Margaret Atwood — A Living Legend on Creative Process, The Handmaid’s Tale, Being a Mercenary Child, Resisting Labels, the Poet Rug Exchange, Liminal Beings, Burning Questions, Practical Utopias, and More (#573)

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“The reason I resist closed boxes is that nature does not deal in closed boxes.”

— Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood (@margaretatwood) is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels. Dearly, her first collection of poetry in over a decade, was published November 2020. Her latest novel, The Testaments, is a co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. It is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, now an award-winning TV series. Her other works of fiction include Cat’s Eye, finalist for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; the MaddAddam Trilogy; and Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest Retold.

Margaret’s work has been published in more than 45 countries, and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize, the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Innovator’s Award.

Burning Questions, a collection of essays from 2004–2021 will be published in March of this year. Practical Utopias: An Exploration of the Possible, an eight-week, live, online learning experience, will run later this year.

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#573: Margaret Atwood — A Living Legend on Creative Process, The Handmaid’s Tale, Being a Mercenary Child, Resisting Labels, the Poet Rug Exchange, Liminal Beings, Burning Questions, Practical Utopias, and More

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear an episode about with author who, according to Margaret Atwood, is more prolific than old? Listen to my conversation with Joyce Carol Oates, in which we discuss the most important “writerly” quality, overcoming obstacles to creativity, how to know when a final draft is ready to release into the world, and much more.

#497: Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living
  • Connect with Margaret Atwood:

Website | Twitter | Instagram


  • When jumping into a new writing project, does Margaret know if it’s going to be expressed as poetry or prose? From her perspective, is there a difference in where they originate? How do these two sometimes act in synergy? [07:59]
  • How does Margaret maintain her vital life energy at 82 years young? [16:55]
  • In what way does astrology — particularly Gemini rising — explain Margaret’s tendency to “stick [her] nose into things?” [18:45]
  • The Gift vs. Trickster Makes This World. [24:24]
  • What drives Margaret’s ability to craft engaging speculative fiction? [26:51]
  • What are the downsides of raising a family in the woods, blissfully isolated from the world? Margaret shares a glimpse into her own childhood. [33:07]
  • How crossing a football field in a pink princess line dress nudged Margaret toward writing poetry for the first time. [38:03]
  • How the limited number of career options from which a young woman was expected to choose guided Margaret toward her current profession — and how long it took to start paying off. [44:17]
  • What benefit did Margaret get from writing during the time before being paid to do so? [49:44]
  • As someone who’s often found herself in the teaching profession, what type of teaching has Margaret enjoyed most? [52:59]
  • Why Margaret considers The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson to be required reading for young adults. [55:28]
  • Why Margaret resists the act of labeling that humans tend toward. [58:24]
  • What explains Margaret’s ongoing interest in dystopian — as well as utopian — literature, and what can people expect from “Practical Utopias: An Exploration of the Possible,” her eight-week online learning experience? [1:02:58]
  • Comparing and contrasting major revolutions and political upheavals of recent centuries, and what Margaret learned by visiting Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. [1:08:31]
  • How is the DISCO online learning platform that will host “Practical Utopias: An Exploration of the Possible” different from other such platforms, and what kind of problems will participants be solving? [1:12:01]
  • What readers can expect from Burning Questions. [1:14:42]
  • How has Margaret’s writing process changed over the course of her life? What does it look like these days? [1:19:24]
  • A tangent about shows we binge when our writing quotas for the day are fulfilled, an H.G. Wells story about perspective, and a Twilight Zone episode that (surprise!) doesn’t end well for its protagonist. [1:22:04]
  • Tezos NFTs, illustrated utopias, and inventions fitting unexpected functions. [1:24:22]
  • A spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t yet read The Testaments and doesn’t want to know what happens to a character from The Handmaid’s Tale: skip ahead to the next timestamp! [1:31:48]
  • Does Margaret do research for her characters? [1:33:27]
  • Margaret turns the tables and asks me what prompted my podcasting endeavors. [1:35:36]
  • Dictation apps, the three Henry Jameses, and confessional stenographers. [1:37:48]
  • Undertaking winter adventures at high elevations and other parting thoughts. [1:41:25]


“You bring to any book who you already are and the age that you are and the experience that you’ve had, and it’s the same for everyone.”
— Margaret Atwood

“The reason I resist closed boxes is that nature does not deal in closed boxes.”
— Margaret Atwood

“There I was in my pink princess line dress crossing the football field, and a poem occurred to me. It wasn’t a very good poem, but it was a poem. I was very excited about it. And this is how these things start. You write some pretty terrible poetry that you’re very excited about, and luckily there’s nobody there to tell you, ‘This is really terrible poetry,’ and then you go on from there.”
— Margaret Atwood

“I was going to be a botanist because I was actually quite good at it. But then along came this writing, much to my parents’ dismay. But being the bite-your-tongue kind of parents, I think they just hoped it would be a phase that I would grow out of.”
— Margaret Atwood

“Writers make stuff up. You ask them questions that essentially have no answers, but they make stuff up anyway. I’ll tell you what I made up, but it is kind of true.”
— Margaret Atwood


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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12 Replies to “Margaret Atwood — A Living Legend on Creative Process, The Handmaid’s Tale, Being a Mercenary Child, Resisting Labels, the Poet Rug Exchange, Liminal Beings, Burning Questions, Practical Utopias, and More (#573)”

  1. another great one, always fascinated with Tim’s interview with writers, because they can talk about how to think, maybe, wondering if Tim would ever think about interviewing Ann Patchett.

  2. Dearest Tim,

    I’ve admired and implemented many of your life hacks and personal growth strategies to improve both my own life journey and those of business associates. BUT… Russian aggression invaded Ukraine. Your podcast and website reach a global audience. To do and say NOTHING as a prominent thought leader disparages both you and the superficially of ‘Western Democracy’.

    Silence is tantamount to complicity. Or perhaps bucks (USD$) speak louder than lives?!?

    What say you?!?

  3. Fantastic interview. While I knew who Margaret was, I haven’t read any of her books nor watched the Handmaid’s Tale. Tim, your chat with Margaret was SO entertaining! And I love how she asked you questions too (have you noticed that about your female guests; they ask almost as many questions and those insights are fabulous!!)

  4. I was immediately reminded of this sentence that i’d just read before watching this:
    ” I want to see women and men treating each other like fellow creatures – nothing else.”
    this interview exemplified that in THE most beautiful way. I don’t believe this could have happened this way before 2018. There are moments when Tim looks more beautiful, more open, more happy, more at ease than I’ve ever ever seen him. (and that beautiful skin!). Thank you so much for showing what a breathtaking encounter can look and feel like.

  5. Tim, Hi. I’m currently in Ukraine. I work for UNICEF. I have been speaking to hundreds of Ukrainian mothers, children and dads, hearing their stories; then sharing their stories. The bunkers, the farewells, the rats, the missiles. I thought you may be interested in a conversation on this. In this thread, I will be brief. .. You can google some of my interviews on US broadcasters. There’d be some clips on my twitter too (Moderator: Twitter handle removed per policy.)
    Tim, I have long enjoyed your interview technique, passion, and thinking — hence, this random idea that you may be interested in sharing people’s stories from the darkness that is currently Ukraine. take care, James

  6. I’ve listened to your podcast for many years. I don’t think I’m your usual demographic- I’m a female in my late 50s. I just want to tell you, in case you haven’t noticed, you’ve changed. And for the better. I guess it’s the psychedelics. I don’t know.

    It used to be that basically you only interviewed men. A bit of an exaggeration, but not much. The tendency for repetitive “bro” podcasts with men in their mid 30s talking about supplements and workout routines held no interest for me. But you also interviewed some smart, interesting people and I would tune in, now and then.

    For me, things started to change a few years ago when you interviewed Samin Nosrat. That was an amazing interview! I was already a fan of hers but fell in love with her on that podcast. My thought after that interview was, wow, Tim actually can interview women.

    I was shocked, shocked, shocked when you interviewed Anne Lamont. I have read her for years. I could not imagine how you two could actually exist in the same room together but you did, beautifully. And then- Margaret Atwood! Wow. I love that you are interviewing older women.

    Recently I really enjoyed your interviews with Richard Schwartz, Harry Schulmann and Boyd Varty. There is a depth to what you are doing now. I’m happy you are out there, doing long form interviews, getting better and better at it and including a wider range of guests on your show.

    1. I think this is a bit unfair to Tim, but mostly agree with the positive comments. Tim is a working writer who studied with John McPhee and has recommended Bird by Bird over and over again in the podcast (though I had heard of it since it came out, it was Tim who finally motivated me to read it). Seems like a natural fit.

      But aside from that, I absolutely agree with your comment: the podcast has gotten better and better over the years. Not just more women, but more range in general. It’s the range, not the gender of the guests, that matters to me (but of course more range naturally results in more women). Every time I think I’m done with it because it’s the same old stuff, Tim takes a sharp turn and BAM! Jane Goodall interview. BAM! John Doerr on climate change. I used to find it frustrating that Tim spent so little time asking “world-class performers” about their performance as spouses and parents which, to me, was a huge blind spot. Now he commonly dives into that. I also was frustrated with all the “bro” interviews about jetting around the world with no mention of the climate cost. Then up shows John Doerr to talk about Speed and Scale.

      At the same time, there are people I would never ever be interested in (mostly business people and investors like Ricardo Semler or Morgan Housel; or Dorian Yates – never would have expected that to be interesting but my wife and I both loved that one), but because I was bored and subscribed, I gave them a listen and am richer for it. So I really appreciate it when Tim takes on topics in my normal range (climate, environment, writing), but also ones that are way outside my interests that sometimes just open a new vista.

      If I had an “ask” for Tim, it would be simply this: keep expanding, keep exploring. If you’re getting bored with a topic, your listeners probably are too. And if you do feel burned out, switch to once a month. Better to do one interview per month that really engages you, because I think that comes through and it will engage us. But please don’t quit entirely. I really appreciate having this in my podcast feed and would miss it tremendously if it were gone.

  7. What an amazing and inspiring woman…Thank you Tim for so many wonderful interviews.

    I hear you speak of having children soon and possibly looking to move (you mentioned upstate NY) On this large forum I hesitate to encourage even more climate migration into our beautiful state but you may want to investigate the Northeast Kingdom of VT. Gorgeous area with broad minded forward thinking folks…still some large tracts of land…remote feeling and yet within a few hours of Burlington, Montreal and Boston.

  8. This was great. I really enjoy Tim’s interviews with writers, but Margaret Atwood was especially fun. Interesting character and interesting interview. If you like author interviews, the interviews with Michael Lewis, Chuck Palahniuk and Annie Lamott were also good, but this one was the best.

    I’m reading a book on the cultural history of walking by Rebecca Solnit and I would love to hear an interview with her. Her work is wide-ranging and interesting and I bet she would be a great interview (I say having read one article and half a book by here, but she would be very high on my list). Also Nick Harkaway and Marie Howe, but if I start down that road, I’ll have a list of 100 authors I would like to hear interviewed.

    Finally, an offhand comment in this podcast sent me way down the rabbit hole, but in a good way. Tim told Margaret he was thinking of moving out to “the woods” and asked whether she had any thoughts, and mostly she didn’t. Nineteen years ago, I moved from the Bay Area to a place an hour from a grocery store or good high-speed internet and two hours from the nearest big box store or regional airport, surrounded by national forest and national park. I thought, “Well, I have some thoughts about that.” I started writing a comment to post here… but now it’s well over 10,000 words and probably not destined to leave my hard drive for years. A lot to digest.

    Trying my best to stay brief, on the negative end, it’s not great for a single person who wants to be unsingle. If you have small kids, plan on a lot of time with your kid since he or she will have no friends in easy visiting distance. If you don’t home school, count on a lot of driving.

    On the positive end, skipping rambling philosophical ruminations, my guess, watching people come and go, is to say that about 80% of the people who think they will like it do like it. 20% realize it just isn’t for them. So if you think you would like it, the odds are good. In some cases, one spouse likes it and the other doesn’t, which can cause tension. A young kid who lives here sometimes asks if they can move to the city where he could, for example, play baseball. But then he gets obsessed with something like rock climbing and wants to stay because here he can climb after school. Tough to know which way things will break.

    As for the more philosophical, meditative account of what it’s like and why I like it… I don’t know how to say that in a blog comment. Suffice it to say that it has brought me great happiness and I have no interest in moving back to a town.

  9. Thank you for this. I always enjoy your interviews with writers (plus all the other ones) but I especially like learning more about Margaret. It inspires me to keep going in my writing. Curious if you are familiar with the work of Jimmy Santiago Baca and his story. Talk about writing transformation–incredible.