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Novelist Atwood Imagines Dark Future in New Book

September 21, 2009 at 1:25 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with novelist Margaret Atwood about her latest novel "The Year of the Flood" at her Toronto home.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a novel take on the future. Jeffrey Brown talks with author Margaret Atwood.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a beautiful, leafy neighborhood of Toronto, Margaret Atwood tends her garden, cutting back the overgrown lemon balm and peppermint. And on this day, the world seemed more than fine.

But in a new novel, Atwood conjures up a nasty future in which a religious cult called God’s Gardeners struggles to survive amid biological experiments run amok, a diminishing food supply, and a pandemic that leads to the end of the world as we know it. The book is titled “The Year of the Flood,” part of a genre Atwood calls “speculative fiction.”

MARGARET ATWOOD, author: The only reason I use that term is that science fiction often means to people Planet X, talking cabbages, you know, very far-out things, the attack of the lizard men. And that’s not what I write.

So by speculative fiction, I mean planet Earth, technology that we have today or are developing, stuff we could actually do, things that might really — could conceivably happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Atwood is a prolific master of many genres: 17 volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, and short stories, and 12 novels, including the 2000 Booker Award-winning “The Blind Assassin.”

She’s perhaps best known still for her first foray into speculative fiction, a 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” later made into a film which portrayed a future world in which women were subjugated and some owned by men for the sole purpose of bearing children.

Her recent novel, “Oryx and Crake,” and now “The Year of the Flood,” look at what could happen as humans meddle with nature.

MARGARET ATWOOD: My material comes from reading quite a bit of what I called pop science, which means…

JEFFREY BROWN: Pop science?

MARGARET ATWOOD: … I don’t have to do the math.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your novel is set in the future, but we’re reading daily headlines about swine flu and with SARS just before that.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Was I basing it on anything in particular? No, because you don’t need to. It’s out there. The one in my book is an Ebola-Marburg splice genetic alteration. And one of the scary things about the time we live in right now is that we can combine genetic material from different species.

Blending science and nature

JEFFREY BROWN: The mix of science and nature comes quite naturally to Atwood. Both her parents were scientists, and she spent much of her childhood in a cabin in the woods of northern Ontario.

In her new novel, she takes great delight in making up names of bioengineered hybrid creatures, a peagret, a blend of a peacock and egret, a rakunk, a raccoon-skunk mix, and the liobamb, a combination lion and lamb.

MARGARET ATWOOD: It's a bit of a stretch, but it's not totally out of the question. The lion and the lamb in my book is commissioned by a religious group who's basing themselves on Isaiah, the lion shall lie down with the lamb, so they have made a blend of lion and lamb. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be a vegetarian.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oops.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Oops. Well, there are a lot of oopses in the world of biological manipulation. There's quite a few oopses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Atwood shares her concerns for the environment with her partner of more than 40 years, Graeme Gibson, a conservationist and fellow writer.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Oh, there's an oriole.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two also share a passion for bird-watching, as well as watching what's on the menu when they eat out.

MARGARET ATWOOD: When you are thinking about what you're eating in restaurants, and if you know what's on the endangered fish list, you may go then, what else? What are they going to -- what else are they going to put on this menu, the ivory-billed woodpecker?

JEFFREY BROWN: But in your book, you've created the secret burger, right?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yes, well, nobody knows...

JEFFREY BROWN: But the secret is -- the secret's what?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Nobody knows what's in it. You just don't know.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Atwood the writer knows that even if there's a message to get across about what we're doing to our world, it's the story and the style that will draw in readers.

MARGARET ATWOOD: What I'm really doing is writing a book that you can live the experience with and through and then ask yourself if it's what you would do. If it's only instruction, we get bored and annoyed. If it's only entertainment, we think the person is being frivolous. And so I leave it to you, Mr. Reader: How much do you think is enough?

JEFFREY BROWN: Ambitious in her storytelling, Atwood also thinks big when it comes to the traditional book tour. In several cities, including recently in London, she's put together a dramatic presentation of parts of "The Year of the Flood."

Here, the charismatic cult leader Adam One preaches to his followers.

ACTOR: Dear friends, dear fellow creatures, dear fellow mammals, on creation day five years ago, this Eden cliff rooftop garden of ours was a sizzling wasteland.

JEFFREY BROWN: And hymns that Atwood wrote for the book were set to music.

Forty years after the publication of her first novel, with legions of fans, Margaret Atwood has come a long way from the young Canadian woman she herself says was looked on as something of a freak.

You've talked in the past about becoming a writer at a time where there really were no role models for it.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, there were, but they were dead and in another country. There weren't any immediate ones for me. I couldn't sit down with one. In 1960, there were five novels published in English Canada by Canadian publishers in the whole year, in the whole year.

Thank you for being here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Having helped raise the profile of writing in her country, Atwood says she'll continue to raise a literacy warning cry for the rest of us. She plans to turn her latest futuristic fiction into a trilogy.