Ep. 5: Margaret Atwood
BY Future of StoryTelling — May 13, 2020

Speaking with Margaret Atwood, poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, teacher, and environmental activist.


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Charlie Melcher: Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of StoryTelling and I'd like to welcome you back to the FoST Podcast. We have a special guest today, a personal literary hero of mine and millions of others, Margaret Atwood. Margaret is the author of more than 60 books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, children's stories, even comic books.

She's also a prominent political and environmental activist. Her best known book, The Handmaid's Tale, has become an emblem of feminist political resistance. It's been published in 40 languages and is now a hit TV series on Hulu. The book sequel entitled The Testaments was published in 2019 and won the prestigious Booker Prize.

I first had the pleasure of meeting Margaret back in 2015 when she came to speak at the FoST Summit. She was brilliant then and she's even more so today.

A quick note on production. Given the COVID-19 crisis, our conversation had to be recorded long distance and there was a technical problem with my microphone. My apologies for the poor sound quality, but I don't think it will dampen your joy or appreciation for the conversation. It certainly didn't for me. It was a great one.

Margaret, we're so honored to have you here with us today.

Margaret Atwood: What a pleasure. I hope you're washing your hands a lot, Charlie.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you. It's definitely been a challenge to be living and working in quarantine. Speaking of the crazy world we're living in, you are somebody who is known for writing dystopian fiction. I'm wondering where that inspiration comes from and why you've focused on those kinds of stories.

Margaret Atwood: Well, now I wonder. Let's go way back in time and put in that I was born in 1939, two months after the outbreak of World War II. So, my early childhood was spent in a world that was dominated by real life dystopias. Therefore, when I got old enough to read, what should appear right at that moment, but 1984. So, 1984 I must have read when I was 11 or 12. It made quite an impression.

I was a teenager in the 50s when a lot of what we now think of as classic sci-fi dystopias appeared including Fahrenheit 451 and the rest of Ray Bradbury and Joan Wyndham's books. I read all of those things. I was quite immersed in it. It's what I usually did when I was supposed to be doing my homework.

So, that was one part of that formation. Another part of that formation was that I was studying at Harvard in the early sixties. One of the people I was studying with was Perry Miller. Perry Miller was one of the handful of people who brought American literature into the academy. I had to study up a chunk of literature and history that I had not learned in Canada. That would be 17th century American Puritans. How interesting are they?

Charlie Melcher: That's certainly relevant to what you've been writing. Yeah.

Margaret Atwood: Bunch of Puritans. Were not interested in setting up a democracy. Yes, they were interested in escaping religious persecution, but only for themselves. They were quite happy to hand out religious persecution to other people. Which they did. This was the group that hanged Quakers. They were not interested in what you would now come to think of as the principles of democracy. They were very, very interesting to study.

Charlie Melcher: So, clearly your study of history is one of the things that's driven you to, well not only as source material, but also perhaps in your desire to help us avoid repeating some of it.

Margaret Atwood: Well, how much help can a book be, really? We don't know. People say to you, "Your book changed my life," but you never quite know what that means. So, you hesitate to ask, "Did I change it for better or for worse? What was it like before?" Yes, it can cause people to maybe look at things a bit differently, but whether you're going to get a totalitarian dictatorship or not really kind of depends on how many people you can get to line up on your side with ammunition.

Charlie Melcher: I was going to say certainly your success with having Handmaid's Tale into such a popular medium is as streaming television has opened up the audience many fold. What was that experience like for you?

Margaret Atwood: Well as you know, Charlie, just because something has been a successful book doesn't mean it will be a good movie or a good television series. And, indeed, some of the most successful movies and television series have been made from mediocre books.There's no co-relation. I was lucky enough to get a very dedicated team. The Hulu team and the MGM team have been behind the project from day one.

The cast has been really dedicated to the show, which isn't true of just every old show. It also must be said that it hit on a particular moment in the national history. That would be right after the election of the current administration. So, on November the 9th of 2016, we were halfway through filming the first season. And everybody in the show woke up and said to themselves, "We're in a different show."

Not that anything would have changed in the show itself. The way it would be seen had just radically changed. It wasn't going to be seen as fun dystopia, won't happen. It was not going to be seen like that. It was going to be seen more like here it comes. I don't know whether you call that luck or unluck, but it's a throw the dice that I could not have predicted in 1985 when I first published that book.

Charlie Melcher: Well, it must be very gratifying. I guess sometimes the world catches up to the good work.

Margaret Atwood: Well, not always in the happy, skippity hoppity kind of way. It's like, how about my other dystopian? The one in which a global pandemic has wiped out most of humanity? A fun read, but maybe just not right now.

Charlie Melcher: It's true. Sometimes things are a little too close. Most people who I think are known for dystopian storytelling, you don't think of them as people who have a lot of excitement or faith in the future. Yet I know so many of the things that you've worked on that are really longterm thinking.

One that I'm particularly thinking of, which I know we've talked about before, but the Future Library Project, for example.

Margaret Atwood: Yes. That is a wonderful project, it's the brainchild of a conceptual artist called Katie Patterson who is from Scotland. She teamed up with some people from Norway who were interested in the same thing she was, which is slow time. Slow times. It's a slow time project and it goes like this. They planted a forest in Norway that will grow for a hundred years. And in every one of those hundred years, a different author from around the world will submit a secret manuscript, only two copies.

And you will take that manuscript to Norway, and you will walk into the forest, which is growing, and they have a handover ceremony in which the mayor speaks, the chief librarian speaks, the chief forester speaks, Katy speaks, you speak, and then you hand over your box. And part of the deal is you're not allowed to tell anybody what's in it.

You're allowed to tell the title, that's it. And inside has to be something made of words. You can't just shove your photo album in there. It could be a one-word. It can be a poem. It can be an essay. It can be a story. It can be a novel. It can be as screenplay. It can be a diary. It can be a letter. Anything made of words.

In year 100, so that'll be 2114, enough trees will be cut from the forest to make the paper to print the anthology of the Future library of Norway and all the boxes will be opened. No pressure on me, I'm going to be dead. Anyway, it's quite a brilliant project and it got a lot of press around the world because it's so hopeful. It says there will be a library in Oslo, there will be people, the trees will grow, the people in 100 years will still be able to read. They'll still be interested in reading. Of course everybody tried to get out of me what was in the box.

Charlie Melcher: I know you've been very good at keeping secrets about your literary intentions. It was quite a long time between The Handmaid's Tale and its sequel.

Margaret Atwood: That's true. But I didn't have that intention for 30 years.

Charlie Melcher: You weren't planning ever to do that sequel?

Margaret Atwood: Nope.

Charlie Melcher: What drove you to do it ultimately?

Margaret Atwood: Well, I think it was the way history was going. I knew I couldn't do it with the voice of the original narrator. That was off, it wasn't going to work. But I saw a different way of coming at it. And I'd become quite interested in one of the secondary characters in The Handmaid's Tale, who I moved into a narrator position.

Charlie Melcher: So, let me ask you a little bit about your relationship to technology. Here you are, this gifted wordsmith, this woman who's been writing so beautifully for so long. Normally we don't think of authors as being early adopters of technology, cutting edge technologists. And yet, over the years you've consistently shown a fascination and a passion to be an early adopter of all sorts of new technologies. Why is that and what are some of your favorites that you've worked in?

Margaret Atwood: Well, I like to know how things work. So, it's not necessarily that you love them. It's that you want to figure them out. I come from a family that contains a lot of kids who used to take television sets apart to see how they worked. I would say kids like that are now learning code probably at a pretty early age because that's how this stuff works.

So, we want to know how it works, what makes it go. You're interested in what makes it go, but you're then also interested in the effect that that might have on how people live. So, who was teaching when I was an undergraduate, just down the road from me, it was Marshall McLuhan, who had quite a vogue in the seventies and eighties. And then he sort of vanished from view.

But I expect he's making a comeback now because he was right on point as far as digital technology goes. The medium is the message. It does determine to a certain extent how things get said, how people receive them, how we learn, how we understand, all of those sorts of things. But it would be a mistake to confuse any of it with reality.

Charlie Melcher: Well, I've been so impressed. I know that we've talked about things like Wattpad, which was a social medium for readers and writers. Obviously you have a huge Twitter following. You even were part of a team that created the ... What was it called, the-

Margaret Atwood: It was originally called the Long Pen is that what you're thinking of? That was in 2004 or 2005, before any of the technology that we are currently using to make it go had been invented. That meant, Charlie, and you'll understand this, we started patenting quite early. In fact we started patenting very early.

Charlie Melcher: And the original idea was so that authors could sign books for people when they weren't there at the book signing.

Margaret Atwood: And we did a number of those around the world. In fact, we dead Norman Mailer. His last appearance was in Scotland at the Edinburgh Book Festival, but he was in New England. And the first thing he said when he came up on the screen was, "I hate technology and I especially hate this technology." And guess what? We realized he had an audio problem. So, he turned up the volume and then he could hear everybody and then he could say that there were 600 enthusiastic Scots waiting upon his every word.

And he launched into a full Norman Mailer tirade and then signed everybody's book remotely. With a real pen on their books. But publishers couldn't figure out how to implement that. So, my original idea was you could take authors to places where ordinarily their publishers would never send them so that people in those places could have the same or a similar type of experience.

Charlie Melcher: Well, it seems like I'm prescient idea given that right now, authors cannot travel.

Margaret Atwood: Nobody listens to me. They all think I'm a crazy old bat. But there you have it. They should have done.

Charlie Melcher: Well, I know you're doing some interesting things right now in this period of social distancing and quarantine. To be able to, one, connect with audiences and two, provide some entertainment and relief for people who are kind of shut in. Do you want to share a couple of things? I know you're doing a project with BBC right now.

Margaret Atwood: A project with BBC. It's pretty hilarious. So, it's Mary Beard, the two-fisted classicist from Cambridge who said, "Could you do something for us? You know, just a little thing. As long as it has to do with the plague." So what comes to what comes to your mind when you think Plague?

Charlie Melcher: Puppets, naturally.

Margaret Atwood: No, Edgar Allen Poe. Those of us who know our horror literature, Edgar Allen Poe is really the great, great granddaddy of that kind of thing. He has a story called The Masque of the Red Death. Which we probably all read, or people my age probably all read in high school. In my case, public school because some lunatic had put the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe into the school library.

Having a background in puppetry, I decided to do The Masque of the Red Death with my sister. You always need two people. We weren't going to use anything that couldn't be obtained within the house. So, Prince Prospero, who is very rich, and successful and selfish is played by a champagne bottle.

The courtiers are played by wine glasses with the aid of some old wrapping paper, present wrapping paper, and his fortified castle is played by the knives and forks. And we go on from there.

Charlie Melcher: You have a background in puppetry, don't you?

Margaret Atwood: It's true.

Charlie Melcher: You did some of that in your youth.

Margaret Atwood: It's true. Well, anything can be a puppet. All you need to do is make it talk. It's amazing how quickly the belief buy in for that kind of thing can be. Charlie, I'm getting your attention here. Hello, hello.

Charlie Melcher: You very much are. That is a-

Transformation of a sleeve and a finger.

Margaret Atwood: Right.

Charlie Melcher: I wish our listeners could have seen you turning your sleeve into a puppet. Speaking of working in other forms, we know you as a great author. Poetry, children's books, comic books. You've written so many different types of things.

Margaret Atwood: It's true, usually for different reasons. Poetry is primal. I started that quite early. The children's books were usually because some publisher said, "Help, help do something." Children's books. Comic books, my big comic book project is called Angel Catbird. At heart it's a bird conservation project. Which you can tell by reading it.

Margaret Atwood: It asks the question ... Okay, domestic cats are an important species in North America and they kill an awful lot of birds, but it's no good to say to cat owners, your cat is an evil monster, you must drown it in the toilet. I've had cats, I know that would generate nothing but hate mail and death threats.

So, you have to provide a scenario in which you're helping cats as well as birds. And that's not hard to do when you look at the statistics. Because an awful lot of cats get killed, go missing and hit by cars and all of that. If they're led to roam around, they're not as smart as you think they are.

Charlie Melcher: Do you feel that there's a lot of opportunity for you to have any influence on environmental issues as an author?

Margaret Atwood: As a citizen, we all have that power. So, one of the bright sides of this quarantine moment that we're in, it gives us a chance to think, and it gives us a chance to think about what kind of world do we want to be in when hooray, hooray, the door opens and we can walk out and say ... We can get back to quotes, quotes, "normal." What is our new normal going to be?

Is it going to be a good new normal or is it going to be a bad new normal? Or is it going to be some attempt to recreate the moment we were in just before this happened? Time never goes backwards. You know that, Charlie.

One of the bright sides of this quarantine moment that we're in, it gives us a chance to think, and it gives us a chance to think about what kind of world do we want to be in when hooray, hooray, the door opens and we can walk out and say ... We can get back to quotes, quotes, "normal." What is our new normal going to be?

Charlie Melcher: Except for in that Superman movie, but yes.

Margaret Atwood: Forget the Superman movie, Charlie.

Charlie Melcher: So, what would you hope for this new normal? What would be your message if you could help to set the rules of what the world's going to be like when we come out of our quarantine?

Margaret Atwood: I would refer people to a website called Project Draw Down. Project Draw Down and on that website of Project Draw Down, you will see all the work that they have put into thinking about the things that we're already doing, that if we did more of them would cause carbon to be drawn down out of the atmosphere to the point at which we hit zero.

And they see that as eminently doable. It doesn't call for the invention of any new gizmo or anything like that. It's a whole range of behaviors that if we did them would get us to that point. So, no one individual can do all of them, of course not. But everyone can do some of them.

Embedded in that, I would say, would be some points of interest for investors who are willing to think a somewhat different way and those people, if they've got a handle on where we're going, will be the new patrillionaires I suppose.

Charlie Melcher: Do you think that this era, where we have the web, and internet and so many different types of media that are competing for people's attention, do you find that that's creating a lack of interest in writing?

Margaret Atwood: On the contrary.

Charlie Melcher: Tell me.

Margaret Atwood: Well, by providing so many other platforms where you can publish and write, write and publish, if anything ... And it's exponentially increased the number of people who feel they can do it and do do it.

Charlie Melcher: So, I find the same thing. I see that there's been this explosion of people writing and reading. That's a really wonderful kind of democratization now that people feel that they have permission and they have the tools to be able to share their writing. You know, at first when this stuff happens, it's not that everything that's made is great literature or great cinema. First stuff done off the Gutenberg Press wasn't all great literature either.

Margaret Atwood: No, there was a spate of pornography and political agitation pamphlets in point of fact. I mean, as well as the Bible that we all know about, there was all this other stuff happening. And we speak of the great age of the novel, et cetera, et cetera. But what was going on below that, the ephemera that we've forgotten about were penny dreadfuls, and scandal sheets, porn and all the kinds of things that we complain about on the internet.

Charlie Melcher: With time we've forgotten about that. Of course, at this moment we're surrounded by it. So, we think about the digital contemporary versions of it. But I'm very hopeful that this explosion of creativity, of storytelling, of access to the tools to express yourself will end up leading to a new kind of Renaissance of creativity.

Margaret Atwood: Charlie, you're such an optimist.

Charlie Melcher: I am, I am an optimist. Are you an optimist, Margaret?

Margaret Atwood: In a more guarded way, Charlie. Not wild enthusiasm, but I don't think everything's necessarily going down a hole.

Charlie Melcher: I'm glad to hear that. And when you write stories that do seem to suggest that most things are going down a hole, are you doing that really to help us try on that scenario?

Margaret Atwood: All those books are like blueprints. They're all saying to you, "Okay, here's the house you might end up in if you keep going down the road you're going in. Do you like this house? If you don't like this house, what kind of house would you prefer instead? And if you would prefer that kind of house, don't you think you should change directions and head towards that house that you would prefer?"

Charlie Melcher: What else are you doing these days? How are you responding to the COVID-19 crisis?

Margaret Atwood: So, it's not a really big change from what I might be doing otherwise, except that otherwise I might be traveling, which I'm not. However, some of the things I'm doing that I wouldn't have been doing otherwise, my sister comes in, she's within my family bubble, so she's allowed.

She made some very attractive face masks for us. She has hopefully left me the pattern and some kind of material which she thinks I'm going to sew into another one. Let's see if I do. So, I've been doing a certain amount of this. Sitting in front of the screen talking to people. Not just making puppets out of champagne bottles, but interacting with people on various platforms such as FaceTime and Instagram Live.

So, right now we're trying to recreate, in fact, I shouldn't say trying to, we are recreating an online version of the bird conservation events that we usually do in May. You can find that at PIBO, you can find it on the website. The Pelee Island Bird Observatory. And Springsong is what we usually do.

So, we're going to do that online, including a lot of the features that we would normally do in the live event, including the rubber chicken choir, which I have been in the habit of conducting. I had to order some rubber chickens because there's a shortage of them. I was only allowed to order two at a time. Somebody's [crosstalk 00:25:19] rubber chicken market.

Charlie Melcher: There's a run on rubber chickens?

Margaret Atwood: There has been.

Charlie Melcher: I can't wait to watch this. When is it again?

Margaret Atwood: May the 9th, online. It's going to be Facebook Live and it's going to be on the Pelee Island Bird Observatory page. P-I-B-O. You can either attend as a ticketed person and support bird conservation or you can watch the live stream as an unticketed person, but in that case you won't be eligible for any door prizes.

Charlie Melcher: So, let me ask you, when you're thinking these days about the work you do, is any of it in the context of your legacy?

Margaret Atwood: I don't care, Charlie. I know this might alarm you, but I'm not going to be there. Or, if I am, that's a whole different story. Do you think I'm going to haunt people if they haven't got my legacy right? "Fix the legacy. Fix the legacy." You can't control your legacy. You may think you can, but your legacy is basically what other people think about you after you're dead. And you cannot control that. So why waste time?

Charlie Melcher: Another question I had wanted to ask. Is there a story, a personal story that you like to tell that was very meaningful in the formation of who you are as an artist, who you are as a human being?

Margaret Atwood: Okay, so I did my first professional public book signing in 1969 in the men's socks and underwear department of the Hudson's Bay store in Edmonton, Alberta. Why? I don't know. It was the publicists first week on the job. I think she thought there's an escalator. And people will see her sitting there with her book called The Edible Woman surrounded by jockey shorts. They will rush to buy this book, which is the opposite of what really happened.

What really happened was that the guys came in at lunch hour to acquire their socks and jockey shorts and saw this person sitting there with this book called The Edible Woman and ran in the other direction.

Charlie Melcher: That sounds scarring. Yes.

Margaret Atwood: Just to know that it's bad for everybody sometimes. My publisher made a deal with a guy around a set of chain stores that also sold, you know, scotch tape and stationery and stuff like that. So, he was placing his authors in these stores. He placed me in one of these stores in Winnipeg in a suburban mall on a Tuesday afternoon. There was nobody in the mall. There was certainly nobody in the store except me with my little table and my book.

So, I sat there and nothing happened. And finally I saw this guy walking towards the store outside, inside the mall, but towards the door, plop, plop, plop. Towards the door. He opens the door, he comes in and I think, "My customer." He comes up to the table and he says to me, "Where's this scotch tape?" And I say, "I think it's at the back." And he says, "Thanks." That was it.

Charlie Melcher: Well, no wonder you had to invent the Long Pen. These early book signing experiences were so scarring you didn't want to [crosstalk 00:28:50]-

Margaret Atwood: No, they weren't scarring. They were not scarring, Charlie, they were funny. Come on. There's a difference.

Charlie Melcher: So, I ask this question a lot. Is there one piece of advice that you give to storytellers when they come and sit at your proverbial knee? What would you say to them?

Margaret Atwood: A lot of writers are afraid of the blank page. What I say to them is nobody's going to see what you write unless you show it to them. So, you don't need to be afraid of the page. You can write anything you want on the page because the wastepaper basket is right there for you. If you decide you don't like what's on that page, you can throw it out and nobody will ever know. Usually they're afraid of the page because they're afraid of other people's opinions of them. But they need not undergo those opinions until they are ready.

Charlie Melcher: So, do not be fearful.

Margaret Atwood: Don't be fearful for the wrong reasons. You don't need to be afraid of the page. The pages is right there in the room with you, you can tear it up if you want to.

Charlie Melcher: I think moving forward into the future without fear is a very nice note for us to end our conversation on-

Margaret Atwood: Charlie, fear exists for a reason. Sometimes you're right to be afraid of things.

Charlie Melcher: Okay.

Margaret Atwood: It's a question of getting it straight, which things are really fearful. So, I don't want you running into that crowd of coughing people because you're suddenly without fear. Don't do that, Charlie.

Charlie Melcher: Okay. I'm going to stay in and stay safe. But ultimately I just wanted to say thank you so very much for sitting down and chatting with me today. It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with you. And certainly it brightens my whole day in terms of being stuck inside here, so thank you so much.

Margaret Atwood: Always a pleasure.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you so much for being with us today and huge thanks again to Margaret Atwood for such an enjoyable conversation. If you'd like to watch the special speaker video that we made with Margaret, or you'd like to subscribe to our newsletter, please visit us at www.fost.org.

And a special thank you to our talented producing partner Charts and Leisure. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And tune in for more insightful conversations. If you know someone who'd like our show, please be sure to pass it along. Until next week, be healthy, be safe and story on.