Margaret Atwood talks teaching fiction, the new season of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Trump’s America
Margaret Atwood thinks anyone can write good fiction — if they have the right motivation. Whether just anyone can write like Atwood, though, or have the same level of success she’s enjoyed over her decades-long career, is another story altogether.
The 78-year-old Canadian author has published over a dozen novels, including her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian vision of totalitarianism set in what was once America. That story has, of course, been turned into an Emmy-winning television series on Hulu, which recently finished its second season.
And aside from novels, Atwood’s also written poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, children’s books and one graphic novel. Her latest venture is a fiction writing class that she’s teaching through the online subscription-based service MasterClass, which allows users to pay a fee in order to take online classes offered by experts. Atwood’s class will be available on the site on Aug. 30.
Atwood spoke to Mic about why she continues to teach, how she views new technology and how to respond to critics who say the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is just too dark to watch.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: You’ve taught before, but why go back to teaching writing? What do you like about it?
Margaret Atwood: Well, this isn’t teaching in the same way that teaching was teaching. I’m not employed by a university, it’s not a class of people that you meet with every week. So it’s not quite the same. Of recent years I’ve been doing the odd piece of teaching, usually just at places like Key West Literary Seminar.
So, why come back to teaching? I don’t think I ever quite left it. But this is a different format, which allows people to be there even though they’re not in the same city or building with you. So it makes things accessible to many more people.
And this class is on fiction writing.
Do you think anyone can write good fiction, given the tools?
MA: Given the motivation. Given the tools, but I think most importantly, given the motivation. In other words, you have to want to do it. And you have to want to put in the work. So when you say “anyone,” I think anyone can, depending on how long they want to spend doing it and how hard they’re prepared to work at it.
There’s no magic bullets, there’s no little potions you can drink that’s going to instantly turn you into an amazing fiction writer.
Was there ever any advice or feedback you got from a writing teacher that really stuck with you?
MA: There weren’t any writing teachers in those days. Or, very few. I think Iowa [Writers’ Workshop] had started and that was kind of it. And hardly anybody knew about anyone; I think there was one [writing program] out in British Columbia that had just begun, but after I was an undergraduate. We didn’t really have those people. Anything that happened was likely to be informal and amongst writers.
Right now, you can find an astonishing number of books and websites and things like this that are full of various kinds of advice. There was nothing like that.
Do you wish that you had had those resources when you were starting out as a writer?
MA: Things would have been different. I think what those resources can do is give you some shortcuts. So instead of having to learn yourself, the hard way, somebody can just kindly say to you, “You don’t have to do that.”
I was talking to a young person yesterday and an older person, and the older person was saying, “Young people today don’t understand grammar.” And I said, “Well, there’s this amazing thing you can get now called Grammerly.”
So would you call yourself an embracer of technology?
MA: No, I don’t think so. I’m aware of it, but technology is just tools. Would you call yourself an embracer of hammers and saws? Not necessarily. But when you need a hammer or a saw, when you need a job that can be done by a hammer or a saw, it’s useful to have a hammer or a saw.
But those tools don’t tell you what you’re going to do with them. You can use a hammer to build a house, you can use a hammer to murder your neighbor. You can use a saw to saw up some firewood, you can use a saw to saw somebody in half. They’re tools.
I want to ask you about the television adaption of Handmaid’s Tale, which just finished its second season. The new season obviously took it beyond the realm of your novel. Was that strange, as a writer, to see your characters imagined further than where you had left them?
MA: I used to do quite a lot of film and television work in the ‘70s. So I’m familiar with the kinds of problems that face people when they’re doing adaptations.
If somebody had never worked in film and television, they would probably have found it a lot stranger than I did. I understood why they made, or why they had to make, some of the choices they made.
Some people find the television adaptation too painful to watch, or too punishing to keep watching.
MA: I guess they don’t look at the news much either.
What do you make of that criticism, because I know the TV writers have followed your rule for the novel, not to include anything that hasn’t happened in our world.
MA: Yes, nothing in that hasn’t happened.
Do you think that’s a fair criticism? That people just want to look away after awhile?
MA: People have different pain thresholds. Everybody’s different. Somebody who’s actually an editor of mine said, “Oh, I started Handmaid’s Tale, it was just too mean! I want to watch The Crown instead.” It just depends whether you want escape or whether you want something that’s really close to real life, in a way. It’s not up to me to tell people what they should watch and not watch. It’s entirely up to them.
You say it’s really close to real life, and a lot of comparisons have been made between the Trump administration and The Handmaid’s Tale —
MA: If we were really there you wouldn’t be seeing any protests on the street, because real totalitarians shoot those people.
It does seem, though, like one of the themes of your work is how fragile our systems are.
MA: That is not an insight unique to myself.
Do you sense that now? Do you feel as though democracy is in a particularly fragile point?
MA: Everybody’s looking at the attack on the free press. These are really worrying symptoms. And the fact that a foreign power influenced, or attempted to influence, and subverted the process to the extent that evidently happened — I think that’s pretty frightening. But it’s not new. These kinds of things have been going on around the world for a very, very long time.
Part of what’s new is that America thought it was unique, and thought it was protected from this kind of thing, and evidently that’s not true.
You’ve also said this in past interviews, that extremism can happen quickly and can also be reversed quickly.
MA: Very quickly. These things can have a lot of advanced warnings and symptoms, but the actual event can happen pretty quickly. And similarly, the downfall can happen very quickly. But based on many different factors, which people then go and analyze endlessly for years and years.
So, the French Revolution: Number one, the Ancient Regime had spent too much money helping the American Revolution, so there was a cash gap. Number two, it was a particularly hot summer. Number three, there was a shortage of bread. Those things can make people very cranky.
And speaking about undoing extremism —
MA: The first thing is not to let it get in there in the first place, if you can possibly avoid that.
So what role do you think art, and especially writing, can play toward resisting authoritarianism?
MA: We have to be very careful about talking about what role writing can play, because it’s just a hop, skip and jump from that to people telling writers what they should write. And it isn’t only the right that is fond of doing that. You can go back to a book called The God That Failed — that would be the left telling writers what they should write.
You just have to be very careful about telling artists what they should, and what they should and what they should, because what you’re going to get out of that is basically propaganda, or a bunch of writers in exile because they don’t want to be pawns of the state, or they don’t want to be mouthpieces for some other group.
But it does seem like writing and art play an important role in what is sort of the opposite of extremism.
MA: They could, but not if you’re going to tell them they have to. I say, let them do their art, let them do whatever kind of art they feel inspired to do. They will be responsive to the society around them anyway, because artists always are. But once you start prescribing, it’s game over. Because that’s just authoritarianism in another form.
Do you go back and read your own published novels?
MA: I’ve kind of tried to avoid that.
What are you reading right now?
MA: I have a stack of books that is quite enormous. Shall I go and look at the stack and mention a few things?
MA: I’ll have to go upstairs. You’ll have to wait.
(Editors note: At this point there was a long pause while Margaret Atwood put the phone down and went upstairs.)
MA: Okay, here’s some things from the stack. A debut novel by Sophie Mackintosh, called The Water Cure. Three girls brought up on an island, told that men are terrible — men wash up on the island, what happens?
Kate Atkinson, remember Kate Atkinson? She had a novel called Life After Life, a previous book of hers. Her first novel was called Behind the Scenes at the Museum. And this one is called Transcription, which I haven’t read but it’s on the pile for me to read.
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book, it’s being reissued. I’m writing a little introduction to it. Usually heroes get brought up by centaurs and things — this boy gets brought up by dead people. That’s why it’s called The Graveyard Book. And Steve Burroughs writes a mystery series based on birds, so his detective is a birdwatcher and each of his birder-murder mysteries involves birds in some way. So I’m reading the most recent one of his.
That is quite a stack.
MA: Well, that’s just the top five that are on the stack.