Wit and Wisdom from Margaret Atwood
The author of The Handmaid’s Tale and countless other books spoke at Book Riot Live a while back. She was smart and funny and fabulous, and it seemed only fair to share some of her words with more people.
On her first novel
I started writing my first novel when I was 7. It was about an ant. It taught me a lot about narration. Nothing happens to ants for the first three quarters of their life cycle. In the last little bit — the ant actually did things. I’ve never started a novel that way since.
On not writing for a while
I had a dark phase when I was into painting and things like that. I started writing again at sixteen.
On writing beyond your personal experience
Ax murdering and gerbil strangling are both things I haven’t done.
I wrote a story of woman who was really old — a high school teacher, my concept of hell. Her life was over. She was 40. I’d never been 40 but it seemed really old.
On life before Feminism
When I was 17, in 1956, Feminism hadn’t arrived yet. That’s a long time ago. There were no pantyhose.
There are 3 women in Tolkien, if you count the giant spider — which I do
On literary disappointment
I read Animal Farm thinking it was going to be like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows and I was sad when it wasn’t.
On different types of apocalypse and their uses in novels
It’s either a plague or a bomb, and if it’s a bomb it kills everyone. If it’s a plague, it can kill just the men.
On knowing your artistic limits
I wasn’t good at certain kinds of things so I don’t do those things. Like dragons.
I don’t have to go out and glean. It’s been gleaned. I’ve been accumulating this stuff for a very long time.
On research for historical fiction
Underwear from 1843 is really hard to find out about. We know quite a lot about toilets. We don’t know much about toothbrushes.
On the importance of beta readers
I have an older brother who reads my books and makes notes about the science. He said, “I think you did quite well with sex. But I’m not so sure about the purring.”
I asked a pissed off young man with commitment issues to read my novel, and he told me two things: it’s not “what *in* the F***”, it’s “what the f***” and, that’s not how you smoke dope.
Having been born in 1939, I’ve always been really interested in totalitarian regimes… I believe that when people say they’re going to do something, when they get power they probably will do it. I take those things seriously — that’s the pattern you can see in history.
On borrowing details from real people’s lives
You just have to make the choice — go for it or wait until they die. Or change the colour of their hair.