Margaret Atwood, novelist, poet, activist and Canada’s national treasure, is a bit of a literary tease. The Booker Prize-winning author is not quite certain how “daring” she’s going to feel for her night on the H-Town stage for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.
When I asked Atwood recently what she’ll be reading during the sold-out event Monday, she said she usually doesn’t decide until “just before I read it.” She did give me a list of possibilities, though, including a sneak preview of the unpublished third book of her MaddAddam series.
And under what conditions will the Inprint audience be given that rare and ultimate treat of a peek at an unfinished work by its world-renowned writer? Atwood would say only, “Well, we’ll see how daring I feel.”
To view Atwood’s accomplishments, one would think she exists in a perpetual state of daringness. While probably best known as a fiction writer, with more than 20 novels and short story collections published, she is also a poet, children’s book author and noted essayist.
Several of her novels and short stories have been adapted as films and television movies. The most famous adaptation of Atwood's work is probably the film version of her classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the story of life under a totalitarian fundamentalist Christian regime.
It’s a tale that after two decades still has the ability to terrify some female readers more that the goriest horror movie ever could. The story even found renewed critical acclaim in 2000 in yet another form, as an opera.
Atwood will be coming to Houston from The Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary film Payback, which is based on her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, had its world premiere as a part of the Festival’s World Cinema Documentary Competition.
The Payback website says the film “offers a fascinating look at debt as a mental construct and traces how it influences relationships, societies, governing structures and the fate of the planet.”
And if writing, lecturing, and hanging out at Sundance ever gets mundane for Atwood, there’s also a bit of virtual fun available on Twitter.
Atwood has varying opinions on social media. She is an avid tweeter with nearly 300,000 followers, yet she didn’t know there was a Margaret Atwood Facebook page (run by her publishing company) until the Twitterverse informed her. In 2011 UK newspaper The Guardian named her one of the 10 best Twitter personalities.
“I am very interested in structure, how I’m going to tell the story. I’m not very interested in genre, what shelf should we put this one on,” says Atwood.
According to Atwood, her Twitter followers —perhaps much like her readers — are a mixed bunch. From fans of her work to those interested in new technologies to those just interested in “weird stuff,” they love to keep her informed.
She says, “If a story comes out about lab meat, someone’s going to send it to me. Or organs being grown on matrixes, I will get that. Human/animal hybrids, I’m going to get that. Planting a [human] ear on a mouse, believe me I’m well-informed.” Even the cover for her latest book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, came as a suggestion sent to her by a follower.
In Other Worlds is not a novel or collection of poetry, but a relationship book of sorts about Atwood's lifelong relationship with science fiction. In the past, there has been some debate about how to define and categorize her speculative works like The Handmaid’s Tale and the first two books of her MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood.
In Other Worlds is a book that addresses some of these questions of classification and genre while discussing her own love of science fiction, which began as a child. Some of the first characters she ever created were flying superhero rabbits.
In one of the most fascinating chapters of the book, “Dire Cartographies,” Atwood looks at utopian and dystopian fiction and creates a new word: “Ustopia,” combining the two because, as she says in the book, “each contains a latent version of the other.”
The bleak and brutal Handmaid’s Tale and MaddAddam series would at first seem to have to be called dystopian novels, but by looking at other classic works of science fiction, speculative fiction, and even satire, Atwood illustrates how genre and categories are slippery things.
In Other Worlds is not a novel or collection of poetry, but a relationship book of sorts about Atwood's lifelong relationship with science fiction.
This brings me to what I find to be one of the most sneaky and daring aspects of her own ustopias: They are sometimes so very funny. The MaddAddam novels paint a dire landscape where absolutely everything can be genetically engineered for endless profit, until the human race is engineered, via a designer super virus, out of existence.
Yet along the way there are moments of verbal name play, outrageous images and the sharpest of satire, and readers might find themselves laughing out loud as the human world ends and packs of feral, intelligent, genetic-chimera pigs free range through the abandoned remains of humanity's greatest achievement — the corporate luxury gated-community.
Answering my questions about how satire and humor can find fertile ground in ustopias, like the classics created by Jonathan Swift, Atwood explains, “It’s very frequently there because they’re always ripping off the world that we find ourselves in right now. You can’t write a variation of the world without making a comment about the world that you’re writing a variation about.”
Of her own ustopias and the satire and humor sometimes seeded into them she says, “I think it’s what the French call Anglo-Saxon humor. It’s funny and not funny at the same time.”
While In Other Worlds might be concerned with the literary history as well as the nomenclature of these genres, when it comes to her own imagined worlds Atwood says she never sets out to write in a certain genre when she begins a new piece.
The story and subject call forth the form. Giving a specific example, she explains, “For instance if I’m writing about Grace Marks and a double murder that was historical, that’s going to be a certain kind of story, whether I like it or not.”
She puts it succinctly: “I am very interested in structure, how I’m going to tell the story. I’m not very interested in genre, what shelf should we put this one on.”
And even after more than 50 published works, Atwood still requires that the act of writing always surprise her. She says, “What you really don’t want as a writer is to bore yourself to death. Unless there are some surprises in it, I’m going to lose interest.”
Death by boredom? That would be impossible for one so daring.
The reading at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23 at the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater will be followed by an on-stage interview conducted by novelist and UH Creative Writing Program faculty member Robert Boswell. The event is sold out.
See the trailer for Payback, the documentary based on Margaret Atwood's book: