Margaret Atwood: The Terribleminds Interview

Turns out, Internet, that wishes do come true. How do I know? Because I wished on Twitter for Margaret Atwood to consent to an interview here at terribleminds and, in what must have been a fit of temporary madness (or sinister genius), she agreed. (I’m sure by now she’s regretting it.) I know I don’t have to tell you who she is — all I need to say is it is an honor and a pleasure to have someone of her talent and stature hanging out with us roughshod riff raff here, today. You can find her all over the Internet, but let’s start with her website at and, on Twitter, @margaretatwood.

Let the interview commence!

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Once upon a time there was an amoeba. It ate things and divided in two. Then there were two amoebas. They swam around and ate things and divided in two. Then there were four amoebas. This can go on for a long time, and is why we humans developed sex and plots instead.

Why do you tell stories?

Because human beings are not amoebas – having been there and done that – they tell stories, as part of the package. We narrate, therefore we are. (And therefore we are not amoebas.) And I am a human being. Most of the time. Just not before breakfast. So I too narrate.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

“Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” – Charles Dickens. Footnote: Maybe make ‘em wait first? But not too long. Especially not for the first corpse, should you be writing a crime story.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“Shouldn’t you give up the idea of being a writer, and get married and settle down instead?” (My undergraduate advisor, 1961. Note the either/or.)

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example.

‘Strong’ as in ‘makes a strong impression and is strongly convincing,’ I take it? Rather than ‘is muscular and does not let people kick sand in face at beach?’ Okay, thought so. Therefore: Has a purpose. Carries it out, albeit in devious ways, and not always with success. And: comes with memorable details attached. Example: Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Memorable detail: the spider-covered bridal cake. (Not especially arachnidally correct. But memorable!)

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Great story = hooks you at once, pages must be turned? Or: everything in the story is necessary? Or: both?

Let’s see… It was a dark and stormy night…

Maybe not.

I’ll enter Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ Short. Dark. Terse. Or Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Martian:’ suggestive. Both make use of the repetitive patterning so noticeable in folktales.

For cunning choice of narrators to relate an inherently incredible story, hard to beat Wuthering Heights.

Favorite word?

For turning the twist in a story? How about ‘however,’ ‘despite that,’ or ‘nonetheless’? Or ‘meanwhile’?

Or do you mean ‘much-used’? (Thinks of several bad habits, such as ‘thinks.’)

Or maybe just one that comes to mind at inopportune moments, such as ‘mauve’? (Exercise: Use this word in an accusatory sentence, such as: ‘Why do you have to be so fucking mauve?’)

And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Curse words never of course pass my lips, but they must pass those of some of my characters, the times being what they are, alas. Though their swearing is rather banal, I have to say. They say things like, ‘Why do you have to be so fucking mauve?’

However, here is one that I have unfortunately never had occasion to use in a story: ‘Crise de callisse de tabernak.’ It’s from Québec, and is said to be rather strong. As in, ‘Crise de calisse de tabernak, pourquoi cette connerie avec la mauve?’ (Translation: ‘Crisis of the chalice of the tabernacle, why this C-word stupidity with a mallow flower?’) I don’t want you using this in public, Chuck.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

A: A single-malt Scotch, straight up. Water of Life. Good for the vocal chords.

What skills do you bring to help the us win the inevitable war against the robots?

A: The knowledge that Robots-R-Us. They’re only what we make them.

(Of course, that’s not very consoling, is it?)

You continue to march up to the bleeding edge of publishing. What do young writers and storytellers need to know about the future of publishing?

First, write the story or book. The rest is presentation and/or amusement.

Second, for every story there is a listener. At least one. Somewhere. Some time.

[check out Fanado. — c.]

You’ve released two installments of your “Positron” e-book serial story so far. Where does this series come from, and where will it go?

It came out of my concerns about the way the prison system is being used in some places — as a job creation scheme.

But then it took on a life of its own. I’ve just finished the third installment… and there is TV series interest. So we will see where it goes.

Watch out for those blue knitted teddy bears…

[you can find the first piece, “I’m Starved For You,” here, downloadable for a buck-ninety-nine. Second part, “Choke Collar,” is available right here. — c.]

I suspect I would be murdered where I stand if I did not ask about the final book in the Maddaddam trilogy. Anything you can share? When might it exist? What’s contained within?

Scheduled for next fall (2013). Called MaddAddam. The world needs more Zeb, or so I’ve been told. I am ever-obliging. (And yes, he does eat parts of the co-pilot.)

It seems to me that there exists a glimmer of The Handmaid’s Tale in the surge of dystopian literature right now, particularly within young adult fiction. What is the power of the dystopia in fiction?

Ah. That’s a whole chapter in a book. Specifically, in In Other Worlds, which oddly enough IS a book. Now out in paperback from Anchor. :)

I’ll be coming to Canada for the first time in a couple months. As you are one of Canada’s pantheon of cultural gods, what should I know before I arrive?

Oh Chuck. There is so much to share!

First, Canada’s National Anthem is called “Canada’s Really Big,” by the Arrogant Worms. (Try YouTube).

Second, “poutine” is not what your girlfriend does with her lower lip when she’s peeved with you. It’s a foodstuff, made of… but some things are best learned by doing.

Third, “an Atwood” is a hockey goalie move. If you don’t believe me, see:

And if you want to impress your Canadian hosts, tell them you are a shoe fetishist and you just HAVE to get to the Bata Shoe Museum on Bloor because Margaret Atwood’s blue shoes with carved heels and peacock feathers are in there. They will be astounded by your inside knowledge!

Would I steer you wrong?

You shall not escape this interview without recommending your favorite single-malt Scotch, then. Well?

Whatever Graeme Gibson pours out of the bottle. Right now it’s the Talisker, from the Isle of Skye.

Up yer kilt.

What’s next for you as a storyteller?

A guest appearance on Naomi Alderman’s listen-while-you-run game, Zombies! Run!. I will play the last Canadian standing. Or the last Torontonian. Or the last person left in the Whole Foods on Avenue Road, fighting them off with organic grapefruits. Or something. By the way, Naomi and are writing a serial two-hander that also features zombies, and will appear on the website, beginning in late October. Am I having too much fun for an old person? Does it make me appear flighty?

What does the future hold?

I never predict the future.