Margaret Atwood, grande dame of dystopia, coming to town

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2013 - 5:28 PM

Margaret Atwood imagines a sinister future that seems all too possible. That, and her Internet activity, keep winning her new followers.

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Author Margaret Atwood is a Talking Volumes guest at the Fitzgerald on Oct. 1.

Photo: Kelly Guenther • Special to the Star Tribune,

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– Margaret Atwood, a master at creating clever names, is always on the lookout for more. Settling into a cafe chair on a gorgeous August morning in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, she points out a sandwich kiosk called Wichcraft.

“I like that one,” she says. Gracious of her, since it pales in comparison with monikers of the fantastic creatures populating “MaddAddam,” the just-published conclusion to Atwood’s trilogy about a small band of humans — and gentle humanoids — trying to survive after a man-made plague has left the planet in shambles. There are the violent Painballers, former hard-core prisoners now roaming free; pigoons, giant feral swine infused with human DNA, and Mo’ Hairs, sheep bred to grow long tresses in a rainbow of colors.

Atwood, who will speak at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul as a Talking Volumes guest Oct. 1, has just an hour to spare before gathering up longtime partner Graeme Gibson, who she’s left at the nearby Cornell Club, and heading for a pier in Brooklyn.

There, the couple and their two grandchildren are to board the Queen Mary, where she is launching “MaddAddam” on a cruise from New York to London.

Of course she is: Atwood never takes the usual route when more interesting options are available. At 73, she sports a slate-gray mass of curls framing lively, crinkly eyes and an arch, permanently bemused expression. Though she’s written 14 novels and several dozen other books of poetry, fiction and commentary, as well as winning the Booker Prize and many others, her wide-ranging conversational topic choices make it clear that Atwood is more interested in discovery than accolades.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her headlong, early-adopter embrace of the Internet.

Casting a wide net online

There seems to be no corner of cyberspace, no form of social media or online techno-trend that Atwood has not yet plumbed. She’s practically giddy over a new video-game app, “Intestinal Parasites,” that was developed as a tie-in to “MaddAddam” (one of the characters plays the game, which features eyeless predators that turn your insides into a “festering patty melt”).

She crowdfunds for Fanado, a new site that helps fans and artists connect. She has recently written online-only fiction for not only Byliner, a site for established authors, but Wattpad, where anyone can publish. She appeared in full goalie gear on YouTube in a hilarious video called “How to Stop a Puck.” Pinterest, Flipboard, you name it, she’s all over it. And she’s quite active on Twitter, with 426,000 followers, and on Facebook.

“Twitter is like having your own little radio show,” she said. “It’s also rather like being at a large, fun party where you don’t know all the guests, and they turn out to come from all corners. And they think people my age don’t understand this stuff.”

She scoffs at the notion, put forth by some fellow authors including Jonathan Franzen, that Twitter and other social media cast a distracting pall on higher literary efforts.

“Twitter isn’t going to destroy literacy. Did the telegram?” she said. “The Internet actually enables literacy, because you have to be able to read and write to participate. Look at all the young people writing steamy vampire stories under pseudonyms online. In my day, you couldn’t experiment without being found out.”

In turn, the Internet generation has welcomed her. Unusual for an author of her age, Atwood’s fan base is growing broader and skewing younger.

“ ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ was read by women aged 35 to 55,” she said. “ I am read by 10-year-olds, 90-year-olds, gays, straights, men, women.”

Humor in the chaos

“MaddAddam” finishes the story begun in 2003’s “Oryx and Crake” and continued in 2009’s “The Year of the Flood.”

In the near future, a juggernaut of bioengineering and Big Pharma experiments have turned North America into a giant “Island of Dr. Moreau” where mutants and soulless psychopaths run amok following a scientist-induced pandemic that nearly wiped out the human race.

Amid all the gloom and doom, rape and murder, Atwood inserts perfectly timed bits of wit. Toby, a main character who narrates much of the book, wonders whether the Mo’Hair transplants on her head will attract unwanted attention from the rams and decides to “watch herself for signs of sheepishness.”

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