'Things are worse in my books': Margaret Atwood says we'll get through this pandemic as we have before

Margaret Atwood checked in from her home in Toronto to let q's Tom Power know how she's occupying her time during the pandemic, and to share some thoughts on the role of the arts in our lives at this difficult time.

Despite being known for her dystopian fiction, the author’s outlook on the crisis remains optimistic

Margaret Atwood is an award-winning Canadian author. (Liam Sharp)

Canadian author Margaret Atwood is revered for her speculative fiction, which, for decades, has helped millions of readers understand the world we're living in and where we may be headed.

Now, with the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Atwood's perspective is even more compelling.

While the author presents dystopian visions of society in novels like The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments and Oryx and Crake — which is about life in the aftermath of a horrible virus — she says she doesn't see our current world health crisis as being all doom and gloom.

"Things are worse in my books," Atwood told q's Tom Power over Zoom from her home in Toronto where she's self-isolating with her sister, Ruth.

For younger people who have never experienced this, it must seem like the end of the world or something.- Margaret Atwood

"Anybody who's in a house, isn't ill, has enough food, has enough money to see them through, is able to either grocery shop at old people time, or have their relatives go and get them food — they're pretty lucky," she said.

"We have a lot of access that people once upon a time would not have had."

For Atwood, who just celebrated her 80th birthday in November, her perspective on the pandemic isn't unique to her as an author: it's generational.

"People of my age, in that generation, a lot of people [self-isolated]," said Atwood.

"If you grew up at a time when there were a lot of diseases that didn't have vaccines, you're used to quarantines. You remember the scarlet fever, the polio, the TB, the measles. What else? Typhoid. Diphtheria. Those kill people," she said.

"So it's not that unfamiliar, but for younger people who have never experienced this, it must seem like the end of the world or something."

Atwood recalls her own parents talking to her about the deadly Spanish flu pandemic, which spread throughout the world from 1918 to 1920, and affected an estimated 500 million people, according the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

"My mum's entire family had it in 1919. Her dad was a country doctor in Nova Scotia and she said the whole family had it: five kids, two parents," Atwood told Power. "They all survived, but a lot of it is luck."

'It has been done. It can be done.'

While there's been a lot of speculation about what the world will look like after the pandemic is over, Atwood hopes we'll rethink the status quo — for instance, where our essential supplies are manufactured.

The Trump administration recently ordered the medical device manufacturer 3M to sever the critical supply chain of U.S.-made N95 masks to Canada until a deal was finalized to ship millions of masks north of the border.

"Is it really a good idea to have essential supplies made in another country?" asked Atwood. "Do we have enough basics? Do we have enough essential food? How long can we hold out?" 

"This again is pretty familiar to people who went through World War II because there was rationing and there was a way of distributing goods so that people couldn't hoard. Is that coming down the pike towards us? Not yet, I wouldn't think, but just remember, it has been done. It can be done."

When it comes to how Canadians are and have been responding to the pandemic, Atwood says she thinks we're "being quite aware." 

"You will notice a great rise in the appreciation for health-care workers. They're very much on the frontlines and I think we've tended to just take it for granted, our health-care system. But I don't think we're taking it for granted anymore."

As for how she's occupying herself in quarantine, Atwood says she's been writing, gardening and baking bread.

"I don't think of it as dark," she said. "Writers are isolated most of the time anyway. So it's not that much of a change."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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