Ambidextrous and unbranded
Margaret Atwood is never cut and dried
BY JENNIFER LEVIN
Santa Fe New Mexican
Who’s Who...who’s Here
Margaret Atwood has a wild imagination. The prolific Canadian author builds fully realized dystopian worlds in which people wrestle with life’s most pressing ethical questions — environmental destruction, religious faith, population control — in the most intimate ways. She’s beloved by readers for consistently bringing high literary style to books you can’t put down, and she’s been at it since the 1960s. When Hulu adapted her most well-known work, 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, into a streaming series in 2017, a whole new generation was introduced to her more recent speculative fiction trilogy, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Although she’s become known for her especially prescient take on earth’s not-too-distant future, it wasn’t always like this. Atwood used to write about everyday mundanities — relationships, work and what women think about when they’re alone. Although some of her books were tinged with magical realism, it was the realism that stood out in such early novels as Surfacing (1973) and Life Before Man (1980). After delving into historical fiction with Alias Grace in 1996, her novels became increasingly futuristic. Why did Atwood veer from the gritty here and now to the dystopian “What if”? Did something draw her from one world to another? Not really, she said in an email interview during her book tour for a new nonfiction collection, Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021, now out from Doubleday. “I haven’t abandoned realism. The story collection Stone Mattress  is firmly in that tradition. The Blind Assassin  is too, as the sci-fi in it is written or narrated by one of the characters. . . . But realism as the 19th century understood it hasn’t been completely with us for some time. I expect this is a longer conversation, the title of which might be, ‘ What is fiction, and why do human beings do it?’” She offers a more crucial answer to my question: “I try to make my invented worlds as realistic as possible. I believe they are true to the fundamentals of human choice and existence, as well as to history. As I’ve often said, I can’t do other galaxies. Only this planet, and only us.” The Handmaid’s Tale never leaves this world, and Atwood’s alarming vision of women rebelling against being classed by their wealth and ability to breed seems even more plausible now than it did in the 1980s. Hulu’s adaptation, which has four seasons with an anticipated fifth on the horizon, changed significant aspects of Atwood’s book. Among other tweaks, the show gave us a much larger, racially diverse cast and extended the plot beyond the scope of the novel. The Testaments, a sequel published in 2019, isn’t a direct continuation of the original novel. “The things and people in The Testaments are firmly connected to those in The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s like invisible mending — you can’t see it,” she wrote. “Nothing in it contradicts The Handmaid’s Tale. I was picky about that.” She began the novel the year before the first season of the TV series premiered and didn’t watch the show until she was well into writing, so it doesn’t actually build upon that world either, which doesn’t stop readers from finding connections, intended or not. “[Actress] Ann Dowd has been a marvelous Aunt Lydia,” Atwood added. “I sometimes hear her voice in The Testaments, and [I’m] lucky to have her reading Aunt L in the audiobook.” If one thing unites all of Atwood’s novels, it’s the seamlessness of her prose. There are no glitches. No detail or moment calls too much attention to itself, and nothing is glossed over too quickly. Readers dive into the story from the first line, without obvious exposition or scene-setting. “I know I was all right Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual,” she writes in the opening of The Edible Woman, her 1969 debut about a young woman breaking free of expectations. The early feminist take on bodily autonomy offers a surreal foray into the symbolism of disordered eating — evidence of Atwood’s long-standing affection for off-kilter narratives as well as for writing about complicated, hard-to-like women. “Probably it is the subject of women that has most completely dominated Ms. Atwood’s novels,” author Lorrie Moore wrote in her review of The Robber Bride for The New York Times in 1993. “That women are individuals, difficult to corral, a motley and uneasy sisterhood; that feminism is often hard going and hard won, sabotaged from within as well as without; that in the war between the sexes there are collaborators as well as enemies, spies, refugees, spectators and conscientious objectors — all this has been brilliantly dramatized in Ms. Atwood’s work.” Atwood has received many honors and awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Innovator’s Award (2012), the Franz Kafka Prize (2017), the Booker Prize (2019) and the British Academy President’s Medal (2020). She’s in her 80s now and her prose just keeps getting more inventive, more confident. Perhaps the finest example of her literary chops can be found in Hag-Seed, her 2016 adaptation of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, for which well-known authors rewrote Shakespeare plays as contemporary novels. In what she calls a hefty though enjoyable workout, Atwood re-envisioned Prospero as Felix, an ousted artistic director of a theater festival, usurped by an ambitious fraud who ultimately leaves the world of drama to go into politics, while Felix self-exiles in a rented hovel and directs Shakespeare for inmates at a local prison. Hag-Seed is a masterwork of adaptation that perfectly captures the Bard’s sometimes caustic insights into humanity, as well as his love for it, and showcases the overwhelming power of modern technology without going so far as to call it sorcery. To write Hag-Seed, Atwood read The Tempest numerous times, watched every filmed version available and read theater history to find out how the play had been interpreted through the ages. “But most importantly,” she asked, “What were the central motifs of the original play? Once you zero in on the speeches, everyone in the play is imprisoned at some time or another. “So: What is freedom? A pretty important question right now.” The Tempest’s characters have been interpreted many ways: “Is Caliban a clown? Is he a rapist? Is he a romantic figure? Is he a thwarted revolutionary? Is he evil? Is he oppressed? He’s been played all these ways. The text supports them all. Shakespeare is never cut and dried.” Nor is Atwood. She writes essays, short fiction, graphic novels and poetry in addition to novels, and even her darkest subjects tend to be imbued with a degree of ambivalent humor. Asked what inspires her to sometimes write poetry instead of fiction, she answered, “A small, winged creature comes down out of the sky carrying a neon sign that says POEM or FICTION. “Sorry, joke. “It’s a question of rhythms, and also of stories. I’m ambidextrous in that way. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t write both. I also received no career grooming or ‘branding’ instructions. So anything went, and goes.” Jennifer Levin is a writer, arts journalist and communications professional in Santa Fe.