Her father, Carl Atwood, was an entomologist, and, until Atwood was almost out of elementary school, the family passed all but the coldest months in virtually complete isolation at insect-research stations; at one point, they lived in a log cabin that her father had helped construct. Her mother, also named Margaret—among her intimates, the novelist goes by Peggy—was a dietitian. In the months in the woods, she secured workbooks from school for Atwood and her brother, Harold, who is three years her senior. In inclement weather, the children amused themselves by making comic books and by reading.
Her father had grown up poor, in rural Nova Scotia. They sledded across a still frozen lake at the start of the season, and canoed across it during the summer months. When the paddles hit bottom on the way across, gas bubbles from decomposing vegetation rose and burst with a stench of rotten eggs or farts.
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The family still retreats there in the summer. Three years later, another daughter, Ruth, was born. Atwood started writing in earnest in high school. Her parents, who lived through the Depression, were encouraging but practical. A neurophysiologist, Harold Atwood is a professor emeritus in the department of physiology. Atwood enrolled in the philosophy department, but after discovering that logical positivism was its mainstay, rather than ethics and aesthetics, she switched to literature. Canadian literature had yet to be considered worthy of study.
She never finished it. Atwood had embarked on an academic career not for the love of teaching or scholarship but because making a living as a writer seemed an implausible aspiration. Atwood started her career as a poet. They divorced in In the sometimes divisive years of second-wave feminism, Atwood reserved the right to remain nonaligned. You should be able to wear them without people saying you are a traitor to your sex. But this wariness reflects her bent toward precision, and a scientific sensibility that was ingrained from childhood: Atwood wants the terms defined before she will state her position.
This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be. Atwood and Gibson, who met in Toronto publishing circles, spent the seventies living on a farm outside the city. The title story details the less picturesque aspects of country life.
At one point, the Atwoods are given control of the camera, and conduct a strange pantomime in which Atwood sits with a brown paper bag over her head while other family members offer sentence-long characterizations of her. Some of her most perceptive readers have taken this approach. Like her Victorian forebears, Atwood does not shy away from the idea that the novel is a place to explore questions of morality.
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A perennial problem. One morning, while we were walking in her neighborhood, Atwood bumped into an old friend, Adrienne Clarkson, a college contemporary who went on to have a distinguished career as a broadcaster, and, for six years, as the governor general of Canada. The women reminisced about studying with Northrop Frye. Not long ago, a history society at the University of Toronto, which was compiling a video archive of notable alumni, asked to interview Atwood about her college days.
Four eager undergraduates, all women, were there to film and quiz her.
Atwood sat by a leaded-glass window against a gray sky, and amiably answered questions about what it was like being a young woman on campus in the fifties. It would not have been permitted except on football days. They wanted us to wear jeans on football day, so we could sit on the hill and not have anyone looking up our skirts. It takes a while to figure this out, but now I realize that must have been the reason. In those days, Atwood said, there was no fear of rape on campus, as there seemed to be today. But there was no Pill.
Atwood continued talking about changing mores—the supplanting of the panty girdle by nylon tights, and the consequent innovation of the miniskirt. But when one of the students fumbled with the camera, in an effort to renew its memory card, Atwood took the opportunity to turn the tables. What do you do with a Polaroid picture? The students, delighted, offered a chorus of explanations: such images combined the instant gratification of the selfie with the pleasure of a physical object that could be pinned on a wall.
Atwood went on to seek their views on other surprisingly resurgent technologies—vinyl records, even cassette players—and then shifted to something more up-to-date.
She has a cameo as herself: her voice is supposedly being transmitted over a crackling phone line from Toronto. What else do you want to know? But it is also temperamental. Zombies, Run!
She and Atwood became friends after Atwood chose to be her mentor, through a program sponsored by Rolex. When I told Margaret, she was very disappointed—she really wanted to see the spiders. Occasionally, her fascination with technological processes, combined with an incomprehension of them, can have productive results.
A dozen or so years ago, when videoconferencing technology was still a novelty, Atwood wondered whether it might be possible to develop a means of conducting book signings remotely. Her flight of fancy, combined with some technical and marketing know-how assembled by Matthew Gibson, her stepson, resulted in the LongPen, a robotic device that enables a writer—or anyone—to sign a paper remotely in a manner that replicates the speed and pressure of the original autograph, and is indistinguishable from it.
Gibson has since created an e-signature company, Syngrafii, and it sells the LongPen, which is marketed less to weary authors than to financial and legal companies. Atwood was an early adopter of Twitter, signing up in ; she now has about a million and a half followers, though she is aware that some of that number must be bots.
She appreciates followers who have a specialized interest in the sciences; they help her keep abreast of recent developments that might be of interest for a future writing project, or resonate with a past one. She engages, often cheerily, with her followers and others, sometimes on topics that another writer might avoid. And says science. For years, Atwood has argued that Twitter in particular and the Internet in general have been good for literacy.
She has been a champion of Wattpad, a story-sharing site founded in Toronto a decade ago. In her view, it not only provides a place for North American teen-agers to publish their own zombie tales; it also offers cell-phone-equipped readers in the developing world with an entry point into fiction, even if they have no access to libraries, schools, or books. She believes that early fears, among some observers, that the advent of the Web would mean the end of books were misplaced. A few years ago, Atwood became the first author to participate in a conceptual art project, the Future Library, which was conceived by a Scottish artist named Katie Paterson.
In the course of a hundred years, a hundred writers will contribute a manuscript to the project. Atwood has a keen interest in conservation: she uses her Twitter feed to highlight ecological issues ranging from the decimation of the bee population to ocean pollution.
It is a question of faith rather than knowledge.
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She speculates that, if our atmosphere becomes too carbon-heavy, with a dwindling in the oxygen supply, one of the first things that will happen is that we will become a lot less intelligent. But a novelist necessarily imagines the fate of individuals; the human condition is what the novel was made for exploring. Civilization has survived, even to the point of sustaining groaningly bad academic puns. In the early aughts, she began an ambitious cycle of novels exploring a different kind of dystopian future.
The books depict a North American landscape that is ravaged by ecological disaster and inhabited by a genetically modified race of quasi-humans, the Crakers. As usual, Atwood researched her subject voraciously, and this time she was further enabled by the Internet. One evening in Toronto, Atwood invited me to her home, where we sat in its spacious kitchen on tall stools at a counter, overlooking her wintry, barren-looking garden.
Graeme Gibson poured three glasses of whiskey while Atwood sorted through Christmas cards, dispensing with the chore as efficiently as if she were slicing rhubarb.
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