Margaret Atwood, the author of more than 60 books, graphic novels, and poetry collections, did not attend a full year of school until she was 12. Her father’s job as a forest entomologist meant the family spent the spring, summer, and fall seasons in the woods of northern Quebec. Today a devotion to nature inspired by that time is a key part of her dynamic storytelling. “That’s my whole experience, growing up amongst the biologists,” Atwood, now 82, said on a September afternoon in Toronto, the city she has called home for decades. “You cannot have the illusion that nature is separate from you.”
Recognition of the environment’s fragility in the face of human intervention has been a theme of her books, most notably the MaddAddam trilogy, a best-selling series of novels set in a world plagued by biological disaster. Now, after the fifth season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale series premiered on Sept. 14, she’s about to launch a new project with a more hopeful spin: Practical Utopias, a workshop experience designed to encourage participants to imagine a better future. Atwood spoke to TIME about what we need to do to get there.
You have a phrase you’ve used throughout the years: “It’s not climate change—it’s everything change.” Tell me about its origin.
It’s just history. What happened to the Mayan civilization? We know it had a big downturn and disintegrated; what actually happened was a prolonged drought. When there’s chaos, and climate events are productive of chaos and lack of trust in rulers, you’re probably going to get societal change.
You’re credited with helping to popularize the term cli-fi, for climate fiction.
If you’re writing anything about the “future,” you’re going to have to deal with climate. In the MaddAddam series, that had to be taken into account: Where are the people in the story located? And what, therefore, are their resources? Because climate is going to affect everything.
How do you work climate themes into a story without it coming across as didactic?
The climate is not a person. It’s a background, just as the weather and landscapes are backgrounds. They’re also always metaphors, but they aren’t people in themselves. And fictions are always about people—even if those people are rabbits or hobbits. So what you’re really talking about in so-called climate fiction is people, in a plot, having events, having emotions, having interactions with other characters, in the context of a changed climate.
How does that show up in The Handmaid’s Tale? Readers might not put climate at the top of the list of themes in the book.
We weren’t thoroughly into it in 1985 when I was writing the book. We have some environmental catastrophes; people are sent to “the colonies” to clean them up. I have had people say, “So which are we going to get: The Handmaid’s Tale or MaddAddam?” And I’m saying, “Well, objectively, probably both.”
Don’t scare us.
I’m not scaring you. I’m just pointing out the obvious.
Have you heard of doomerism?
I feel I ought to have. Doomerism is not helpful. Study of the Black Death will let you know there were a limited number of reactions to it, and one of them was “We’re doomed, so let’s just party.” If you get too far into doomerism, the answer is going to be let’s just party—and nobody therefore does anything. The moment when you give up hope, that is the moment when you cease to take any actions that might be positive to get out of the doom.
People, including you, often say that what gives them hope is young people. But who should the young people look to for hope and inspiration?
They should look to old people. In traditional societies, before the invention of writing, the old people were like walking Wikipedias. They knew stuff, and it was their job to teach young people. But they couldn’t do that unless the young people asked for advice. Unless they want to know, they’re not going to hear what you’re telling them.
Do you ever get tired of answering questions about how to stay hopeful?
Tired of? What a concept. If you’d like some hope, you go to a website called Project Drawdown, which is telling us what we can do right now with the tools we already have to mitigate the effects of the situation we find ourselves in.
That information is available, and as it is available, there’s really no excuse for all-out doomerism—unless what you really want to do is party. There are other ways you can party. You can achieve a concrete result and then celebrate with a party. Or is that too screamingly positive?
I know you don’t love it when people call you prophetic, but you do have a way of forecasting future events. Is there anything that has surprised you?
We did have a bird-watching excursion all planned and ready to go to Chernobyl in February of 2022, because at that time it was a wildlife-watching Mecca. Me and my collaborator—a guy called the Urban Birder, David Lindo—had it all set up, and were emailing, “Surely they’re not going to invade. Surely Russia isn’t going to be so stupid.”
What was your first gut reaction when you learned of the leaked Supreme Court opinion revealing that it would overturn Roe v. Wade?
Sometimes people have to act out these things to look at the real consequences. And there have already been real consequences—I give you the Kansas referendum. A sector of the population has been galvanized by that decision that may until that time have been saying like me with Chernobyl, “Oh, surely they’re not going to do that.” That’s when you got the backlash, and that backlash is probably going to continue on for some time.
You stirred up a bit of Twitter controversy when you posted a picture of yourself holding a mug that said “I told you so.”
Can you tell me about the intent behind that photo?
The intent is pretty clear. I told you so. Did I go out and purchase said mug? No, it just belonged to some friends of ours with whom I was staying. So yes, it was a bit cheeky. Not much Twitter controversy, really—I think those are people who have axes to grind. The rest of the people got the point, which was simply: this is what was in The Handmaid’s Tale, and now it’s happened. It hasn’t happened completely, of course. We don’t have outfits.
The TV show just premiered its fifth season. At the end of the last season, June played a very active role in killing Fred Waterford. Was that a plot point that ever surfaced in your mind when you were writing the book?
After the first season, they were in unknown territory. And they did keep rule number one, which is that nothing goes in that hasn’t happened somewhere, sometime. Is it a plot point that surprised me? Not particularly. We saw an example of somebody being torn apart in season one—historically based. So they used that motif at the end of season four. But tearing somebody apart does not leave you unchanged.
How do you want to see the Handmaid’s TV series end?
It is not up to me to say. That is not my sandbox.
What are you working on now?
Not telling. OK, on Saturday I will spend a full day doing the final proofread of a book that will come out in March called Old Babes in the Wood, which is a collection of stories. I’m also working quite hard on Practical Utopias. If you want to be hopeful, this is for you.
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