NEW YORK – 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.”
“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.