The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a post-crisis US twisted by religious fervour into a totalitarian theocracy. In the MaddAddam trilogy, religion is a political tool used by hypocrites for individual gain. In The Blind Assassin, one character thinks, “Gods always come in handy, they justify almost anything.”
In the light of this running commentary on organised religion, it is ironic that Margaret Atwood delivers her Guardian Live talk in a church – an irony that is not lost on the author. As members of the audience line up to ask questions, she eyes them with her particular brand of formidable twinkliness. “Testify,” she calls to them, in her dry, Canadian drawl. “Testify and repent!”
With more than 40 works, five Man Booker nominations and a win under her belt, does she consider herself prolific? She scoffs at the word. “Joyce Carol Oates is prolific; I’m just old,” she says, drawing out the last word for laughs. At 75, she says writing hasn’t become any easier, listing her main distractions as laundry and emails. She sets herself a “schedule of pages rather than a schedule of times” aiming to write three to five pages a day. “You can cheat by increasing the type size,” she says. “Then you get really motivated and feel like you’re really speeding along.”
Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, is a triumphant return to what she calls “speculative fiction”; her unique twist of fiction and science fiction, dystopia uncomfortably close to reality. The main characters, married couple Charmaine and Stan, are driven by complete financial and societal collapse to take part in a social experiment run by a private prison company called Positron.
Escaping from the anarchy outside, they alternate each month between a prison and an idyllic, 1950s suburbia constructed as a sweetener for the participating inmates. It is an unnerving, dark satire full of questions about humanity; the evening’s interviewer, British author Naomi Alderman, calls the book “good fun”.
“It is a bit dark to be good fun, Naomi,” Atwood says sternly, before continuing conspiratorially, “What we think is good fun, others might not.”
Despite her fiction being termed “speculative”, Atwood says everything is inspired by reality. “There are for-profit prisons operating in the US, though they are not as superficially pleasant as this one,” she says. “It’s all real.” In prison, Stan builds robots designed for sex called Prostibots; Atwood recently tweeted a story about a robotics company pleading buyers not to have sex with their robots. “[Humans] desire robots because we can mould them to our taste, and fear them because what they could decide to do themselves,” she says.
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