Interview: Margaret Atwood on new novel MaddAddam

The Canadian author on prehistoric communities, misogyny, e-books and the Bible

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Interview: Margaret Atwood on new novel MaddAddam

The great Canadian author Margaret Atwood surely needs no introduction. She has been an influential novelist, poet and essay-writer since the early 1970s, winning many prizes including the Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale in 1987 and the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000. She recently appeared at Edinburgh International Book Festival to launch her new novel MaddAddam, the third and probably final instalment in her speculative dystopian future series that began with Oryx and Crake in 2003. I had the privilege of sitting down to talk to her about the new book, and found a woman who is not only disarmingly intelligent and engaged, but willing, keen and absolutely prepared to talk about pretty much any subject one can think of. Below is some of our discussion, which ranged from the themes in her new book through thoughts on prehistoric communities, misogyny in entertainment and Atwood’s views on the Bible and belief in ‘the unseen’.

Previous to Oryx and Crake all your novels have been stand-alone stories, but with the MaddAddam trilogy you have spent over a decade with the same set of characters. What was it about this story and these characters that kept drawing you back?

First of all, the first one contained an open ending. Right after it ended I thought, ‘Ok what is he going to do?’ And also it contained a couple of corners of unexplored map: so we knew they were there, but we hadn’t got into them very much. One of them was the God’s Gardeners, so how did those people end up demonstrating at the Boston coffee party and incinerating Jimmy’s jockey shorts on the lawn; what was the thinking behind them? And the second one was the MaddAddam group itself, which appears first as a grand master controller of a geeky online biofreak game, and then as a bio-resistance group doing weird things to the infrastructure via genetically engineered life forms; so who were those people? How would they be able to operate in such a society and why were they doing it? So the first set of people, the God’s Gardeners, I was able to explore in The Year of the Flood, and the second group of people, the MaddAdamites, in MaddAdam itself. It’s also an inverse ‘V’ formation, so the first two books come together at about the same point in time and the third one then continues on from that and tells us also what such a person as Zeb was doing in such a cult as the God’s Gardeners – it did not seem to be a fit.

Was that the first time you’d had that kind of experience, of writing something and then being yourself curious about the further lives of the characters and situations?

I think all of this comes from continuous, serial, child storytelling. So I think a lot of people, and indeed writers, may have had similar experiences. With a sibling or a friend you had another world going, to which new episodes could be added at will and when you got tired of telling it, you would say to the other person ‘It’s your turn’.

So is this the end of MaddAdam now?

I believe so.

So, speaking of the end ...

We’re not going to tell about the end are we? We’re not going to spoilingly tell about the end. No no no no.

No, I don’t think this is a spoiler. What I’m interested in is that the creation of a physical book is a key aspect of the end of MaddAddam. I think that’s fascinating because in this future, and in our time right now, the physical object of the book is a thing under threat.

Yes, and it is an ongoing debate right in this present moment, although it seems to be a little bit clearer at this moment in time, that the physical book is not going away. It’s changing its form and method of deployment somewhat but it’s certainly not disappearing off the face of the planet right now, and I think the reasons for that are neurological and also have to do with convenience. If you’re studying something or reading in-depth, a paper book is still more convenient. By convenient I don’t mean easier to get a hold of, because e-books are easier to get a hold of with instant access. I mean if you have made notes and are looking for something in a chapter and looking for the note you have made, it’s actually somewhat easier in a paper book. And [it’s about] the ‘depth of read’, say the neurologists: that physical print on the page is affecting the brain in a somewhat different way. So online it’s stellar for instant information retrieval, but why do you have to retrieve it? Because you forgot it. So yes, each of these things has stuff to offer but they’re not the same things. I have been known to buy e- versions of my books because I was in a hotel room and I needed one right away to look up something in it; very handy for that, you can have it just the next minute, you can press the button and just have it. On the other hand you may not wish to read War and Peace in that form.

Returning to MaddAddam, it struck me that although the threat of the painballers is very real, a lot of the focus of the ‘now’ story feels quite like a domestic drama: it’s slightly mellower than the previous two books

There are a lot fewer people involved, and if you think of our past in the Pleistocene, life was probably much more like that. There’s a book called The Humans Who Went Extinct, which talks about for instance what was our species’ relationship with Neanderthals – and the author Clive Finlayson says we probably would never have met, because they were here at this time and we were over here at that time, so there were very few points of intersection. So: small groups, intense relationships amongst the individuals in those groups, interactions with other groups from time to time but probably not really often, no storage surplus, therefore no social hierarchies. So no king, because if you’re eating what you’re hunting and gathering, you’re not storing it up and using it in any sort of ‘money’ way, to pay other people. People would have different functions within the community: you might have someone who was a shaman, or someone who was respected because of their age and knowledge, but they wouldn’t have total say over everybody else so, much more (pause)… well, think of the summer camp that you can’t get out of! So the individuals that you’re relating to in that ‘summer camp’ are going to matter to you a lot more, and how you’re relating to them is going to matter to you a lot more than if you know that at the end of two weeks you’re going to go home.

And there is something teenage about some of Toby’s behaviour isn’t there?

How old are you? (My answer: I’m 32) Well, they’ve done studies in old age homes and guess what? The emotions are still the same. So jealousy, liking, hating, it all just still goes on. So you may say ‘teenage’, but you could also say ‘the life of any social animal’. If you’ve ever had dogs you’ll know that if you’re patting one dog the other dog will want to come up and be patted too. So those emotions are pre-human, and they don’t go away over time, it’s just that teenagers are probably more overt about them, and are easier to read by other individuals because they haven’t yet developed duplicity to the same extent, and the ability to conceal. What we call ‘cooling it’, meaning other people don’t know; but it doesn’t mean people don’t have the [same] emotions.

There’s one particular detail of MaddAddam that I want to ask you about. The game that Zeb’s dad plays where the player can behead famous women from history – it’s funny, but it also taps into the real desire in our entertainment industry for women to be harmed

There’s a lot of misogyny. It’s not new. If you go back and look at as soon as there were printing presses, all the forms of tawdry sub-literature and dubious kinds of storytelling that exist now existed [then]. So if you go back and look at the comic book code that was instigated in 1954 – which strangely enough governed only colour comics, so all the same stuff kept on going in black and white! – it was sadism, torture, vampires, werewolves, the walking dead, horror, terror etcetera were forbidden. Go back and look at pulp fiction magazines like Weird Tales, and look at the covers and the stories within them, there’s a lot of sado-masochism going on in those. So as I say, it’s not new. The internet enables certain forms of it, but did not invent it; it’s just tapping into something in which sexual attraction and hostility get mixed up. So, you figure it out: everybody puts work into this. It used to be if little boys liked little girls in the class they dipped their pig-tails into the inkwells as a token of their affection, or put a worm down their neck, so there is that thing that goes on. I think it’s very infantile, but it’s very human. The reverse of that would be 50 Shades of Grey - a book that has probably never been read by a man - and it caters to a certain kind of narcissism, which takes the form of controlled masochism on the part of women. In other words, yes he ties her up to chairs, but it’s all for her, because he loves her so much. And anyway he has lots of money and then she gets to go shopping. (Why will you never read this book?) So I’m just reflecting reality.

It’s a very dark reality

Yes, but it’s here already. It’s already amongst us. 95 percent of the internet is porn, sorry to break this to you. Have I watched any of it? I don’t need to; the repertoire is limited. It’s all in the Marquis de Sade. It’s nothing new – there’s only so many ways that you can arrange the human body, it’s a limited thing.

A lot of your books engage in fascinating ways with the Bible, and there’s a very humorous side to that in MaddAddam. You point out the ways in which it’s easy to misuse the Bible, or make it mean what you want.

It’s pretty easy to misuse any book in that way, and make it mean what you want.

But you come back to the Bible a lot with your characters

Many different sects and cults have done exactly the same thing. Shall we explore them?

My question is: what’s your perspective on the right use of that text?

That’s a very interesting question. First of all, it’s a book. More accurately, it’s a series of books that the codex form allowed to be stuck together so it looked like a book. It was originally ‘the books’. And because we invented pages with a spine, you can put it in that package and it looks like a unified thing. And once it was in that package people started interpreting it like a unified thing, which gave us the high Middle Ages cathedral, in which you have the beginning in pictorial form, you’ve got the garden, creation, the Garden of Eden, all the way around the prophets, kings and so forth, then up to Jesus and that story and then the last judgement. So it becomes a unified story because of the way the books were arranged – heaven above, God in it, angels; down below, last judgement, hell, devils; very unified, complete universe. Talk about imaginary worlds to explore!

In honours English I studied with one of the great literary-Biblical scholars, whose name was Northrop Frye, who every year taught a course called ‘The Bible as Literature’, in which he said ‘this is a book; here’s how it works as a book’. So that’s just something that I knew quite a lot about. But also, people thought in about 1975 that religion was over, and it was no longer relevant to our modern world. I have never believed that, because I believe that religion is a subset of the narrative programme that we come with. And if people are not ascribing to a, quotes, “established religion” they’re doing something else. Could it be worshiping the stock market, could it be horoscopes, could it be channelling the spirit world, whatever that might actually mean? They’re doing something; they have some relationship with the unseen world. That took the form in some portions of the twentieth century of Freudianism: you can’t see your unconscious –it’s invisible! Or Jungianism: you can’t see the archetypes! But they’re out there. Scratch anybody and you’re going to find some belief system that is not entirely rational, because we are not entirely rational beings. Sorry to reveal this to the waiting world.

And the other thing is, once there’s a language that has a past tense and a future tense, we’re going to ask – as kids do – ‘where did I come from?’ And then ‘what about before that?’ So okay, ‘you were found under a cabbage’, but then it’s, ‘who put the cabbage there?’ or whatever other fable you may present. And that’s why people are so wildly interested in stuff like humans that went extinct. You get back to something that’s pretty much the same however you tell it, which is what Adam One says [in The Year of the Flood]: okay it’s the Big Bang, but what was that? Well actually, we don’t know… ‘Let there be light’. Essentially it’s the same thing. And it’s the ‘I don’t know’ moment, and there [always] is an ‘I don’t know’ moment.

So in MaddAddam the Crakers [have been] asking these questions, and Jimmy has already rather naughtily said that Crake is basically their creator - which is in a way true - and he’s added in Oryx because he loves her, and that’s what Toby is stuck with and has to build on.

And the question that comes up in MaddAddam is: what happens when Crakers can write? And there’s almost potential for a story beyond this one…

What is then going to happen? Yes. It’s probably something similar to what originally was our situation when only a few people could read and write, and therefore they more or less had control of the text.

One last question: The Handmaid’s Tale was made into a film some years ago, and the MaddAddam series strikes me as something that you may have been approached about a film version of

No! I can’t say. My lips are sealed. I can’t tell you anything.

But would you be interested in somebody interpreting it as a film?

Of course. It poses certain problems: Crakers don’t have any clothes and they turn blue, how are we going to show that in a movie? So, yes. The other thing is that some other people came and said ‘can we do a videogame?’ So I said, ‘well, we’re back and forth with the film agent- blah blah – so not of the whole thing, it would be too big and complex’. But there are some videogames within MaddAddam, ones that Zeb plays, so they’re actually making the game called Intestinal Parasites. I think it’s very funny – I don’t know what they’re going to come up with but I think it will be pretty interesting.

Sounds like it would appeal to a particular audience

At least they’re not torturing women! What can I tell you? Something to do if you’re not torturing women today.

In terms of your writing, do you know what’s next?

Yes, I’ve got three projects, two of which are partly finished and a third one that will shortly be announced. All fiction. I don’t think I have any non-fiction things to write about at the moment. I can also tell you that the MaddAddam trilogy has just been reviewed in Nature magazine, which I think is quite hilarious!

I suppose you’re so interested in so many areas of life and humanity, through your characters, that these disparate outlets pick up on and are interested in what you have to say

Very few people want to, or are able to, write about certain crossover areas. You get quite a lot of fictional spaceship stuff and other planets, but biotechnology as a subject in literature has until recently been quite rare. Since I grew up amongst the biologists and almost became one, I read pop science a lot: more the biology than the physics. So I just like to keep up.

MaddAddam is out now. For more Margaret Atwood, visit www.margaretatwood.ca

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