyed recently?

I have a lot of favorite movies, but I’m very bad at lists that rank things from one to ten or something, because I can never choose just one.

I know that two of your different works are being adapted for television.

Yes, Darren Aronofsky and his team are working on the MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaadam, and I think they’re a really good choice — that’s for HBO, and Sarah Polley has long dreamt of doing Alias Grace, so she’s working on that.

How closely are you involved with those adaptations? I know you’re not writing the scripts for any of them.

No. I did write plenty of scripts in the '70s, but these are both very big projects that I think are going to require more than one person, especially for this MaddAddam thing. So, you’re going to need a team, and it’s not a time of my life when I really see myself doing that. I think it’s a younger person thing — sort of like summer camp for grownups, with some of the same stipulations. It was a lot of fun when I was doing it, when the people were fun, and in that way also it’s like summer camp — you’re stuck on a virtual island with people who are either great or horrible, and it either good weather or it rains, so if it’s horrible people and it’s raining all the time than it’s terrible, and I had a couple of experiences like those in the '70s, but I also had some great ones.

Speaking of earlier days, when you were discussing the Future Library Project in an earlier interview, you mentioned that submitting a manuscript for publication 100 years on is a bit like children burying things in the backyard for people to find. Did you ever bury anything in the backyard when you were a child?

Oh, yeah — I was a burier, and my brother was also a burier. He buried all the marbles he ever won, he buried them in a glass jar and I don’t think he ever dug them up, so they’re still down there.

Just waiting for Atwood fans years in the future to find…

I’ve sometimes thought it would be a good book promotion to hide books here and there around the city and give people clues — you’d put them in stores, but they wouldn’t necessarily be book stores, they’d be like your favorite cheese store, and your favorite coffee place and you’d give people clues, and if they went in and said the magic word they’d get a book.

It reminds me of the new fad for geo-caching.

Yes, exactly. People are doing that — you have to be able to do coordinates. It’s a good way of teaching people how to read maps, actually.

I hadn’t thought about it about it, but I guess map-reading is going the way of the typewriter or the telegraph.

Yes, but you should know about it. You should know about it for the moment the electricity goes off. You should know about all of these things for when the electricity goes off. There was a cartoon, I think it was in The New Yorker when Hurricane Sandy came on. It was people heading uptown holding out their phones going, “Electricity, electricity.”

With all your work with speculative fiction and grim pictures of potential futures, do you think a lot about the survivalist necessities?

Well, I grew up with it so it’s not hard for me to think about it. If you grow up in the woods with no electricity it’s not too much of a stretch for you, but if you always have had electricity it’s going to be something of a shock.

I’ve heard you quote William Gibson as saying, “The future is already here it’s just unevenly distributed." Where do you go to find the future?

Online. More particularly, the things my Twitter followers send me, because I know the very next artificial meat burger that comes out, I’ll hear about it from them first. They send me all sorts of interesting things including making oxygen in polluted areas of cities using algae, and new devices for growing human organs on matrices for transplant — they keep me well informed, and they often put the hashtag #MaddAddam, because they’re things that were in the book, and now somebody’s done them.

It is amazing — I feel like a lot of readers rank science fiction and speculative fiction based on how many of the fictional predictions come to pass, and you’ve had remarkable success in that vein.

Well, I think it’s because I don’t write far in the future sci-fi, or [works that take place] on another planet. I’m writing based on now and looking at things that people are already working on.

I think Mohair sheep would be a pretty good commercial idea, or a paint-on cure for baldness.

Is there anything that you’ve dreamed up that you really wish would come to pass, that hasn’t yet?

I think Mohair sheep would be a pretty good commercial idea, or a paint-on cure for baldness. But there’s all kinds of ideas and inventions happening all over the place now — there’s a man building an airplane out of hemp, and it turns out the panels they’ve made from hemp are stronger than the ones made from fiber glass. And there’s other people using fungus as building blocks — so you make a mold, you put some garbage or something in the mold, and then these fungi, and they grow until they fill the mold. Then, you bake the mold and you have a very hard thing in that shape. Some people are making coffins out of them and other people are making building block for structures, then of course if you really get desperate you can cook it and eat it. Well, I’m not too sure about the cooking and eating it, but it would be biodegradable in some form.

Image: Margaret Atwood/Twitter