If a zombie apocalypse ever takes place, I want to be with Margaret Atwood. We're sitting in an Edinburgh hotel talking about The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, the online novel she co-wrote with English writer Naomi Alderman. The two authors wrote alternating chapters, with neither knowing where the other would take the story next. So when Alderman ended a chapter with a character trapped by a zombie in a shack containing nothing but a chair, a bucket and what we call a chest of drawers but North Americans call a bureau, it was up to Atwood to figure out how she escaped.
“I had to get her out of the shack,” says Atwood. “How would you do it? You push the bureau over to the door, so all of the zombie cannot get in. Then you open the door enough so that the [zombie’s] upper half can protrude through the doorway.
“You then turn the bucket over its head, and, with one of the drawers that you’ve taken out of the bureau, hit the bucket very hard. And then you would kick the zombie in the chest, and it would topple over backwards and you would leap lightly through the door from the bureau over the zombie and run away very fast.”
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised at Atwood's skill at devising cunning escape plans. She has just published MaddAddam, the final part of a trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and continued six years later with The Year of the Flood. Unsettling, funny and savagely satirical, the books are set in a not-too-distant future in which most of humanity has been killed by a man-made illness, leaving a handful of survivors to reflect on their pasts and cope with a present that includes murderous fellow survivors, terrifying bioengineered pigs and gentle bioengineered people who may be the future of humanity.
The Jules Verne school of sci-fi
Atwood offers a vivid picture of how technology could affect society over the next century. And it's not far-fetched speculation – the scientific breakthroughs in her books are all technically possible. In this sense, the books are part of one of two traditions in science fiction. "There's one line of descent in modern sci-fi which goes from Jules Verne, who was writing about stuff he thought would or could come true," she says. "Things that are within the realms of possibility.
"Then you have HG Wells with The Time Machine – no way, José, it's not going to happen. One of them leads to Star Wars and the other one leads to 1984. So that's the distinction. There are no dragons or time machines. But there are a lot of new bioengineered forms and, yes, we can make that virus."
As the daughter of an entomologist and a nutritionist, science was always part of her life. “It wasn’t a question of being interested in it, I was just immersed in it,” she says. This was reflected in her earliest writing. “My first novel, at the age of seven, was about an ant. There’s something about the first three stages in the life of an ant that are not very lively.” She laughs. “Once it had legs, things became more fun.”
She sees clear parallels between science and literature. “They are both narrative forms,” she says. “Especially biology. That’s why so many medical doctors have become novelists . . . Every illness has a narrative. There’s before you were ill, when you started feeling ill, when you became ill and then whether you got cured or not. It’s all a sequence of events, which is what narrative is.”
Pointing out that very young children can understand basic stories, Atwood believes storytelling is innate, and probably began as a teaching aid, a way of telling others how some things were done and why other things should be avoided.
That wouldn’t work if the stories weren’t enjoyable. “We seem to be pre-programmed to understand and enjoy stories. The two elements are information and entertainment. If you only have the entertainment, it’s going to be a read-it-once book. But if you have only the information, it’s going to be a text book.”
Whatever stories we tell will inevitably be about the world we live in now – no matter where or when we set them. “Any novel is about the time in which it’s written,” says Atwood. “You can’t help it.”
This is true of The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood's first fictional dystopia, first published in 1985. It is set in a future US that has become a theocratic state in which women's sexuality is strictly controlled (and yes, she does see the similarities between the novel's Republic of Gilead and 20th-century Ireland).
“It’s set in the future, but it’s about 1984 or ’85, which is when it was written,” she says. “And what was incipient then to people who spent some time studying American culture was that the strain of fundamentalist puritanism never really went away, no matter what Ivy League- educated people might think.
“Which is why I set it at Harvard. Don’t say it can’t happen here – it has happened here, in the home of puritan theocracy. And it could happen here again, because anything can happen anywhere. The question I was attempting to answer was: if you were aiming to have totalitarianism in the United States, what form would it take?”
New Canadian breed
Along with such writers as Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje, Atwood was part of the first generation of Canadian writers to come to international attention in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’. Whereas in Canada in the ’60s we were just saying ‘make it’. It was a fairly open field.”
The same could be said now for the internet, a platform Atwood has embraced. She is a regular tweeter, and has published fiction online. The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home was posted on Wattpad, a story-sharing website.
She has also been writing a serial on Byliner.com, Positron, which she is building into "a fully fledged novel". When she posted the first instalment, she didn't know how the story would develop. "I was writing it as I was going along. It's really energising, because you have to think pretty hard about what you're going to do next."
'The clock is ticking'
When I ask if she will return to the world of the MaddAddamites, she says, "I don't really feel there's time in my life to do that." Atwood, now 73, has been forced to prioritise her work in a new way.
“Let’s be realistic,” she says. “The clock is ticking. How old are you? Thirty-eight? Well, wait 20 years and then you will see that you do in fact start thinking like this. I ask how much time do I have. I’ll probably still be ambulatory for another 10 years at least. I might have my mind in its current form for a discernible period of time. But not an infinite period of time.”
Does this awareness affect her work in other ways? “I think I’m working faster.”
Atwood is working on three projects, but won’t give details.
She will never be pinned down to one form or genre. “They all appeal to different parts of me. You have different intentions in different forms of writing. I’ve always been a multiple-form writer. I started in high school writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction prose. Some of the things I’ve done are just work, like certain kinds of television writing I’ve done. Some things are just play, like [writing ballads for family birthdays]. And some things are more serious enterprises.”
She's not alone in this. "Look at what Jonathan Swift actually wrote," she says. "Quite a lot of very different things. Some of them very serious stuff. A Modest Proposal – a piece of satire with a very serious intention. Gulliver's Travels – some of it's satire, some of it's just japing around, some of it's an exploration of the human condition. People have different interests and aptitudes. So why limit yourself artificially?"
Margaret Atwood will speak at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire today as part of the Mountains to Sea festival. MaddAddam is published by Bloomsbury
Dark futures: Atwood's dystopias
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
The US has become the theocratic Republic of Gilead, where fertile single women are forced to bear children for the regime's elite.
The MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013)
With its feral cities and all-powerful corporations, this future America is already nightmarish before a plague wipes out most of humanity.
This online novel is set in a future in which private prisons provide the unsettling solution to the planet's overcrowding and unemployment problems.
The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home (2012-2013)
A strange plague has left much of humanity craving human flesh, but there are refuges where people can commit their infected relatives.