And then, presumably, you're so relieved the book's working, you don't find the material scary any more. "That's right. That's exactly right."
The Handmaid's Tale was in some ways her first foray into science fiction, and generated an interesting response. Beyond its literary merits, women lauded it for its feminism, and it appealed to a lot of male readers for the "constructed world" aspect. "They like blueprints of made-up places. It's not that women don't, but that engineering thing, 'How would I arrange the space? OK, what about the weapons, how would I do that?' If there's an underground in it and some warfare, men get into that." (It also triggered an amount of hate mail from religious groups, who, she says, you'd think would have more sense than to align themselves with the fundamentalists in the book).
Atwood has always written about monsters, of one kind or another. In
This interest is something she has, at times, suspected her agents think "is beneath my dignity". Nonetheless, as with so many things, she has given the undead a great deal of thought. "There's a difference between werewolves and vampires on the one hand, and zombies on the other. Zombies are always in a group; it's never just one. Whereas Dracula, although he's made a few others, they're fairly singular. Vampires are always rich, because they've lived a long time and accumulated stuff. They tend to be aristocratic. Vampires get the joy of flying around and living forever, werewolves get the joy of animal spirits. But zombies, they're not rich, or aristocratic, they shuffle around. They're a group phenomenon, they're not very fast, they're quite sickly. So what's the pleasure of being one?"
She regards me expectantly. Is there a pleasure?
A triumphant look. "You have no responsibility! It's not your fault, you can do nothing. Don't expect anything from me, I'm just trying to shuffle. They've had to speed them up a bit."
In World War Z they swarm.
"Right. They've had to speed them up because it was getting too boring."
These days, for Atwood, the most pressing question is one of time. The major downside of her success is that she is asked to lend her voice to a lot of laudable causes that take her away from her writing. She was sufficiently up against deadline with MaddAddam to have finished it on a train. "It's a consciousness of the clock ticking. So am I going to do anything that big again? Probably not. Whereas if I were 40 I would say, 'Of course!'"
When Atwood started writing, she was subject to public rebuke for trying to run a family at the same time, and elements of that debate have failed to move on. For goodness' sake, she says, why do people constantly fuss around these issues. "Who's making up the obligations, number one? Who said you have to do it, number two? Who says you have to be a writer, number three? No one's holding a gun to your head. Who says who says who says?"
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