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

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal