Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood is in an odd position: As our politics get worse, her stature grows. Right now, sadly (for us), she’s never towered higher.

Appropriate that on International Women’s Day and the A Day Without a Woman protests, the The Handmaid’s Tale novelist conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything to coincide with the soon-to-premiere Hulu version of her most famous work. Dystopia, feminism and literature are, of course, among the discussion topics. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Thank you so much for writing The Handmaid’s Tale. It was the book that got me hooked on dystopian novels. What was your inspiration for the story?

Margaret Atwood:

Ooo, three main things: 1) What some people said they would do re: women if they had the power (they have it now and they are); 2) 17th C Puritan New England, plus history through the ages — nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere and 3) the dystopian spec fics of my youth, such as 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, etc. I wanted to see if I could write one of those, too.


Question:

What would you be doing right now if you were an American? Would you run for office? Would you protest? Would you be planning to resist ICE?

Margaret Atwood:

I would make a very bad politician, so no, I wouldn’t run for office. But I would support those who were running. I would certainly turn out for protests, as I did here in Toronto, wearing a rather strange pink hat. I don’t know what else I would do! We are in a time when reality seems to shift every day…


Question:

What is a book you keep going back to read and why?

Margaret Atwood:

This is going to sound corny but Shakespeare is my return read. He knew so much about human nature (+ and minus) and also was an amazing experimenter with language. But there are many other favourites. Wuthering Heights recently. In moments of crisis I go back to (don’t laugh) Lord of the Rings, b/c despite the EVIL EYE OF MORDOR it comes out all right in the end. Whew.


Question:

How, if at all, has your feminism changed over the last decade or so? Can you see these changes taking place throughout your literature? Lastly, can you offer any advice for feminists of the millennial generation? What mistakes are we making/repeating? What are our priorities in this political climate?

Margaret Atwood:

Hello: I am so shrieking old that my formative years (the 40s and 50s) took place before 2nd wave late-60’s feminist/women’s movement. But since I grew up largely in the backwoods and had strong female relatives and parents who read a lot and never told me I couldn’t do such and such because of being a girl, I avoided the agit-prop of the 50s that said women should be in bungalows with washing machines to make room for men coming back from the war. So I was always just very puzzled by some of the stuff said and done by/around women. I was probably a danger to myself and others! (joke) My interest was in women of all kinds — and they are of all kinds. They are interesting in and of themselves, and they do not always behave well. But then I learned more about things like laws and other parts of the world, and history… try Marilyn French’s From Eve to Dawn, pretty massive. We are now in what is being called the 3rd wave — seeing a lot of pushback against women, and also a lot of women pushing back in their turn. I’d say in general: be informed, be aware. The priorities in the US are roughly trying to prevent the roll-back that is taking place especially in the area of women’s health. Who knew that this would ever have to be defended? Childbirth care, pre-natal care, early childhood care — many people will not even be able to afford any of it. Dead bodies on the floor will result. It is frightful. Then there is the whole issue of sexual violence being used as control — it is such an old motif. For a theory of why now, see Eve’s Seed. It’s an unsettled time. If I were a younger woman I’d be taking a self-defense course. I did once take Judo, in the days of the Boston Strangler, but it was very lady-like then and I don’t think it would have availed. There’s something called Wen-Do. It’s good, I am told.


Question:

The Handmaid’s Tale gets thrown out as your current worst-case scenario right now but I read The Heart Goes Last a few months ago and I was surprised how possible it felt. Was there a specific news story or event that compelled you to write that particular story?

Margaret Atwood:

The Heart Goes Last — yes, came from my interest in what happens when a region’s economy collapses and people are really up against it, and the only “business” in which people can have jobs is a prison. It pushes the envelope (will there really be some Elvis robots?) but again, much of what was only speculation then is increasingly possible.


Question:

How did your experience with the 2017 version differ from the 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Margaret Atwood:

Different times (that world is closer now!) and a 90 minute film is a different proposition from a 10 part 1st season series, which can build out and deep dive because it has more time. The advent of high-quality streamed or televised series has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for longer novels. We launched the 1990 film in West and then East Berlin just as the Wall was coming down… and I started writing book when the Wall was still there… Framed it in people’s minds in a different way. Also, then, many people were saying “It can’t happen here.” Now, not so much….•

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The great Margaret Atwood has dystopic vision, an eerie end to us all: We build an ever-growing, plugged-in societal machine reliant on cheap energy that eventually runs out. Collapse comes, and we’re swept away with it. It’s a chilling, if unlikely, scenario.

More realistic: We keep shoveling fossil fuels into the system until it’s the death of us, or we wisely adapt ASAP and develop solar energy and such to the point were we can sustain life for eons. 

In a Guardian piece that surveys science and sci-fi writers, Atwood, Richard Dawkins and others ponder the future of humanity, if we have one. The opening:

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion
There’s a serious risk of climate catastrophe and it could be soon. Another alarmingly plausible possibility during the present century is that weapons of mass destruction, which are designed to deter, will be acquired by deluded people for whom deterrence has no meaning. Assuming we survive such manmade disasters, external peril may be averted by technology growing out of the brilliant feat of landing on a comet. The dinosaurs’ world ended when a comet or large meteorite unleashed titanic destructive forces. That will eventually happen again, and smaller but still dangerous strikes are a perennial danger in every century. Telescopes of the future will improve the range of detection, increase the warning time, and give engineers the notice they will need to intercept the bolide and nudge it into a harmless orbit.

In the world of science, DNA sequencing will become ever faster and cheaper and this will revolutionise medicine, taxonomy and my own field of evolution, not to mention forensic evidence in courts of law. Embryology and cell biology will advance mightily. Novel imaging techniques may enable palaeontologists and archeologists to see down into the ground without digging it up. The rendering of virtual reality will improve to the point where the distinction from external reality may become blurred. I expect unmanned space exploration to continue, albeit with economically imposed hiatuses. Out beyond 50 years, self-sustaining colonies may be established on Mars. Human travel to other star systems lies way beyond 50 years, but radio communication from extraterrestrial scientists is an ever-present possibility. However, the intervening light centuries will rule out conversation.

Margaret Atwood, author of Hag-Seed
Will we still have a liveable planet 50 years from now? Kill the oceans and it’s game over for oxygen-breathing mid-range mammals – the oceans make 60 to 80% of our oxygen. Superheating them and dumping them full of plastic may spell our doom. I hope that we’ll be smart enough to avoid this fate. From ideas proposed in my fiction, many are equally horrible, but it seems as if the use of the blood of young people to rejuvenate rich older people – as posited in The Heart Goes Last – is already in process. I do try to avoid predicting “the future” because there are so many variables; thus, so many possible futures. But here’s a safe bet: in 25 years I won’t be on the planet, unless of course I get my tentacles on some of that rejuvenating blood.•

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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In a great Matter piece about the nightmare of climate change, Margaret Atwood revisits a 2009 Die Zeit article she wrote about possible outcomes for a future in which the world is no longer based on oil: one of accommodation, one of ruin and another in which some states are more capable of managing a post-peak tomorrow than others, a planet still inhabited by haves and have-nots, though one rewritten according to new realities.

Atwood asks these questions, among others: “Can we change our energy system? Can we change it fast enough to avoid being destroyed by it?” Despite it all, the novelist holds out hope that we can master an “everything change,” as she terms it.

An excerpt:

Then there’s Picture Two. Suppose the future without oil arrives very quickly. Suppose a bad fairy waves his wand, and poof! Suddenly there’s no oil, anywhere, at all.

Everything would immediately come to a halt. No cars, no planes; a few trains still running on hydroelectric, and some bicycles, but that wouldn’t take very many people very far. Food would cease to flow into the cities, water would cease to flow out of the taps. Within hours, panic would set in.

The first result would be the disappearance of the word “we”: except in areas with exceptional organization and leadership, the word “I” would replace it, as the war of all against all sets in. There would be a run on the supermarkets, followed immediately by food riots and looting. There would also be a run on the banks — people would want their money out for black market purchasing, although all currencies would quickly lose value, replaced by bartering. In any case the banks would close: their electronic systems would shut down, and they’d run out of cash.

Having looted and hoarded some food and filled their bathtubs with water, people would hunker down in their houses, creeping out into the backyards if they dared because their toilets would no longer flush. The lights would go out. Communication systems would break down. What next? Open a can of dog food, eat it, then eat the dog, then wait for the authorities to restore order. But the authorities — lacking transport — would be unable to do this.•

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Ed Finn of Slate has a new interview with Margaret Atwood, and in one give-and-take she explains her philosophy on writing about the future. An excerpt:

Question:

Whether you call it science fiction or speculative fiction, much of your work imagines a future that many of us wouldn’t want. Do you see stories as a way to effect change in the world, especially about climate change?

Margaret Atwood:

I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change because when people think climate change, they think maybe it’s going to rain more or something like that. It’s much more extensive a change than that because when you change patterns of where it rains and how much and where it doesn’t rain, you’re also affecting just about everything. You’re affecting what you can grow in those places. You’re affecting whether you can live there. You’re affecting all of the species that are currently there because we are very water dependent. We’re water dependent and oxygen dependent.

The other thing that we really have to be worried about is killing the oceans, because should we do that there goes our major oxygen supply, and we will wheeze to death.

It’s rather useless to write a gripping narrative with nothing in it but climate change because novels are always about people even if they purport to be about rabbits or robots. They’re still really about people because that’s who we are and that’s what we write stories about.

You have to show people in the midst of change and people coping with change, or else it’s the background. In the MaddAddam books, people hardly mentioned “climate change,” but things have already changed. For instance, in the world of Jimmy who we follow in Oryx and Crake, the first book, as he’s growing up as an adolescent, they’re already getting tornadoes on the East Coast of the United States, the upper East Coast, because I like setting things in and around Boston. It’s nice and flat, and when the sea rises a bunch of it will flood. It’s the background, but it’s not in-your-face a sermon.

When you set things in the future, you’re thinking about all of the same things as the things that you’re thinking about when you’re writing historical fiction. But with the historical fiction, you’ve got more to go on, and you also know that people are going to be checking up on your details. If you put the wrong underpants on Henry VIII, you’re in trouble.•

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Margaret Atwood, a deservedly towering literary figure, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. One question about the prophetic nature of her 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale:

Question:

A lot of Dystopian Fiction from decades ago have had their fears in some ways realized in the modern day:

  • Fahrenheit 451 and the way modern people are glued to their forms of entertainment via smartphones, iPads, computers and television (and as a result there has been a very big turn towards soundbyte-simplified political and social discourse).
  • 1984 and the ubiquitous nature of government surveillance. People just shrug it off as expected with each new NSA scandal.

In what ways do you think the Handmaid’s Tale has been prophetic? What things are you sad to see come to fruition with regard to women’s rights and religious extremism in the Western/American world that you tried to warn us about?

Margaret Atwood:

Hmm, that’s a snake pit. The HM Tale was practically a meme during the last presidential election, due to the Four Unwise Republicans who opened their mouths and said what was on their minds in relation to Unreal Rape and the ability of a raped woman’s body to somehow Just Not Get Pregnant. (Tell that to the all the raped Bangladeshi women who hanged themselves at the Rape Camp where they were kept.) At this time, several states have enacted laws that make it quite dangerous for women to be pregnant in them, because if they lose the baby, or are even suspected of ThoughtCrime — being maybe About to lose the baby — they can be tried for some form of murder or attempted murder. That is, if the New York Times is to be believed. There will be ongoing contention in this area, because people hate to be forced to choose between two things, both of which they consider bad. Stay tuned. If motherhood really Were respected, of course, mothers-to-be would be offered free housing, proper nutrition, and ongoing care and support once the baby was born. But I don’t see any states standing ready to put that in place. With the poverty rates what they are, there would be a lineup for miles.•

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In a New York Times opinion piece, Margaret Atwood looks at the specter of robotics, that helpful and scary thing, offering that it’s not our tin others that may eventually doom humanity but the growing need for a cheap energy source to power these systems we’re increasingly basing our civilization on. An excerpt:

Thereby hangs many a popular tale; for although we’ve pined for them and designed them, we’ve never felt down-to-earth regular-folks comfy with humanoid robots. There’s nothing that spooks us more, say those who study such things, than beings that appear to be human but aren’t quite. As long as they look like the Tin Woodman and have funnels on their heads, we can handle them; but if they look almost like us — if they look, for instance, like the ‘replicants’ in the film Blade Runner; or like the plastic-faced, sexually compliant fake Stepford Wives; or like the enemy robot-folk in the Terminator series, human enough until their skins burn off — that’s another matter.

The worry seems to be that perfected robots, instead of being proud to serve their creators, will rebel, resisting their subservient status and eliminating or enslaving us. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the makers of golems, we can work wonders, but we fear that we can’t control the results. The robots in R.U.R. ultimately triumph, and this meme has been elaborated upon in story after story, both written and filmed, in the decades since.

A clever variant was supplied by John Wyndham in his 1954 story “Compassion Circuit,” in which empathetic robots, designed to react in a caring way to human suffering, cut off a sick woman’s head and attach it to a robot body. At the time Wyndham was writing, this plot line was viewed with some horror, but today we would probably say, “Awesome idea!” We’re already accustomed to the prospect of our future cyborgization, because — as Marshall McLuhan noted with respect to media — what we project changes us, what we farm also farms us, and thus what we roboticize may, in the future, roboticize us.

Maybe. Up to a point. If we let it.•

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No matter how many more stories Margaret Atwood writes in her life, the one she is currently working on will be her last, in a sense. The last one read for the first time, anyhow. The author’s current work will be buried in a time capsule for 100 years as part of a deep-future project which runs counter to our insta-culture. From Alison Flood at the Guardian:

“Depending on perspective, it is an author’s dream – or nightmare:Margaret Atwood will never know what readers think of the piece of fictions he is currently working on, because the unpublished, unread manuscript from the Man Booker prize-winning novelist will be locked away for the next 100 years.

Atwood has just been named as the first contributor to an astonishing new public artwork. The Future Library project, conceived by the award-winning young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, began, quietly, this summer, with the planting of a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo. It will slowly unfold over the next century. Every year until 2114, one writer will be invited to contribute a new text to the collection, and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.

‘It is the kind of thing you either immediately say yes or no to. You don’t think about it for very long,’ said Atwood, speaking from Copenhagen. ‘I think it goes right back to that phase of our childhood when we used to bury little things in the backyard, hoping that someone would dig them up, long in the future, and say, ‘How interesting, this rusty old piece of tin, this little sack of marbles is. I wonder who put it there?'”

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A paragraph from Margaret Atwood’s New York Review of Books’ review of Dave Eggers’ The Circle about the malignant undercurrent of technotopia:

“Some will call The Circle a ‘dystopia,’ but there’s no sadistic slave-whipping tyranny on view in this imaginary America: indeed, much energy is expended on world betterment by its earnest denizens. Plagues are not raging, nor is the planet blowing up or even warming noticeably. Instead we are in the green and pleasant land of a satirical utopia for our times, where recycling and organics abound, people keep saying how much they like each another, and the brave new world of virtual sharing and caring breeds monsters.”

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The opening of “Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom,” Judith Shulevitz’s New Republic meditation about bioengineering, which has the potential to be wonderful and terrible:

“Every generation takes for granted beliefs or practices that strike later generations as unconscionable. Just try explaining to your children public executions, chattel slavery, or eugenics. Your offspring will gape, stunned, until it dawns on them that the society you’re raising them to take part in has an astonishing capacity not to think things through. So, what’s not being thought through right now? The competition is stiff: the continued use of fossil fuels when catastrophic storms batter our shores, feeding our children off toxin-leaching plastic tableware, etc., etc.

You’d think that the professionals most likely to predict our regrets would be statisticians, trained as they are to rank the likelihood of negative outcomes. But prognostication of this sort is more gift than skill, since you need a finely tuned moral sensor as much as, if not more than, advanced numeracy. You can’t say what history will deem barbaric unless you feel a punch in the stomach every time you encounter it. This is why it was a novelist, not a statistician, who first sounded the alarm—for me—about a fast-tumbling cascade of changes I hadn’t thought hard about before.

The novelist is Margaret Atwood. What she made me think about is bioengineering.”

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Writer Margaret Atwood, who has a lot more to say than Madonna and can say it much better, received far fewer questions than the pop star during her Ask Me Anything at Reddit. Some exchanges follow.

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Question:

What are you most scared of?

Margaret Atwood:

This might seem strange to you, but a person is often afraid of fewer things as they get (shhh!) Older. We know the plot. We know how this is likely to end. As Anita Desai once said, It Is The Cycle Of Life. But apart from that, spiders, if unexpected.

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Question:

Do you have one or more favorite science fiction films? What are your thoughts on the process of translating literature to cinema, generally or specifically in the genre of science fiction?

Margaret Atwood:

Blade Runner. Beautifully made. Let The Right One In, Swedish version; not SF but same problems faced (plausibility). With SF: I watched a large number of SF B movies when they first came out. The problem then was the low-budget special effects. Now it’s likely to be holes in the plot, or over-slickness. But all of that’s a generalization.

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Question:

I can honestly say that without a doubt, The Handmaid’s Tale was the scariest book I have read. May I ask if you had someone in mind while writing the character of Serena Joy?

Maragret Atwood:

More like a type: women who make a career out of telling other women they shouldn’t have careers. Also the Shelley Winter character in the splendid film Night of the Hunter (Robert Mitchum’s best role, IMHO)

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Question:

Hi, I’m a high school English teacher in Northern California who is rolling out a unit featuring The Handmaid’s Tale–we’re starting Thursday! My question: What would you say to a group of students from an affluent community weaned on science and technology to convince them of the enduring relevance of the novel? Thank you so much for your consideration; it’s been an amazing learning and professional experience teaching your novel—my students brought this ama to my attention and I couldn’t be more thrilled at the opportunity as well as the timing!

Margaret Atwood:

As they already know some science, show them some brain-science and evo-devo studies – folks studying the inherent human story-telling “platform.” We tell stories because we’re human. The novel appears to be the most brain-intensive media form – second only to being there.

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Question:

What are your thoughts on the current popularity (which is perhaps on its way out) of dystopian novels, especially in the Young Adult genre? 

Margaret Atwood:

Lots of thoughts on that! I wrote Oryx and Crake before this wave set in, but there were a number in the 20th C. However, turn-of-century often causes folks to wonder where we’re going, and how they themselves might behave if they find themselves in a bad version of There. And Climate Change and the resulting storms and floods, and the threats to the biosphere.. young people are attuned to all of that.

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Question:

Maybe an odd question but one that interests me: have you written anything that you now regret?

Margaret Atwood:

Several letters.•

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