Margaret Atwood on a voyage to the world's end
In her latest novel, the Canadian writer describes an Earth ravaged by an ecological disaster. She's crossing the Atlantic now on the Queen Mary 2 for what's billed as the greenest book tour ever – with songs thrown in
The Observer, Sunday 30 August 2009
Margaret Atwood is currently at sea. She has set sail for the first leg of a book tour to promote her novel The Year of the Flood, an everyday tale of pestilence and pandemic, set in the near future (and required campfire reading for the eco-warriors in south-east London).
Atwood's ark is Cunard's Queen Mary 2. You can track her progress across the Atlantic on a blog that charts the nautical adventure. The choice of transport is highly appropriate to her book, a dystopia which imagines a Darwinian cult surviving after an ecological disaster has destroyed nearly all humanity in a plague called the "Waterless Flood". It is not science fiction, she insists, but a realistic extrapolation of the present. She is giving nightly readings from it to the liner's passengers, sharing top billing with Dr Peter Dean, a forensic scientist and expert on the Jack the Ripper murders. You only hope the captive audience wasn't expecting Elaine Paige.
It will be, Atwood believes, the greenest world book tour ever – not an air mile in sight. She has taken her "veggie vows" for the voyage, and has stocked up on the fairest traded coffee; her wardrobe for the captain's table features a good deal of hemp. Her latest blog detailed with some dry excitement the particular constituents of the "eco-paper for the programmes at the tour events" which, of all the papers on the market, has the "lightest impact on biodiversity and our climate". "God's Gardeners" in her book – who are desperately trying to reinvigorate life by devotional composting on a Mad Max planet destroyed by venal drug companies and infernal burger franchises – would no doubt be proud.
When Atwood docks in England those programmed tour events will include a series of special stage adaptations of the book, starring Atwood alongside Diana Quick and Roger Lloyd Pack, an evening of light musical apocalypse that will feature some of the hymns from the book sung in praise to the Gardeners' patron saints: Jacques Cousteau, James Lovelock, and Stephen Jay Gould. (On the boat, so far, Atwood confesses, she has bottled out of breaking into song with: "We praise the tiny perfect Moles/That garden underground;/The Ant, the Worm, the Nematode,/Wherever they are found…"; or crooning soulfully her characters' tribute to an evolutionary Creator: "We cannot always trace your path/through Monkey and Gorilla/Yet all are sheltered underneath/Your heavenly umbrella" – but she insists that, come dry land, she will.) "The events will be in the image of the Gardeners," she says. "Keep it plain, keep it local, keep it cheap, keep it green – this was our motto." All proceeds will go to the RSPB.
Atwood, the sharp-eyed prophet of quirky doom, is 69 now, but she has never, it seems, forgotten the Eden into which she was born. All of her nightmarish visions – the vicious subjugations of The Handmaid's Tale (the Taliban's book at bedtime), the genetically engineered hell of Oryx and Crake (to which the current book forms a kind of sequel) – have been created, you guess, in pointed contrast to her formative years. Her father was an entomologist, a taxonomer of all Linnaeus's creatures (as such a kind of role model for Adam One, the Gardeners' leader in The Year of the Flood).
From when she was a baby he took Atwood with him, along with her elder brother and her mother, a dietician, on expeditions from their ostensible home in Ottawa migrating north when the ice melted, south when the snow came, the time between spent in a tent or "in a cabin built by my father on a granite point a mile by water from a Quebec village so remote that the road only arrived two years before I was born".
It was 1939 and the world was at war – Carl Atwood's contribution to the armed struggle was a study of the ecology of hardwood forests – but Atwood lived in a kind of magical natural paradise in places where humans had hardly set foot. "At the age of six months," Atwood has written, "I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown."
She and her brother were schooled in the mornings by their mother, "the athlete of the family who was fond of horses and ice skating and any other form of rapid motion that offered escapes from domestic duties". Otherwise they played in the woods, or read compulsively.
Society, in the form of school, which Atwood attended full time in Toronto only from the age of 11, came as a dull shock. "I was now faced with real life," she has recalled, "in the form of other little girls – their prudery and snobbery, their Byzantine social life based on whispering and vicious gossip, and an inability to pick up earthworms without wriggling all over and making mewing noises like a kitten." Perhaps the most chilling of all her books is Cat's Eye, an account of the effects of bullying on a child. Atwood was so precocious in her learning that she was placed in a class four years her senior. It was at about this time that she started to read Orwell; she never looked back.
At university she was tutored by the renowned literary theorist Northrop Frye, famous for his resurrection of William Blake as a major poet, and for his work on the archetypes of literature. Frye gave Atwood, she has suggested, a framework for her unusual creative mind; she responded first with a critical book about Canadian literature, which she saw as being all about Survival (as opposed to American novels – "The Frontier" – and British ones – "The Island") and subsequently with a series of novels and volumes of poetry that have all been survival stories of one kind or another.
In the manner of her parents, who always considered themselves "exiles from Nova Scotia", she has lived an insistently nomadic life. Her most settled period, perhaps, came in the years after she divorced her first husband and married fellow novelist Graeme Gibson and they made a home in Alliston, Ontario, in 1973. They lived a Fearnley-Whittingstall existence without the hype. "We had cows, chickens, geese, sheep, ducks, horses, cats, dogs and peacocks, to name a few," she has remembered. "Many of these we ate in our jolly meals punctuated by the sound of our bottles of home-made beer exploding in the cellar and Graeme's children asking if this was Susan on the plate."
Subsequently they lived all over the place: in Toronto's Chinatown, in a Norfolk manse, said to be haunted by nuns in the parlour; in Australia. In the Eighties, when she was writing her breakthrough book, The Handmaid's Tale, she was in West Berlin; trips to Poland, East Germany and the former Czechoslovakia all contributed to the book's intense claustrophobia.
Her concerns have remained consistent from her childhood, though: the ways in which the individual, and particularly the individual woman, comes to be constrained and deluded by irrational convention or insidious coercion. She herself has fiercely and imaginatively resisted any such constrictions, though the dangers of pigeon-holing are ever present: "The kind of thing that may have got you called a mean dangerous radical red-toothed bitch when you were 30," she recently noted, "may now be treated as the scatterbrained utterance of a cute old biddy. I'm not quite there yet but I can see the turn-off."
Atwood is anything but scatterbrained. The current novel makes a companion volume to last year's book, based on a series of lectures, entitled Payback, which dwelt, brilliantly and presciently, on the idea of debt in the western imagination. The political philosopher John Gray called it "the most probing and thought-stirring commentary on the financial crisis to date".
Written before the financial catastrophe, and with an eye to the balance and frugality of her upbringing, Atwood noted that the obligation of debt was "the governing leitmotif of western fiction" from Faustus on, and that once debt becomes "harmless and fashionable", empires and societies tend to crumble.
In Payback she put forward a "limits to growth" argument that suggested the biggest debt mankind had incurred was to the planet. She imagined a fable in which "Scrooge Nouveau" was visited by "the Spirit of Earth Day Past": "The end result of a totally efficient exploitation of Nature would be a lifeless desert," the Spirit warns. "All natural capital would be exhausted, having been devoured by the mills of production, and the resulting debt to Nature would be infinite. But before then payback time will come for mankind…"
The Year of the Flood imagines that payback. Adam One and his Gardeners are hopelessly trying to undo the unnatural havoc of technology, digging for victory: "Some would term our efforts futile, but if all were to follow our example, what a change would be wrought for our beloved Planet!"
Their creator, scanning the horizon for disaster from her deckchair on the Queen Mary 2, munching on her Endangered Species chocolate bars, and dreaming of unpolluted promotional stunts beneath the brim on her hemp hat, would no doubt concur.
Born 18 November 1939, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Her father was an entomologist. She was home-schooled till 11 by her dietician mother and later studied at Toronto university and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Best of times Both her poetry and novels have received critical acclaim with The Handmaid's Tale (1986), Cat's Eye (1989), and Alias Grace (1996) all nominated for the Booker prize, which she finally won for The Blind Assassin in 2000.
Worst of times Following an idyllic childhood Atwood's move to a school in Toronto at the age of 11 was a difficult one for her.
Her experiences informed Cat's Eye – a novel on the effects of bullying.
They say "She's an incredibly inspiring figure and she's one of the funniest, sharpest, truest people, and maybe that's why she's scary, because there aren't that many people who'll dare to be that."
Novelist Ali Smith
She says "A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together."
"I returned to this world because people kept asking me what happened two minutes after Oryx and Crake ended. I didn't know. So in order to find out what happened, then I had to go back and write another book.''