You cannot write a novel that doesn't come out of the present

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author and has written more than forty volumes of fiction and nonfiction. She has won more than fifty awards in Canada and internationally, including the Booker Prize in 2000 for her novel The Blind Assassin. Her works have been translated in more than forty languages.

In MaddAddam, everything comes together and we learn a lot about the backstories of the main characters such as Zeb, Toby and the Crakers, in a sort of metafiction since Toby tells the story of Zeb to the Crakers. How did you come to this structure? How did you map everything out?

Some of the material in the third book was supposed to be in the second book, but that made it too big. However, it is like a tripart structure in which two of the strands come together. A lot of structure in the book is arranging time. The oldest example that we know of is The Iliad, which begins in the middle, with Achilles in his tent. Then you hear about how he’s got into the tent, what happens when he gets out of the tent, but in fact you don’t hear what happens after that, because it stops at a certain point, it happens before Troy falls.
However, because everybody knew the story, they all knew what happened next, but you don’t hear about what happens next until The Odyssey, so the examples of this are very old. A lot of the things that happened to Odysseus are a story he tells. He’s telling things that have happened earlier. He’s telling that story at the court of Nausicaa, but if you think about it, we don’t know how much of what he’s saying is true. So it is with all stories: what is he thinking about, how is he telling it, who is he telling it to? In what order are they telling it, do they have reason for telling it, what’s their reason?

With all these different modes and storytelling, the other big example is of course 1001 Nights. It has a lot of stories within stories. What is crucial is the order of the stories within the stories that she tells. This is a very old method of narration. One of the other examples we have is Don Quixote.
In MaddAddam, there is the audience of the Crakers who would be incapable of understanding a story as I might tell it to you, because they don’t know what these names would mean, they wouldn’t know what those nouns mean.

I have the idea of translating The Tempest into Inuktitut, which is the language spoken by the Inuit, but you would have to do a whole transposition, because a number of things named in The Tempest don’t exist there. There aren’t any bees for instance, what are you gonna do about that?
Those are always the concerns when you’re telling a story: who is listening and how can you tell a story in a way that those people can understand it? If you’ve ever told a story to children, you know that it is true, you have to tell a story in terms they will understand, depending on their age. You can’t say “and then the electrons all got together with the atom”, because they don’t know what those things are.

Then the question is: in what order do you tell the events? With the story she tells the Crakers, it begins at the beginning, or it begins at the beginning that she has chosen to be the beginning. That’s true of every story. With “Let there be light”, you could wonder what happened before there was light, but we’re not told that part of the story.

The short answer to your question is: it’s about time. It’s about how you arrange the time, and how you arrange the time has something to do with listening. It also has something to do with something we call suspense. If you tell the whole story at the beginning, there isn’t any suspense.

There’s the story she tells the Crakers, and then there’s the story that Zeb tells her, and then of course there’s the ongoing line of events, and therefore it’s arranged quite a lot like The Iliad.

It’s about the choice they make of what to tell.

Yes. What to tell, but also what to do, so what to tell is usually about the past, and what to do is about the present. You don’t have to think about what to do if there isn’t a crisis, you just do your daily life. “What to have for breakfast?” is a different sort of choice from “shall I kill these people?”. It’s not quite the same implications, although what to have for breakfast has become a moral choice. Shall I have this breakfast cereal made by an evil corporation, or shall I have the local bakery product? It can go back a long way.

Your story has been marketed as a dystopia, which it is, but it is also—

A utopia? It’s very nice for some people.

Well, it involves pretty extreme themes, genetic mutation, a deliberately caused pandemic, huge corporations are involved… It is science fiction, but would you say it is also the chronicle of an extreme version of our modern-day society?

Yes. It is a roman d’anticipation, or speculative fiction, as opposed to stories about other planets, spaceships, things like that. Jurassic Park—we assume it’s science fiction, but Star Wars, we know it’s science fiction. It is true, however, that you cannot write a novel that doesn’t come out of the present. It doesn’t matter where we are now, where we are now includes our present-day worries and our anxieties.

In the 1950s, there were a lot of books about what happened with the atomic bomb. What we are writing about now is things that we are worried about, and that includes climate change, species extinction, including ours. Those things come out of our anxieties, those sorts of books are produced by our anxieties, and our anxieties change from decade to decade, century to century, you can’t write out of any other place, because that’s where we are.

Even in a 19th century novel, written about medieval times, it’s placed in medieval times, but it’s a 19th century novel. The Three Musketeers is a 19th century novel.

And MaddAddam is a 21st century novel.

Yes. There isn’t any future, really, there is just an infinite number of possibilities.

In the book, the characters are different notably by their use of language. The Crakers speak in a childish way, Toby is the down-to-earth storyteller, and Zeb has a sort of cyberpunk mindset…

I wouldn’t call it cyberpunk. He’s not very cyber.

How meaningful was it for you to explore these different kinds of expressions?

It was quite a lot of fun to write all these different voices, but I’ve always done that. It’s no different from dramatic writing. For instance, Shakespeare writes a certain kind of language for the aristocratic characters, and a different kind of language for the peasants. People speak differently, depending on what level they’re at. That’s just normal. Some writers only have one voice, so they’re writing at the same level all the time, but if you study rhetoric, you know that there are all these different levels. French language is a very good example, because you have very formal language. When you’re writing a very formal letter, it’s very different from the kind of letter you write to a friend. There’s a whole different level of address. There’s also a very rich vocabulary of swear words and slang, so the total vocabulary is very large, but at each level you’re only going to use a part of that large vocabulary.

What do the French taxi drivers say to each other when they’re in each other’s face? A pretty rich number of swear words, and my favorite is “So you learned to drive with your asshole or what?”. You wouldn’t say that in a formal letter. The Crakers wouldn’t say that. Toby wouldn’t say that when talking to them. It’s fidelity to the character. Fidelity to the situation. Fidelity to the level of language that each one would employ.

As you know, English has a very large and varied vocabulary, with also a rich swear word vocabulary, although possibly not as rich as the French. There’s a magazine devoted to swearing, called Maledicta. It’s available online, and you can read about swearing in different languages. There is also a series of books devoted to French swearing, written by an English woman, to help Anglophones understand what people are really saying. She also has a system of asterisks to tell you how bad these words are: no asterisk is normal, one asterisk is a bit strong, two is quite strong, and if it has three asterisks, you don’t say it unless you want to have a fight with someone. So that’s very useful. Often, things that are really bad in one language are just normal in another, so you need to know these things. There’s also hand language. For instance, in English hand language, if you make the tip of your thumb join the tip of your index to form a circle, it means that it’s really good, terrific, whereas in South America, it’s very dirty. You have to be careful.

You have written in a lot of different literary genres. Does every genre require a different mindset?

Of course. When you’re doing literary criticism, or critique, you are of course using the analytical part of your mind. It’s not that you don’t use it while writing fiction. You do, especially when you’re working structure, but the rest of it is intuitive. When you’re looking at somebody else’s book and trying to say something about it, you’re attempting to be objective. It’s the difference between being in the story and standing apart from the story.

In some reviews of MaddAddam, there were references to films rather than books. For example, Blade Runner is often mentioned. Did you have any cinematographic references in mind when you were writing it?

No, but I have a film in mind now, because it seems that HBO and Darren Aronofsky are doing a television series about it, which is a better idea than trying to do a film. Films are quite short compared to the amount of source material. It would be very hard to get it all in a single film. Usually, a film can only handle two time levels, past and present, any more and it gets really confusing.

You can at least get three different timelines in a series. I spent a lot of time writing film scripts and writing for television in the 1970s, so I know what’s involved.

Novels are made of words, and film and television are made of images, with words too but images mostly, and it’s a different language.

Do Internet and new technologies affect the way you write?

No, it doesn’t. I think it can affect some people’s writing habits, particularly on a website like Wattpad, where people are writing in serial form on their phones. But the result is not a standard novel, it is something that might become a standard novel, but isn’t.

It has to affect content. You’re writing about the present time because it affects what technologies we use, and how people communicate.

Looking back at old films in the 1930s, there might be a scene—and there usually is one if it’s a thriller, in which the person goes into a phone booth, picks up the phone, tries to dial the number. That wouldn’t happen now. They would have their cell phones. But a cell phone is detachable from a person. All sorts of storylines wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t any cell phones.
We now know for instance that you can be traced through your phone, and you can be located with your phone even if it’s not on. That’s why drug dealers use burners, so that nobody can trace them. All of these elements have developed out of this new technology. Internet stalking, firebombing people on the Internet, hacking, Internet crime, which is huge, hacking in people’s bank accounts, that wouldn’t have been possible twenty five years ago. If you’re writing a character, in a society set in the present or the immediate future which has that technology, you have to take it into account.

In the book, God’s Gardeners don’t use any of those devices, because as they rightfully say, if you can see them, they can see you, which is just true. I’ve put it into The Year of the Flood, in 2009, before all this Wikileaks Snowden stuff happened, but people knew then.

In the book, they don’t use it, Zeb luckily is a hacker, so he’s able to hack his way here and there, and things on the Internet are deceptive, and intended to deceive.

People are doing that all the time. If you would like to know about it, there’s the Citizen Lab, which is devoted to studying government’s digital surveillance around the world. They’re studying which tools are enabling the government to spy on people without their knowing it. At one and the same time, it’s something that allows an increase in communication, but it also allows an increase in surveillance. That’s why the Kremlin has gone back to typewriters. Paper is cumbersome. But you actually have to make copies of it in order to have copies, so you couldn’t walk out of a bank with all your data on a memory stick, you would have to walk out with a huge pile of paper and people would see you doing it.

You were recently involved in a project called The Future Library, for which you will write a text which will be unveiled 100 years from now.

Yes, I will write a text and it will be put in a box, delivered in June 2015, in Oslo. They will put it in a special room, it will sleep for a hundred years, and then they’ll open it up. I’m not allowed to tell what’s in it. Then, they will print of all these hundred books that will have been written over the next hundred years.

How does it resonate with your work?

I’m not sure that it does. I think it’s a very interesting project, but it also is a commentary on the nature of the book. Because a book is like that anyway. You write a book, and then after you’ve written the book, it gets published. It’s never simultaneous unless you’re writing on the Internet, unless you’re doing for instance a chat show. There’s always a gap between composition and publication. Publication is like opening up the box and having it read by a lot of people that you don’t know. The only difference between now and then is that the people that I don’t know haven’t been born yet. Books are like that anyway. They’re still going to be read by a lot of people that you don’t know, they’re out there in the world, they’re still going to be read in a future that’s different from the moment in which you wrote the book. The timeline is quite a lot longer.

It’s a particularly clever project because the closer and closer they get to the hundredth year, the more contemporary the books will become. The book I write now will be in the distant past, but the hundredth book will be in the present.