In her new stories, Atwood has characters modeled after herself and her partner
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Margaret Atwood has always been a keen observer of life.
MARGARET ATWOOD: Writing is what we do, and storytelling is what human beings do. And every single person that you will ever meet has got a story of my life which they are constantly revising.
FADEL: In her new short story collection, "Old Babes In The Wood," Atwood has characters modeled after herself and her late husband. She also writes of the fantastical. Her story titled "Freeforall" has parallels to perhaps her best-known work - adapted into a TV series - "The Handmaid's Tale."
ATWOOD: It is a kind of companion piece to "Handmaid," so flip it over and see what it would be like if it were, in fact, men who had to be controlled in their personal lives - for their own good, of course.
FADEL: If you could break down that story a little bit - so it's a killer disease...
ATWOOD: A killer sexually transmitted disease - so this was written right in the middle of the first wave of AIDS. And the solution that society has come up with is you would have to have arranged marriages, and you would have to have sexually pure participants. Otherwise, everybody would just die.
ATWOOD: So they go about it. And the story is set fairly far down the line, when a hierarchical chain of command has developed, and it's told from one of the - point of view of one of the arrangers of these marriages. And the different - because, of course, it's all gated communities. You can't let people just go running around. So it's from - told from that point of view.
FADEL: And like you said, the men are the ones that have to be controlled.
ATWOOD: They both do, but men also.
FADEL: As well as women.
ATWOOD: Exactly. So going back to the age of European aristocracy, when royal houses married off their kids to one another - it's a similar idea, except they were doing it for the money.
FADEL: Yeah, 'cause in the story, there's these creation of houses and marrying kids off to each other for children.
ATWOOD: That would certainly happen.
ATWOOD: It would be a practical solution to a very difficult problem.
FADEL: Also, in your other stories, like your conversation - your fictional conversation with George Orwell, there's some poking fun also about the generational shifts and things you can and can't say anymore. As a writer, I'm just wondering what you think about these conversations about what can and can't be said, what can and can't be written, what can and can't be...
ATWOOD: That's been going on for a very long time.
ATWOOD: This is just a new iteration of it. So having been a Victoria-ess (ph), I'm here to tell you that some people felt in polite conversation that you shouldn't use the word leg.
FADEL: Oh, wow.
ATWOOD: And you also shouldn't use the word chicken breast (laughter).
FADEL: Chicken breast?
ATWOOD: Well, it was a breast, right?
FADEL: 'Cause you have this specific exchange with the novelist George Orwell when he talks about women being trifling - women writers.
FADEL: You say, oh, you can't say that anymore. That's considered trivializing now.
ATWOOD: Well, you can't say it anymore because it is quite demonstrably not true anymore.
ATWOOD: So that's one reason you can't say anymore.
FADEL: Where did that...
FADEL: ...Conversation come from?
ATWOOD: The conversation came from a magazine called Inque, I-N-Q-U-E, which has a series called "The Dead Interview." And as a living writer, you get invited to do "The Dead Interview" with any dead writer of your choice.
FADEL: Why did you choose George Orwell?
ATWOOD: A natural for me - he ruined my life when I was about 9 or 10 because I read "Animal Farm" thinking it was going to be like "The Wind In The Willows" and not knowing anything about Trotsky or Stalin or any of those things at all. So I just thought it was about these animals, and they were so mean. They were so mean to the horse. He was an early influence because I next read "1984" probably about when it came out - paperback edition, which I still have, lurid cover. Everything had lurid covers in the '50s. And I think a lot of people read real literature thinking they were reading a - going to get a steamy sex book and instead got "War And Peace" (laughter). So yeah - so I read him as a teenager and - really quite influential on me.
FADEL: So he was hugely influential in your writing?
ATWOOD: Eventually, yes - not immediately - but when we get to "The Handmaid's Tale," for sure.
FADEL: When I think about "Freeforall," when I think about "Handmaid's Tale," when I think about other things in your writing, there's a lot that's very terrifying about humanity and familiar, even if it seems slightly far off - well, not as far off as it used to feel. Why do you build the worlds you do - observe people in this way - at our worst?
ATWOOD: Also at your best, as well - because that's what people are.
ATWOOD: We do have a worst. And if you spend much time reading the newspapers, you'll read a lot about it because...
FADEL: It's my whole job (laughter).
ATWOOD: Oh. Then you know.
ATWOOD: The worst catches the attention more quickly than best.
FADEL: You've been a professional writer for decades now. When you think about...
ATWOOD: Really a very, very long time.
FADEL: Oh (laughter). Well, that's what you've done. That's your life. And I wonder, when you think about your writing in your 20s and 30s and the world that you wrote in in your 20s and 30s and the world that you write in today, how different is it?
ATWOOD: A lot of material differences and technological differences and also what was on people's minds. And that always is changing all the time. So you can make a timeline of these concerns, interests and changes in style, but it is always changing.
FADEL: And today, when you think about the world you write in?
ATWOOD: When you're writing a story, it's either going to be set in the present, which is never really possible because, by the time it's published, that's going to be the past. It takes a year or two. So it's either going to be in the future, where you have free scope - the future contains whatever I say it does - or the past, where you have to be pretty particular about getting your details right because somebody's going to call you on it if they're wrong.
FADEL: Margaret Atwood - her latest short story collection is called "Old Babes In The Wood." Thank you so much.
ATWOOD: Thank you.
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