Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Margaret Atwood (@margaretatwood), author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels, including Dearly, her first collection of poetry in over a decade, published November 2020, and The Testaments, a co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize and 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.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: I really appreciate you taking the time to do this today, and I’m looking forward to it.
Margaret Atwood: Well, my pleasure.
Tim Ferriss: We are going to bounce around quite a bit. I will make sure that we touch on Burning Questions and certainly “Practical Utopias,” but I have so many questions about just your life and life energy, and we can come at it from so many different directions. I want to begin with a few questions if it’s okay with you, from someone on my team who is a huge fan of yours and it relates to your writing, or its creative process. And in the research that I’ve done, it seems like you tend not to outline books before you start writing them, at least the quote that I have here is “Never map it out, just get into it, jump in like going swimming.” Is that accurate?
Margaret Atwood: That’s pretty right. Yes. You have to factor in the “going swimming” part is about a very cold-like, so we’re not talking about Florida here or pools. We’re talking about screaming, run in screaming, right?
Tim Ferriss: When you sit down to write, and this is her question, one of her questions, do you know at the start whether it will be poetry or prose or a specific project?
Margaret Atwood: I do know that. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: You do?
Margaret Atwood: I actually do know that. And poetry is more likely to be written on the run or on the fly and not necessarily sitting down.
Tim Ferriss: Could you expand on that, please?
Margaret Atwood: Well, I always write poetry in something called cursive. You may have forgotten about that, Tim!
Tim Ferriss: I know cursive!
Margaret Atwood: Apparently they’re not always teaching cursive to young people, so we’re going to have a whole generation who don’t know how to sign their names. They’ll only know how to print their names. Anyway, yes, cursive, which we were all taught in school with scratching little metal nibs that you dipped in ink wells. You probably didn’t do that because they probably had ballpoints by your day.
Tim Ferriss: I used ballpoints, but my grandfather was an actual, well, he was in part a calligrapher. So I spent a lot of time around inkwells.
Margaret Atwood: Oh. extremely classy.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, very classy.
Margaret Atwood: Yes. I’ve bought several calligraphy sets intending to use them but Tim, I haven’t used them yet. But I’m going to, I’m going to. I’m going to do that.
Tim Ferriss: If we look at the poetry and the prose, do they come from different places within yourself? Do they even have feeling?
Margaret Atwood: it’s my theory, but you can’t ever test it out without great cruelty. And guess what? Cats don’t write poetry or anything else. So it has to be people that you would practice the great cruelty on. So you would have to wire up their heads and you can wire up their heads for novels, no problem. Because novels, it’s 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. So you actually have to work at writing novels. It’s called work. You have to sit down. It’s like a job. You have to put in the hours. But with poetry, it’s exactly the opposite. You don’t know when something may strike you. And that’s why poets are so annoying to people who are not poets, because they’ll be looking out the window and you’ll say, “Could you please mow the lawn?” And they’ll say, “Shh, shh. Don’t interrupt. No, no, go away.”
I mean, it can be very annoying. So we understand why poets often have quite interesting lives, but I was lucky to be able to do both. So people think I’m moderately sane in the bell curve of poets and novelists with let’s say, well, I don’t know. I mean, I guess a lot of novelists drank a lot too, but let us say that poets are often — let’s say their life trajectory is frequently more erratic than that of novelists. How can we put this gently? Oh, and especially female poets. I mean, it was just as assumed in the ’50s that they were sort of crazy.
Tim Ferriss: You don’t seem crazy to me.
Margaret Atwood: Well, I’m not. But I’m a living demonstration that this isn’t true, but it’s my theory that poetry comes from a different part of the brain and the part that’s more closely aligned to patterning, music, mathematics, like that. Whereas novels come from the part that is more closely associated with gossip, telling stories about people, telling stories just about anything, and narrative. So this happens, that happens, this happens, that happens. And that goes all the way back to, for instance, Homer. So you read The Iliad and The Odyssey, you can see that there’s a narrative approach, very useful. The Iliad starts in the middle of things and so do a lot of novels. So you’ve got several ways you can start, you can start at the beginning and go on until you reach the end or you can start in the middle or you can start at the end and then go back and pick it up.
But lyric poetry is different. Epic poetry is more like novels because it’s got lots of stories in it. So my thing about The Odyssey is that’s you know all those westerns in which they were holding the fort and the cavalry was riding to the rescue, except the people in the fort didn’t know that and the cavalry didn’t know what was happening in the fort, so you’ve got a lot of tension. So that’s The Odyssey. So here comes Odysseus, nobody knows where he’s been all these years and there’s Penelope holding out. And just as she’s about to give in, he turns up in disguise. A lot of stories involving disguise. And then we go on from there with a great finale.
Tim Ferriss: Do you feel like poetry enables you or enlivens you in a way that fuels the prose work? In other words, is there a synergistic relationship for you between having both of those outlets or vehicles?
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. So why do I do that? Because nobody told me not to. There weren’t any — once upon a time, Tim, a long, long time ago, and you aren’t going to believe this, but there were no creative writing schools.
Tim Ferriss: I believe it.
Margaret Atwood: Essentially, it was open season. You could do whatever you wanted and there weren’t people saying you have to do either this or that. There were no people like that. So we just did whatever. And it seems to have been true that I will have written poems about something. And then some years later that will turn up in some other form. So for instance, I wrote some poetry in which this character called Grace Marks makes an appearance. And then some years later, I wrote a television play about that back when television was still black and white. You don’t remember that, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t. It’s true.
Margaret Atwood: There’s so many things you don’t remember. So yeah, so it was black and white but I was using only one source for that, because this is an historical person. And the person who had been writing about Grace had got a lot of things wrong. So I did the play for television and then years passed, a number of years passed, maybe about 12 years, and there I was in Switzerland. It would be Switzerland, home of Carl Jung. And I started writing this piece of prose and I thought, so who is this? It’s Grace Marks. And she’s dissatisfied with the job I did in that play. She wants me to go back and take another look. So this time we went to a lot of sources, not just the one. And we found this extremely interesting story, because it was several stories and there was no resolution. We never actually found out through the historical record whether Grace Marks had murdered anybody or not.
So I wrote a novel called Alias Grace, and then that gets turned into a Netflix series, miniseries by Sarah Polley, and Sarah Polley is an actress, director, producer scriptwriter who wrote to me when she was 17 years old and said, “I have to do this.” She was 17. I said — but she did it, finally. She said, “It only took me 20 years.” And she did a great job of it, so that’s that story. So yeah, started as a poem, turned into a television play, turned into a novel, and then turned back into a television series. Only this time, a more accurate one.
Tim Ferriss: I’m already having so much fun. I have to ask you, I’m going to put all of my questions aside. I have just pages and pages of notes and plans and research and I’m going to push it all aside for a second just to ask, what are the things that you do, if anything, maybe it’s just out of the box genetics, you could speak to that too, to maintain such a vital life energy at 82 years young? Because I’m looking for any playbook and I don’t know how much of it is nature versus nurture, but I would just love any tips from the field because I’ve been impressed with watching videos of you certainly it’s entirely more impressive to be having the conversation with you. What are some of your other activities or things you do?
Margaret Atwood: Let’s begin with the genetics. My mom lived to 97. My dad not quite so long, 86, but my mom was very — they were both very curious about things. So there’s always something new coming along and you may have noticed that I dabble in those things from time to time.
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Margaret Atwood: Because I’m interested in them. I want to know how they work. I want to know there’s a good and a bad for every human technology that we make. I want to know what’s the upside, what’s the downside, cost benefit, but also what are people using this for? Because it’s so frequently that we invent something for one purpose and then people find a whole different purpose for it or lots of purposes. For instance, Velcro. The guy who invented Velcro had no idea what it was for, but now we know. It’s for putting on your shoes, Tim.
So curiosity — genetics, curiosity, and if you want to go to the astrology, we can do that too.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow. I didn’t see that coming, but yes, let’s go to the astrology.
Margaret Atwood: Of course you didn’t. Yeah. So what do I know about astrology? Because a long, long time ago, I was in English literature and I was a Victorianist. And one of the things that you had to know for the kind of English literature that I was in at that time, which began with Anglo-Saxon and ended with T.S. Eliot, was people’s world views. And especially as you get into the Renaissance, a lot of that — that’s what people believed. They believed in astrology, they believed in palmistry, which is connected. And therefore, it was interesting to know about things because you could see, you could, for instance, look at a portrait, a Renaissance portrait, and look at the rings on the fingers because what fingers those rings were on meant something to the people looking at the picture. And the positions of the hands meant something so like this, you see a lot of saints going like this. Let me see if I can show you. Yes. And you see a lot of —
Tim Ferriss: Palm facing in.
Margaret Atwood: Well, no, it’s the little finger. It’s the little finger that’s separate from the rest of the hand.
Tim Ferriss: What are you doing with your — oh, I see. I see, yes.
Margaret Atwood: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. We do that too, you know?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, this is the Vulcan —
Margaret Atwood: We go, “Live well and prosper.”
Tim Ferriss: Yes, exactly!
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. So our hand gestures still mean things, but our hand gestures have changed over the years. Anyway, back into the Renaissance. They believed in astrology and that’s when the tarot cards arise. So if you were studying T.S. Eliot, you had to know something about the tarot because it turns up in “The Waste Land.” So lucky me, I had somebody called Jetske Sybesma living below me when I was living in an apartment. And she was from Holland and she was studying Hieronymus Bosch, the painter. And it was her thesis back in 1969 that these funny little figures in Hieronymus Bosch’s weird paintings were not figments of his Freudian subconscious, but they were astrological symbols. So she said about demonstrating that and during the long, cold Edmonton winter nights, when nobody went out, because it was very slippery and cold and people’s car tires froze in squares, Jetske Sybesma taught me astrology and palmistry, so I know those things. So if you want to do the astrology, we can go there, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: I do well with that type of lead in. I can’t say no.
Margaret Atwood: Okay. All I need to tell you is Gemini rising and you will know what that means.
Tim Ferriss: I will not know what that means, I need a footnote.
Margaret Atwood: Okay, you will not know what that means. Okay. Very curious, Tim, very curious and a bit flighty.
Tim Ferriss: So do you identify, then, with your Gemini rising assessment, would you agree with the astrological read of yourself?
Margaret Atwood: It kind of doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. It is what it is. I just throw it out there for you because you wanted an explanation as to why I’m always sticking my nose into things and what keeps me going. So what keeps me going is you never know. And the other thing that keeps actually going is don’t open that door. Why not? I’m going to open the door.
Tim Ferriss: Is the “you never know” a reference to “why not trying something new?” Is that what that means? Or does it mean something else?
Margaret Atwood: Yes. It means that. Exactly, it means that. So just to go a little deeper into the astrology, the governing planet of Gemini is Hermes, okay? Otherwise known as Mercury. And what is Hermes the God of?
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say handbags, but I don’t have my mythology.
Margaret Atwood: Handbags, they get into it. They get into it. There’s a reason it’s — okay. Thieves, jokes, money, communications, travel. He’s the opener and closer of doors, the guarder of secrets, and also the revealer of secrets. And the only one of the gods that can go down to the underworld and return from it. So he is the conductor of souls to the underworld. And as you’ll recall, Tim, from the end of The Odyssey, when —
Tim Ferriss: Of course.
Margaret Atwood: When Odysseus shoots all these people, he shoots a lot of them, really good shot. It is Hermes who conducts these souls to the underworld. He’s what we call a psychopomp, a conductor of souls to the underworld. So people in my configuration are very interested in plumbing, the sewer system, underwear, thieves, criminals, secrets, and anything that’s buried like that. So that’s where the curiosity comes in. Let’s dig this up.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s dig this up. Well, you mentioned Hermes. And aside from the handbag reference, which was only partially joking.
Margaret Atwood: That was pretty good. Hermes governs money. I mean, it all makes sense.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. For those people listening who are offended or may, as I get it, but the opening and closing of doors, the opener and closer of doors, it made me think of a book that I really enjoyed called Trickster Makes This World.
Margaret Atwood: Great book. I know the author, yep.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, really? Lewis Hyde. So I loved that book.
Margaret Atwood: Well, have you read The Gift, his first book?
Tim Ferriss: The Gift didn’t grab me in the same way. Although I know many, many, many people who would put that up in their top three, five books in terms of influence in their lives. So I should probably give it another shot.
Margaret Atwood: Well, I think Trickster Makes This World is more pertinent to you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh. As a trickster? I like that.
Margaret Atwood: This is business that you’re in. You’re in that side of the Hermes constellation. So The Gift, on the other hand, is very useful for people going into the arts, because it differentiates quite clearly the world of commerce from the world of the arts. Although if you’re in the arts, you may get your inspiration as a gift, but at some point you have to go through the valley of the shadow of commerce to get to the other side where your thing, whatever it is, turns back into a gift in the hands of the recipient, say the ideal reader. So you write the book that’s in the world of gift. It then gets turned into this thing with pages and everything, and it gets something called sold so it’s in the world of commerce. But somebody who then reads your book on the other hand and loves it, doesn’t say, “Well, I didn’t get 22.95 worth out of this book.”
I mean, some people do, but usually they don’t say that. Whereas they might say that about an automobile that they’ve bought, “The seat belts don’t work. I want you to fix them.” You did that with things that you have bought, but things that you have received as a gift, you do not do that to. You do however have obligations towards gifts. You need to pass them on. You do not keep them. You need to either give somebody else a gift or pass on the gift that you have received in some way. So, I do recommend it if you want to understand some of the odd ways of artists.
Tim Ferriss: I did very much enjoy the sections I did read about gift economies and the circulation of gift.
Margaret Atwood: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And I do want to say though, that I think Trickster Makes This World applies to you well. And the reason I say that is there’s a term used in that book that I very much loved and I highlighted. I think the description was related to coyote as one of the archetypes here, but as a boundary walker, and I view you also as a boundary walker between the present and the possible, right? And I’ve, in the course of doing research for this conversation, read about the different ways we could look at the semantics of, say, science fiction on a say some other planet with creatures never before seen versus say speculative fiction where you’re taking something that exists or is in the process of becoming, and then taking it a few steps out.
And you seem to be a master of that, which would make you a master in my mind of boundary walking. And I’d love to hear what you think has led you, and this also made me think of how some people describe you as clairvoyant when you were discussing the astrology and the palmistry because of your adeptness in this boundary area, what types of questions or what types of structured thinking or observation lead you to or lend themselves to your ability to write speculative fiction?
Margaret Atwood: Okay. You might say and the lack of the qualities that make it difficult for me to write science fiction, which I read a lot of plus dragons. I’m keen on dragons, but I just cannot do them. So there are some things that you can do, you have the ability to do and other things that you may admire but you cannot do. So dragons outside my range of capabilities in any way. Ursula K. Le Guin has kind of sewed up dragons. She got the dragons, she got sort of the dragon franchise. Best dragons.
Yeah. So Game of Thrones, the dragons are basically sort of like bazookas, but her dragons have a great intellect and different powers and other things that aren’t usually attributed to dragons in the English tradition, but they are in the Chinese tradition, et cetera. We could go on about that, but we won’t today. Now you wanted to know why — sort of what’s behind it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Margaret Atwood: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: What’s behind the speculative fiction? What makes you good at it?
Margaret Atwood: I grew up in the ’50s as a teenager and I read a lot of those things at that time. So I read 1984 just after it came out. So I read it in the paperback version with the typically sleazy cover of the early ’50s, they put classics into these quite — what shall we say about those covers?
They made you think that you’re buying a really trashy book. So I think a lot of people got enticed into reading like War and Peace and things because they thought it was about ladies and negligees lying on beds. It partly was, but not really. So my copy of 1984 had this woman with an enormous cleavage in the foreground and a guy standing behind her, looking down her front, which does get in there a bit. But that’s not the general import of the book. So yes, I mainlined all of those books. I read Ray Bradbury a lot and you’ll notice that I ended up writing in one of his obits, I think for The Guardian. And I went to Comic-Con for the first time because we thought we were on our way to see Ray, but unfortunately he died before we got there.
So we ended up having a memorial service at Comic-Con for Ray Bradbury, one of the great inventors in several fields really. So read all of those things, John Wyndham, I was reading in the ’50s. And I think what you read as a teenage person often goes on to influence what you are then writing when you’re able to when you have these skills. So I think I had it in my mind for a while I would like to write a 1984 only with women, like that. So meanwhile, along comes Ursula K. and a number of other people that I was following. So really it’s partly what you’re drawn to and partly what you have the skills to do. As I say, I can’t do dragons.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I can’t do dragons or speculative fiction, so you have me beat.
Margaret Atwood: I can’t do podcasts.
Tim Ferriss: Well, podcasts are just ephemera in the mist. I think that your works will have much more permanence, but I can hope that someday the audio will have the same — get locked in the amber in the same way that words are.
Margaret Atwood: I’m sure it will.
Tim Ferriss: I want to go back in time from your teenage years because I’ve read about your experience of growing up in a cabin in the woods and some of the benefits of that, the lack of distractions giving you the concentration that perhaps helped you become a writer later and so on. I’m thinking about having kids in the very near future and I fantasize about living in the woods because I feel most at home in the woods. Were there any downsides would you say?
Margaret Atwood: Okay, which woods are you thinking of, Tim? What sort of woods?
Tim Ferriss: Any woods. I like varied terrain. So I would prefer something that isn’t flat, so we could think American West, we could think Upstate New York, we could think British Columbia in certain locations. I would prefer not to hear or see any neighbors. I would like to have lots of trails that I can explore with my dog or dogs or family and running water of some type and a lake or a pond, having access to both of those or one of those at least. I grew up on Long Island, more or less in the woods, and that’s my idealized version, but I don’t know what it’s like to raise kids in the woods. I’m curious if there are any downsides.
Margaret Atwood: Well, you should ask my mom, except she’s not here.
Tim Ferriss: She is not here.
Margaret Atwood: But I can tell you what she said. Yeah. She’s kind of still here.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Margaret Atwood: My mom was an unusual person in that she liked being outdoors most of the time. She was very athletic. She grew up in rural Nova Scotia. She was a big horse person. She loved horses. She had horses and she rode them hither and thither. And she was also a speed skater. And of course a skier and this kind of thing. I think she married my dad because he was a very bushy guy and he grew up in even more rural Nova Scotia, really rural. They were so rural that I don’t think they got electricity until the late ’50s. I was lucky enough to be able to see a 19th century farm operating pretty much the way it would’ve done.
I think she, who didn’t like hats, little white gloves, tea parties, any of that, she really didn’t like it, didn’t fancy it. She liked dancing, fast and furious waltzing, and things like that, square dancing, but she didn’t like the frilly part and up in the woods was great for her because she said, “You didn’t actually have to do much housework. You just swept the dirt out the door and you didn’t have to worry about all of the stuff that people have in their houses usually like bric-a-brac and china and things like that. You don’t have to worry about those. She didn’t. And she doesn’t seem to have had a problem in the woods, except my brother almost drowned once because he got out and fell off the dock. But apart from that and a few other somewhat hairy moments, it was probably safer on the whole than being in a city.
Anyway, she seems to have managed pretty well. Although some of her city friends because they were in cities during the winter. My dad was a forest entomologist. It meant he was up in the woods when the insects were doing things but as a rule, in fact, you could take it as almost a 100 percent they don’t do much in the winter, insects. Pretty quiet insect wise in the winter. They would go up in, say, April or so and they would go back in for instance, November. But this is, I think quite a lot further north than you were thinking of being in the woods, Tim. I think you’re thinking of a more southerly location.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think probably not Baffin Island or anything like that.
Margaret Atwood: No, they weren’t up there. There weren’t any trees there.
Tim Ferriss: I know. I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.
Margaret Atwood: Insects who live in trees, he was a forest entomologist, so there had to be a forest.
Tim Ferriss: There had to be the forest.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. They had running water, but it was out of a pump.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Margaret Atwood: And they didn’t have electricity, and the transportation was by boat, so no roads there.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Margaret Atwood: You could get to, I think by 1939 there was this horrible road, which I remember very well. You’d always get carsick going over it. And then you’d get to a place where you left the car and then you would get in a boat like that. Then it was during the war, so there weren’t even a lot of motor boats because gasoline was rationed, so canoes.
Tim Ferriss: I would love to hear you describe an experience that came up in my reading in preparation for this and it relates to a day you found yourself walking across a football field. I don’t know if that’s enough of a cue. But I would love to hear you expand on this because I did read about it but I feel like there’s probably more to the story. Could you please just provide some color and tell the story?
Margaret Atwood: Writers make stuff up, Tim. 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.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like my life.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah, right. It’s like that.
Tim Ferriss: It’s mostly kind of true.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. Sort of true. Your previous question, what did growing up in the woods have to do with being a writer? There wasn’t anything to do except when it was raining, except reading, writing, and drawing. There were no other things to do. No theaters, no schools, no television. No, what else can you think of? None of those things, so therefore I fixated on writing pretty early and it was a narrative family. People told stories. And my older brother was a gung-ho writer. He wrote lots of things at that age. He turned into a scientist but he was very narrative when he was, say, 10, nine.
Anyway, back to the football field. There I am having written my first novel at the age of seven. It was about an ant, some structural difficulties there, Tim, because ants don’t do anything until they’re in the fourth stage of their life. They don’t do anything when they’re an egg, they don’t do anything when they’re a larva, they do nothing when they’re a pupa, and it’s only when you get to the last part of the story that they actually have any legs. I don’t start books that way anymore, Tim but I did then.
Then I stopped writing. I took to drawing. I drew a lot. And then I ended up in high school at slightly too early an age. They skipped people then. I think they’ve stopped doing that. I was 12 and some of the people in my class were almost sixteen because they failed people then, Tim. It was a slightly daunting experience.
Tim Ferriss: I can imagine.
Margaret Atwood: But things evened out after that. Yes, I was quite short. In fact, I’m still quite short.
Tim Ferriss: I’m still quite short.
Margaret Atwood: People got bigger. For a while I was sort of normal size, but that’s no longer true. There’s all these enormous kids who drank a lot of milk with vitamins in it. Anyway, there I was in high school and I love my grade 11 teacher that would be one, two, the third year of high school. What do you call that in the States? It’s something else.
Tim Ferriss: I guess junior, junior year. What do you guys call it, fifth form? I don’t know if you use British system. I have no idea.
Margaret Atwood: No, that’s English.
Tim Ferriss: What do you guys call it in Canada?
Margaret Atwood: Well, we called it different grades like nine, 10, 11, 12 and in those days 13, but they’ve done away with that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, we would call it 11, I guess. 11th or junior year.
Margaret Atwood: Junior. My great English teacher, who I put in a book because she was so peculiar. People go back and they do documentaries about you. And usually the teacher says, “Oh, yes I could see instantly great, brilliant shone right out of her head and I can tell she was slated for greatness.” But she told the truth. She said, “She showed no particular ability in my class.” Which was true. I didn’t show any particular ability in her class and had no idea then that I was going to be a writer. Didn’t strike me until the next year when I had a different English teacher who I’ve also put into a story because she was a legend her own time. She took hold of the people in her class and she yanked them through the curriculum no matter what. No matter what, she got us through and her name was Miss Bessie Billings. And she made the immortal comment because I showed her one of my poems. She said, “I don’t understand this at all, dear, so it must be good.” Isn’t that wonderful? I love it.
Tim Ferriss: That is great. That is great.
Margaret Atwood: I started writing poetry in grade 12 and the story I tell about that is that I was crossing the football field in a pink princess line dress that I had sewed myself, a work of art, Tim. You don’t know what that is, do you?
Tim Ferriss: I can envision, based on some of the words, what it might look like.
Margaret Atwood: Princess line. It had these panels and then it sort of flared out. Anyway, it was great. Loved it.
It had a beautiful sort of button on the front, which I still have. Well I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d gone into home economics instead of the secretarial sciences, which I should have done had I known, I would’ve done that and then I would know how to touch type, which I don’t. And it’s too late now, Tim.
So there I was in my pink princess line dress crossing the football field, and a poem occurred to me. It wasn’t 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.
Tim Ferriss: What did it feel like when this poem came to you? The lie, you can tell me how much of this is sort of revisionist history and storytelling and how much of it is a reflection of your experience but quote, “a large invisible thumb descended from the sky.”
Margaret Atwood: It’s the eureka moment, Tim! Yeah, a big thumb came out of the sky. You believed that? What else would you like me to tell you that you will also believe?
Tim Ferriss: I already asked about astrology, so you got me. You can tell me anything.
Margaret Atwood: It was very interesting to me and I had been trying out these potential careers, I was going to be a painter and then I revised that, I was going to be a fashion designer and then I revised that and I went into home economics because in the textbook, it was called Guidance, in grade nine, you were supposed to decide what your career was going to be. Can you imagine? Who knows anything when they’re that old?
Tim Ferriss: Not me.
Margaret Atwood: The Guidance text had five things that girls could do and they did not include astrophysicist. Let’s see if you can guess what they were in 1952.
Tim Ferriss: I think I can, but I’m cheating. Nurse, secretary, school teacher, airline stewardess, as they were known, and home economist.
Margaret Atwood: You’ve read what I wrote. Bad cheater.
Tim Ferriss: I have. I know, I’m a bad cheater. Or a very good cheater, I don’t know.
Margaret Atwood: Well, you didn’t get away with it. That’s what was on offer and being a mercenary child, I looked at what they made because I did grow up in a family in which it was expected that you would support yourself. The home economist made the most, believe it or not, so I went into that but then I decided, no, this is not for me. I’m going to be a biologist. I was going to be a botanist because I was actually quite good at it. But then along came this writing and 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 it.
Tim Ferriss: It’s been a long phase it would seem.
Margaret Atwood: A phase. Well they did say the very practical thing right off the bat. They said, “Well, how are you going to support yourself?” I said, “I’ll get a job,” which I did. I got lots of jobs. And then my mother said, rather caustically, “If you’re going to be a writer, you better learn to spell.” And I said, “Others will do that for me.” And now we have spell check.
Tim Ferriss: All good things come to those who wait, I guess. That’s true, you were right.
Margaret Atwood: I had to wait a while.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it panned out. You wrote, if I’m getting the chronology right, you wrote for 16 years before you could make a living out of it. You had all these different jobs as you mentioned, as a cashier in a coffee shop and many others.
Margaret Atwood: Was bad at that.
Tim Ferriss: Over those 16 years, were you maintaining the belief that someday it would pay the bills and you would be able to make a living out of it? Or was it just a labor of love while you did these other things?
Margaret Atwood: Oh, the writing? You mean, did I ever think I would make a living out of it? No, people in my age group in my country at that time didn’t think that way. They might have thought that way in the ’30s and even in the ’40s where there were a couple of bestsellers written by people in our country. But right after the war, during the ’50s, a couple of things had happened and one of them was that the paperback book industry had taken off and I think started with Penguin in the UK and then it was Pocketbooks in Canada, it had some nascent book publishers, but paperbacks were not included in them. The glossy magazine market was also drying up so a writer like Morley Callaghan, who wrote a lot of short stories in the ’20s and ’30s made a living out of selling to glossies.
But that was dwindling by that time. Some of them still existed but not in the same way that they had so we weren’t really thinking in those terms and there were no agents in Canada at that time. We didn’t even really quite understand what they were. There were some publishers but they didn’t publish very many Canadian books because it was thought there wasn’t a market for them. If you wanted to publish a novel, your publisher would say, “Well, we have to get a partner either in London or in New York.” And that was easier said than done. The book publishing that had been going on in the ’30s of cheap hardbacks kind of dried up. In fact, let me just be a little more certain about that. It was gone. Having had paperbacks take its place.
It was hardbacks. And I’ve always been interested in the underpinnings to all of these things. In fact, I was associated with a small publishing company in the late ’60s and early ’70s and a lot of it was about money. How many can we sell? What can we publish to support these works of cutting edge, experimental fiction that nobody’s going to buy? What can we publish? We did. We published the first book on venereal disease, it was called VD. You know Idiot’s guides? These were sort of Idiot’s guides before there were Idiot’s guides. We got as far as warts but we didn’t get to AIDS because nobody knew about it yet like that.
Tim Ferriss: Let me hop in for just a second. When you’re writing for 16 years, not thinking you can make a living from it —
Margaret Atwood: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: — what did you get from the writing? And did you share your writing with anyone?
Margaret Atwood: Oh, absolutely. We were all sharing our stuff around because we were editing each other’s work. We were publishing each other’s work. All of the poets were connected through this kind of spiderweb network of little magazines.
Tim Ferriss: Ah, got it.
Margaret Atwood: That was both in Canada, the US, England. There were these little magazines that published poetry and people knew each other through them. The poets knew one another before the novelists did in our country. The poets were more peripatetic. They would get on the Greyhound bus and turn up at your door and sleep on your rug and you in your turn might get on the Greyhound bus and turn up at somebody else’s door and sleep on their rug. It was a sort of a rug exchange of poets. They would turn up here and there and give readings in out of the way places and some of them, do you remember? No, you don’t, sorry. Coffee shops, coffee shop readings.
Tim Ferriss: No, I know coffee shops. No, I do. I do. I have been to a coffee shop reading.
Margaret Atwood: Well a different kind of coffee shop. Let me not say shops, it should be houses. They didn’t have liquor licenses so basically people brought flasks in their handbags, pockets, and things like that. And you had the usually condemned warehouse or something and the little tables with the checkered table cloths, the little wine bottles with the candle stuck in them and the open mic. Poetry night, usually on a Tuesday.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds great.
Margaret Atwood: Down part of the week.
Tim Ferriss: That sounds like a lot of fun.
Margaret Atwood: Well, the folk singing and jazz went on on other nights of the week, such as Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. That’s how they supported the poetry meetings. We did that in the early ’60s and then the poetry reading spread to universities, some of them, and then to bookstores. They decided that they could do that too. And the big festivals didn’t start happening until the mid ’70s, I would say. All of these festivals that you see proliferating like mushrooms all around, or you did see it before COVID, they didn’t exist yet. They sprang up out of this subculture of coffee houses.
Tim Ferriss: And this is neither here and nor there but I am fascinated actually by the history of coffee houses, especially in the UK where you have Lloyd’s of London coming out of one coffee shop and all of this incredible history.
Margaret Atwood: You mean back in the 18th century.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, way back. Which I also don’t remember, to be clear, but I have read about it, and that interchange of ideas and the sort of interstitial tissue in the societal fabric of the time. But what I’d like to ask you about next is teaching and it’s clear, reading about your life, that you have taught a lot. What type of teaching did you most enjoy? If any of it?
Margaret Atwood: I always enjoyed it. I think the most intense year of teaching that I did was in Montreal. And for that, I taught, it’s a place that doesn’t exist anymore because it’s been amalgamated with another institution but it was called Sir George Williams and it was a downtown city establishment. And you taught your subject to 19-year-olds in the day and then in the evening you taught the same subject to returning adult students. That was very instructive for me. The 19-year-olds weren’t too sure why they were there except their mom and dad wanted them to and really they would rather be drinking beer or going to hockey games or something. And the adults were there because they wanted to be. Couple of reasons they wanted to be there. They wanted to up their credential but also they were very engaged and they would argue with you and object to things and really give you the old run through. And that was pretty stimulating.
I taught 19th century novels to those people and I also taught American Romanticism. And it was they who gave me a button that said, “Moby Dick is not a social disease.” They had a sense of humor. I liked them a lot. And it was very instructive because the things that the 19-year-old liked, frequently, the grownups would not like. And the things that the 19-year-olds really didn’t like, the grownups thought were terrific. Middlemarch by George Eliot, the 19-year-olds said, “Oh, we don’t like this book at all because the people in it make wrong decisions in their careers and they marry the wrong people and we’re not going to do that.” And the adults said, “This is a great book. They make the wrong decisions in their careers, they marry the wrong people. It’s just like life.” A big difference in experience. And what’s the lesson? The lesson is that 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.
Tim Ferriss: Talking about books, of course, I’ll segue to book that I’ve not read and I’d love to ask you about because you’ve recommended that young adults should read The Future of Life by Edward Osborne Wilson, if the internet is to be believed.
Margaret Atwood: Unfortunately he’s just died.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry to hear that. Yes, exactly right. Yes, that’s right. I’ve actually put a quote of E.O. Wilson, I guess, as I better know him in my newsletter, in fact, I guess two weeks ago. And why do you recommend The Future of Life? That book in particular?
Margaret Atwood: He’s a biologist. He’s a biologist. I was familiar with his work from an early period because of course he was an entomologist. He was an ant guy and my dad started out as a bee guy. And as you will know from your deep study of entomology, those are both hymenoptera.
Tim Ferriss: Of course.
Margaret Atwood: My dad was very interested in his work on ants and I read it pretty early on and I followed him along. And I was in fact, the reviewer for his only novel. And you can probably find that review in The New York Review of Books. And I was well equipped to do it because I knew about ants and the central section of that book, which is the life and death of an ant colony is the most gripping one. You think, wow, this is epic what is going on here. It’s like the sack of Troy. Anyway, so I actually knew him a bit. I’d met him. I thought he was very interesting. And he was a huge advocate for the future of life on earth. And an early advocate and a lot of the early advocates for the kinds of things that we are now very concerned about now, they came from the world of biology. My parents for instance, were early Sierra Club and early environmentalists and very clear from any study of biology, life is interconnected. You contain multitudes, Tim. Just telling you.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. I’m still investigating but yes, I tend to agree with you.
Margaret Atwood: Maybe not in the way you think. Yes. I’m sure you contain may personalities.
Tim Ferriss: Almost certainly not in the way I think.
Margaret Atwood: I’m thinking more of your microbes but never mind. You could not exist without them.
Tim Ferriss: Now that is actually something that I spend quite a bit of time thinking about.
Margaret Atwood: You do?
Tim Ferriss: The microbiome and the exobiome.
Margaret Atwood: Do you?
Tim Ferriss: I do. Yes.
Margaret Atwood: The knowledge has percolated out from the biologist into the podcast.
Tim Ferriss: Somehow. Yes, I’m not going to be writing any books about it but somehow these things do happen. And I would love to chat with you about something that I think a lot of my listeners would be very interested in. Certainly I’ll be interested in exploring a bit. And that is what seems like a predilection to resist labels or being labeled, being claimed for causes. And you wrote an essay titled “On Being a Woman Writer,” which got a lot of attention. Is it fair to say that you resist labels being labeled? And if so, why is that? How would you explain that?
Margaret Atwood: I resist closed boxes. The reason I resist closed boxes is that nature does not deal in closed boxes.
Yeah, it doesn’t. If it did, there wouldn’t have been any evolution. If it did, you and I would not exist. So everything in nature is on a bell curve. And there are a lot of liminal beings, or let’s say forms that cannot be put into closed boxes, such as for instance, the platypus.
So I just don’t like closed boxes. And labels are a way of filing people. Oh, you’re a this. We’re going to file you there under this letter. Your box is going to go there. And that’s who you are, and that’s all you are. And I don’t think that’s true of anyone. And I do think we all contain multitudes. So that’s probably why.
You can say, sure, I’m a woman writer. I’m a woman, I’m a writer, but that’s not the end of the story.
There have been a lot of women writers and not all of them are exactly like me, so we don’t — you can put a general heading over something, just as you can put a general heading over science fiction, speculative fiction, stories about werewolves, Dracula, Frankenstein, ghost stories. They’re all wonder tales. You can call them all wonder tales. So you can call all women writers, women writers, but that’s not the end of the story. There’s a lot of other things that can be added to that.
So Dracula is not the same as War of the Worlds. They’re both wonder tales, but they’re very different like that. So sure, let’s say woman writer, 82, generational, okay, country, city, height, hair, curly. That’s important, Tim.
So like that. So you can build out the picture. You can start with a few labels, but it’s not the end. It’s not the whole story for anybody. And if you’re a novelist, of course, you deal in individuals. So you’re not just doing types.
Does that make any sense to you?
Tim Ferriss: It makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense. I think that labels are also dangerous because if you assume them for yourself, you are more inclined, if you get attached to them, to want to defend those labels as a facet or as the soul entirety of your identity. And that’s, I think how we end up in a lot of the places where we find ourselves collectively now.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. Well, people attach labels to other people, and then they attack the label. And that has been going on for at least 5,000 years, as far as we know.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. A few years.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. Quite a few years. So that’s a thing that if we wish to live in a multiple democracy, we should attempt to go beyond labels. And of course, what people then go is, “Well, you’re a feminist.” And then I always have to say, “What kind of feminist are you talking about?” Because there’s at least 75 different kinds.
So am I the kind that thinks all men should be rounded up and shoved off a cliff except for 10 percent kept for breeding? No, I am not that kind. You will be happy to know, Tim, at least I think you’re happy to know.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you.
Margaret Atwood: You want to be kept for breeding, do you? No, you don’t.
Tim Ferriss: I want to be kept for breeding. Yes. Please keep me for breeding.
Margaret Atwood: No, you don’t.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe not. It really depends on how that’s all organized. Yeah. I should probably think more before I answer these types of things.
You strike me as a very joyful person. Before we started recording you, I said, “I didn’t want to bore you.” And you said, “I’m never bored.”
One might say, and again, this is applying a label, but that you’ve long been interested in what people might consider dystopian literature. You seem to be a connoisseur of possibly dystopian speculative fiction.
Margaret Atwood: Utopian too. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Utopian. Do you consider yourself, and I am asking you to use a label, so pardon me, but generally speaking, an optimistic or hopeful person?
Margaret Atwood: I think hope is built on a very fundamental level, to human beings because we get up in the morning. And if we thought it was going to be a horrible day every day, we probably wouldn’t bother doing that.
And some people are afflicted. They’ve got depression, and it’s just a horrible thing to live with. So there is a difference between sad and being depressed. So of course, I’m sad about various things, but I’m also — I’m hopeful about our species in that, although we have lots of downsides, which we know about through history and looking around you and reading dystopian fiction, we know we’re capable of really awful things, we’re also capable of really pretty wonderful things. And we’re smart and inventive.
So yes, we’re facing a climate crisis. It’s real. We are also inventing a lot of things having to do with that. We are looking at the problem, and we are coming up with solutions. And that’s very interesting to me. And it’s why I’m doing this program called “Practical Utopias.”
So the 19th century was a big century of utopias. They wrote a lot of them because they had made so many improvements already in the 19th century, that they thought, “This is just going to go on, and it’s going to get better and better and better.”
But then along comes the First World War, bloodshed, slaughter, mustard gas, and all kinds of awful things. And then along come various totalitarianisms and the Second World War. So people aren’t writing utopias much in the 20th century. They’re writing a load of dystopias. Things could get much worse, instead of things could be a lot better.
So I’m doing “Practical Utopias” to bring together a lot of this thinking that’s been going on about, not how to make a utopia in which everything is perfect. We don’t get to have that. Human beings are different, fallible, and they don’t always agree on what is better. But we’re going to have to think of different ways to live, if we are going to overcome the crisis that is facing us. And short form is the oceans die, we’re gone. Sorry. We’re going to have to deal with that, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s expand on “Practical Utopias.” So, “Practical Utopias,” and then the subheading or description, “An Exploration of the Possible.” This is an eight-week, if I understand correctly, live online learning experience.
Margaret Atwood: It is.
Tim Ferriss: How did you choose this project? Of all of the things that you could spend time on, why is this important to you?
Margaret Atwood: I think it’s important to us. I think it’s important in the general scheme of things and at the point at which we are now finding ourselves. And we know what the problems are because we carp about the mindlessly. It’s important to turn people’s minds to what can be done apart from blanket statements, like we all have to not use gasoline anymore. So there is going to have to be a transitional period about that, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Margaret Atwood: So getting people together, gathering people who know something about these fields, and putting them together with people who are knowledgeable in other fields and constructing — you know LEGO? Making a LEGO village. You know Minecraft?
So world-building in a practical way. What are we going to eat? What sort of clothes are we going to wear? What are they going to be made out of? What sort of houses will we live in? What about vertical farms?
I’m really interested in vertical farms right now. How about mushrooms? Did you know you can make bricks out of mushrooms? Would you like to have a mushroom coffin?
Tim Ferriss: Bricks?
Margaret Atwood: Bricks, yes.
Tim Ferriss: I did not.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. Yeah. You better join up. Do you know you can 3D print houses out of compressed earth in two days? Do you know that there are now prefab houses that you can erect that create more energy than they consume?
So all of these ideas brought together. And for the “Practical Utopias” is going to have to be — the solutions will have to be green. They’ll have to be cheap enough, and they’ll have to be scalable.
This is a problem-solving enterprise. And we can look at some of the things that went pear-shaped about previous attempts to make utopias. And we’re going to have to build in the social component to try to keep that from happening.
How do you take something with great idealism attached, like the early stages of the Russian Revolution, and keep it from turning into Stalin show trials like that?
Tim Ferriss: You know a lot about the Russian Revolution. What might be some of your observations with respect to the example you just gave?
Margaret Atwood: Well, it’s not just the Russian, it’s the French. The American one is a bit of an anomaly because it was not conducted in a confined space as it were. And it was a particular kind of revolution that was not so much overthrowing a ruling class from within, as ejecting a ruling class that was coming in from without, so that’s a different kind of thing.
So with the French and the Russian, they were toppling a ruling class from within. And the way that both of those things went is very interesting to me. And then you find — you reach a point where it all falls apart.
I mean, the other example of course, are Hitler and Mussolini on the right. The French and the Russian, I guess you would say, were from the left. So how do you keep those things from sort of falling apart and turning into the terror and the show trials and the cultural revolution and things like that?
In fact, one of these books — it’s not under there anymore, it’s around here somewhere. It’s over here. Great book on the Chinese Cultural Revolution by a guy who was there.
Tim Ferriss: What’s the title?
Margaret Atwood: The World Turned Upside Down. It’s by Yang Jisheng.
Tim Ferriss: Hmm.
Margaret Atwood: The most interesting part for me is how they went about toppling the Gang of Four. They actually did meet in houses and write things on little pieces of paper, which they then burned. Because they were convinced their houses were bugged, which they were. So, high drama, high drama, sort of George Smiley territory.
Tim Ferriss: You know what? There have been multiple times when you have said, “Do you remember that?” And then you said, “Of course you don’t,” because I was not alive. Who is George Smiley? I’m going to admit ignorance on this one.
Margaret Atwood: George Smiley is John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy —
Tim Ferriss: Ah, got it.
Margaret Atwood: — MI6 guy, who sets out to catch a mole from within the intelligence service.
Tim Ferriss: What was the film?
Margaret Atwood: It’s a TV series starring Alec Guinness, which is very good at it too, from about the ’70s, early ’70s. You can find it with a cursory search of web streamers.
Tim Ferriss: There’s a fantastic film —
Margaret Atwood: Depths of the Cold War. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s the Cold War. There’s another film that might sort of tie into that example, one of my favorite films actually, certainly for a long period of time, called The Lives of Others.
Margaret Atwood: Fantastic film.
Tim Ferriss: Which was about the monitoring of East Berlin residents by the Stasi. Incredible film.
Margaret Atwood: You bet. So I lived in West Berlin in 1984 and went across to East Berlin and also in Czechoslovakia and also Poland. Very instructive. You had to be quite careful how you talked to people, if they would talk to you. And those three countries were very different. So the one that was sewed up the tightest was East Germany. The one that was quite loosey goosey was Poland.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re going to be bringing your life experience, your study of history, to bear on “Practical Utopias.” How many other people are involved? What does the structure look like?
Margaret Atwood: So we’re doing it with a platform called DISCO, which is an interactive live learning platform. And it’s structured so that they give you the tools. So, you know what Substack is?
Tim Ferriss: I do. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Margaret Atwood: So Substack gives you the tools to basically publish your own newspaper. And DISCO gives you the tools to do your own live learning experience. So there are other kinds of learning experience, which are like TED Talks and things and MasterClass, which I did one of. And they’re more like films. In fact, the background of the MasterClass people was in film production, and they do a beautiful job of film producing your class.
The DISCO one is interactive, in that people join you. And there’s a to and fro. So the idea is that people will bring their ideas to add to the building of their version of a better way to live that will be green, scalable, and affordable. And they’re going to have to make practical decisions.
They’re going to have to say, “Okay, which is better?” Is it better to get your corpse disposed of by cremation? Very carbon producing. Is it better to put it in a mushroom coffin? Is it better to do this new thing that has started up in Seattle called Recompose, in which you get turned quite quickly into compost. And they’re going to have to do the cost in money and the cost in carbon and figure out which choice they’re going to make. Because there’s ups and downs to all of these choices.
So what you’re going to eat? Are you going to eat The 100-Mile Diet? Are you going to grow things in vertical gardens quite close to you? Is it going to be nothing but brown rice, the way it was in about 1973? That was very bad for people.
So you’re going to have to do the nutrition. Plus, where are you getting these things? And we are so used to going into the supermarket. Everything is just there. You know?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Margaret Atwood: So how long can that continue? And all of these things. What are you going to do with the old people? Are you going to sort of shove them out the window at some point? Or what?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I’ll make you a deal. If I am kept as one of the 10 or 20 percent of males for breeding, I will prevent them from throwing you out the window. So we can strike a bargain. Now, you have a lot going on. You also have Burning Questions, a collection of essays from 2004 to 2021, which will be published in March of 2022. Could you tell us more about Burning Questions?
Margaret Atwood: So it’s the third in the series. There’s been two other collections of essays. The first one was called Second Words, because it was mostly book reviews. Did a lot of book reviews at that time. The second one was called Moving Targets. And that took us up to 2004. And then we have Burning Questions. And to do these collections, we have to weed through an awful lot of staff, because it turns out that I write about on an average of 35 short pieces a year.
Tim Ferriss: My God.
Margaret Atwood: So you can see that adds up.
Tim Ferriss: Now, when you say short pieces, what do you consider short? What is the range of short?
Margaret Atwood: Anywhere from four pages to 25 pages.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Okay.
Margaret Atwood: Some of them are speeches. They can dribble on for a while. But some of them are — and you have to condense them. You have to take out the repetitions.
Increasingly of course, there are obituaries of people that I have known. I didn’t write any of those in the first part of my life, because nobody died that I knew. So there are some of those.
Well, we won’t go into all the people that have died, but I have written some of their obits. I wrote actually two for Ursula K. Le Guin. I wrote one for The Guardian. I wrote one for The Washington Post, and they both had to be different. But these things are very sudden. Somebody is suddenly dead, and they want you to write it right now. So I wrote one of those on a plane.
Yeah, so that’s what it is. And quite a lot about conservation issues, which have come increasingly to the fore, as usual, gender issues, and other things that you might not expect. Nor to die. I didn’t expect them either, but suddenly there I was writing about them.
Tim Ferriss: Is Burning Questions taken from one of the pieces that was included in the collection? Otherwise, where did the title come from?
Margaret Atwood: Oh, I think it just came out in the air, like a lot of titles.
Tim Ferriss: Like that big thumb in the sky.
Margaret Atwood: Like that. Yes, exactly like that. It’s suddenly just there. I think the issues that we are facing, although we have been in these very tight spots before, I can remember sitting in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, thinking that we were all going to get atom bombs dropped on us at any minute.
That didn’t happen. But I think it came pretty close. So like that, things that almost happened, but didn’t. And I’m hoping that the climate crisis, although it’s already underway, I’m hoping that it can be at least stalled enough for people to get a grip on it.
Tim Ferriss: That is certainly a subject area and a research area that I’m spending a lot of my time on as well, right now.
Margaret Atwood: Bet you are. Well, you should join “Practical Utopias.” Come and join us. You probably, by this time, have gathered a lot of things.
Every day, there’s something new that comes into view. For instance, I hadn’t been thinking at all about vertical farms. And now I am. I’m suddenly doing a lot of thinking about how — and there’s a number of companies putting this together for you. There’s a bunch of kits out there. Things like that. Did you know you can make fabric out of algae?
Tim Ferriss: I did not know about the fabric example.
Margaret Atwood: No, neither did I, but now I do.
Tim Ferriss: But it’s so funny that you mention algae. I was just going to say, as one of my examples in the last six months, is aquaculture. So vertical sea farming, and specifically algae. I didn’t know about the application of clothing. So no, I did not know that. It’s the hemp of the sea, I guess.
Margaret Atwood: Yes. Well the clothing and growing cotton, growing stuff that you make fabrics out of is pretty consumptive of energy and materials and water. So how do we deal with these things?
Tim Ferriss: I want to push back on a quote that I read from you at some point when prepping for this. And it was related to, I believe an interviewer or someone profiling you, saying that you were prolific. And you said, I believe, and this could be a misquote, but, “Joyce Carol Oates is prolific. I’m just old.”
Now, you have a great sense of humor. So I could see — I can see now, especially having spent some time together, how you would say something that — I would say that you are most certainly prolific. But —
Margaret Atwood: But it mounts up. You see, it just accumulates. So John Keats was probably more prolific, but he died young. So there’s two things. There’s the accumulation, which makes you look prolific. But then there’s the speed, the rate, which can actually be quite slow. But if you’re this old, it all sort of adds up.
Tim Ferriss: Has your writing cadence or your writing habits changed much over the last few decades? Or have they remained fairly constant?
Margaret Atwood: Of course. No. No, of course, they change. So when you have a job, you write at night. So when you have a job, when you’re a student, those kinds of things, you’re going to be a night writer.
When you have a child, when the child is small, if you still have a brain at that point, and it does come back, you are going to write when the child is asleep.
When the child goes to school, you’re going to write when the child is at school. When the child sniffle, sniffle, sniffle, goes off on its own, grows up and goes off on its own, then you’re probably, and you’re getting quite, dare I say, middle-aged. Yes. I’m going to say middle-aged, Tim. Just spitting it out there.
Tim Ferriss: I’m there already. Yep.
Margaret Atwood: You’re probably going to be writing in the daytime. Then there’s another thing that happens when you pass a certain moment, which you seem to need less sleep. So right now, I’m a procrastinating nighttime writer. In other words, I’m back to doing what I used to do in about 1964.
Tim Ferriss: What does it look like when you write at night? Is it a set block of time, a set number of pages? I know that you, as I understand it, don’t have any sort of magical talismans. You don’t have a particular writing setup that you require. But what does it in the last, just say handful of years, what does your night writing look like?
Margaret Atwood: Well, so many pages is usually how I do it. So not so much time. And that’s motivating. Because if you write the number of pages that you think you should be writing that day, you can then goof off and watch really silly murder mysteries, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Sign me up. I was just doing it on Netflix the other day.
Margaret Atwood: What were you watching?
Tim Ferriss: I was watching In the Dark, which is a series about a very attractive blind woman who is attempting to solve a murder mystery. It’s very funny.
Margaret Atwood: That’s the Audrey Hepburn plot from long ago. What is that movie that she was in?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, boy, I don’t know. I don’t know.
Margaret Atwood: Wait Until Dark. That’s what it is.
Tim Ferriss: There we go.
Margaret Atwood: Wait Until Dark. She’s blind. The guy comes in the house, is going to murder her, and she shuts off all the lighting so that she can get around better than he can.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow.
Margaret Atwood: And that goes back to, I think, an H.G. Wells story called [“The Country of the Blind”], which is a sci-fi story, in which this guy who thinks he’s pretty — you want to hear the plot?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I do. I do want to hear the plot.
Margaret Atwood: He strays into a valley in which everybody is blind. In fact, they don’t even have any eyes. They just have sort of blank spaces there and not even any sticky out things. And he decides that he can be king of because he can see. And he falls in love with a woman who says, “Yes, yes, we can get married. But first we have to get rid of those ugly bumps on your face.” “Wait a minute. I’m gone!”
Tim Ferriss: It makes me think of that Twilight Zone episode. I can’t recall the name of the episode, but it’s very sort of antisocial, I guess is a sort of redundant way to put it. But misanthrope, this man who wears glasses who survives the end of the world, and now he can be alone and read all of his books, and he steps on his own glasses at the end of the episode.
Margaret Atwood: Oh, no, Oh, no.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, sad Christmas. Yes. Well, Margaret, this has been so much fun. People should certainly check out “Practical Utopias: An Exploration of the Possible.” We’ll link to that in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast so people will be able to find that very easily.
Margaret Atwood: We had to move it along to launching in September because there’s too much input. So we just needed a bit more time. And we also decided to add a low-cost NFT. You know what an NFT is?
Tim Ferriss: I do. I do know what an NFT is.
Margaret Atwood: You do? At first they said, “Let’s do one of those.” And I said, “We can’t do that because they consume too much energy,” like a lot. So they went out and they found one that doesn’t. It consumes the same amount of energy as a tweet. And it is called a T-E-Z-O-S, Tezos.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, Tezos. Yes, I know Tezos.
Margaret Atwood: You do? What do you know about it, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I know that many creatives, artists of different types, decide to use Tezos and by extension, some of them use a marketplace called HEN. There are different tools and platforms related to this, but it is an alternative for those who are seeking a less energy intensive way of engaging with the NFT, the non fungible token space.
Margaret Atwood: What we are doing, we’re hiring graphic illustrators to draw the utopias. So each of our interactive groups is going to make choices about how their utopia is going to be, and these illustrators are going to illustrate them. And I’m going to do some illustrating of them too, because one of my background things is graphic design and comic book writing, pretty elementary kind.
So we’re going to get some wonderful illustrators, and they’re going to make five illustrations for each of our utopias. And we’re going to put them into these NFTs. And this is a whole new world for me, but one of our team members knows quite a lot about it. In fact, he is an NFT artist himself. So he just gave us a crash course last week on how this works, w hat it could look like, and how it’s all going to come together. So I think that part is pretty exciting. And I have worked with graphic artists before. They live in a wild and wonderful world. You probably know that I did what is essentially a bird conservation project called Angel Catbird —
Tim Ferriss: Yes, I do.
Margaret Atwood: — with a wonderful graphic artist called Johnny Christmas. And that was so much fun. And we exchanged ideas through drawing them and sending them over the internet. So he would send me one, and I would say, “Make the ears bigger.” Then I’d send him a cat skeleton. “This is a cat skeleton. You have to look at the skull. It’s very narrow at the bottom.” So he did a wonderful job, and I’m looking forward to seeing which graphic artists our team member, Rick, manages to talk into doing this. And they will all be in these NFTs at low energy cost. That’s the idea.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s a fascinating space. I think it’s also wonderful that you’re experimenting with some of these alternative platforms and drawing some attention to different options that people have in the space.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah, well, I’m keen on DISCO, because it allows people who aren’t in a physical space to participate in an experience that usually people only had in physical spaces. And that goes way back to the beginning of the 21st century, when I was trying to think of a way to make book signings and author appearances available to places that normally wouldn’t have them. And we did succeed in doing that. The enterprise was called LongPen, but the publishing industry couldn’t get their heads around it. So now it’s segued into a business tool with a different name. It’s called S-Y-N-G-R-A-F-I-I, and it is biometric digital signing within a video signing rim. But because we started it so early, we’ve got all these patents, Tim, because nobody else was doing it and people thought we were nuts. You’ve heard this story before. It’s sort of the Velcro story. Like, “What is this good for?”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, that’s how a lot of things start. Post-it Notes would be another example.
Margaret Atwood: Was it?
Tim Ferriss: They thought it was a flawed, doomed, failed adhesive because it didn’t work. Didn’t keep things stuck in one place. And then somebody said, “Well, wait a second here. Maybe we can actually change the positioning and there is an application. It’s just not the application that we’re used to. It’s actually the opposite of what we would normally look for.”
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. Yes. I use them a lot in novel writing, Post-it Notes with words on them.
Tim Ferriss: How do you use them in novel writing?
Margaret Atwood: Well, there’s my thing that I’m writing, and then I have an idea, so I stick it on the table.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes. The idea on the table. Well, I have been taking notes as we’ve been talking. I have so many things that I’m going you following up on, ranging from The World Turned Upside Down to of course, “Practical Utopias,” Burning Questions, this collection of essays from 2004 to 2021, coming out March 2022. I feel like we could talk for many, many hours. And for those people who didn’t catch it, not only have you produced work and written in every possible format or genre imaginable, because why not? Right?
Margaret Atwood: Yes. You understand. Why not?
Tim Ferriss: I do, because why not? You also are an inventor, because I think people may have not, just in case they didn’t get the underscoring on that with patents, this LongPen, originally LongPen, technology, allowing, I guess it would be remote robotic writing?
Margaret Atwood: Well, the physical LongPen, of course, we have an entirely digital service now, but the physical LongPen still exists. And people still want to have them, because you write on your end and the pen holder on the other end, duplicates that exactly with real ink. So yes, it’s bizarre, but it came out of the requirements of the book signing industry, because book collectors would not accept anything that wasn’t perfectly your signature. And we did these events from Australia to North America, back and forth from England. We were able to do it, but people didn’t know how to scale it. But as it is now, it’s all been solved. So you can do the digital version, but if you need the physical one with ink that can be produced, but it’s not like an Autopen. And Autopen is like a sewing design. This is every — remember cursive? Your signature.
Tim Ferriss: I do, yes.
Margaret Atwood: Every time you sign your name, it’s different from the last time you signed it.
Tim Ferriss: So I have just two more questions for you. One, I’m going to warn people ahead of time. This has a bit of a spoiler. So fast forward 30 seconds if you don’t want to spoiler of sorts. And this is on behalf of my employee I mentioned who loves your work, and here’s her question. “When you wrote The Handmaid’s Tale decades ago, did you plan Aunt Lydia’s role as a double agent, which the rest of us didn’t find out until The Testaments? Or did she evolve as a character in the space between the two books?”
Margaret Atwood: She evolved, for sure.
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Margaret Atwood: No, she’s a secondary character in The Handmaid’s Tale, and she becomes a primary character in The Testaments. And the thing about characters who speak for themselves, you’re always a lot closer to them. And they’re always more complex than somebody that you’re just seeing that’s sort of across the room. And as you know from what I’ve already said, everybody is more complex than just the sort of cardboard cutout. So the once we get inside Aunt Lydia’s head, she turns out to have quite a few more dimensions. And also it’s further along in the plot. So The Testaments is approx 15, 16 years after The Handmaid’s Tale. Things have happened to Aunt Lydia since that time. I always base things on stuff that’s happened. And one of my go-tos for Aunt Lydia was people who had been believers within a system and then change their minds. And there are a number of those in history. They’re pretty interesting.
Tim Ferriss: And how do you go about doing research for characters like those in history, or were those already examples you had in mind and therefore you didn’t have to go digging for them? Were they already references in your head, or did you do research?
Margaret Atwood: Okay. So remember what I said about being old and stuff accumulating?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Margaret Atwood: So did you have a granny who had an attic?
Tim Ferriss: I did.
Margaret Atwood: Okay. What was in it?
Tim Ferriss: I wasn’t allowed up there, so I don’t know.
Margaret Atwood: Oh, darn. You weren’t allowed up there. Oh, that’s very bad. Everybody should be allowed up into their granny’s attic once, because it’s basically a collection of stuff that just, it’s there. You put it up there because you can’t think of what else to do with it, but you don’t want to throw it out. So the inside of my head is like that, Tim. So there’s just a lot of stuff in there. And there’s also a lot of books in this house, and one of the sections is devoted to wars and totalitarianisms, and spies, and really interesting things like programs of deception in wars. I mean, I find those fascinating.
The British hired a lot of theatrical set designers to design illusions in the desert, make it look as if there were people where there weren’t people, hide their oil drums, disguise trucks as tanks and tanks as trucks. And then they switched them at night, so theatrical illusions. So I had a lot of it already in the junk shop of my brain, and some of it in the war, spies, totalitarianisms section of my library. And some of it, of course, in Shakespeare. You always go to Shakespeare. So Richard III —
Tim Ferriss: Shakespeare?
Margaret Atwood: A villain.
Tim Ferriss: Ah.
Margaret Atwood: A villain who tells us right off that he’s really bad, and now we can watch him being bad.
Tim Ferriss: Margaret, I don’t even know how to begin to close up this conversation. You contain multitudes. Is there anything else that you —
Margaret Atwood: Tim, have I confused you?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you’ve impressed me. You haven’t confused me. I think you’ve just outranked me.
Margaret Atwood: No, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: I need to do a lot more reading.
Margaret Atwood: Okay. So let’s have a little bit about you. How did you get into this? What put it into your head to do a podcast?
Tim Ferriss: Well, the truth is I wrote books before the podcast, nonfiction books.
Margaret Atwood: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So I wrote three of those, and I found the third book to be particularly difficult and it really took a lot out of me. And in the process of launching that third book, I ended up on a number of podcasts, and I really enjoyed the long form conversation. And I decided that I would take a break from writing to do six to 10 episodes of a podcast with my friends to get better at asking questions, because with the nonfiction books I was writing, it all came down to asking questions of experts at the end of the day. So it seemed like something that would transfer. So I decided to have fun, long conversations with friends to hopefully get rid of some lazy verbal ticks and some lazy mental habits as a consequence. And I just fell in love with doing it. It was for me the fun part of the research process without the writing. And I know that sounds terrible, but —
Margaret Atwood: No, it doesn’t.
Tim Ferriss: At the time, I was just so battered and bruised from my experience with this third book. And that’s how the podcast started. And now we’re almost 600 episodes in, and it is something that gives me incredible nourishment and energizes me. I was having such a, if I’m being honest, terrible day before we had this conversation. I was just having a brutal day, and the last week has been very difficult. And I feel great right now.
Margaret Atwood: Well, that’s wonderful.
Tim Ferriss: And I think that’s why I do the podcast.
Margaret Atwood: Well, I think that’s a really good reason.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah!
Margaret Atwood: So have you ever — this is completely off topic.
Tim Ferriss: That’s okay.
Margaret Atwood: Do you know anything about dictation apps in which you talk into the microphone and then it turns into text?
Tim Ferriss: I would like to start using such a program because a friend of mine, a new friend named Noah Feldman, who’s a professor at Harvard Law School, he’s just a prodigious talent and an incredible writer. And he uses, I want to say Dragon, which might have been previously known as Dragon Naturally Speaking to draft everything that he writes: articles, books, and so on. Why do you ask?
Margaret Atwood: Well, typing is hard, especially if you can’t [crosstalk 01:44:18].
Tim Ferriss: Typing is hard.
Margaret Atwood: — touch type. Especially if you can’t touch type, which I can’t, I have to look. So you know that they said of Henry James, there are three Henry Jameses: James I, James II, and the Old Pretender, but late Henry James dictated. Did you know that?
Tim Ferriss: I did not know that.
Margaret Atwood: So people used to dictate to stenographers, but I don’t think those people exist anymore. And also it would be a bit inhibiting, because there’d be another person in the room. Don’t you think?
Tim Ferriss: It would be inhibiting, yes.
Margaret Atwood: We knew a person a long time ago who wrote romance novels and also drank. And she used to sit behind a screen and dictate her romance novels to a stenographer.
Tim Ferriss: Like a confessional.
Margaret Atwood: And she would be dictating away, and she would say — no, no, she was dictating romance novels. Oh, yeah, like the confessional. The voice would come from behind the screen and she would say, “And Letitia, with her flashing green eyes,” and the stenographer would say, “A couple pages ago, her eyes were blue.” “Well, change them.” So maybe I need a person like that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So you’re saying I should drink and use some dictation software. Is that — if I’m hearing you?
Margaret Atwood: No, I’m not telling — no, no, no, no. You’re not writing flashing-eyed romance novels. No, no, you don’t need to do that. But I think if you have an iPad, I think you can do this, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Oh, for sure. I’ve been meaning to test the software. Do you use dictation software or anything like that?
Margaret Atwood: Not yet. That’s why I’m asking you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, well, I’ll test it out for you. I’ll test it. Noah is a true believer, and he is extremely smart. He says it takes a little while, we were just texting about this the other week in fact, to work out the kinks and get comfortable. But he has, I believe it’s carpal tunnel or some type of issue with his hands and his lower arms, whereby he really can’t sit and type for long periods of time.
Margaret Atwood: Well, it’s a problem.
Tim Ferriss: But he’s a true believer with the dictation software. So I give you my word, I will test it out, and I will let you know how the experiment goes and what my pro and con evaluation is.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. I do write a lot in long hand, and I can just read the long hand rather than having to transcribe it.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. I think that’s a brilliant idea. So I’ll test the software and let you know, because I need someone to hold me accountable, so I will do that. I’ll make that commitment.
Margaret Atwood: It’s going to be me holding you accountable?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I know that I’ve made a promise, and now even if you forget who I am tomorrow, I will still feel badly if I don’t do it. So I will download some form of transcription software, and I will test it out and let you know how that goes.
Margaret Atwood: Great. That’d be great.
Tim Ferriss: And is there anything else you would like to say, share, questions you’d like to ask, requests of my audience, complaints about the podcast you’d like to lodge publicly?
Margaret Atwood: Can you come over and shovel the snow off my roof?
Tim Ferriss: I would love to, but I don’t think I’m terribly close by. If I were closer by, I would be happy to do that.
Margaret Atwood: Where are you, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: I am actually in the mountains, and there is quite a bit of snow. It’s going to start snowing again very soon. And I just love it here. I absolutely love it.
Margaret Atwood: Great. Are you there to go skiing? Are you going skiing?
Tim Ferriss: I’m absolutely skiing. I’m going on a back country trip tomorrow for my first time to learn how to skin, which I have never done before, which is putting on basically almost like a shark skin condom on your skis so you can go uphill, and then you take them off and you have Alpine skiing. I’ll be doing that for a few days. And I find the geography and the ecology here to be just stunning. It is unlike any place I’ve ever spent an extended period of time. My girlfriend’s family is here. She grew up here, so that’s another reason that I’m here. And it’s spectacular. Just being immersed in enormity of nature here is calming for me. I’m reading a book right now called Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez.
Margaret Atwood: He was a friend.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, he was.
Margaret Atwood: Yeah. So one of my little write-ups in Burning Questions is Barry. Imagine that?
Tim Ferriss: He passed away so recently, and I was so sad to hear that. I had been gifted Of Wolves and Men, and it absolutely blew my mind. It was —
Margaret Atwood: Great. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It was such a beautifully written, meticulously researched book. And Arctic Dreams, of course, was recommended and recommended, and recommended. And I’d never spent time near the poles, but recently had my first trip. I was invited by a friend to go to Antarctica and became fascinated by these polar regions. And so only in the last few weeks have I started Arctic Dreams. And the permanence that he writes about and the vastness of some of those spaces reminds me in a sense of the Western United States at altitude. And they’re very different, very, very, very different, but you can get a taste of what he’s referring to in places like Montana.
Margaret Atwood: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Certainly in Alaska, you can get that feeling. So I’m happy to be here. I’m very, very happy to be here. And where are you at the moment?
Margaret Atwood: I’m sitting in my study, which you can see in the background, in Toronto, but I made it down from the woods just in time for this interview. We had a blizzard yesterday, so I was supposed to come down yesterday, but we did not take that chance and made it down, passing 12 stuck buses on the way, and made the interview. Hooray.
Tim Ferriss: You made it. Well, thank you for putting in such an incredible effort. And this was wonderful. I encourage people to really do a deep dive on everything that you’re up to, including “Practical Utopias” and Burning Questions. People can find you online at margaretatwood.ca, on Twitter @margaretatwood, Instagram, @therealmargaretatwood. And this has just been such a joy to spend time with you this afternoon. So thank you very much, Margaret, for carving out the space to have this conversation.
Margaret Atwood: And thank you. It was a real pleasure, and enjoy your skiing.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. I will. And to everybody listening, you contain multitudes. Do not be contained by closed boxes that do not conform to the greater beauty of nature, and be just a little bit kinder than you have to be. And until next time, thank you for tuning in.
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