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In her new stories, Atwood has characters modeled after herself and her partner

Writer Margaret Atwood attends the 2019 NYWIFT Muse Awards at the New York Hilton Midtown on December 10, 2019 in New York City.
Lars Niki
/
Getty Images for New York Women
Writer Margaret Atwood attends the 2019 NYWIFT Muse Awards at the New York Hilton Midtown on December 10, 2019 in New York City.

Updated March 8, 2023 at 4:57 PM ET

The 83-year-old Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is a keen observer of life.

"Old Babes in the Wood" by Margaret Atwood.
/ Courtesy of Doubleday
/
Courtesy of Doubleday
"Old Babes in the Wood" by Margaret Atwood.

"Storytelling is what human beings do. And every single person you will ever meet has got 'a story of my life,' which they're constantly revising," Atwood tells Morning Edition host Leila Fadel.

In her latest short story collection, "Old Babes in the Wood," Atwood writes about the pleasures of human connection and the trials of aging and dementia.

She also explores the fantastical, with stories of the discomfort of a snail being transformed into a human body and a mother who uses witchcraft to ward off trouble.

Atwood is perhaps best known for her 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, set in a patriarchal, totalitarian state known as the Republic of Gilead.

One of her new short stories has eerie parallels, but this time women are responsible and control the future of all. It's called "FreeForAll," and Atwood says she wrote it years ago during the first wave of AIDS.

"The solution that society has come up with is that you would have to have arranged marriages, and you would have to have sexually pure participants, otherwise everyone would just die."

The dystopian novelist George Orwell came to be a big influence on Atwood's writing. In her interview with Morning Edition, Atwood jokes: "He ruined my life when I was about 9 or 10 because I read Animal Farm because I thought it would be like the wind in the Willows and didn't know anything about Trotsky or Stalin or any of these things at all."

Orwell is featured in her short story "The Dead Interview." It was originally published in the literary magazine INQUE, which invites living writers to interview any dead author of their choice. Atwood and Orwell discuss dictatorships, sexism, class, and language imprecision in the made-up exchange.

In her decades-long writing career, Atwood has written dozens of books spanning generations. Her writing remains unsettling for some readers because so much of it is based on a certain truth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some of the excerpts include some quotes from the interview that were not aired in the broadcast version.


Interview excerpts

On drawing on her own experience when she writes about an aging couple she calls Tig and Nell

They are stories about human experience which is very complex. Everything you write is based on your own life in some way. But if you mean based on my personal life, yes, they have roots in my personal life and stuff that happened and things we did and people we knew.

We do remember in bits and pieces. Because what seems like a tragedy like Billy threw me over when I was 18 seems actually kind of funny when you're 45 and when you're 70, you might not remember who Billy was. So we were constantly altering our own story of my life. And everyone does that. So what professional storytellers do is that they simply write the things down and make them possibly more condensed, succinct and attention holding than the person sitting beside you on the bus who is telling you their entire life story from beginning to end, full of people you don't know.

On how writing about the world has changed

A lot of material differences and technological differences, and also what was on people's minds, and that is always changing all the time. Sometimes I horrify the young by saying 'Once upon a time' there were no cell phones. And this wasn't a bad thing either'. There was no social media. I remember when it came in. So going through the technologies, radio was big when I was little. Television had hit in the fifties. Movies were there. And they were pretty disruptive when they came in at the beginning of the century. So each of these technologies has a disruptive function. Things get unsettled, but then people get used to them. So we no longer sit in front of the TV with our TV trays, and our TV dinners absolutely mesmerized. We can take it or leave it. In fact, we can pick and choose, because now we've got the streaming services. I can dial these things up at will. So in 1950, we were worried about being exploded by atomic bombs. People had bomb shelters in their backyards.

In 1955, the thing to do was have a big, fluffy, pastel dress. In 1960, the thing to do is have a black eyeliner and a black turtleneck sweater, and be an existentialist or a beatnik. Fashions change. Nobody was thinking about climate change, except the biologists already thinking about it. Rachel Carson hits with Silent Spring. Then people start getting worried about chemicals, pesticides, poisons, toxins. So you can make a timeline of these concerns, interests and changes in style. But it is always changing.

On writing about the future

When you're writing a story, it's either going to be set in the present, which is never really possible, because by the time it's published, it's going to be past. So it's either going to be in the present or in the future where you have free scope. The future contains whatever I say it does. Or the past, where you have to be pretty particular about getting your details right because somebody is going to call you on it if they're wrong.

The audio version of this interview with Margaret Atwood was produced by Milton Guevara. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 15, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say Margaret Atwood has characters modeled after herself and her husband. She and her partner were never married. And the title of her novel The Handmaid's Tale was misspelled as The Handmaid's Tail.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.