Margaret Atwood meets me in a Toronto cafe to discuss The Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, her latest book, but so diverse are her interests that the conversation keeps expanding, jumping from robotics to the environmental crisis, from rare diseases to (of course) writing. Talking with Atwood is intellectually dizzying. I just try to keep up.
The author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays published in over 35 countries is particularly well known for The Handmaid’s Tale, her shocking and prescient 1985 novel, which was made into a 1990 film, and her 2000 Booker-winning novel, The Blind Assassin. The postapocalyptic trilogy of Oryx and Crake (2004), The Year of the Flood (2010), and MaddAddam (2014) was widely praised for its wit and masterful storytelling, and also for the prophetic view it presented of the consequences of current environmental crisis and uncontrolled genetic engineering. “My dystopias aren’t fanciful,” Atwood says. “They are based on logical progressions from places we find ourselves in now.”
The Stone Mattress, a collection of short fiction (some previously published), seems to move away from visions of the future toward intimate tales of individual lives, like the opening story, “Alphinland,” in which a woman contemplates her life from the vantage of age and considers her relationship with her deceased husband, who nevertheless lives with her in their house. But one of the nine tales remains in the speculative fiction realm, with a keyhole peep into a nasty and brutish future. The narrator of “Torching the Dusties” is a nearly blind woman living in an upscale nursing home that comes under siege from a movement of young people angry at older generations for “killing the planet with their greed.” The Our Turn movement has already set fire to other old-age homes. “It’s a logical outcome of where our demographic is going,” Atwood says.
It might have something to do with her upbringing as the daughter of a biologist, or it might simply be the way her mind works, but science comes up frequently and naturally into Atwood’s conversation. “Let us put it this way,” she continues. “No life form can exist beyond its exhaustion of its food supply. No life form can exist beyond its exhaustion of its oxygen supply, and no life form can exist beyond its exhaustion of its fresh water supply, and all of those things are finite.” At that point, she says, “Things usually get unpleasant.”
Atwood’s scientific interests aren’t all focused on the dire. She tells me she just written a “fun piece on robotics” for the international edition of the New York Times, mentioning items on that frontier such as long-distance dildos and artificial lips. The lips are called the Kissinger. “It looks like this big Silly Putty egg but in the shape of lips, and the person on the other end kisses it and you apply your mouth to it and you get the sensation of them kissing you. Just don’t look at the egg,” she says, laughing.
Her connection to robotics will make sense to those who remember the Long Pen. About 10 years ago, wishing for a way to sign books without the grueling travel schedule and the environmental cost of an author tour, Atwood worked with a tech company to invent a device that would allow an author in one city to put a physical signature on a book for a fan on the other side of the country. “The problem with it when we first started was that the technology available then was quite clunky,” she explains. “There were no mobiles, there were no tablets, there were no iPhones, and the only thing that could be used was this HP pixel-activated large-signature tablet computer.” Perhaps for that reason, it didn’t catch on in the book world, but the technology is alive and well and in use in other industries, she says. “It’s now a mobile app you can get on your phone. In the United States, there are several banks that are using it for everything from high-end transactions to renewing your credit card when you lose it abroad.”
When we get back to the subject of her new book and her writing, other kinds of science continue to crop up. Atwood says she called the pieces in this collection “tales” instead of stories, because, as she writes in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, it “removes [the book] slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale.”
One that would seem to fall safely into that world is “Lusus Naturae.” A girl is hidden away by her family so the village won’t know that her eyes have become yellow, her teeth pink, and her fingernails red, or that long dark hair has sprouted from her chest and arms. And that she drinks blood.
It’s all very folkloric until Atwood explains that the girl has a real medical condition called porphyria. “So how likely is it that such a person would be mistaken for a vampire? Very likely. And how likely is it that the family would want to keep that person hidden? Extremely likely. It’s often what happened.” The supernatural in her writing comes from the natural. “I’m more of the Mrs. [Ann] Radcliffe school than I am of the Dracula school,” she says.
“A couple of people have said these tales are all about revenge,” Atwood adds, but there’s only one that she classifies as a complete revenge story. “The Stone Mattress” is a tale of murder set on ship touring the Canadian Arctic—a ship much like the one she and her longtime partner, writer Graeme Gibson, traveled on. “It all came out of one of those dinner table conversations in which people were speculating: If you were going to kill somebody on this boat and get away with it, how would you do it?” she explains. “Graeme said you’d have to do it on shore; you’d have to do it early in the trip.” Crediting him for his contributions to the tale in her acknowledgements, she affectionately notes that he has “always had a devious mind.”
“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth,” which was written for the Walrus, a Canadian magazine, in 2012, brings the notorious Zenia from Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride back from the dead. “John Keats was right when he said Shakespeare got as much pleasure out of writing about Iago, a very bad person, as he did about Imogen, a very good person, and I would venture to say probably more,” Atwood says, “Villains have a lot of narrative energy, and in fact, you can’t get a story going without an energetic character of some kind like that in it.”
Atwood will be 75 this November. Many of the characters in these tales are of her generation and are looking back on their lives. “As one does,” she says. “The difference between writing a young character of, say, 18 years old and an older character is that you have a much larger [personal] canvas if the character is older.”
If she spends time looking back herself, it doesn’t seem to interfere with the time and energy she spends moving forward with new projects. She is active on Twitter, with 509,000 followers.
Currently, she is working on turning four installments of a serialized online story she called “Positron” into a regular novel. She has also been commissioned by Penguin Random House’s Hogarth imprint to revisit Shakespeare’s The Tempest for a project marking the 400th anniversary of his death. It is not a retelling, she cautions: “I would never dare rewrite a single line of the Bard.”
How do you revisit without retelling? “You’ll find out,” she says.