Given that her 14 novels, 17 poetry collections, and 10 books of literary and economic criticism all reinforce the impression that she’s one of Canada’s smartest citizens, it’s impossible to accuse Margaret Atwood of being obtuse. But when she picks up the phone to discuss her latest work of fiction, MaddAddam, with the Georgia Straight, she does seem surprisingly gnomic, and that’s an assessment she doesn’t bother to deny.
“I like being gnomic, because I think it leaves some choices for the reader,” she says, and even over the phone there’s a hint of a teasing smile in her voice.
Conversing with Atwood more resembles a fencing match than an easy exchange of views. And in this engagement there are times when I feel lumbered with a Halloween pirate’s plywood broadsword in comparison to the writer’s nimble épée. Or so it seems when I try to determine whether, now that she’s completed her end-times trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, she feels any optimism for the future of the human race.
“Now, I want you to do some big thought,” she responds, not unkindly. “The big thought that you’re going to do is on the subject of palindromes. It will not have escaped your attention that the title of this book [MaddAddam] is a palindrome. Think even more deeply.”
Cogitating quickly—although not deeply, given that her title’s true nature had previously evaded me—I offer the observation that life itself can sometimes seem palindromic in form.
“If one is lucky,” Atwood says tartly. “But let’s think in terms of the human race, which has been through bottlenecks before. And who is it that said, ‘In my end is my beginning?’ ”
Sounds like the Bible.
“The Bible it’s not, but it is not unconnected with the Alpha and the Omega. ‘In my end is my beginning’ was embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots, on a tapestry of a phoenix that she was doing shortly before she got her head chopped off.”
At this point decapitation might seem preferable to being skewered by Atwood’s rapier wit, not to mention her apparently endless erudition. But what I think she’s saying is that she’s not particularly concerned with the fate of the human race—an impression strengthened by her trilogy’s final volume, in which the last survivors of a man-made plague find themselves in a frightening landscape of fallen towers, risen seas, and ravenous transgenic pigs. They’re not alone, however: Crake, the new world’s evil-genius begetter—or, conversely, the larger environment’s self-sacrificing saviour—has conveniently created a new race of happy, peaceful, and plague-resistant quasi-humans, marked by a kind of humming hive mind and (for the men, at least) giant blue genitals.
The underlying lesson is that life will continue even if we humans crash and burn—a belief she must have imbibed at the family table along with her childhood oatmeal.
“Even in 1960, we were talking about how long it would take a single pair of fruit flies, reproducing unchecked, to cover the earth to a depth of 20 feet, things like that,” says Atwood, whose father was a federal Forest Service entomologist. “Methane from cows was already a topic of discussion, and of course there was quite an interest in the carrying capacity of the planet back then in the 1960s and early ’70s. And then it dropped off the agenda, partly because people got scared to talk about it.”
Atwood isn’t, however, although she’s vexed that authors have to lead the battle for a better planet.
“I’m not an activist by nature,” she allows. “I think writers get shoved into it because other people lose their jobs if they do. In other words, I don’t go running about looking for things to be an activist about. I have concerns, and I have the luxury of being able to express them—and it is a luxury.”
If we don’t want her fiction to turn into fact, she adds, there are a few things we can do.
“The two most important things that the human race should be thinking about are alternate cheap sources of energy, and not killing the oceans. Should we kill the oceans, that is the end of the oxygen we breathe, which is made now as it was in the beginning, by marine organisms.”
Above all else, she adds—and in this, as in many other aspects of the Oryx and Crake trilogy, one can hear an echo of her father’s voice—it’s important to stand up for science.
“We pay for the scientists employed, such as they still remain, by the federal government, and therefore we should have access to that information,” she says. “It should not be filtered through a bunch of bureaucrats and fed to us only if it’s ‘on-message’. If something bad is going into our drinking water, we would like to be told about it directly, thank you.
“So write a letter. Show the scientists some backup. Usually, people think that this stuff is removed from them, but it’s not, because those studies are what stand between you and getting horrible things into your body through the air, the earth, or the water. It’s a public-health issue.”
Before signing off, Atwood suggests joining an environmental organization; the TerraMar Project, Oceana, and Bird Studies Canada are among her favourites. With that, she’s on to her next interview—and I have cheques to write.