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

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?