Margaret Atwood: 'People should live joyfully'

The celebrated writer's new novel is another dystopian tale of environmental catastrophe, but in person she is far from gloomy

Margaret Atwood does not look like the kind of woman who picks up anyone's socks. But while we're on the subject, she thinks that she might just have figured out why Fay Weldon recently admitted to picking up after her husband sooner than hitting him over the head with a copy of The Second Sex for ducking out of the housework.

Atwood's theory is not just airy speculation but based in evolutionary science: "It's because we were the gatherers; they were the hunters. Women spent 80,000 years picking mushrooms, and men spent it running after animals. We see the mushrooms – which in this case are socks – and they see the moving object. There have been tests that show women are better at seeing static objects."

So where does she stand on cleaning: who is genetically programmed to clean the bathroom? "The loo cleaning's up for grabs," she says. It's not about gathering."

It's hard to know if Atwood is jesting. The Canadian writer sitting before me, bird-like, with sparkling blue eyes, appears to have mastered the art of a deadpan delivery of her punch-lines, reserving an ironic smile for her firmly-held views. But she's here today on a very serious environmental purpose.

Her new novel, The Year of the Flood, by Bloomsbury (£18.99), features a dystopia in which science has had cataclysmic consequences on the environment, and it represents Atwood's call on "greenies" to mobilise.

Its publication is marked by a series of "musical" book readings at which Atwood will read from the book's "green hymns", and is accompanied by local musicians and environmentally-friendly props made from re-usable Sainsbury's bags and bric-à-brac reclaimed from rubbish dumps. The proceeds are dedicated to bird organisations, including the RSPB, of which Atwood is a passionate supporter.

At one such reading at Manchester cathedral this week the performance is a cross between a funky church choir – her hymns were sung by the city's lesbian and gay singers – and an enthralling storytelling session for grown-ups.

The novel is her latest addition to an oeuvre that has spanned five decades of poetry, prize-winning fiction, and critical tomes. It describes the fall-out of an immense natural disaster that leaves few human survivors and a herd of genetically-spliced animals roaming in the atrophied wilderness.

The tour is an inspired idea, but, I suggest, surely a daunting undertaking for a writer who is a stone's throw away from turning 70? Atwood appears impervious to the expectations – and gravitational wear and tear – associated with her age. When asked about the disappearance of the elderly in popular culture, she quips: "Old people disappear from society because they keel over. Look at Diana Athill, my first editor. She's 92 and carrying on... I always have fun with whatever I do. There's too much around that's not fun. People should live life as joyfully as possible," she says before tripping herself up. "I sound like Mary Poppins."

Even so, there is the odd twinge of apprehension. "It was never supposed to be such a big tour but things kept getting added on." Her travels began last month at the Edinburgh Book Festival and will end in Sudbury, Ontario, the day before her birthday (18 November) – "if I survive it 'til the end".

It is not just the tour but also her latest book that emerged as a response to popular demand. After finishing her novel Oryx and Crake in 2003, she was asked so many times what happened next that Atwood – who once said of writers that "all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation" – raided her own imagined world for inspiration. But this new nightmarish vision of a post-diluvian wasteland littered with genetically-engineered flora and fauna and a refuse of characters from an environmental sect is only mildly familiar. Minor characters from Oryx and Crake appear, but in central roles.

"It's not a sequel, nor a prequel, but a 'simultan-eul'," she explains. It is perhaps ironic, then, that this latest work ends with its very own cliff-hanger. Does this mean the imminent creation of a third parallel universe? Unlikely, although Atwood does hint at a desire to revisit her most popularly acclaimed work, The Handmaid's Tale. The novel is based in the imaginary republic of Gilead, a chauvinist military theocracy that conquers America and must now bolster its infertile population by keeping women captive as breeders.

"You could tell The Handmaid's Tale from a male point of view. People have mistakenly felt that the women are oppressed, but power tends to organise itself in a pyramid. I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid. It would interesting."

Atwood came to prominence in the 1969 with her first novel, The Edible Woman, written while she was living in Edmonton, Alberta. Early reviewers classed it as a feminist tract, even though she was cut off from the American feminist movement in New York at the time. Her allegiance to that particular brand of political feminism remains as distant now as it was then.

"The Edible Woman came out just at that time when the movement was rolling out. Those who had heard of it reviewed the book as feminist... but my novel was not informed by it."

Her definition of feminism appears to focus on more humanistic concerns, and her idea of women as "equal but different" has chimed more with the French feminist philosophers of the 1970s who celebrate difference.

"It's not picking up socks that's the issue. Who is the 'we' that we are talking about [in feminism]? Are we talking about the children who are involved in sex trafficking, or the women in Bangladesh? Are we talking about the Eastern European women who are promised a place in the West and end up as sex slaves? Feminism is a big term. If we are asking 'Are women human beings?' we don't need to vote on that. But where do we go from there? Are women better than men? No. Are they different? Yes. How are they different? We're still trying to figure that out."

Atwood's fiction, celebrated for its rich imagination, is rooted in real-world topography. Just as the totalitarian theocracy in The Handmaid's Tale was written after a trip to Kabul in 1978 and also with Iran's authoritarian regime in mind, The Year of the Flood is so firmly based on geography that "I could show you [its location] on a map," says Atwood.

"It's on the east coast of America... It's far enough down that the climate change about that point gives us a semi-tropical rain forest, thunder storms and rain every afternoon. It has to be a flat part of the world if the oceans are going to rise over it."

This real-world element provides grist for Atwood's argument that she is creating "speculative fiction" rather than science fiction because it falls within the realms of possibility. "I'm not describing our world, but we are going in that direction... It's a future whose beginnings are already with us."

The fauna she describes – genetically-engineered foliage – is not dissimilar to the outsized house plants she sees in her Toronto hometown, and the cloned, spliced animal breeds, however exaggerated (lions cross with lambs, glowing green rabbits) are reminiscent of cutting edge Dolly-the-sheep science.

So is this a cautionary tale about science? Far from being disdainful of it, Atwood appears fully plugged into the modern world of whizz-bang technology: she blogs, tweets, and, not so long ago, she devised the LongPen (which allows writers to sign their novels digitally).

"This is not mad scientist stuff. It's not Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Science is a tool, like a hammer. You can use it for good or ill, to build a house or to murder your neighbour. Some of the biotechnology in the book is quite handy. It's not science you have to look at but the human beings that use it."

Her concern for the environment has only entered her literature in the past few years but it has always been there in the backdrop of her life and early years. She grew up in the Canadian wilderness, the daughter of an entomologist who had an enduring love – and fear – of the natural world.

It is this fearful respect for a predatory, sometimes malevolent, nature that informs much of her fiction."Some people mistakenly think nature is very nice and benevolent and never betrays. People come to see the bears in my part of the world in Canada.

"They are not always benevolent and should be respected rather than hugged, as they are quite unpredictable. I feel sad about people who grow up thinking bears are like Winnie the Pooh, that they are sweet and fuzzy-wuzzy."

Nature, in The Year of the Flood, is described in quasi-scriptural terms; the environmental group is called God's Gardeners, and their leaders named Adam and Eve; the hymns bear strong Christian overtones; the flood and its aftermath – on which the entire story hinges – exploits the familiar trope of Noah's ark; and the "Garden" is described as an oasis, akin to a paradise. When Toby – one of the narrators – first sees it: "She gazed around it in wonder: it was so beautiful, with plants and flowers of many kinds she'd never seen before.

"There were vivid butterflies: from nearby came the vibration of bees. Each petal and leaf was fully alive, shining with awareness of her... It was as if a large, benevolent hand had reached down and picked her up, and was holding her safe. She frequently heard Adam One speak of 'being flooded with the Light of God's creation', and without knowing it yet that was how she felt."

Atwood says she set out, not to celebrate Christianity, but to extract the pantheistic elements from early Christian texts and other religions; Jesus features as a proto-environmentalist, and the Buddha turns up too.

"It is the green parts of Christianity that are in there. Religions in general have to rediscover their roots. In Hinduism and the Koran, animals are described as equals. If you walk into a cathedral and look at the decorations of early Christianity, there are vines, animals, creatures and birds thriving all over the stonework." Back in Manchester cathedral, her long-time husband, Graeme Gibson, also a writer and fellow bird-watcher, has accompanied her on this leg of the tour. So loyal a companion has he been over the years that Atwood famously made him a T-shirt which read: "Every woman writer should be married to Graeme Gibson".

"When I made it for him, his comment was 'OK, but just not all at once'." Seriously, I ask, has it been difficult for him to be married to – some might say overshadowed by – Margaret Atwood?

"It might have been, were he not so tall ... and a Leo with a lively ego," she laughs, and adds with some pride: "He's a driving political force. All the bird-life stuff is basically him. He has been head of PEN."

So what star sign is she? "I'm a Scorpio," she says, "with Gemini rising. It means I'm a much nicer Scorpio." Atwood, known and feared for scaring off her inquisitors with icy blasts of sardonic wit and terrifying silences, gives another wicked chuckle. Today, her Gemini appears in the ascendant.

Arifa Akbar travelled to Edinburgh on Virgin Trains. For bookings and information go to www.virgintrains.com

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