Margaret Atwood’s latest book, Old Babes in the Woods (Doubleday, Mar. 2023), is a collection of 15 stories—her first collection since 2014’s Stone Mattress. In it she confronts aging and grief and looking back. The long-married couple Tig and Nell appear in seven stories; the impact of World War II is felt in “Two Scorched Men” and “A Dusty Lunch”; and thoughtful and amusing themes dominate stories like “My Mother Is a Witch.”

The range of the stories is stunning: wonderfully imaginative, sensitive, wise, funny. In “Metempsychosis,” the soul of a snail “shot through the air... and made its way through the iridescent rainbow clouds and the tinkling bells and theremin woo-woo sounds of that region, then straight into the body of a mid-level female customer service representative at one of the major banks.”

“Aren’t you going to ask why I wrote a story about a snail?” Atwood asks me.

I do, and she explains, “Shape-changers in the realm of folklore are usually bears or wolves, but pretty much a snail is unprecedented.”

With “Impatient Griselda,” Atwood retells the story of The Decameron’s Griselda (an obedient and dutiful wife—ideal fodder for Atwood’s sensibility). “I never liked that story,” she says. (I’m not surprised.)

In “Death by Clamshell,” Hypathia of Alexandria speaks of her public execution: “In addition to my screams there was a great deal of harsh yelling: when participating in a homicidal mob, people egg one another on with enthusiastic shouts. You yourselves have witnessed as much at football games.” At the end, Hypathia concludes, “I try to look on the bright side. I did not have to endure the indignities of extreme old age. Which is better, I ask myself: a mist or a sunset? Each has its charms.”

About the title story, in which two sisters sit on the dock of a family lake house and reminisce, Atwood says, “It all happened. My sister thinks it’s quite funny.”

In 1985, when The Handmaid’s Tale was a bestseller, I took a course with Atwood at NYU. Forty years later, she is just as engaging and smart and generous and droll as she was then. She remembers me (flattering), and the conversation segues from the stories into a series of anecdotes. She is “definitely not in retirement,” she says, and tells me that Sarah Polley, who adapted Atwood’s novel Alias Grace for television, decided Atwood should have a cat and presented her with a kitten. “The idea was that I was reaching the rocking-chair stage, and the cat would be my domestic comfort,” Atwood explains. “Well, the cat is happy in another home—another manifestation of my bad behavior.”

Doubleday executive editor Lee Boudreaux says she’s “the very lucky one” to be Atwood’s editor: “Atwood’s team is a well-oiled machine.” In the old days, Boudreaux tells me, when Atwood had a new book, her three editors (from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.) would come together in Canada and stay in a hotel. The manuscript would arrive in a box and along with Atwood, they would collaborate.

Boudreaux became Atwood’s editor with her 2022 essay collection Burning Questions. “Everything was in place when I took over from Nan Talese,” she adds. “We know what’s on the horizon and are interested in everything that Margaret writes.” She calls the stories in Old Babes “magisterial, provocative, intriguing, and so, so funny,” adding, “Margaret has a gimlet eye. She combines the gruesome, bloody details with a sense of humor. The stories hold together as a beautiful body of work and great fun.”

Margaret is our queen.... She’s not just an author; she creates ecosystems—she creates worlds. Something is going on all the time, and people are inspired by her work.

Karolina Sutton, Atwood’s agent at CAA in the U.K., talks to me from Frankfurt. “Margaret is our queen,” she says. “She’s not just an author; she creates ecosystems—she creates worlds. Something is going on all the time, and people are inspired by her work.”

Atwood doesn’t require much editing, Sutton notes. “Her editors are basically her publishers,” she says, referring to Boudreaux, Louise Dennis in Canada, and Becky Hardie in the U.K.

Sutton says the new collection is “very personal. There’s a lot of Margaret in there. The characters in the stories run parallel with the story of her life. It’s a moving and mischievous collection. Margaret is a wry observer of life. A story may seem frivolous but will make you think, make you pause. What is life about? She knows what it’s like to be young, and what it’s like to be old. She gives it all up in this collection.”

Atwood says she wrote this collection because “I had enough stories. Once you have a certain number, you can see if it actually makes a book, and I saw that it did.”

She also tells me she’s pleased with the collection. “But,” she adds, “being Canadian, I can’t be inordinately pleased.”