"Every Time Technology Changes, It Changes What People in the Plot Can Do." An Interview With Margaret Atwood

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 30, 2012

From The News Desk

With apologies to the Dos Equis man, Margaret Atwood might be the most interesting woman in the world.

Yes, that Margaret Atwood. The one who is 72, lives in Canada and has written more than 50 novels, including classics like "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin".

From the outside everything about Atwood would lead you to expect she'd be fearful of the Web's impact on reading, writing, and publishing. For starters, she's an established author at the height of her career, and typically those who've made it in an old system are against its destruction. Top literary figures also tend to wince in the LOL OMG world.

And Atwood is well known for her dystopian novels such as "Oryx and Crake" and "The Year of the Flood". They depict a world where genetic mega-corporations have unleashed all sorts of well-intended spliced monsters including gangs of roving Pigoons -- aka highly aggressive pigs with human cerebral cortexes, originally designed for organ harvesting.

But Atwood is emerging as the literary world's patron saint of the online word. She's just finished a successful campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for Fanado, a site that connects celebrities to fans. Today, she just released the second installment of a Byliner original series called "Choke Collar: Positron, Episode Two". And in November she'll start judging a poetry contest via WattPad, a Toronto-based platform for writers that she wrote a passionate defense of in The Guardian. They've received more than 2,000 entries so far.

She's not just lending her name to these projects. The winners of the contest and the most generous donors to the Indiegogo campaign get their names -- or the name of a loved one -- included in "Maddaddam", the third installment of the "Oryx and Crake" series. She retains the right to make you whatever she wants though. She added encouragingly, "None of them are dead yet." She finishes writing the book in November. (Warning to my board of directors, staff, and family: I'm going to disappear for two days when it comes out. I'm a massive fan of the series and can't wait to get my hands on the third one.)

Atwood is also an avid Tweeter, writing about her experiences for other authors in the New York Review of Books blog twice. And -- as if all of that isn't geeky enough -- she went to Comicon with WattPad founder Allen Lau. That's her above with some Klingons. Here she is with some other people, look close to see she is wearing vampire teeth.

I spoke with Atwood for an hour on Skype yesterday, as she procrastinated finishing the fourth installment in a series of comics she's drawing for WattPad, and I procrastinated writing a post. (Our managing editor Nathan Pensky accepted "I was on Skype with Margaret Atwood" as an excuse, after his head exploded with jealousy.)

We talked about everything from the writing process to what Amazon has in common with the cockroach to why Hitchcock had to know the latest technology.

I tried to convince her to name a rakunk after me in "Maddaddam" and she said "be careful what you wish for." I'm totally taking that as a yes.

Below is a selected Q&A. And, yes, it ends with a discussion of Atwood's mediocre super power.

Sarah Lacy: How do you think the Web is changing reading and writing?

Margaret Atwood: Reading and writing has always changed depending on how it was delivered. This is not a new thing. In the 18th century, Samuel Richardson started printing his own novels on his own printing press, and he had to deal with piracy when a typesetter stole a manuscript and took it to Ireland to make rip-off copies. People were dealing with these things as soon as there was writing.

The method of writing also changes the writing. Chiseling the story of Gilgamesh on a stone wall is going to give you something different from writing it on the Web. The medium also dictates who has the ability to read and write and what gets written.

We tend to be "Golden Age" about everything. We imagine a past about things being better, but we've forgotten a lot of stuff. Out of the Gutenberg printing presses poured lots of pornography, which we decided to forget. The classics are just the part of the iceberg that is still visible.

The point is when you make things more accessible and visible as they are on the Web, it doesn't make things a lot worse. It's just all in front of you, and you can see it.

What do you make of the hand-wringing that Twitter and texting is destroying the English language?

I don't think it is doing it to the human language. We don't go through life talking in text speak, just like in the age of the telegraph people didn't talk like telegrams. Some of it makes its way into the language like "OMG," but we saw the same thing with proofreading terms like "stet" and "ibid" or things like that.

People are always scared of new technology. On the first trains, people had nervous breakdowns, because they were going too fast. When the first bicycles came out, people were warned about getting "bicycle face." [Atwood pulls back the skin on her face to demonstrate, looking like the victim of a bad plastic surgeon.]

What people were really worried about was that it could enable sex, because you could get away from the home and parental control. There were similar concerns about the automobile. And a similar uproar was caused by the zipper. People preached sermons about the dangers of zippers. And now we have velcro! That's even easier.

Why is it important for you to always experiment with the latest technology?

Every time a new technology enters society if you are writing realistically you have to take account of that. Have you seen "Dial M for Murder"? There's a ringing telephone in it that's central to the plot. That wouldn't happen now, because those people would have cell phones. Cell phones now become something in fiction that you have to have account of. In today's world. If you are writing about a person being pursued, they are not going to use their cell phone unless they are a total dimwit. They are going to steal someone else's or obtain a pre-paid phone. Every time technology changes, it changes what people in the plot can do.

When the automobile came in, people in books weren't going to hop on a horse anymore where they?

Why are you so bullish on platforms like WattPad?

The beauty of WattPad is it enables a whole new generation of readers. And no matter what form you use, if you don't have young readers, you won't have older readers later, and the form will die out. Young people are reading and writing and spreading their enthusiasms for the form.

I agreed to judge their poetry contest which closes on October 31. As part of the ethos not to serve dinner to guests you haven't tasted yourself, I put a collection of my own poems on my WattPad page. To date it's had 63,000 reads. To have that many reads of a book of poetry in North America, you'd probably have to be a pop singer of some kind. A lot of people reading it have not read poetry before.

I have no shares, no financial arrangement with them. I do this out of a feeling that this is a site and a method of interaction that increases literacy and creates a new generation of readers and writers. (Atwood with Lau above, and her comic to the right.)

As an author who has made her name in the traditional publishing world, are you pro or con on Amazon?

Any player that enters an ecosystem like this is going to change life for other people. Some of those ways are bad, and some are good. In nature and in human societies monopolies of any kind are bad. You can just say that as a general statement.

Once you remove competition you stultify that sector. The cockroach has no competition in its cockroach niche, and it hasn't changed its body form for millions of years. Good for them, but a world filled with cockroaches would be pretty boring.

We have not reached that stage with Amazon, it is stimulating other people to change. It has made some moves that have bothered a lot of people and I expect they are doing a bit of soul searching about that. In general it's a bad idea to eliminate competition.

If you were coming up today, would you self-publish or go through a publisher?

If I were in high school, I'd be publishing on WattPad or something like it, no question. And I'd be investigating how to do my own printed books. In my generation, in my country, we did self-publish on mimeo machines or flat bed presses. It was a normal thing for young people to do and, through self publishing, attracted the attention of publishers.

But portal endorsement and validation are still important to people. Even those who achieve online success today, if they get a publishing offer 9 out of 10 times they'll take it.

There are other things publishers can do for you. When I first told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she said, "You better learn to spell." I replied, "Others will do that for me." And they do.

Okay, last question... We always ask everyone if they could pick a mediocre super power what it would be. The example I usually give is a guy, who said he wanted to be able to temporarily detach his arm while spooning with a girl.

What happens when arm gets detached? Does it go wandering off?

No, it just goes away.

That's boring. I would make it go do things.

[A long discussion ensues about being able to time travel for certain purposes, but the fact that it would alter history, and then it wouldn't really be time travel. Finally, Atwood comes up with her power....]

Have you heard of Spring-Heeled Jack? He was a 19th century bogey-man... (Pictured to the left.) He was supposed to be able to leap very high, because he had these special shoes with the springs in them. I would like to have invisible Spring-Heeled Jack appliances that would allow me to leap like a large rabbit down the street. I'm not asking for flying, just very fast leaping. And while doing it, I'd like to be invisible because I don't want the video to turn up on YouTube.

[I was so delighted by that answer that I asked Hallie to illustrate it. See below.]