Margaret Atwood on how to be a creative risk-taker

“Fiction is based on truth. What else could it be based on? We mix and match. It’s like Mr. Potato Head. The basic potato is reality”

Margaret Atwood

“What you do is you walk to the riverbank and try to see where the stones are. Then you get in your canoe and you go.” (Portrait by Bernd Thissen/Alamy)

With her 16th novel, The Heart Goes Last, hitting bookshelves, Margaret Atwood talks with Courtney Shea about her creative process, how to give and receive good feedback, the dystopic undertones of the 2008 financial crisis, and the sex-robots of the near future:

You’ve said before that you are drawn to projects that “sanity and reason tell [you] not to write.” Has it always been that way?

Oh, definitely. I think it goes back to the fact that I never liked colouring books where the picture was already drawn and all you did was colour it in. As a child, I found that very boring. The sane, rational projects are the ones where you already know what they’re going to be, and you’re just colouring them in. If you’re drawn to the other kind of project, there’s an element of risk and surprise. It keeps you awake. People who want a stable, rational life do not become writers—they become actuaries.

When you’re starting a new idea and hitting snags early on—how do you know when to keep working on it and when to call it a day?

Are you writing a novel?

I’m not, but your insights into the creative process might apply to our business-minded readers.

I think that if you’re a risk-taking individual, you know that you don’t know which pursuits are going to work out. Have you ever done whitewater canoeing? What you do is you walk the river­bank and try to see where the stones are. You’ve made some educated guesses ahead of time, but then you get in your canoe and you go.

Is receiving feedback something you’re good at or gotten better at over the course of your career?

I used to be an editor as well as a writer, so I have given a lot of feedback, and I know there are good and bad ways. The bad way is to say, “This is rotten.” The good way is, “If we just tried it this way, don’t you think it could be better?” In business, you’ll have bosses who say, “please don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution.” That’s a good rule.

Does your reputation—being Margaret Atwood—ever feel like a lot to live up to?

Yes. I think some people are scared of me or at least intimidated, which can make it more difficult to have a conversation.

Would you be intimidated if you were interviewing you?

That depends. What age am I when I’m doing the interviewing?

Well, I’m 36, so…

OK, so at 36, interviewing a 75-year-old person—I think probably. If I were interviewing, say, Virginia Woolf, I’d be frightened.

Your new novel is set in a dystopian society, following the 2008 financial crisis. Why is imagining our world gone to hell such an effective way to tell stories?

It wasn’t always. In the 19th century, everybody was writing utopias. In those plots, the dystopia was the world they were living in. Unfortunately, in the 20th century we’ve had many attempts at real utopia—Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, Pol Pot. They all came in saying, “We’re going to make things better…but first we have to get rid of these people.” Once we had that real-life experience, it became harder to write utopias. I think also, people read the papers—they went through the meltdown, in which a lot of people were living in their cars, if they even had cars left.

The protagonists, Stan and Charmaine, begin the novel living in their car. Did you seek out real stories from real people?

The press was full of them. You couldn’t cough without reading another story like that. [In the book], there is the television program in which people had been kicked out of their houses. Somebody recently told me that there is actually a show like that. I wasn’t aware of it, but I guess it stands to reason there would be.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

No, fiction is based on truth. What else could it be based on? We all have our imaginations. We mix and match. It’s like Mr. Potato Head. You’ve got the basic potato and then the different mouths and eyes.

Don’t forget silly moustaches.

Right. As authors, those are the variations, but the basic potato is reality.

Speaking of reality, in your novel, the characters are monitored by their government and have no real privacy. Am I correct to assume Bill C-51 has been on your mind?

It’s on everybody’s mind! Spying is as old as the Bible, probably older. But we have new tools for it. When the Internet first appeared, people thought it would make the world so much more wonderful; everybody would love everybody. Then the dark side began to appear. We now know quite a bit about the dark side. If you put something on your computer, don’t even imagine it can’t be found if somebody has that intention.

Do you think a lot of Canadians have the impression that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about?

Well, you may not have murdered your mother-in-law, but maybe you have some purchases or flirtatious emails you wouldn’t want made public. In the business world, people have a lot of stuff they don’t want others to get hold of—intentions, plans, intellectual property. Bill C-51 enables pilfering and blackmail, and there’s nobody overlooking. If I were in business, I would be furious about it.

The book also deals with the difficulty in maintaining passion in long-term relationships. Dare I ask the queen of CanLit how to keep the spark alive ?

Well, Graeme’s 81 and I’m 75, so which of the sparks are you talking about? Do you want helpful hints?

I’d take them if you’ve got ’em.

I think there are probably already a lot of books out there on the topic.

Fair enough. Can I ask about the human-like sex robots that are one of the novel’s wackier side plots?

That’s actually happening [in the real world].

Did you get a chance to see one?

I saw pictures on the Internet like everyone else. Why would I go see one? How much do I need to know that I can’t find out in other ways?

At least I didn’t ask if you’ve had an opportunity to use one.

No, it certainly would not be me doing the test driving.

Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last ($26.95, Random House), is out Sept. 29. In August, after penning a National Post column poking fun at Stephen Harper’s hair, she followed it with an article praising Preston Manning.