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It’s a Madd, Madd World: How Margaret Atwood continues to find news ways to provoke

(photo: Shannon Ross)

Margaret Atwood knows her angles. As she posed for a portrait in late spring – we met to talk about MaddAddam, the forthcoming and final instalment in her speculative fiction trilogy – she clutched a giant tote bag just beneath the camera’s frame. (It was stolen once so she takes it everywhere, even onstage.) Wearing an oversized suit and sensible shoes, she curled her mischievous smirk on cue, first under an archway of stone skulls and cherubs at the University of Toronto, then while leaning against a café wall – she’s done this a thousand times. It was all very relaxed, until the photographer asked her to turn to the side. She kindly but adamantly refused: “I’m too old for profiles. Hee hee.”

Atwood will be 74 this fall, but it’s hard to imagine her being too old for anything. While other writers of her generation, like Philip Roth and Alice Munro, recently announced their retirement, Atwood has transformed herself into the poster author for digital publishing. In a little over a year, she finished her trilogy; wrote Positron, a serialized dystopian story tinged with Fifty Shades of Grey raciness for the long-form narrative website Byliner; collaborated with British writer Naomi Alderman on a novel called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home for the self-publishing platform Wattpad; and launched the Fanado app – part LongPen, part Skype, part chatroom – for hosting virtual signings and readings. That’s in addition to releasing In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a collection of essays on science fiction; appearing in Payback, a documentary based on her 2009 CBC Massey Lectures; delivering keynote speeches at tech and environmental conferences; promiscuously contributing to literary blogs; and sending out nearly 18,000 tweets (and counting).

Despite achieving canonical status for the publication, 28 years ago, of The Handmaid’s Tale and authoring 50 volumes that have collectively sold several million copies in North America, Atwood hustles like an MFA graduate dying to build an audience, not a member of the literary elite. But she has never been the type to sit back. When no one would print her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, she handset the first 220 copies herself (which, incidentally, now sell for $3,950 each) and designed and printed the cover for her second book, The Circle Game, using a ­Letraset kit – a lo-fi method even in the 1960s. That DIY ethos hasn’t faded with success or age. If anything, it’s intensified with the Internet, which lets her channel creative impulses through more venues than ever before.

Atwood’s online presence ballooned with the release of The Year of the Flood, the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy. The novel appeared in 2009, just after the economic meltdown, at a moment when every book blog and newspaper was pre-emptively eulogizing the publishing industry. “Publishers were in the spin-dry cycle of their lives – they were all going, ‘Ahhhhhhhh,’” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ll have to do this for myself.’”

So Atwood organized her own publicity extravaganza, starting a blog with interactive add-ons to the novel, which centres on the evangelical eco-cult God’s Gardeners. Fans could find out about avian-friendly Atwood blend coffee and ringtones of God’s Gardeners’ hymns, downloadable for $1.99 each. For the tour, she ditched the usual read-the-book, sign-the-book formula, and staged pageants in 19 cities, featuring an original score, choirs to perform it, and local actors playing the book’s environmental zealots. To keep readers abreast of the road show, she opened a Twitter account, something she had previously dismissed as a game for “the kiddies.” An early follower messaged her, “OMG! Is it really you? I love it when old ladies blog.” She was one of the first – and remains among the few – literary authors to engage with readers so openly online, and to meld her activism so unabashedly with her fiction.

On the morning I met her, Atwood had just broken 400,000 Twitter followers. She rewarded her devotees (T-pals, she calls them) with three Twitpics of herself, one a photo from her high-school formal in the 1950s, her trademark silver afro glossy-black and tied back in a ponytail.

***

Atwood is famously impish with the media, disabusing reporters of their assumptions and demanding precise language (don’t even try to call MaddAddam science fiction; it’s speculative fiction, thank you very much). But on Twitter, where she talks directly to readers, Atwood shows a side of herself that verges on vulnerable. When finishing MaddAddam, she wrote, “[A]lways blush-making to find all those typos and dropped stitches.”

There’s an openness to her recent online fiction as well. The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, about a 15-year-old girl’s gory adventures in zombieland with her undead-walloping grandma, was the product of a mentorship program that paired Atwood with up-and-coming novelist Naomi Alderman. Cultivating the next generation of readers and writers is another of Atwood’s pet projects, and she suggested to Alderman that they contribute to Wattpad, which has more than a million registered users, most of them young readers.

“I got in a certain amount of hot water for saying the Internet encourages literacy,” she tells me, referring to comments made during a media conference in 2011, “but I wasn’t talking about Finnegan’s Wake. I mean at the very basic level, kids have to be able to manipulate symbols. Wattpad is great because you don’t have to use your real name, so for teenagers, they don’t have to encounter their parents or teachers reading it. They can just let it rip.”

Atwood and Alderman did exactly that. You can almost hear the bratty vocal fry in the narrator’s voice when she opens the story: “I for one am not about to allow my arm [to] be chewed off just because another person – another former person – is feeling like a snack.”

“I knew Margaret as a writer who took on some heavy subjects,” says Alderman, “so when I opened that first chapter I was surprised by how funny it was.” Atwood wrote the first chapter, and the two alternated sections, trying to throw the other off with plot twists. “She was fiercely encouraging,” Alderman continues. “The only criticism she offered was that I have a tendency to tell my readers what to think, and she’s right.” The story, which they posted for free, has now been read by nearly 700,000 people.

Positron, the serialized ebook, is a darker, sexier lark, a dystopian story in which Atwood imagines a radical solution to America’s overpopulation/­underemployment problem: convincing citizens to voluntarily go to jail every other month. She compares the project to the serialized novels of Charles Dickens: “He was making it up on the fly, and quite frankly, that is what I am doing,” she says. Seldom do we get to see our literary icons winging it.

***

The MaddAddam trilogy is anything but off-the-cuff. Atwood has been either plotting or promoting it for the last 10 years, although she points out, with deadpan understatement, that she’s been busy with other things as well. Oryx and Crake, the first in the series, came after two historical novels: the Giller Prize–winning Alias Grace and the Man Booker Prize–winning The Blind Assassin. The choice to follow up with speculative fiction ran counter to expectations – it seemed like she was baiting prize juries, like an actor after winning an Oscar. The pulpy Planet Zycron chapters of The Blind Assassin – which involved Snilfards, Ygnirods, and a bevy of sacrificial virgins – weren’t promising. But Atwood is a canny manipulator of genres, rendering the line between the literary and lowbrow irrelevant.

Oryx and Crake tapped the dystopian darkness of The Handmaid’s Tale, introducing readers to an exquisitely imagined late 21st-­century nightmare warped by biological experimentation and ruled by sinister corporations. The book was shortlisted for the Booker, and sparked the speculative fiction phase of the Atwood oeuvre, a period shot through with eco-activist urgency, propelled by cliffhangers, and tinged with morbid zaniness.

“When I wrote Oryx and Crake, a number of these things hadn’t happened yet,” she says, referring to the bio-experiments described in the novel, which include lab-spliced rakunks and wolvogs. “Now, there really is someone experimenting with a headless chicken, and they’ve created a form of transmissible avian flu in the labs in China. You can’t make this stuff up, and when you do people will actually do it. I’m waiting for someone to do the mohairs. Take your own DNA, grow hair on a sheep, any colour, and then stick it on your head. I think that would be commercially successful.” The way she veers effortlessly from macabre lumps of lab-grown flesh to the spectre of real-life bioterrorism to only half-joking silliness encapsulates the peculiar tone and roller-coaster appeal of the MaddAddam trilogy.

Whereas Oryx and Crake was tightly plotted and intimate, The Year of the Flood was chaotic and blackly comic. Atwood took up the humanity-ending plague story from the previous book, but told it from the perspective of the God’s Gardeners, who practice a patchwork religion of veganism, freeganism, communism, pacifism, and Al Gorism. Taken individually, the first two volumes are End Times page-­turners – the first gripping, the second romping – but it’s only after reading the third novel that their mythic ambition and narrative complexity come into focus. The story picks up at the scene that ends both of the previous two novels, a Groundhog Day–like trick enabled by a series of flashbacks that expand the world without actually moving the action forward.

In MaddAddam, time finally advances as the remaining God’s Gardeners meet up with the more militant MaddAddamites, who had previously broken away from the group. They form a motley future for the human race, along with a gaggle of placid, naked blue Crakers created by the biology savant Crake in book one. Holed up in a cluster of cobb houses, the group fends off circling painballers (empathy-deficient criminals with a predilection for violent sex) and pigoons (highly intelligent pigs implanted with human stem cells). They contemplate procreation and, as in many Atwood novels, they tell stories – interrupted, overlapping, chronologically scrambled tales that reward careful reading.

The narration largely alternates between Toby and Zeb, the radical brother of peace-loving God’s Gardener guru Adam One. Atwood clearly enjoyed writing the character of Zeb, who speaks a kind of poetic potty-mouth in which tree branches are “frilly and intricate and see-through, like whore’s underpants” and asses are “as taut as an implanted tit.” Unlike the majority of her previous works, which centre on female friendships, the fraternal bond between Zeb and Adam ignites MaddAddam.

Atwood bristled slightly when asked about creating a male voice; she gets the gender question a lot. But she patiently, pointedly explained the careful symmetry of the trilogy’s narrators: she had taken heat throughout her career for not writing from a male perspective, so she wrote Jimmy in Oryx and Crake, which in turn drew criticism that the book excluded female points of view. So the second book was Toby’s, and the third book is now balanced between male and female narrators. She dispensed with the subject on a practical note: “Men and women have different concerns. When you have a character climbing over a fence, their point of view will be different … because of the dangly bits.”

Dangly bits came up again when I suggested the trilogy could make a blockbuster movie, an idea Atwood is open to but suspects may not happen because of the Crakers’ waggling blue penises. I offered that perhaps they could be loin-clothed, like the Na’vi in Avatar, to which Atwood said, eyes widening, “No. No. I’m afraid that bits of shrubbery would have to be involved.”

Once we finished talking about the book, Atwood turned the questions around on me. (I’d been warned about this.) We had been talking about age, and the popular narrative that follows her around lately, the one in which she’s exceptionally plugged in – for a septuagenarian. She asked my age (32) and, quite fairly, bandied back, “You’re 32 – and you’re writing all those words…? The reverse is, ‘How can this old person still be walking the earth upright?’ It’s all relative.” Then, in a mentoring tone, she asked a broad question: “Do you enjoy being 32?”

Perhaps it was because of all the talk of dangly bits and procreation, but I blurted out an inappropriately honest answer: “I do like it, thanks. But I’m single so I worry about my ovaries a lot.” Not missing a beat, Atwood asked me a series of questions about what I want in life, arriving at two pieces of advice, “Well, when you go on dates, you should look for the qualities you want in a father … or you could take out an ad on Craigslist for a donor.”

After some nervous laughter on my part, we parted ways. She raised her delicate arm, weighed down by her book-filled satchel, to wave goodbye, and wished me good luck with my project. Whether she was referring to the profile, the childbearing, or both, I’ll never know.

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