Margaret Atwood was 12 years old when she began school. She didn’t attend full-time until then. Her father’s job as a forest entomologist meant the family spent the spring, summer, and fall seasons in the woods of northern Quebec. She tells her stories with a passion for nature that was inspired by those times. “That’s my whole experience, growing up amongst the biologists,” Atwood, now 82, said on a September afternoon in Toronto, the city she has called home for decades. “You cannot have the illusion that nature is separate from you.”
Recognition of the environment’s fragility in the face of human intervention has been a theme of her books, most notably the MaddAddamTrilogy, the best-selling series for novels that takes place in a world ravaged by biological catastrophe. Now, after the fifth season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale series premiered on Sept. 14, she’s about to launch a new project with a more hopeful spin: Practical Utopias, a workshop experience designed to encourage participants to imagine a better future. TIME interviewed Atwood to discuss how to achieve that goal.
You have a phrase you’ve used throughout the years: “It’s not climate change—it’s everything change.” Tell me about its origin.
It’s just history. The Mayan civilization was what? It was known that it suffered a severe downturn, and then disintegrated. However, what really happened was prolonged drought. When there’s chaos, and climate events are productive of chaos and lack of trust in rulers, you’re probably going to get societal change.
You’re credited with helping to popularize the term cli-fi,For climate fiction.
If you’re writing anything about the “future,” you’re going to have to deal with climate. You can find the MaddAddamThis was a critical consideration for series: Where is the population of the stories? Also, what are the resources of these people? Climate is going to impact everything.
Learn More The Handmaid’s Tale It was a warning. Margaret Atwood is Back with Another Three Decades After.
What is the best way to incorporate climate themes in a story, without making it seem didactic?
Climate isn’t a person. It’s a background, just as the weather and landscapes are backgrounds. They’re also always metaphors, but they aren’t people in themselves. And fictions are always about people—even if those people are rabbits or hobbits. So what you’re really talking about in so-called climate fiction is people, in a plot, having events, having emotions, having interactions with other characters, in the context of a changed climate.
What does this mean? The Handmaid’s Tale? Climate might not be the most important theme in the book for readers.
We weren’t thoroughly into it in 1985 when I was writing the book. We have some environmental catastrophes; people are sent to “the colonies” to clean them up. I have had people say, “So which are we going to get: The Handmaid’s TaleOder MaddAddam?” And I’m saying, “Well, objectively, probably both.”
Don’t scare us.
I’m not scaring you. I’m just pointing out the obvious.
Are you familiar with doomerism?
I feel I ought to have. Doomerism does not help. Study of the Black Death will let you know there were a limited number of reactions to it, and one of them was “We’re doomed, so let’s just party.” If you get too far into doomerism, the answer is going to be let’s just party—and nobody therefore does anything. When you lose hope and stop taking any positive steps to escape the doom, it is when you are done with your life.
You are not the only one who believes that young people bring them joy. Who should young people turn to for inspiration and hope?
The elderly should be their first choice. The old were the equivalent of walking Wikipedias in traditional societies before the advent of writing. It was their duty to share that knowledge with young people. But they couldn’t do that unless the young people asked for advice. Unless they want to know, they’re not going to hear what you’re telling them.
Learn More Margaret Atwood: It’s the Best of Times, It’s the Worst of Times. Enjoy It
Are you tired of asking questions about staying hopeful?
You are tired? It’s a wonderful idea. If you’d like some hope, you go to a website called Project Drawdown, which is telling us what we can do right now with the tools we already have to mitigate the effects of the situation we find ourselves in.
That information is available, and as it is available, there’s really no excuse for all-out doomerism—unless what you really want to do is party. Other ways to party are available. It is possible to achieve concrete results and celebrate by throwing a party. Is that being too positive?
I know you don’t love it when people call you prophetic, but you do have a way of forecasting future events. Has anything surprised you?
Because Chernobyl was then a mecca for wildlife-watching, we had a planned bird-watching trip all set up. Me and my collaborator—a guy called the Urban Birder, David Lindo—had it all set up, and were emailing, “Surely they’re not going to invade. Surely Russia isn’t going to be so stupid.”
What was your first gut reaction when you learned of the leaked Supreme Court opinion revealing that it would overturn Roe V. Wade?
These things can sometimes be hard to see. And there have already been real consequences—I give you the Kansas referendum. A sector of the population has been galvanized by that decision that may until that time have been saying like me with Chernobyl, “Oh, surely they’re not going to do that.” That’s when you got the backlash, and that backlash is probably going to continue on for some time.
You stirred up a bit of Twitter controversy when you posted a picture of yourself holding a mug that said “I told you so.”
Yes, I do.
Please tell me the story behind this photo.
It is quite clear. You were right. Do you think I went out to buy that mug? The mug was not mine, but it belonged to some good friends who were staying with me. Yes, that was quite cheeky. Not much Twitter controversy, really—I think those are people who have axes to grind. Rest of the participants understood the message, which was simple: This is what was in The Handmaid’s Tale, and now it’s happened. It hasn’t happened completely, of course. We don’t have outfits.
It just debuted its fifth series. The last season ended with Fred Waterford being killed by June. Did you think of this plot line when writing the book?
They were now in uncharted territory after the second season. And they did keep rule number one, which is that nothing goes in that hasn’t happened somewhere, sometime. It’s not a surprise to me. Not particularly. We saw an example of somebody being torn apart in season one—historically based. That motif was used at the conclusion of season 4. However, tearing someone apart doesn’t mean you are unchangeable.
What do you desire to see? Handmaid’s TV series end?
I have no say in the matter. This isn’t my sandbox.
Which projects are you currently working on?
We are not being too secretive. Okay, Saturday will be spent doing the last proofread for a book due out March. Wooden Babes,This is a compilation of stories. I’m also working quite hard on Practical Utopias. This is the place to go if you are looking for hope.
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