AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We all have unlived lives, says Margaret Atwood. Growing up, Atwood wanted to write comic books and be an illustrator.
MARGARET ATWOOD: I was going to run off to Paris or London - one or the other - and write masterpieces in Gueret while getting TB and drinking absinthe and smoking cigarettes, which I was never any good at, and die young, as one does.
CORNISH: Needless to say, her life followed a different path. But Margaret Atwood's massive success as a fiction writer, with books like "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Oryx And Crake," have given her a second chance at her childhood love. With the help of illustrators, she's written a graphic novel. It's called "Angel Catbird" and - stay with me - it's about a superhero who's part human, part bird and part cat. It's a little bonkers. But she says she got the idea as a kid, and it seems to have stuck with her.
ATWOOD: I finally got to do my cat with wings, but a much more skilled Illustrator is drawing this person - Johnnie Christmas, my co-creator. And he's drawn a beautiful Angel Catbird and all of the other characters, as well.
CORNISH: Johnnie Christmas, you mentioned, doing the drawings here. And I remember thinking, catbird - what's that going to look like? And then I saw this image of this kind of muscular, whiskered, winged creature, and I was like, oh, yeah.
CORNISH: That makes sense.
ATWOOD: Claws and talons, yes.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. It wasn't cheesy. It wasn't like "Cats" the musical, like, he...
ATWOOD: No, it wasn't like "Cats" the musical.
CORNISH: ...You know, he looked like he could fight you.
ATWOOD: Yes, yes. I'm very fond of him. His first iteration, he didn't have any pants. So I said, he looks very naked.
ATWOOD: I think we (laughter) - this is an all-ages comic. He has to have pants. And then Johnnie said, we need an origin story for the pants. They can't just sprout on him when he changes into Angel Catbird. So he's then given the pants by one of his friends.
And I'm glad that he said we needed an origin story because, as a child, Superman always bothered me - the clothing thing. He goes into the phone booth. He comes out in this outfit which is much bigger than anything he could have stuffed under his suit.
CORNISH: But it's all spandex. Is it really bigger?
ATWOOD: The cape? Come on.
CORNISH: Well, OK.
ATWOOD: Come on, the close-fitting part maybe, but the cape? It's large.
CORNISH: You got me, Margaret Atwood. You've really raised some serious questions here (laughter).
ATWOOD: And then - and then what happened to his civilian clothing? Did he just leave it in the phone booth?
CORNISH: OK, that is true.
ATWOOD: What happened?
ATWOOD: So it was never explained.
CORNISH: You know, this story is this fantasy world where there are people who are half animal. But I have to ask you something because in recent months, there's been a lot of publicity about the creation of chimeras, which is taking, like, human stem cells and combining them with the tissues of animals. And lots of people have been bringing up the pigune, which is a creation - pigs with human stem cells - from your book "Oryx And Crake."
ATWOOD: Very true, yes. Well, that research was already underway when I was writing that book, but they had not yet made the breakthroughs that would enable them to actually do it. And it is a type of thing that is in "Angel Catbird."
CORNISH: Is this weird for you - I mean, when - to have things that you imagined, like, actually appear in the news in a weird way?
ATWOOD: The kind of speculative fiction about the future that I write is always based on things that are in process right now. So it's not that I imagine them; it's that I notice that people are working on them, and I take it a few steps further down the road. So it doesn't come out of nowhere. It comes out of real life.
CORNISH: Similarly with "Handmaid's Tale," that's a book people cite the title of when they want to accuse a politician of rolling back rights for women. And over time, what's it like to hear your work have this other life, like, to enter the popular consciousness in a way, even if it's not the way you intended?
ATWOOD: Well, quite - quite strange. It was also the answer to a couple of questions that come up, which is if you want women to go back into the home, how do you make them do that? And the method I proposed in 1985 was, now that we have credit cards, it's very easy to just cut off people's access to credit. And that's what happens in the book, and it could happen at any point, really.
CORNISH: So what is the world you're imagining next? Is there a germ of something that you think could be another whole universe?
ATWOOD: You know, if there were, I wouldn't tell you.
ATWOOD: The trouble with my ideas is, if you put them out there just as ideas, everybody looks at you as if you're a lunatic.
ATWOOD: So if I had said to my publisher, so I'm going to write a novel about this society in which women have to wear these red outfits with great, big, white hats and basically be biological wives for an elite group of dictatorial, weird people (laughter).
ATWOOD: They would just - Margaret, what are you doing?
CORNISH: This has been really interesting. Margaret Atwood, thank you so much.
ATWOOD: And thank you so much.
CORNISH: Margaret Atwood - her new graphic novel is called "Angel Catbird." It's out this week.
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