AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Next up, recently we made a call to a tech-savvy writer in southern France. Hello, Margaret Atwood. Can you hear me?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Hello. How are you?
CORNISH: Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist was squirreled away in what she called her writing burrow. The best-selling award-winning author of "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin" is writing a serialized novel. She's publishing it bit by bit on a website called Byliner, which only launched last year. A new episode, about 50 pages, cost 2.99. It gets posted every few months, then readers comment, and Atwood sits down to write the next episode. The novel is called "Positron." It takes place in a near future where society has solved the problem of modern life, the absence of jobs, by making everyone a part-time criminal.
ATWOOD: They can live in prison, and they take turns. So one month they're the prisoners, and the other month they're the people in the town taking care of the prisoners so that provides full employment for everybody all the time.
CORNISH: Atwood might write about a scary future, but she says writing a serialized novel is a return to the past - the 19th century, when Charles Dickens penned his novels in installments. So I asked what's the difference between writing a novel in full and writing and publishing one episode at a time?
ATWOOD: Let us turn to the world of comedy as an example: improv.
ATWOOD: You know, improv. You have to get up there. You don't necessarily know what's going to happen, and you have to make a story right in front of everybody while they're watching, whereas with a comedy play, with a script, it's already finished. You get up, you perform it well or badly, but it is not something you're making up in front of everybody.
CORNISH: Getting that kind of direct feedback, too.
ATWOOD: Direct feedback about the kinds of lines you should be saying. With the serial - and this is what happened to Charles Dickens when he was writing them - people will write in and then, in this day and age, they will E in, they will digital in, and they will say, how could you be so mean to poor Miss Mowcher? Or they will say, we love Sam Weller. And you will make Sam Weller have a bigger part. The closest analogy is probably TV sitcoms. If somebody is getting high ratings, you make their part bigger. And if they're not, you have them die of an unfortunate disease.
CORNISH: But in a way, are people then reading a rough draft of a novel when they're reading episodes of "Positron"?
ATWOOD: That remains to be seen. We don't know that. What Dickens would do would be he would put it out in serial form, and then he would put it out later in book form.
CORNISH: So you never know. There is a chance you might see Margaret Atwood's "Positron" one day on a bookstore shelf. In the meantime, you can frequently hear from Atwood on Twitter. At age 73, she's got a major following, which she offered to wield for our benefit.
ATWOOD: Give me a URL and I will tweet the URL to my 663 - 330 - however many they are - to all those people. And a certain number of them will listen to it.
CORNISH: For the record, Margaret Atwood has more than 365,000 followers on Twitter. When we return, how the digital transition is shaking things up at your local public library.
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