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“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood’s popular 1985 novel, launched her as a prominent voice in sci-fi, then dominated by men even more so than it is now. For its themes of women oppressed by patriarchal government and religion, she became a feminist hero, though she shrugged off the mantle as misguided.
The book continues to have legs. It was made into a Hollywood film starring Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson, and into an opera given its American premiere by the Minnesota Opera in 2003. In October, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet premieres its own version in dance form.
With her post-apocalyptic settings and dystopian futures, Atwood has been ahead of the curve in mass-appeal pop fiction, now full of such scenarios. She prefers to categorize her work as “speculative fiction,” saying she depicts events that could possibly happen, whereas science fiction, in her view, focuses on impossible fantasy.
Young adult fiction, in particular, seems to be heading right down the Atwood path. The popularity of “The Hunger Games” and similarly themed series in YA just keeps growing. So why are we all so interested in bracing for doomsday now?
“We’re rehearsing,” she said, flashing her cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smile.
She, of course, would never dream of harming a songbird. Like fellow author and bird lover Gibson, Atwood has long been active in environmental causes. She even has a blend of nature-friendly coffee named for her at the Balzac’s coffee-shop chain in Toronto, where she lives.
Asked how Canadians view the States, she pauses a moment, then deflects the question amusingly.
“You’re our Mexico,” she says. “We’d like to slice off the east coast of Florida, float it up here on a tectonic plate and attach it to Newfoundland so we have somewhere to go in the winter.”
Growing up in Ottawa in what she calls a “nerdy family,” Atwood was a bio-geek before it was cool. Her father was a zoologist specializing in entomology, her mother a dietitian. Her brother, a neurobiologist, recently complimented her on the trilogy’s bioengineered humanoid species the Crakers, who are “free from sexual jealousy, greed, clothing and the need for insect repellent or animal protein.” Their privates also turn blue as a signal they’re ready to copulate. “He liked the baboon-in-heat mating style, but wasn’t so sure about the purring,” she said.
No girly covers, please
Atwood is happy with the gender-neutral cover of the American version of “MaddAddam,” but she had to ask for a redo to get it. For books by women, she says, “they’re always coming up with something floral, like a journal you give girls for Christmas, something in which to write your delicate female thoughts. The original they showed me had this messy, twiggy writing on it that would make a male reader say, too girly, and a woman reader say, where’s the vacuum cleaner?”
On the walk back to her hotel, Atwood paused at a musty window display. It appears that the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York has a lock museum and other antiquarian enticements.
“Oh, look, this is fascinating,” she said. “We’ll have to stop here before we go to the pier.”
And with that, Margaret Atwood had found one more new interest to cram into her already overflowing brainpan.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046