The biologists, in turn, are rather grateful for her interest. "They're my readers. I have a big following among the biogeeks of this world. Nobody ever puts them in books. 'Finally! Someone understands us!'"
In fact, the only experts she consulted for MaddAddam were hackers, who she turned to for advice on how characters might pull off secret communication in the age of spying. What's interesting, Atwood says, is that with snooping potential as it currently is - and in light of the NSA eavesdropping revelations - you can "watch people revert to older technologies, as a way around some of this." Like what?
She grabs my notebook, scribbles something down and theatrically tears it up. "It's the only safe way. Then you rip it up and burn it. Don't even flush it down the toilet, it's too risky. We have ways of opening up those toilets." As a character in Year of the Flood says of digital technology: "If you can see it, it can see you."
Atwood is a polymath. She has ideas about how to fix almost everything and takes pride in her rugged resourcefulness - unlike so many namby-pamby authors who wouldn't have a clue what to do if the lights went out. When she walks down a street, for example, she likes to point out to whomever she's with what, in the natural world, they could eat, should the need arise. "I just want them to be prepared."
Until the apocalypse comes, technology fascinates her. It's not surprising that, along with Salman Rushdie, she is among the most prolific Twitter users in her peer group. She thinks of it as akin to "a radio broadcast" rather than a method of self-promotion. "So, like the host of a radio show, I can promote other people's work." But not your own?
"I wouldn't. It becomes boring. I tweet things people have shared in that area - if they've shown me a review, it's a courtesy to acknowledge it by retweeting it. But to say, 'Buy my book'? I don't think that's what it's for any more than at a party you would say, 'I want you to buy my book, that's pounds 12 right now.' But you might say, 'See that woman over there in the purple gown? She just wrote a sensational novel, which I have read.' It's useful for that. And also for, 'Sign this petition, look at this cause. Save More Bees.' I'm very keen on Save More Bees right now."
She enthuses for 10 minutes about bees: how they feature in folklore going back to the Greeks; how for a long time botanists laboured under the misapprehension that the queen bee was actually a king, hence, in chess, the king is stationary and the queen moves around. How they buzz to "ventilate the hive", and "will sense if you're afraid or have bad emotions towards them". How they manage to be cute, even though they can sting you. Atwood looks wise for a moment. "It's because they're fuzzy."
Her capacity to absorb and retain esoteric information is a function of a ravenous intellect. (In the case of bee knowledge, it was put to good use in MaddAddam, when a character's reading of bee behaviour saves the day.) She needs a lot of intellectual movement to avoid boredom and has been known to get 150 pages into writing a novel and then abandon it because, she realised, it was a refuge from the more difficult book she should have been writing. So it went with The Handmaid's Tale - "I had a corpse immediately before writing that. Yes. And I had one immediately before writing Surfacing. And then a couple of others. I got into it a reasonable distance and realised that although it was going to work, it wasn't going to work that way. I had to go back and start at the beginning and take a different approach."
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