A Progressive Interview with Margaret Atwood

The Progressive, December 2010 | Go to article overview

A Progressive Interview with Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood is a novelist, essayist, and poet.

Q: Your latest book, The Year of the Flood, concerns the environment. Why have you taken up this issue?

Margaret Atwood: I was born into this issue. My father was a forest entomologist, which means he was aware that spraying forests for spruce budworm was counterproductive in that it didn't really work, and it killed everything else in the forests, and it wasn't good for the people who were exposed to it, either. So be was an early proponent of not doing that, bur, of course, nobody listened. My parents were gardeners themselves, and perforce they used environmental techniques because it was during the war, and you didn't have the new sorts of chemicals. My family was scientifically incline& My brother did turn into a neurophysiologist, and I almost became a scientist myself. I could have gone that way.

Q: Why didn't you?

Atwood: I started writing. It was just very compelling. My brother and I were both teenage writers, and he was, I have to say, better than I was, but he went into science, and I went into writing.

Q: What are we looking at right now as far as the environment goes?

Atwood: We're facing growing climate change, more floods, more droughts, more crisis on a planetary level, and the systems we put in place in the twentieth century are just not going to work. We've run out of stuff. Our big problems are going to be energy supplies and food supplies. This is not a right-left issue. It's a people issue, and it cuts across all our categories. The problem is huge. We've just added seventy-five million people to the already large proportion of people in the world who are malnourished all the time, whose bodies are being starved.

Q: In The Year of the Flood, you have a private mercenary company like Blackwater essentially taking over.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Atwood: There's more private security in the United States than there are publicly funded forces, like police. What you don't want is a meld of government and commerce--you really want to keep those two things separate--because once you have that meld, you've got megacorruption, and you have no third force to whom you can say this stuff is poisoning our kids.

Q. How did you get on your dystopia jag?

Atwood: What can I say? I was born in 1939. We were losing the war at that time. It looked very, very bleak. I couldn't have known, I was too young, but there's an atmosphere that kids pick up on. After the war, we were still pretty possessed by it, and I remember reading Churchill's history of the war.

Q: You also read Orwell?

Atwood: I read George Orwell probably as soon as 1984 came out, and read Animal Farm when I was a child, thinking it would be like Winnie the Pooh, and I didn't know it wasn't. I thought the pigs were real pigs and the horses real horses, and I was just wracked by it.

Q: You call your work not science fiction, but speculative fiction. What's the distinction you're drawing?

Atwood: The distinction has to do with lineages. It has to do with ancestries, and what family books belong to because books do belong in families. The ancestor of science fiction is H. G. Wells with books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Those books involved things that are very unlikely to happen of are actually impossible, but they are ways of exploring possibilities and human nature and the way people react to certain things. And if you go to another planet, you get to build the whole society and you can draw blueprints and have fun with talking vegetation and other such things. …

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