Margaret Atwood on her new book and a 99-year cliffhanger

The redoubtable author talks to Brian Bethune about chicken sex, chicken scratch, her new book, and her secret story—which won't be read for 100 years

(Photograph by Jaime Hogge)

(Photograph by Jaime Hogge)

At 75, Canada’s most famous novelist keeps a sharp satirical eye on our possible new futures. In her new novel, released this week, Margaret Atwood sends her protagonists into a disturbing—if very funny—sociological experiment. Atwood spoke with Maclean’s senior writer Brian Bethune about The Heart Goes Last, her involvement in the Future Library project and the prevalence of human-chicken sex.

Q: The Future Library project consists of writers providing a text no one will see for a century. You were the first in, and will be first out—in 2114. What was the appeal of the project for you?

A: Oh, who wouldn’t like it? Well, don’t answer that; probably a lot of people might not want to do it, because they would say, “Why put the work in if you’re not going to get the payback?” But there are children who grew up making little secret books and hiding them places, and putting things in jars and burying them in the backyard, and—

Q: Were you one of those?

A: I certainly was. Children hoping that the next time they dug a hole in the backyard, they would find something. And I have found various things by doing that, you know. You might find a spoon, or you might find . . . I once found a china doll, a very small one. So things that the past has left for us—and I’m always looking at archaeological sites and what have they dug up. I think there are a lot of things hidden here and there, sometimes not on purpose, because people intended to come and dig them up again later and they just didn’t make it.

Q: There’s an investment of hope in this project, not just that there will be people around in a century, but that they’ll know how to work printing machines.

A: And that they’ll be able to read. Well, the printing machine that they’re going to put in the room . . .

Q: There will be one right there?

A: They’re going to put a printing machine in the room with instructions—and also instructions on how to make the paper. But the big question is: Will they still be reading? Will they be able to read the instructions for how to work the printing press and make the book?

Q: You may have to update those every decade.

A: Yes, well, it was Norway who did this quite funny thing you can see online called “Medieval Helpdesk.” It’s two monks. So the monk has just transitioned from scrolls to a codex book with pages and covers, and he doesn’t know how to work it. So he’s called the Medieval Helpdesk, and this guy arrives and says, “What’s the trouble?” “Well, I don’t know how to open it.” Second guy says, “Well, you take the cover . . .” “Ohh . . . and the text?” “Well, the text . . .” “Well, and then what?” “Well, then you turn the page.” “Ah . . . and will I lose any of the text?” “No, look, it’s still there.” “Well, I don’t know how to close it.” And it goes on like that. The helpdesk guys says, Well look, we have this instruction book that tells all about it,” and he gives him this little, smaller book and then he can’t open that, either, and the first guy says, “It’s the same problem!”

Q: I was thinking of the practicalities of this thing. Did you handwrite it, or type it, or get someone to scrub your hard drive clean?

A: I did think about this. First of all, I didn’t put the text anywhere near the Internet; I did it on a separate computer. I did think of handwriting it, but the problem with that is nobody can read my writing now. A hundred years into the future, they would be even less likely to read my writing. I’ve seen the notes of the Grace­ Marks trial—that’s in Alias Grace—I’ve seen the judge’s notes. Nobody can read them, his handwriting is so bad. He was writing a kind of shorthand to himself. So I did consider that. But, in the end, I got some archival paper and I printed it.

Q: And what you are allowed to tell anybody is . . .

A: Nothing.

Q: . . . the title.

A: Yeah, the title. The title is Scribbler Moon. And the rules are: The text could be anywhere from one word to as long as you want to make it; there can be no images, so no photos, no drawings, none of that, it has to be words; and [in] any language, but you can’t tell anybody what’s in the text.

Q: So there’s no point in asking you for the first sentence of a 99-year cliffhanger?

A: There’s no point. No, no. I can tell you that we did a parallel of contests on, in which the contestants are to write their own story for the future, incorporating the words of the title. So we’ll see what that title suggests to them. We’ll be able to read their stories; we just won’t be able to read mine, nor will they ever know how close they came to what I have done.

Q: But Scribbler Moon’s an awesome title. It makes you imagine all kind of things that could be in the story.

A: I did it for Katie, [artist Katie Paterson, creator of the Future Library], because she has a particular interest in time, and the moon is our first clock. And because the project is about writing, the scribbler. The scribbler can be about the person who does the writing, and the scribbler that you scribble in.

Q: One last thing before we speak about your novel. You’re going to revisit The Tempest for Shakespeare’s 400th birthday next year?

A: That is the Hogarth Press Shakespeare Project, in which a number of writers from different countries, and writing in different forms, have been asked to choose a play of Shakespeare’s and revisit it in prose.

Q: That makes me think of the The Penelopiad and The Odyssey.

A: Yeah, similar idea. For the Canongate Myth Project, you were to pick a myth, any myth, and to do it in any way you wanted, but there was a word length set on it. So, The Penelopiad, taken from The Odyssey, was that project.

Q: And it was The Odyssey from a different perspective. Will your Tempest be that way, or maybe a different setting, or could it be revisited any way you want?

A: Revisited any way you want. So, Jo Nesbø is doing Macbeth, murders in it, yes.

Q: There’s a fine pairing.

A: Yes, yes. Jeanette Winterson is doing The Winter’s Tale, sort of disappearing people and coming back, and vanished children . . .

Q: Yes. But The Tempest goes well with the New World writer in general, I would think?

A: I think The Tempest goes well with all kinds of things, but the appeal of it is, of course, there are a number of unanswered questions about it, which I will proceed to . . .

Q: Answer?

A: Answer—well, take a crack at thinking about, anyway. So, just to start off with whose was the island really, whose was it?

Q: Right. Well, I mean, that’s a New World venture.

A: Yes, whose was it really?

Q: I saw a lovely editorial cartoon once with 16th-century sailors planting flags: “Put this ‘Founding of the Nation’ flag over by where those two Natives are standing.”

A: Yes, exactly. I mean, it’s so completely stupid, but here we are, you know, it was all built on the total piece of stupidity: “So I stuck my flag here and therefore it’s mine.”

Q: The Heart Goes Last: That makes four near-future novels for you this century.

A: Yes.

Q: Though this one’s very near, right? I deduced this from the fact that celebrities who are hot sellers in the sex-bot industry are all people I’ve heard of already. They’re celebrities now, so this is not very far in the future.

A: Yes, yes. And people are impersonating them now.

Q: I was wondering if the present was devoid of interest for you, or just pregnant with possibilities that you want to write about. Why the near future?

A: I just did a book of stories called Nine Tales; they’re all the present. So, how much present do you want?

Q: Yes, well . . . but not in the novels. You must see things that are about to happen soon, though this book feels, in its way, like less of a warning—not that you’re writing prophecy—but less of a warning than Oryx and Crake. Do you think people now—artists, scientists, both—are talking about coping with an inevitable future, as opposed to warding it off?

A: Well, this is not . . . how shall we put it . . .this is not The Road.

Q: No, it’s not. The disaster’s localized.

A: It’s not grey and covered with dust. But also, some of the people in it are having quite a lot of fun. You have to admit that they are.

Q: Yes, some of them are.

A: So it’s not that kind of book, but it is a kind of book in which we think about what are the kinds of choices that we ourselves might make. So, which would you rather: live in your car? Or have a safe but much more controlled life, in another way?

Q: What would you give up for that security?

A: What would you give up. Exactly.

Q: And some of the characters in there want to give up anything resembling even their own idea of free will.

A: They do want to give it up, yes, they do. That’s also something that happens in real life.

Q: When Charmaine is told she actually has free will, she’s very unhappy. And that’s a big idea among neuroscientists, how there is no such thing.

A: Exactly. Well, they’re neuroscientists, aren’t they? So I was just at a conference called “BEINGS 2015” in Georgia, and they brought together the neuroscientists and genetic engineers, and some bioethicists and some philosophers and theologians, to talk about how far they should go, now that we have a very exact DNA-slicing tool that allows us to design—design your baby, if such you desire. So everybody acts as if they have free will. They act as if they can make these decisions; do they know they don’t? I think there’s been some back-down on the idea that everything is determined.

Q: There’s the practical matter, just like quantum versus classical mechanics. I mean, perhaps there are no rules to the universe, but if you walk off a building, you will still go splat. Gravity works in your life, and free will works in your life.

A: You’ll still go “splat!” Exactly, gravity works in your life, the notion of free will works in your life, however problematic it may at times be. For instance, they’ve now discovered that addiction has a demonstrable, measurable, and reversible physical manifestation in your brain. So you can stick a very thin wire down there and sort of scrub off the addiction part, and wipe the slate!

Q: I could tell there was some actual science in the imprinting in the novel.

A: Oh yes, there is. If you look up treatments for Parkinson’s, that’s how they discovered this kind of thing. They found that they could actually send an electromagnetic pulse into the brain and reverse the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Q: Your title, The Heart Goes Last, is perfect for this. The emotions are the last to go; the head is easily convinced of all sorts of things. And you have this lovely 1950s-ish couple. One is a house executioner and the other one’s a chicken pimp, but they are reasonably nice people, Stan and Charmaine.

A: Why the ’50s? People have said that that’s when—in the 20th century—that’s when the happiness quotient was at its peak in North America, oddly enough.

Q: I thought that was what they were trying to recreate there.

A: Emulate, yes.

Q: It’s sort of “Modest Proposal”-ish too, right? The premise is: How do we solve this problem? We’ve got a bunch of people we want to control, and a bunch of people who are unemployed. Why don’t we set half of them to ward the other half, and switch them up once a month? Because there really is no difference between the two groups.

A: And switch them up, yeah—it keeps them honest.

Q: I do have to mention the chickens again. From those headless things you had in Oryx and Crake on to this novel, I think there’s a future doctoral dissertation on Margaret Atwood and chickens. I mean, chicken sex? Really? Is this something I should be aware of?

A: Yes, you should. Yes, you absolutely should.

Q: I was afraid of that. I was afraid you were going to tell me that you have reams of research on the matter.

A: Well, I learned about it from [Canadian poet] Pat Lane in the following way. Patrick and I were at a poetry festival in either Oxford or Cambridge, I forget which—I think it might have been Oxford—and Pat actually had never been in the U.K. before, so he was quite nervous. So we were reading our poems to a crowd of pinkly smiling English people, and Pat read his poem about somebody sawing their arm off in a sawmill and putting it in a bucket of ice and driving 60 miles to the hospital, and they pinkly smiled and beamed at him. And then he said he would have to do something a little more dramatic. So he told them one about a dog choking to death on its bones, and they pinkly smiled. And then he finally said—beads of sweat were rolling down because he hadn’t managed to crack their pinkly smiling faces, he hadn’t gotten any reaction at all—so he asked: Were we aware that, in the 1950s, 75 per cent of North American young men had their first sexual experience with a chicken? Well, that was news to me. I suppose it was when things were more rural than they have since become. So I sat up a bit straighter, and they smiled a bit more broadly, and then he read a poem about such an event from the point of view of the chickens.

Q: I imagine no one’s really thought of their perspective before.

A: No, I don’t think so. So there you are, settling down for the night, and the footsteps approach . . . So yes, it’s apparently so.

Q: OK, then.

A: You asked, I told you.



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