Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada, and received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College, University of Toronto, and her master’s from Radcliffe College. She has authored more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays, including the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Her writing has garnered numerous awards, including the Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and the Arthur C Clarke Award. Atwood has served as president of the Writers’ Union of Canada and the International PEN Canadian Centre and is an environmentalist and conservationist. She was granted the Order of Canada in 1973.
Her latest novel, The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is out today and has already been nominated for the Booker Prize. The Testaments is told from interesting new perspectives without returning to Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, and it answers questions that lingered long after readers finished the 1985 novel. It’s a captivating tale which follows three main protagonists as they navigate their lives both inside and outside the dystopian world of Gilead, with the timeline based 15 years after the time in which The Handmaid’s Tale was set. It closely explores the lives of Aunts, Wives and the newly introduced ‘Pearl Girls’ as the possibility of a revolution simmers which could see Gilead come crumbling down once and for all.
Here Atwood speaks about what brings her happiness, how she’s proud of her work and why we must not kill the oceans …
What really matters to you?
An impossible question! It’s too hard to definitively decide what matters to me – because so much does.
I think that when you were born is very important, because it determines what was going on when you were ten, when you were twenty and so on. It defines what is within your living memory and what is – on the other hand – in the land of legend. I believe there is a huge gap between the lived memories of the depression kids, the war kids and then the baby boomers – those are very distinct generations. Equally, anybody born in the year 2000 doesn’t even remember the Vietnam War – it is a mythical thing to them that was long, long ago and far away – and they can’t envisage a world without cellphones. For them, World War II is way back there – it is like people in 1880 thinking back to the Battle of Waterloo.
I’m a war kid. In the fifties, when I was an early teenager – it was an impressionable age – 1984 had just come out. The Cold War, Stalin and Russia were very much on people’s minds. If you had a fear in that period, it would have been of being blown up by an atomic bomb, followed closely – in the case of women – by a fear of getting pregnant. Because there was no pill in that age, sexual politics were really quite different then. The fifties was a decade in which the prevailing ideology was to get women back into their homes and tell them that they wouldn’t be fulfilled unless they had four kids, an open-plan house and a washer–dryer. Women’s jobs were to make life happy for others and get rid of their selves. Luckily – because Canada was a cultural backwater – that message wasn’t being pushed in our magazines. My parents were very egalitarian and keen on the outdoor life. I grew up without electricity or running water, which gives you a whole different mindset. I had few material possessions; at first, this was because of the war, and after that, my parents simply weren’t interested in such things. Other girls complain about having been put into a frilly dress; I complain about missing out on that. So, I drew dresses! I spent my time drawing, then reading and finally writing.
My writing is important to me. I tried my hand at writing romance stories when I was sixteen, because they paid the most. No-go – that was not going to happen. Then, I thought I’d be a journalist – until my parents invited one to dinner. He said I’d just end up writing the ladies pages and obituaries, which some people say I’ve done anyway.
I’m very proud of my work. It’s unique to see something like The Handmaid’s Tale take on a new aura of urgency in a time when various state legislatures move towards phasing out not only women’s reproductive rights, but their health rights. What is the plan here? All of it is pretty frightening and it doesn’t only affect our women – because you can never change the condition of women without offering things for men.
Apart from my writing, I invest myself in conservation issues, freedom of expression and women’s rights; since I take the radical view that women are human beings, I consider women’s rights to be a subset of human-rights issues.
I think that most people have hope built into them, because a species without hope built into it wouldn’t last very long.
What brings you happiness?
The pursuit of happiness was always a bit of a red herring, because happiness in itself is not a goal – rather, it is a by-product. So, doing things that you really want to do, being with people who you really want to be with and pursuing goals you find worthwhile will probably bring you happiness along the way.
But, happiness is quite often a matter of inheritance, I’m sorry to say. Some people are more cheerful than others, and some people battle depression all their lives – it’s a chemical thing. I’m congenitally rather cheerful, and with all the dire things I write about, you would think I would be very depressed all the time. But that’s not the case; dark things don’t consume me, and I am generally an annoyingly chirpy person – which can be very irritating to other people when the news is quite gloomy.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The lowest depths of misery and suffering are certainly being experienced by people right here and now on this planet. Human beings have been imagining hell for a great many centuries, and they have done a pretty good job of creating it. What we have difficulty with is creating heaven.
What would you change if you could?
The most important thing right now for us as a species is that we must avoid killing the oceans. If we kill the oceans, our oxygen supply will plummet. The blue-green algae and marine algae make approximately 60 per cent of the oxygen that we breathe; were the oceans to die, the oxygen supply would become a lot more skimpy. A great number of people would die, and the rest would become very stupid. Our brains would be functioning at about the level of somebody on the top of Mount Everest. How well are people unable to breathe enough oxygen to function going to get on at that point? Yet, we have advanced technology, so the thought of allowing the oceans to die is terrible.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would let the oceans be de-acidified. And I would let all the plastic be taken out of them. Plastic is a hard issue to get around, especially when you think of how many things in our lives are now dependent on plastic parts, including our phones, our computers, a lot of the parts of our cars and the things in our homes. We really need to find a solution to what happens to those plastics long term.
I am annoyingly chipper, but that doesn’t mean there is ground for hope. I think that most people have hope built into them, because a species without hope built into it wouldn’t last very long. So, we keep hoping for the next breakthrough, which keeps people working at the next breakthrough – if we didn’t hope, we wouldn’t do it.
Which single word do you most identify with?
‘And’. It means there is always something more.
Excerpted from 200 Women Who Will Change The Way You See The World, edited by Ruth Hobday, Geoff Blackwell, Marianne Lassandro and Sharon Gelman (Chronicle Books, £35).
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