Margaret Atwood on green rabbits, writing sex and Twitter
Margaret Atwood comes to UCLA's Royce Hall tonight with a performance from her new novel, "The Year of the Flood." In the book, as two former eco-cult members struggle to survive an environmental disaster, they remember leader Adam One and the lessons he taught to his flock, God's Gardeners. On the tour, each performance -- which includes actors, singers and Atwood as the narrator -- has taken a different shape. Atwood talked to Jacket Copy's Carolyn Kellogg by phone this week about the shows, the book, the difficulty in writing sex and what it's like to be a new blogger.
Jacket Copy: I understand you've been blogging, uploading pictures, using Twitter. What do you think about it?
Margaret Atwood: Part of it is really fun. And part of it is a lot of work -- as you know.
JC: What's the fun part?
MA: The fun part is probably the Twittering. Because it's short.
JC: Is it really you Twittering?
MA: Yes, it’s really me. Absolutely, it’s really me. But there were two false mes when I went on … my Twitter pals did something, and they disappeared.
JC: Has the Internet created a different level of engagement with readers than previous book tours?
MA: It puts you in the position of a journalist, in a way. You become the journalist of yourself. Which is really weird. But you also become the journalist of your own tour. For the blog, I've been taking pictures of the events we've been doing…. Sometimes they come out, and sometimes they don't.
JC: This must be your 30th book tour. Does this added component bring a new excitement to the experience?
MA: It brings a whole different number of levels to it. It's certainly different from anything I've done before. So it's certainly different from anything I've ever done before, because it is a multi kind of thing. First of all, we've got the website, which I built myself with the Scott Thornly company -- it was they who said, "Well you need to have a blog and a Twitter" so I said basically, "What are those?" I have a coach, I have this media coach called McLean Greaves and he's the one who Twitter/iPhone/webstreamed a party in my kitchen. It's very sort of horror movie-looking. It would be possible to do something that looked a little less like ghosts in my kitchen -- but it was an experiment, and I therefore now know how to do that on my iPhone. All of these are new things, and it's a very steep learning curve for me because I didn't know how to do any of this before August. I started the first blog entry from New York just before I got on the Queen Mary. I had to learn Wordpress -- that's been an experience too, because nobody has been teaching me. I've had to sort of figure it out. But the good thing about my Twitter pals, I can ask a question and somebody will tell me the answer.
JC: I'm not sure that all authors would try any of this. James Ellroy, for example, doesn't even use e-mail.
MA: I can understand that point of view. It can take you over. There's no question. You can spend hours doing this stuff, following up on tags people send you, and interesting stuff -- it can suck you in like a vortex. I'm not sure that it would be a thing you would want to do while you were actually writing a book.
JC: Which you're not doing right now – you're doing a series of performances. It's with a different set of performers each time?
MA: Think of it as a relay race. Or -- remember Mr. Potato Head? Think of it as Mr. Potato Head, in which each venue, each city that takes this on gets the basic potato: the script and a few rudimentary instructions as to how they might do it, with some optional choices. For instance, those who want not to use the swear words can take them out. They need to find a singing group. They get the CD [of the hymns in "The Year of the Flood"] and sheet music, so the singing group can learn the music. But they can do it any way they want, and they have done it any way they want. We've had all different interpretations of the three characters because we use three readers to do them -- sometimes those have been professional actors, sometimes they've been people who work in bookstores. So we've had a wide range. The only thing they all have in common is that I'm the narrator in each one of them. It's been a wide-ranging experience that has involved a lot of people, and that is the most astounding thing about it. People have leapt into this, they've taken it on, they've put their own spin on it and they've had a great time doing it.
JC: As an author, what's it like to see your work interpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted?
MA: You know, it's reinterpreted every time someone reads the book. Because each reader is in effect playing the book, the way you would play a piece of music. And each of those readings or playings is different. The only difference is, usually I'm not standing in the room when they're doing that. I don't get to see it.
When you're doing it in public like this, you actually get to see the different interpretations, and that's been pretty fascinating, because it also makes you realize how differently people read books.
MA: The difference between my world and his world is that he lives in a world that he's not in control of. He has his little group on his rooftop, but all around him chaos is going on, so he's not in control of any of that.
JC: But you're in control of the parameters of the performances.
MA: I'm not even in control of those at all! I was in control of the editing of the book, and that's about it. (laughs) Once you publish a book, it is out of your control. You cannot dictate how people read it. And when you hand the script over to actors and singers, you're not in control of how they're going to do it. Especially if you say to them, "Surprise me, do it your own way." I will look at it just as enthralled as the audience because I don't know what you're going to do.
JC: Do you find that you, as the narrator, read it differently depending on the way the performance is coming together?
MA: I sometimes change the saints around. I picked more British ones for the British, and more Americans for the Americans and more Canadian ones for the Canadians. If I was in, for instance, China, I would mention one of the Chinese ones. Everyone who knows who Al Gore is, so he's been a constant.
JC: I'm curious about your sticking with this world, from "Oryx and Crake" to "The Year of the Flood" -- and either I'm the stupidest reader on the planet, or there's another book coming after.
MA: You're not the stupidest reader on the planet. It all depends on how long I live (laughs).
JC: How long did it take you to write this book?
MA: Let's say it took me three years. And it was a bit slower, because I got walking pneumonia while I was writing it. Anything I wrote while I had the walking pneumonia wasn't any good, so I had to throw it out.
JC: It didn't give you insight into hunger and delirium?
MA: No, it doesn't. The thing about delirium is you think it's great, but it actually isn't.
JC: So why stick with this world? What about this world is appealing to you as a writer?
MA: I think its many dimensions. We looked at it the first time from the point of view of Jimmy, who grew up as an elite, a protected child within the compounds. He wasn't very good at being an elite, but he was an elite. This book goes right outside that to the slummiest part, looks at life there and also life within the little green religion that is springing up.
JC: It felt to me like you had more to say.
MA: There would be another group that you would also want to more about. That would be the group that congregates around Zeb and goes off to do bio-resistance.
JC: Our reviewer found this book was kind of a romp, which is sort of a funny thing to think about a post-apocalyptic world.
MA: It is difficult when you're explaining -- a lot of people have trouble putting the concept of a joke-filled fun-packed adventure and the end of the human race together in their heads (chuckles). I don't think it's entirely a romp -- people do what they do under those circumstances. If you read about the London blitz at all, it's much the same thing. Your house has just been blown to smithereens and you're making a joke.
JC: What do you think is so appealing about dystopias?
MA: I don't know whether all of them are that appealing, to tell you the truth. Some of them are purely imaginary -- they take place on other planets, nasty societies that are usually totalitarian. When I write that kind of thing, much as I would love to locate them on other planets, I can't do that, I don't have those skills. So mine do take place on planet Earth, and they do contain things we could actually do. I'm picky, in that respect, about the science.
I think what's appealing about them is we like to imagine ourselves in extreme situations and figure out how we would get through it. I think that comes from our very very long past, in the Pleistocene era, when in fact that's how the human race was living its life. It was living, probably, very alert to danger, all the time.
JC: Do you keep abreast of new breakthroughs in science?
MA: Yeah, sure, as much as I can. There's a huge amount happening right now. My pop reading is likely to be Scientific American, or Discover or Seed or Wired --- techno magazines, bio magazines.
JC: It's fascinating to me that you're so engaged with the world of the moment, yet you're a novelist. You said you wouldn't want to be blogging while you're writing a book. Do you feel that way about taking in information as well?
MA: No, I take in information anyway. But it's impossible -- we're now at a state which it's impossible to take in all the information. You just cannot keep up with it. That's why magazines are so useful -- they filter it and present it. They skim the highlights.
JC: There are a few places in this book where writing is equated with danger.
MA: You betcha. Well not just writing, but talking on the phone, which is in fact true. Anything you say on your phone in the UK now can be overheard. And of course people can snoop on you over the Internet. They discovered in Canada that some outfit in I believe, China, was snooping on people on their own computers and even looking at them through the cameras on their computers.
MA: They're using it largely for industrial espionage, but anything that you send, in written-down or even spoken form, over any kind of appliance, is theoretically snoop-able. That's why my group distrusts those things, because they don't want to be snooped upon.
JC: Your book "The Handmaid's Tale" has become a seminal feminist work taught in universities all over.
MA: You know you've really made it when people start dressing up like that on Halloween.
JC: What is the gender balance of the audiences at your readings?
MA: I have a lot of men readers. And I even have a lot of young men readers. But it seems to go right across the board -- any age, any gender. I know that some books and some writers, you can pretty much draw a square around it and say nobody under 40, or nobody under 25. With my books, it always has been, and continues to be, spread right across the board, and I think the operative term is "reader."
JC: After you've seen this book be performed in all these different ways, would you like to see it as a film?
MA: It might be too big and multiple for that. It might lend itself more to a series. The real stumbling block is those people with big blue penises (laughs). How are you going to show that on film? I just don't know. You could have them lurking behind bushes, I suppose. You'd have to have somebody with a very good sense of style. It could be pretty tawdry, but of course any story could be pretty tawdry, depending on how it's made.
JC: Do you think there's enough sex in literary fiction? Do you think literary fiction writers are a little afraid of being tawdry?
MA: I think they're a little afraid of being inelegant verbally. There is an award given every year in Britain for the worst sex scene in a book, and nobody wants to win that award. It's very easy to overwrite a sex scene, at which point it becomes comic.
JC: Why do you think that is?
MA: Sex itself is a very subjective experience. So that when you're describing it objectively, it can quite easily become funny.
JC: But so many other states of being…
MA: Think about it: he put his X on her Y.
MA: Already it's funny, and you don't even know what the X and Y are. It has to be handled pretty carefully, if you don't want to be writing just plain old porn, or if you don't want people to collapse in hysterical laughter.
JC: In this book, you've got men with big blue penises, gene-spliced animals -- yet you write that it is very close to reality.
MA: I don't think that's quite it -- it's close to possibility. We already have the glowing green rabbit. We have apparently just made the breakthrough that will allow the kidneys to be grown in the pigs. Since "Oryx and Crake," we've created a number of other glowing things: a glowing monkey and quite a few glowing fish. The gene splicing is going on apace. People are doing all sorts of genetic modifications -- some of them good. For instance, it would be good to have a strain of plants that is more drought-resistant than those that we have now. It's just a fact of life that people have learned how to do those kind of things -- they have not yet created a blend of lion and lamb because there isn't much call for it, but once they got started they could do it.
JC: There are so many environmental lessons in this book.
MA: I hope to think that if you memorize the hymn "The Holy Weeds," you'll know what to eat (laughs). If you're really stuck, you can go out and pick some dandelions.
JC: You're transmitting these lessons -- do you think it's possible to head off a future as dark as the one that you've imagined?
MA: People say, "Is there hope?" And I say, "Of course there's hope -- it's a book."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Margaret Atwood signs a biking petition during her book tour. Courtesy Margaret Atwood.