Margaret Atwood Ruins a Marriage, Talks Memes, Politics in Reddit AMA


Margaret Atwood, high priestess of an oracular temple deep in the digital Canadian woods, did a Reddit AMA Monday. It’s great: she was asked all of the questions you might expect (Where do you see political dystopia today? What’s your ~process~?) and some you might not (Who is your fictional boyfriend?). Read on for the best bits.

On character endings and reader marriages:

Redditor Benmrowe writes: “Thanks so much for doing this AMA, my wife is a huge fan, and this question is from her.”

In your recent book (“Stone Mattress”) there is a short story that continues the story of some of the characters from “The Robber Bride”.
Do you always know what happens to all of your characters after the end of your books? Are you ever likely to pick up with any existing characters again?
Also, do you write every day?
(she hugged me for asking these questions, and finished up by saying: “I think I love Atwood more than I love you” – thanks for ruining my marriage)

Margaret Atwood replies:

Hello: I almost never know what happens to the characters after the end of the book, unless it is really signalled. I sometimes have a strong desire to find out (hence, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam), but I hardly ever follow that desire unless there’s a truly open space at the end of the book.
I would like to say I write every day (and I certainly tell other people they should!) but I have to admit I don’t always do it. I try to write at least something, even if it’s a letter or a To-Do list, or a Reddit AMA…
(Ps Your marriage is not ruined! It is merely…. enhanced. Now that I’ve done this, she’ll love YOU more. )

On belief systems:

Redditor Qqzqq asks:

I’ve read that the American Humanist Association named you Humanist of the Year in the late 80’s. Were you born into a household of Humanists or was is something you came by later in life?

Margaret Atwood replies:

That was very nice of them, but I’m not sure I really am a Humanist. I describe myself as a rigorous agnostic, which means that you cannot declare as a matter of material truth something that is in fact a matter of spiritual belief. I am nervous about dogmas of any kind, whether they be religious, political, or anti-religious. Too many heads have rolled because of them. But a belief system that people find individually nourishing and sustaining… that is a different matter.

On commentary, both academic and online:

Redditor ManOfLaBook asks:

How do you view the explosion of online reviews for your work and for the book industry in general? Do you think book blogs help or hurt authors?

Margaret Atwood replies:

Hello: There are two lines of descent for commentary on books: Scriptural exegesis (which leads to the more academic studies that appear after a book has been somewhat ‘established’) and gossip at the village well — “Guess what just happened, loved the dress, hated the shoes.” Online blogs can do either, but they incline towards the latter, and as such they are a way of sharing news and also of interacting with people of similar tastes and enthusiasms. Do they help or hurt writers? Insofar as the news of a book’s appearance gets shared, you’d have to say “helps,” though if the book gets beaten up, then you’d say “hurts.” Sometimes reactions can be quite surprising: readers like things that you, the author, feel you’ve barely gotten away with; or they dislike one of the parts you secretly think is one of your little gems. Anyway, you can’t read very much about yourself and your work and still retain much of a swelled head. So maybe it’s morally improving. 😀 But if you are of a thin skin, I’d say avoid it. George Eliot used to go to the Continent when her books were published, and her husband would censor the reviews, and read her only the good parts. I once reviewed one of my own books under a pseudonym, and made up the critics cited, all of whose names were anagrams of mine.

On the inspiration behind The Handmaid’s Tale:

Redditor Cgerb88 writes:

Hi Margaret! Thanks so much for doing this AMA! First of all, The Handmaid’s Tale is beautiful, tragic, and expertly told to the point that I could totally see us reverting back to that form of thinking. Where did you get the inspiration for such a terrifying tale?

Margaret Atwood replies:

Thanks very much. I got the inspiration from severWhat’sal sources: 1) my study of previous dystopias and utopias, must of which had male protagonists. What would such a story look like from a female POV? 2) my interest in dictatorships and tyrannies, see the answer to stormy_conditions, above. 3) My study of American history and religion, especially that of the 17th C in New England; some of those Quaker-hanging, witch-hunting Puritans were my ancestors, so I’ve always been fascinated by them 4) My “be careful what you wish for” nervousness, which keeps me ever alert to the fact that for every One the One Hand there is also an On the Other Hand. Thus: to “protect” women too much would involve imprisoning them in some way. 5) my study of Victorian literature and history, and my knowledge of the laws, then, applied to women, and to men in relation to them. That wasn’t so long ago! And more….

On a dystopian slant in politics:

Redditor Tahlyn asks:

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

Margaret Atwood replies:

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…

On avoiding political paralysis:

Redditor Happilyemployed writes:

Given the current state of politics in the US, how would you advise a young person who wanted to make a positive impact on society to proceed?

Margaret Atwood replies:

Wow. What a difficult question. First: a person can get overwhelmed. Where to start? Identify a manageable project or aspect — that is, don’t try to take on too much, or you will sink under the weight. We ourselves (spouse Graeme Gibson and I) have concentrated on conservation and the environment, partly because it gets the least help, partly because when push comes to shove it’s very important (if the ocean dies so do we all, through lack of oxygen).

On her fictional boyfriend:

Redditor CorporalButtermilk asks:

You must date one literary character. Long term relationship. Who do you choose?

Margaret Atwood replies:

Naughty CorporalButtermilk! Hmm, let’s see. Some fine upstanding young man, pure in thought and deed, like Daniel Deronda, or a sexy scamp like Rhett Butler? Maybe a good conversationalist, at my age? I fancy Sherlock Holmes, but he doesn’t date much, and anyway the date would be interrupted because he would have to rush off in the middle of it to trap some criminal. Lots of choice! I’d have to give it about two weeks of thought.


On her writing schedule:

Unit_0 asks:

What is your daily writing schedule? And how do you motivate yourself to write on a day-to-day basis? Do you ever get writer’s block?

Margaret Atwood replies:

Hello: This is a good one to finish with! I would so much like to have a daily writing schedule. If I had one, I’d probably start about 9.30, write for 2 hours, have lunch, write another 2, then goof off. As it is, I goof off, then panic and write in the evenings. Do not follow my example. As for motivation, I’d say it’s a combo of 50s Puritan work ethic and finish-it-itis — I hate not finishing things. Block? Not as such, but I’ve had to throw things out because they weren’t working. Sometimes I just get lazy, but that’s not the same a s a block. I’m sort of like the horse in Animal Farm.. haul that stone up the hill. Which is probably why it upset me so much when the horse died… 🙂

Photo via AP.

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