YORK — Margaret Atwood, a master at creating clever
names, is always on the lookout for more. Settling into
a cafe chair on a gorgeous August morning in Manhattan’s
Bryant Park, she points out a sandwich kiosk called
like that one," she says. Gracious of her, since it
pales in comparison with monikers of the fantastic
creatures populating "MaddAddam," the
just-published conclusion to Atwood’s trilogy about a
small band of humans — and gentle humanoids — trying
to survive after a man-made plague has left the planet
in shambles. There are the violent Painballers, former
hard-core prisoners now roaming free; pigoons, giant
feral swine infused with human DNA, and Mo’ Hairs,
sheep bred to grow long tresses in a rainbow of colors.
has just an hour to spare before gathering up longtime
partner Graeme Gibson, who she’s left at the nearby
Cornell Club, and heading for a pier in Brooklyn. There,
the couple and their two grandchildren are to board the
Queen Mary, where she is launching "MaddAddam"
on a cruise from New York to London.
course she is: Atwood never takes the usual route when
more interesting options are available. At 73, she
sports a slate-gray mass of curls framing lively,
crinkly eyes and an arch, permanently bemused
expression. Though she’s written 14 novels and several
dozen other books of poetry, fiction and commentary, as
well as winning the Booker Prize and many others, her
wide-ranging conversational topic choices make it clear
that Atwood is more interested in discovery than
is this more evident than in her headlong, early-adopter
embrace of the Internet.
seems to be no corner of cyberspace, no form of social
media or online techno-trend that Atwood has not yet
plumbed. She’s practically giddy over a new video-game
app, "Intestinal Parasites," that was
developed as a tie-in to "MaddAddam" (one of
the characters plays the game, which features eyeless
predators that turn your insides into a "festering
crowdfunds for Fanado, a new site that helps fans and
artists connect. She has recently written online-only
fiction for not only Byliner, a site for established
authors, but Wattpad, where anyone can publish. She
appeared in full goalie gear on YouTube in a hilarious
video called "How to Stop a Puck." Pinterest,
Flipboard, you name it, she’s all over it. And she’s
quite active on Twitter, with 426,000 followers, and on
is like having your own little radio show," she
said. "It’s also rather like being at a large,
fun party where you don’t know all the guests, and
they turn out to come from all corners. And they think
people my age don’t understand this stuff."
scoffs at the notion, put forth by some fellow authors
including Jonathan Franzen, that Twitter and other
social media cast a distracting pall on higher literary
isn’t going to destroy literacy. Did the
telegram?" she said. "The Internet actually
enables literacy, because you have to be able to read
and write to participate. Look at all the young people
writing steamy vampire stories under pseudonyms online.
In my day, you couldn’t experiment without being found
turn, the Internet generation has welcomed her. Unusual
for an author of her age, Atwood’s fan base is growing
broader and skewing younger.
Bridges of Madison County’ was read by women aged 35
to 55," she said. "I am read by 10-year-olds,
90-year-olds, gays, straights, men, women."
finishes the story begun in 2003’s "Oryx and
Crake" and continued in 2009’s "The Year of
the near future, a juggernaut of bioengineering and Big
Pharma experiments have turned North America into a
giant "Island of Dr. Moreau" where mutants and
soulless psychopaths run amok following a
scientist-induced pandemic that nearly wiped out the
all the gloom and doom, rape and murder, Atwood inserts
perfectly timed bits of wit. Toby, a main character who
narrates much of the book, wonders whether the Mo’Hair
transplants on her head will attract unwanted attention
from the rams and decides to "watch herself for
signs of sheepishness."
Handmaid’s Tale," Atwood’s popular 1985 novel,
launched her as a prominent voice in sci-fi, then
dominated by men even more so than it is now. For its
themes of women oppressed by patriarchal government and
religion, she became a feminist hero, though she
shrugged off the mantle as misguided.
book continues to have legs. It was made into a
Hollywood film starring Robert Duvall and Natasha
Richardson, and into an opera given its American
premiere by the Minnesota Opera in 2003. In October, the
Royal Winnipeg Ballet premieres its own version in dance
her post-apocalyptic settings and dystopian futures,
Atwood has been ahead of the curve in mass-appeal pop
fiction, chockablock with such scenarios. She prefers to
categorize her work as "speculative fiction,"
saying she depicts events that could possibly happen,
whereas science fiction, in her view, focuses on
adult fiction, in particular, seems to be heading right
down the Atwood path. The popularity of "The Hunger
Games" and similarly themed series in YA just keeps
growing. So why are all so interested in bracing for
rehearsing," she said, flashing her
STORY CAN END HERE)
of course, would never dream of harming a songbird. Like
fellow author and bird lover Gibson, Atwood has long
been active in environmental causes. She even has a
blend of nature-friendly coffee named for her at the
Balzac’s coffee-shop chain in Toronto, where she
how Canadians view the States, she pauses a moment, then
deflects the question amusingly.
our Mexico," she says. "We’d like to slice
off the east coast of Florida, float it up here on a
tectonic plate and attach it to Newfoundland so we have
somewhere to go in the winter."
up in Ottawa in what she calls a "nerdy
family," Atwood was a bio-geek before it was cool.
Her father was a zoologist specializing in entomology,
her mother a dietitian. Her brother, a neurobiologist,
recently complimented her on the trilogy’s
bioengineered humanoid species the Crakers, who are
"free from sexual jealousy, greed, clothing and the
need for insect repellent or animal protein." Their
privates also turn blue as a signal they’re ready to
copulate. "He liked the baboon-in-heat mating
style, but wasn’t so sure about the purring," she
is happy with the gender-neutral cover of the American
version of "MaddAddam," but she had to ask for
a redo to get it. For books by women, she says,
"they’re always coming up with something floral,
like a journal you give girls for Christmas, something
in which to write your delicate female thoughts. The
original they showed me had this messy, twiggy writing
on it that would make a male reader say, too girly, and
a woman reader say, where’s the vacuum cleaner?"
look, this is fascinating," she said. "We’ll
have to stop here before we go to the pier."
with that, Margaret Atwood had found one more new
interest to cram into her already overflowing brainpan.