Interview: Margaret Atwood on her novel MaddAddam

Margaret Atwood. Picture: Greg Macvean
Margaret Atwood. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Margaret Atwood doesn’t do spaceships, and she defies genres, but in life as in her novels she’s always grappling with the big issues of tomorrow’s world

Margaret Atwood is telling me about a weird new burger. It was grown in a lab in the Netherlands last month, then cooked and eaten, and was also the subject of numerous tweets to this queen of the twitterati.

“A lot of Twitter pals sent me news of the lab meat burgers, a lot saying ‘yuck’. But I think, don’t say that because if it becomes a standard, then you’re not going to be doing shoddy, cruel, bad mass farming and you’re going to cut way down on the amount of methane released, so I’m pretty interested. Lab meat turns up in MaddAddam,” she says.

As the legions of Atwood fans the world over will know, MaddAddam is the author’s latest book, launched this week while she was in Edinburgh, and the final in her speculative fiction trilogy. Weaving together the plot strands begun in the bestselling Oryx And Crake and The Year Of The Flood, it is the conclusion of her dystopian vision of a future where most of humanity has been wiped out. There are quasi-human species, a pacifist green religion and that engineered meat, all set in a recognisable world only slightly ahead of our own.

“My ChickieNobs [genetically engineered chicken-nugget producing creatures] are horrifying, but they don’t have brains, so no brain, no pain. If one of the arguments against eating meat is to do with cruelty and animal intelligence, then lab meat avoids that. There’s also the environmental argument for it. Are you going to eat meat and support ethical farming or turn your back on the whole thing? We know the arguments because our daughter is vegetarian,” she says in her dry Canadian tones.

She’s referring to Jess, her daughter with writer Graeme Gibson, with whom she lives in Toronto and on the birdwatchers’ paradise of Pelee Island on Lake Erie. The family decamped to Edinburgh when Gibson was on a Scottish Canadian Writer’s Exchange in 1978/9 and Atwood has retained a fondness for the city.

“We love Edinburgh, were here for a year, and still have pals here. I remember taking Jess, who was about two, into Jenners to see Santa. We found him having a fag. My daughter asked him for a goat. No, she didn’t get one! I remember Halloween too, searching for a pumpkin and being re-directed to the turnips. It took hours to make a lantern, but it did shrivel nicely as it aged,” she says displaying the love of the gothic that runs through much of her work.

Sharp, funny, and fresh from a voyage to the UK on the QE2 in order to avoid jet lag, she’s vivid and animated, her curly grey corona of hair bobbing about as she talks. Above wing mirror cheekbones, piercing blue eyes fix you beneath eyebrows arched like a cat waiting to pounce. At 73, she’s a neat figure in black shirt, black trousers, with splashes of pink, red and orange in her scarf, sandals, socks and dangly ear-rings.

I’d been warned Atwood was feisty, and she is, but in a good way. Her dry delivery is warm, her gentle sarcasm teasing. You can see how she managed to persuade former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway to dress up in tartan and tiger-skin to enact the role of cult-leader Adam in the launch of the second of the MaddAddam trilogy, The Year Of The Flood, in 2009. [“He gave a rip-roaring performance, really gave it what for,” she says.] Questions are sent back to try harder. For example, a lame, “At the age of 73, what has life taught you?” elicits, “What a gruesome question. Let’s see. If you leave a tadpole in a jar in the sun it will die.” Similarly, “What is the message of the MaddAddam trilogy?” prompts a, “Message? There is no message. Ha! Be nice to people,” she drawls, faux-nice. “If you want to do a message rent a billboard and do an advertising campaign,” she says.

There may not be a message, but Atwood’s trilogy reflects her concern for the environment and what we are doing to our world. The books hint at salvation and survival through evolution. At the end of MaddAddam, one of the few survivors of the eco-apocalypse, a bio-engineered human who has been taught the art of storytelling, finishes the story.

“Storytelling is a very old human skill that gives us an evolutionary advantage,” says Atwood. “If you can tell young people how you kill an emu, acted out in song or dance, or that Uncle George was eaten by a croc over there, don’t go there to swim, then those young people don’t have to find out by trial and error. Primate mothers show their young, do this, don’t do that, though they don’t have the gift of narrative and the most attentive ones raise better equipped young,” she says.

Like many Canadians Atwood has Scottish ancestry, as does her husband. “He’s Scottish on both sides and so was my granny on my father’s side. My family is from Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and the river my dad grew up on is called the Clyde. When the Scots went to Canada they knew how to survive because it was similar; Cape Breton is geologically identical with the Hebrides,” she says. “They passed on their culture too, teaching the Inuits Scottish Country Dancing. They turned it into square dancing and do it very fast and furiously for hours.”

Atwood’s father was an excellent woodsman and in turn became a forest entomologist, a career choice that saw the family spending their summers in the backwoods of northern Quebec and Ontario. The young Margaret and her brother Harold ran wild, while their mother, a tomboy nutritionist, also revelled in a world away from “hats and white gloves”. It was here that the writer’s interest in the outdoors and concern for the environment was surely piqued.

“My brother and I just thought it was normal. I didn’t go to school for a full year until I was 12. In the summer I was a wild child in the woods, with no shoes, and in the fall it was back to the city, shoe shops and school,” she says.

Despite turning feral every summer Atwood was no stranger to books and devoured everything from classics to comics. “I started with the dark gothicism of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes then Beatrix Potter and her cannibalism – very dark. Up the chimney with Tom Kitten, it’s pretty scary stuff. And Grimms’ Fairy Tales; my parents got us the unexpurgated version by mistake. We were also the schlocky pulp sci-fi comic generation and devoured those. The 1954 comics code forbade horror, werewolves, walking dead, ghouls, sadism, zombies and the like in colour magazines, but it was allowed in the black and white ones, so that’s what we read.”

Since her first novel at the age of seven about an ant – “nothing much happened until it grew legs, then it got going” – Atwood has written almost 50 books. Translated into 30 languages, encompassing poetry, fiction and graphic novels, from her first published book at the age of 19 in 1961 on through The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, and the Blind Assassin, which won the Booker in 2000, to the MaddAddam trilogy, they have always defied classification.

“Nobody ever told me not to mix up genres. That’s a very recent form of terminology for the convenience of book sellers. What is Pride And Prejudice? It’s the grandmother of chick lit. And I don’t think Mary Shelley thought she was writing an ancestral book of something you could call science fiction when she wrote Frankenstein. She thought she was writing a dark tale exploring the nature of mankind. No-one ever says Christmas Carol has ghosts in it so we’re putting it in the horror section,” she says.

“I don’t give a crap about how my books are described as long as it’s accurate. When people say sci-fi they mean spaceships and other planets and my books aren’t about that. I don’t want people to feel cheated. I’m talking about things that could happen, like the burgers, and then they do, just as Jules Verne was writing about things he thought could happen, like submarines, and they did.”

For Atwood science fiction allows the exploration of social structures and issues in a more indirect and lively way than social realism. She is able to talk about issues without talking about issues, not that she shies away from them in the real world. Criticised for visiting Israel and accepting the shared $1m Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University in 2010, Atwood said “we don’t do cultural boycotts”. Now she’s happy to point out she “gets criticised for supporting things on the other side too”.

This summer, along with Yann Martel and other Canadian writers, she signed a letter urging Israel to halt evictions of Palestinians in the West Bank, and Arab Bedouin villagers in the Negev desert. “Any stand you take on anything to do with that part of the world, you’re going to get a barrage of criticism. There’s often not a clear good choice,” she says.

Is it so easy to separate culture and politics though?

“That is a very long argument, but as a member of PEN International I can’t condone cultural boycotts because the first thing dictatorships do is kill the writers. Any move in that direction I can’t condone,” she says.

For now Atwood remains as busy as ever, laying claim to genes that see the women in her family live into their nineties.

“At the moment I have three projects on the go: a collection of stories which is almost finished, a build-out of a serial on a website that I’m turning into an entire novel, and the third one... I’m not talking about yet. There’s also a graphic novel of The Handmaid’s Tale. These things are either wonderful or potentially terrible. Let’s hope it’s the first rather than the second. The possibility for catastrophe is ever present,” she says, laughing.

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

• MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, hardback and eBook, £18.99.