Her new novel, MaddAddam (Nan A. Talese), completes the trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake, using "speculative fiction" to explore cosmic "What if?" questions. The books are set in a world that's been devastated by a pandemic, leaving the survivors to fight it out—will the MaddAddamites, the Crakers, the Painballers, et al., find a way to coexist, or will they self-destruct?
In real life, Atwood is as committed to protecting this planet as her characters are to saving imagined ones. Her environmental passions include the Pelee Island Bird Observatory in Canada, which she helps fund through an eponymous blend of organic coffee. The publication of her latest work gave O books editor Leigh Haber the chance to ask the iconic author how she keeps it all percolating.
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MA: That's what novels are meant to do—that's certainly what Charles Dickens and George Eliot did. You can't subtract society from the long prose narrative. It's pretty much impossible.
Q: Were there a lot of books around you when you were growing up?
MA: Yes. I spent much of my childhood in northern Quebec, and often there was no radio, no television—there wasn't a lot to entertain us. When it rained, I stayed inside reading, writing, drawing. I'm told I learned to read early so I could read the funny papers.
Q: When did you start writing in earnest?
MA: When I was 16 I started publishing all kinds of things in school magazines. My main feedback came from my English teacher, Miss Bessie B. Billings, who said, "I can't understand this at all, dear, so it must be good." If I were starting out today, I would create an anonymous Web site where you can call yourself "Flaming Wings of Steel" and put up a steamy vampire novel—no one would know it was me writing.
Q: Where do the scary sci-fi themes in your work come from?
MA: I was warped early by Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe. I was very fond of Franz Kafka. And I was watching all those B movies, like Village of the Damned.
Q: There is a lot of violence in the new book.
MA: Yesterday I read a piece about someone in Syria tearing open a dead enemy and eating his heart—on video—and announcing that this was his plan for all his foes. There's violence in the world. Do we add to it if we depict it? That's an ongoing debate.
Q: Speaking of violence, I found an online video of you giving a tutorial on being a hockey goalie. How did that happen?
MA: It was for a Canadian comedy show. I was asked to do a sketch on how to stop a puck. I put black socks over my figure skates so they'd look like hockey skates. My high moment was when I was passing the puck back and forth with some pros who said, "Hey! You can skate!" I said, "Well, yes, I can skate—I'm Canadian!"
Q: You've said that what sets writing apart from the other arts is its "democracy." What do you mean?
MA: It's cheap to do. It's portable. You don't need sets or lighting or a crew, as you do with theater, film or a symphony orchestra. Writers and books are cheap dates, especially when you compare the cost of a book with a ticket to the opera—or an NHL game.
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