1960s: The beginning of Atwood
Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born in Ottawa on Nov. 18, 1939, the second of three children. Her father, Carl Edmund Atwood, was an entomologist and her mother, Margaret Killam, was a dietitian and nutritionist. Atwood’s family spent time in rural Ontario and Quebec where her father conducted government research.
This wilderness experience shaped Atwood’s worldview and ideas on survival and nature — themes she would later explore in her literature.
The family moved to Toronto in 1946, and Atwood graduated from Toronto’s Leaside High School in 1957.
At the age of 16, Atwood decided she wanted to be a writer.
In the 1960s, she began to make her mark on Canadian literature.
Atwood’s career begins at the Bohemian Embassy
While studying literature at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s, Atwood gave her first poetry readings at a dingy makeshift cafe called Bohemian Embassy.
Thursdays were poetry nights at Bohemian Embassy, which was located in a warehouse on a back alley called St. Nicholas Street.
As performers were interrupted by the flush of a toilet or grind of the espresso machine, the early Toronto poetry and folk scene began to take form. Many performers were college students, but established poets like Milton Acorn were also in attendance. Sylvia Tyson, future Canadian Songwriters Hall of Famer, provided musical interludes on the autoharp. The fire department was often knocking at the door.
“It was the first place I ever performed or read my poetry out loud and it was almost the last because I found it so demoralizing and so paranoia-creating,” Atwood told Tyson on CBC’s Touch The Earth in 1978.
Those works eventually turned into Atwood’s first published poetry collection Double Persephone. She personally printed 200 copies in 1961, brought the collection around to Toronto bookstores and sold them for 50 cents each.
Double Persephone was awarded the E.J. Pratt Medal, a poetry competition for University of Toronto students.
I didn't have any sexist problems directed at me when I said I wanted to be a writer. Nobody said, ‘You can't do that because you're a girl.’ They just said, ‘A what?’ It was so unheard of that nobody was supposed to be one.
- Atwood in 1979
Atwood explores CanLit for the first time
Atwood began reading and seeking out Canadian literature during her undergraduate years. She credits her University of Toronto instructor, literary giant Northrop Frye, with being one of the few people she’d met in Canada who considered writing a serious profession.
“People considered [writing] either frill or decadent, one or the other, or not something you thought about,” Atwood told CBC’s Don Cullen in 1979.
University of Toronto professor and Governor General’s Literary Award-winning poet Jay Macpherson was another important figure to Atwood during this time.
Macpherson had an extensive library of Canadian literature, which Atwood borrowed from.
“She had these books and you almost couldn't buy them in bookstores,” Atwood said.
“I got through just about all the CanLit there was in those days in very swift order.... It was exciting to me because it showed me that books could be published in this country, which not so long ago, not too many people knew that.”
The 1960s would prove to be a remarkable decade for Canadian writing. It marked the publishing debuts of literary giants like Atwood, Alice Munro, Austin Clarke, Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee, Michael Ondaatje and Gwendolyn MacEwen. Small poetry presses like House of Anansi sprang up and gained prominence.
It seemed Canadian literature was gaining a foothold in the country’s cultural consciousness for the first time.
Atwood attends Harvard
Atwood finished her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto in 1961 and went on to complete her master’s degree at Radcliffe College in Boston in 1962.
“I was there at the same time the Boston Strangler was and that was exciting,” Atwood told the CBC in 1979.
Atwood started a doctoral thesis on 19th century gothic fantasy novels at Harvard, but never finished it. She told The New Yorker in 2017 that she’d pursued academia not because she loved it, but because writing still seemed unrealistic.
But Atwood’s time in the United States proved consequential in other ways — for one, it made her see Canada in a new light.
“Toronto, when I went to college here, was a very safe city. You walked around all the time. You left your door open. You didn't think people were going to drop on you out of trees,” Atwood said.
“I think three days after I moved to Boston, somebody walked into the bedroom at night. You never left doors unlocked. You never left windows unlocked… I had to learn those things very swiftly. I remember that part of it pretty thoroughly. I had fear put into me.”
It was also at Harvard where she met fellow student Jim Polk, whom she would marry. Atwood and Polk would divorce in 1973.
The Circle Game puts Atwood on the CanLit map
Atwood released her first full-length poetry book, The Circle Game, with the small independent publisher Contact Press in 1966.
The book had buzz because Atwood had been published in numerous magazines by this point.
“The Circle Game moves me, I think, because of its restlessness,” said poet Gwendolyn MacEwen on CBC Radio.
“Here, Peggy Atwood is involved in games people play — childish and adult games. I've noticed that always in her poems, when the human communication seems to break off, the characters or the figures turn to games.... It seems here that the self is examining itself in its own mirror image or someone else's mirror image. It is a circle game. There's reason in the game, I think.”
Atwood’s father, a biologist, sent her a letter when The Circle Game came out.
“[The letter] said roughly, 'Congratulations on having your first book of poetry published. I used to do that kind of thing when I was younger,’” Atwood told CBC’s Don Cullen in 1979.
“I think that was just his view — that you do that kind of thing when you’re younger and then when you get serious about life, you become a biologist. They’re still waiting for me to turn into a botanist.”
With The Circle Game, Atwood won her first major literary prize: the 1966 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry.
The book never went out of print and Atwood never stopped winning awards.
Atwood publishes her first novel
Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, was released in Canada in 1968.
A surreal “anti-comedy,” The Edible Woman follows a young woman named Marian whose engagement sets off an increasingly bizarre series of events, which include the loss of her ability to eat.
Critics in the U.S. and England praised the novel for its incisive insight into consumerism, feminism and gender dynamics.
Atwood’s very first book signing took place in the men’s sock and underwear department at Hudson’s Bay in Edmonton.
“I was there with a table with a book called The Edible Woman. The men would see this and gallop in the other direction,” said Atwood in 2000.
“I sold two copies. That was an interesting initiation.”
Atwood takes on CanLit
In 1972, Atwood published Survival, her first work of criticism. The book was an analysis of Canadian literature and an attempt to understand what made the country’s writing unique. Atwood’s thesis was that the heroes of Canadian stories tended to be victims and rarely met happy endings.
Atwood compared the animal stories of Britain, U.S. and Canada to illustrate this point. In British stories, like those by Beatrix Potter, animals are disguised versions of Englishmen. American stories, like Moby-Dick, feature animals as prey for the hunter, a vehicle for man’s triumph. Uniquely, Canadian stories were being told from the animal’s point of view.
“I can't think of any other country that has this large body of literature dealing with animals as told by the animals,” Atwood told Adrienne Clarkson on CBC's Take 30.
“That’s a real focus for the thing: Canadians on the run, Americans as aggressors and Englishmen as moving within a social order.”
Unlike her other books, Atwood described Survival as “a citizen’s duty” and not “joyful creation.”
She also published the novel Surfacing that year, a psychological thriller, which follows the unravelling of four friends in the wilderness as a nameless heroine investigates the disappearance of her father.
Atwood creates political cartoons
Under the pseudonym Bart Gerrard, Atwood started a comic strip for This Magazine, a Canadian nationalist publication she helped found and for which she’s still listed as an “editor at large.”
The Kanadian Kulchur Komics strip explored nationalist issues and gender politics through the adventures of Survivalwoman, a short, curly-haired and caped superheroine. Unable to fly and without super powers, Survivalwoman sometimes encountered fiends like Holier Pierre — a.k.a. Pierre Trudeau — who was criticized for failing to sufficiently support the arts.
There was also Amphibianwoman, a sexy francophone superheroine whose storyline was all about the Quebec separatist movement.
Atwood’s rise as a public figure
Atwood was described as “Canada’s most-gossiped-about writer” in a 1976 issue of Maclean’s.
Her reputation through the 1970s ranged from tough to domestic, outspoken to secretive — a writer who hates men and writes depressing stories about women.
Atwood once said, “I laugh at my public image; otherwise, I’d jump off a bridge.”
The novelty of a famous Canadian writer — still a fairly new concept at the time — drew journalists to Atwood’s door in droves.
They were met with a writer who often responded to personal questions with witty, cutting one-liners.
“Margaret Atwood has always had an image problem,” reporter Russ Patrick began in his 1979 segment. “Many people have thought her tough, humourless, too strident in her feminist beliefs.”
I laugh at my public image, otherwise I’d jump off a bridge.
- Atwood in 1977
Atwood takes on Canadian criticism
Toward the end of the 1970s, Atwood was invited to be a guest at Bohemian Embassy, a live event hosted by Don Cullen. It was named in honour of the poetry cafe Cullen had founded in the early 1960s, where Atwood had given her first public poetry readings as a University of Toronto student.
Cullen asked Atwood how she dealt with criticism.
“It's becoming quite normal for me to get better reviews in other countries than I do here [in Canada],” Atwood said. “I think in Canada, once you get to a certain degree of being well-known, people sort of feel they have to play David and Goliath with you a lot. Shoot her down.”
“That’s kind of sad. I’m sorry to hear that,” Cullen said.
“It's typical of small-ish countries. Australia, the same thing happens, one finds,” said Atwood.
“Canada is a small town. It’s not universally that way, but once people take that quantum leap — it happened to Marian Engel with Bear, for instance — you can just count on about three vicious personal attacks in the year following the success of a book.”
Atwood on writing about women
One of the things the public seemed to fixate on was that Atwood was a woman who wrote about women.
When asked where her literature fit within the greater feminist movement — of which Canada was experiencing a second wave — Atwood’s answers were rarely straightforward.
“Some people see strong feminist influence in [Lady Oracle] as well, though. Are they wrong,” asked As It Happens host Barbara Frum in 1976.
Atwood responded, “How did they get that?”
In 1978, France Nadeau asked Atwood if her literature could be called feminist.
“I think it can be called almost anything and has been. But, I think that, let me put it this way, it's very difficult to write anything as a woman that is authentic without having it be open to being called feminist, simply because the social position of women is what it is. You can't ignore it and if you deal with it at all, then obviously it is material for a feminist analysis,” Atwood said.
“I don't think it is feminist in that it starts with an ideology, which it then attempts to articulate. I think it's the other way around, that I dealt with situations around me, which can then be called feminist.”
People often conflated Atwood with her characters. The comedy Lady Oracle, for instance, was about a closeted gothic romance novelist whose mother abused her in childhood for being overweight. After the book’s publication, Atwood said she was often asked by readers if she’d lost a lot of weight.
In her final book of the decade, Life Before Man, Atwood writes from the entangled perspectives of two women, co-workers Elizabeth and Lesje, and Elizabeth’s husband Nate.
“I did a male character because people always think my books are autobiographical,” Atwood said in 1978.
There's something about smart women that people find frightening. In fact, I'm not really that smart, but they think that if you write books that you must be.
- Atwood in 1978
1980s: Atwood is the "Queen of CanLit"
Atwood published a book each year in the 1980s, beginning with the children’s book Anna’s Pet and ending with editing Best American Short Stories. She became more involved with the CanLit community when she served as the chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada (1981-1982) and became the first president of the anglophone chapter of PEN Canada (1984-1986).
Atwood had long been considered the “Queen of Canadian literature,” but by the mid-1980s, her fame had gone global.
Atwood calls attention to international human rights issues
By the early 1980s, a lot of attention had been paid to Atwood as a Canadian who wrote about Canada. But the 1981 novel Bodily Harm and poetry collection True Stories also dealt with political issues beyond Canada’s borders.
Bodily Harm is the story of a Toronto lifestyle journalist who becomes embroiled in a Caribbean country’s revolution, while True Stories contains poems condemning violence against women around the world.
“It’s very easy to take that kind of stand [in Canada],” said Atwood on CBC in 1981, discussing the human rights issues explored in her collection True Stories.
“Nobody shoots you. Nobody pulls out your fingernails. I don’t consider it particularly courageous of myself to write these poems because I’m not going to suffer the same consequences that people in other countries do when they do it.”
Atwood edits a CanLit cookbook
Atwood had been a vocal supporter of Amnesty International since the 1970s. When PEN Canada’s anglophone chapter opened in Toronto, she was asked to be its first president. Atwood’s focus for PEN Canada, which is part of an international organization dedicated to fighting censorship, was to free writers who had been imprisoned.
In 1987, Atwood edited a novelty book of recipes called The CanLit Foodbook as a fundraiser for PEN Canada. It included contributions like Farley Mowat’s creamed mice.
The Handmaid’s Tale becomes an international sensation
By the mid-1980s, Atwood was being described as the Queen of CanLit, but The Handmaid’s Tale was her breakthrough book internationally.
The novel received rave reviews from most major U.S. literary critics — the one exception being Mary McCarthy, who wrote that it “lacked imagination” in the New York Times.
The Handmaid’s Tale won Atwood her second Governor General’s Literary Award and scored her first nomination for the Booker Prize (Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils won that year). It has since undergone several adaptations, for film, stage, ballet, opera and most recently, TV and graphic novel.
There isn’t anything in [The Handmaid’s Tale] that isn’t based on something that hasn’t already happened, either in history or another country.
- Atwood in 1986
The Handmaid’s Tale: Rooted in reality
The Handmaid’s Tale — set in Cambridge, Mass., where Atwood had been a university student in the 1960s — describes a nightmare future where the American government has been overthrown by an oppressive religious group.
Overnight, a society called Gilead rises and strips the rights and freedoms of women away. Women have been assigned new roles — Handmaid, Martha, Aunt or Wife — all of which dictate exactly how they should dress, speak and behave in the service of powerful men.
Atwood insisted that the horrors of Gilead came straight from the newspapers.
“It’s not all raving, morbid invention on the part of the author,” said Atwood in an interview with CBC's Vicki Gabereau in 1985.
“All I did was gather together some elements that are now scattered a little bit, dispersed in space and time, and put them all together.”
Atwood said the one thing she thought she’d made up was funerals for abortions. But then her American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sent her a newspaper clipping describing such a funeral in California.
“People in the States find this more possible and closer to them than people in Canada do for obvious reasons,” Atwood told Gabereau.
“Canada, as you know, is always less extreme than the United States in its trendiness or lack thereof. For this reason, I had Canada take its traditional role, namely where people escape to. Canada also takes its traditional position in that it’s made somewhat nervous by the country south to it, so its position is neutral.”
Atwood explores female friendships
Atwood picked up her second consecutive Booker Prize nomination and Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction nomination for the 1988 novel Cat’s Eye.
Cat’s Eye told the story of a semi-famous Canadian painter named Elaine Risley who is haunted by her girlhood best friend and bully, Cordelia.
Atwood said the book took over 20 years to write. She started it in the 1960s, but gave it up and wrote The Edible Woman instead.
One of the book’s major images is of a ravine that runs through a Toronto suburb. It also appeared in Lady Oracle.
“Talk to any kid who grew up in Toronto, and they say, ‘Ah, the ravine,’” said Atwood. “It was always the ravine that you weren’t supposed to go down into.”
“Because there were men in there,” said Gabereau.
“Or bad men. Or scary things,” said Atwood. “And, the experience was different for boys and girls. The girls actually didn’t go down into the ravine much, but the little boys could hardly wait because they wanted to see what it was that was down there. A friend of mine who did that very thing said he was very disappointed because there was nothing down there at all.”
1990s: Atwood is a legend in the making
Atwood’s profile and standing strengthened in the 1990s. Her novels, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace, explored feminist and morality themes and earned commercial and critical acclaim. Alias Grace won Atwood her first — and only to date — Giller Prize win.
She also published several notable short story and poetry collections that decade. Her output this decade commanded respect and admiration from her peers and audience alike.
The Handmaid’s Tale fares not so great on the silver screen
While the 2017 adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which stars Elisabeth Moss, was a success, the Hulu series wasn’t the first time the 1985 novel was brought to the screen.
Atwood sold the movie rights to producer Daniel Wilson in 1986.
The first film adaptation of the novel was released in March 1990. It was directed by Volker Schlöndorff and starred Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson.
Richardson played the handmaid Offred. At the time, the English-American actress was a rising star on stage and screen.
Richardson told CBC's Midday in 1990 that she was specifically recommended for the starring role in The Handmaid’s Tale film. She said she was a huge fan of the novel and first read it several years before.
“I could barely drag myself back on stage. I found the book so compelling,” she said.
The film was released to less-than-favourable reviews, and its tone was likened to a sexual thriller by critics.
“The movie seems equally angry that women have to have children at all, and that it is hard for them to have children now that men have mucked up the planet with their greedy schemes,” wrote film reviewer Roger Ebert.
Atwood earns the admiration of CanLit peer Al Purdy
Atwood first encountered celebrated Canadian poet Al Purdy in 1964.
The story goes that they got into a heated argument after he called Atwood, then a rising CanLit star, “an academic.”
In Purdy's autobiography, he recalled "surprise and outrage mingled on that lovely un-mouselike countenance — then battle was joined.”
The two chased each other into the lake and fell into what Purdy deemed "an unloving embrace."
The encounter highlighted the pushback Atwood initially received as an emerging writer in the 1960s, compared to the admiration and respect she commanded 30 years later.
Atwood and Purdy would later find themselves kindred spirits and maintained a tenderly mocking friendship.
In 1999, Purdy fell ill with cancer. He wrote a tender good-bye to Atwood.
"I've had a lot of respect for you over a long period of time. That line of yours many years ago was part of it. Do you remember? 'That isn't true, John. You know that isn't true.' That one line made a large part of your character in my mind, and I think had much influence on me. So if I don't come out of this surgery session as 'expected,' your own eventual arrival will be attended with drums and flutes, welcoming signs."
Purdy would die on April 21, 2000.
Atwood gets inspired by history
In 1993, Atwood published The Robber Bride. The novel explored feminism, morality and gender relationships in contemporary Toronto and earned Atwood a nomination for the 1994 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.
Atwood’s second big novel of the 1990s was Alias Grace, which was released in 1996.
Alias Grace explored similar themes to The Robber Bride — good versus evil, men versus women — but was set in the 19th century.
“The novel is partly about stories, how they are constructed, how they are influenced by the circumstances surrounding them: who is telling, who is listening and why," Atwood would later tell CBC in 2017.
Alias Grace marked Atwood’s first foray into historical fiction.
The novel was based on Susanna Moodie’s book Life in the Clearing about Grace Marks, a woman convicted of murder in Toronto in 1843.
The story of Marks said a lot about today's class society, according to Atwood.
"We are hurtling back towards the 19th century. We seem to be making choices with a small class of very rich people and a large class of very poor people whose labour will therefore be very cheap,” she said.
“In the first part of the 21st century, there was an attempt to get away from that — but now we seem determined to go back to it. We should as people have a good look at how it played out then and whether we really want to [go back]."
Atwood finds inspiration in how society views female criminals
The murder trial of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka was happening around the same time Atwood was writing Alias Grace.
Bernardo was given a life sentence for the kidnapping, rapes and first-degree murders of two teenaged girls in the early 1990s, while his wife Homolka was convicted of manslaughter following a plea bargain.
While Atwood didn't follow the trial all that closely, she saw parallels with Alias Grace and was fascinated by how the public reacted to female criminals differently than male criminals.
"In murders in which there are a man and a woman involved, public opinion usually goes in the following fashion: everybody is agreed on the man but opinion is usually split about the woman. One side: 'She instigated it all. She's the female demon.' The other side: 'She is an innocent victim coerced by force, circumstance and fear,'" Atwood told CBC. "That's how it split on Karla, and it was certainly how it spilt on Grace."
Atwood wins first (and only) Giller Prize
Atwood won the 1996 Giller Prize for Alias Grace. She was up against work by Anne Michaels, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Guy Vanderhaeghe and Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
It’s her first and only Giller Prize win to date. She was later nominated again in 2003 for Oryx and Crake.
Atwood told reporters during the award ceremony that the win was “unexpected.”
Alias Grace became a bestseller in Canada and worldwide.
Alias Grace was also a finalist for that year’s Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, the 1996 Booker Prize and the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction.
“I’m kind of getting up there in years. You get to a stage where you feel maybe you’re getting a little bit too old to win awards. But then you reach another stage where you’re really old! Then you get them again before it’s too late,” Atwood said during the 1996 Giller Prize ceremony.
We are hurtling back towards the 19th century. We seem to be making choices with a small class of very rich people and a large class of very poor people whose labour will therefore be very cheap.
- Atwood in 1996
2000s: Atwood's influence goes global
By the turn of the century, Atwood’s position as a prominent Canadian author on the world stage was assured.
The decade begins with her first Booker Prize win for the novel The Blind Assassin. She also published the beginnings of the MaddAddam trilogy, which explored the human condition through the lens of futuristic fiction, tackled rewriting a classic Greek epic and wrote an opera.
She demonstrated her dedication to the advancement of poetry by co-founding The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry.
In the 2000s, she made her debut as a playwright and was invited to be a speaker in the Massey Lectures series.
This decade was also marked by Atwood’s interest in technology, as she became an inventor and signed up for the social media platform Twitter.
Atwood wins the Booker Prize
In 2000, Atwood released her 10th novel, The Blind Assassin. The novel was about an ailing 82-year-old named Iris Chase who reflected on her life and her sister’s mysterious death.
The Blind Assassin used several literary techniques — including an unreliable narrator, multiple storylines and a novel-within-a-novel — to tell a disturbing tale of love, greed and revenge.
The novel became an international bestseller. In 2000, it would win Atwood her first Booker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious literary awards.
Atwood was gracious about her Booker win.
"This is not just about one book. Somewhere out there is an unknown writer who will write the next Booker Prize winner," she said during the prize ceremony.
Atwood became only the second Canadian to win the Booker Prize in its 32 years of existence. Michael Ondaatje was the first, winning in 1992 for his novel The English Patient.
Since Atwood’s win, two more Canadians have taken home the prize: Yann Martel in 2002 for Life of Pi and Eleanor Catton in 2013 for The Luminaries.
The Blind Assassin was also nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award.
Atwood writes opera honouring Indigenous poet’s life
The 2000s was a decade that saw Atwood try a new creative form: opera.
Her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into an opera in 2000, written by Poul Ruders, with a libretto by Paul Bentley. It premiered at the Royal Danish Opera in 2000, and was staged in 2003 at London's English National Opera and the Minnesota Opera. It would later be performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2013.
In 2008, Atwood tried her own hand at writing a libretto. Her work, Pauline, a chamber opera in two acts, is based on the life of the Indigenous writer, poet and actor E. Pauline Johnson. Johnson, who lived from 1861-1913, was an internationally recognized writer and one of the formative voices in Canadian literature.
The $400,000 production of Pauline was set to premiere in 2010. It was the first commission ever undertaken by City Opera Vancouver.
Atwood had worked on the opera, off and on, for 15 years. She was a longtime fan of Johnson and felt it was about time the poet was restored to her rightful place in Canada's literary history.
"She was captivating. She had a very forceful stage presence," Atwood said in a 2008 interview with CBC News. "She would do half of [her performance] reciting her native motif poems, which were pretty violent — not the sort of thing you could have gotten away with as a decorous Victorian gentlewoman. So that allowed her to really let go."
The Vancouver production was delayed but officially premiered in May 2014 in a sold-out show. It ran for four more sold-out performances that year.
Atwood gets a star on Canada's Walk of Fame
Atwood was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2001. The Toronto-based walk recognizes the achievements and accomplishments of Canadians who have excelled in their respective fields.
She was the first novelist to receive a star, and the second writer overall to be honoured. Non-fiction writer Pierre Berton received the award in 1998.
At the induction ceremony, Atwood told reporters that she regarded the honour as a form of recognition of all Canadian writers.
"Frequently, it's the glamorous, the entertainers, movie stars, but Canada's novelists have made an international impression,” she said in a Toronto Star interview.
“This is the opening of the doors for other novelists. This is the first time they've given [a Walk of Fame star] to a fiction writer. It means there will be others. It's a lovely day, and I'm thrilled.”
After Atwood, several more Canadian writers would be honoured, including Timothy Findley (2002), Robert Munsch (2009), Farley Mowat (2010) and Mordecai Richler (2011).
Atwood delves into dystopian fiction — again
In 2003, Atwood released the speculative fiction novel Oryx and Crake.
Atwood told the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel in 2003 that she wanted to explore what it means to be human and the consequences of genetic modification and genetically spliced animals.
“I think [the novel] is about who are we as human beings and how do we want to live — and what kinds of circumstances are being forced on us,” Atwood said. “So the beauty of inventing other animals — we did that as kids. We made them up. But now you can really do it. And if you think this isn't the biggest toy box that's ever been handed out, people are going to go to town, and they're going to have a whale of a time. Will everything they invent be good? Actually not. But this time it's real, you know, it's not Plasticine.”
Atwood resisted calling it a sci-fi novel, preferring the term “speculative fiction.”
“Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen,” she told the Guardian in 2003.
Atwood would later say she named the Crake character Glenn, for Glenn Gould.
Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004.
It was defended by Olivia Chow on Canada Reads 2005, and was the second of three Atwood books to be featured on the CBC’s annual battle of the books.
Atwood invents the LongPen
In 2004, Atwood unveiled her invention, the LongPen.
The LongPen is a device designed to allow authors, athletes, movie stars and other celebrities to sign autographs without leaving home. It’s comprised of a video screen and digital writing pad at one location and a video screen and automated pen at another.
Atwood helped create the apparatus after complaining about long book promotion tours and cramped hands from signing hundreds of her novels and anthologies.
In 2006, she told CBC News that the technological device could change book signings forever.
"You cannot be in five countries at the same time. But you can be in five countries at the same time with the LongPen," she said.
The LongPen was tested at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, with U.S. author Norman Mailer and Canadian Alice Munro.
Kiosks featuring the LongPen would be set up at Toronto’s World's Biggest Bookstore, Barnes & Noble in New York and Waterstones in London.
Atwood revisits classic Greek literature and writes her 1st play
In 2005, Atwood published The Penelopiad. The story is a feminist retelling of The Odyssey, from the perspective of Odysseus's wife, Penelope.
“The book is in essence theatrical. It's a lot like the structure of a Greek tragedy, in that the central characters' stories are told in quite long monologues, then the chorus comments on the action,” Atwood told the Guardian in 2005.
The novella was part of an international series of ancient myths and classics retold by modern writers. Other books included takes on Iphis by Ali Smith, a look at Oedipus by Salley Vickers and a take on Christian mythology by Philip Pullman.
The Penelopiad focused on overlooked aspects of the original story and fashions a kind of counter-narrative that explores misogyny and the social role of women.
Atwood adapted the book into a play in 2007, marking her debut as a playwright. The play first premiered in the United Kingdom and later had its North American premiere at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Atwood told the CBC she was too nervous to watch the play on its first night in the U.K. where it was well received. Instead, she took in the performance a few days after it opened.
The Globe and Mail called the play "refreshingly original."
Atwood noted at the time that she believed the play would enhance the original work for theatregoers.
"I think the Canadian audience will have a much deeper connection to the text," she told CBC News in 2007.
There are some people who aren’t going to like you, and there are some who aren’t going to like what you do no matter what it is. So why not have fun, and do what you want?
- Atwood in 2000
Atwood gives the 2008 Massey Lectures
In 2008, Atwood was selected to give the Massey Lectures, an annual series of non-fiction lectures that are recorded and broadcast on CBC Radio One's Ideas and are released as a book.
Atwood’s lectures were titled Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. They explored the notion of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature and the structure of human societies.
“These are not lectures about how to get out of debt; rather, they're about the debtor/creditor twinship in the broadest sense — from human sacrifice to pawnshops to revenge,” Atwood said.
“In this light, what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.”
Atwood proposed that debt is like air — something we take for granted until things go wrong. And then, while gasping for breath, we become very interested in it.
“The motive for this lecture series is curiosity — mine — and my hope is that the writing of it will allow me to explore a subject I know little about, but which for this reason intrigues me,” she said during the lecture.
The lectures were adapted into the 2012 documentary Payback by director Jennifer Baichwal.
I think every time you begin a book... you are, to a certain extent, groping in the darkness. You believe that if you keep going, you will be able to illuminate matters.
- Atwood in 2003
Atwood uses fiction to explore real-world ethics in technology
The Year of the Flood, the second novel in the MaddAddam trilogy, was released in 2009.
The dystopian book continued the series’s thematic thrust of corporatism, genetic modification and the ethical limits of technology.
“You take something you’re looking at that’s ‘now,’ and you take that a little bit further,” Atwood told the CBC’s The Next Chapter. “We do have the science to combine different life forms.”
Atwood takes to Twitter
In 2009, Atwood joined Twitter. She told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge in 2013 that she signed into Twitter by happenstance. She was building her website, and she was encouraged to join the social media platform to grow her online audience.
“The internet is pushing people towards being more literate,” she said. “I gave [Twitter] a try. And before I knew it, I had all these followers.… Twitter will not ruin literature any more than telegrams did.”
By the end of the 2000s, Atwood was an active proponent of social media and had amassed a large Twitter following.
"It’s like having a little radio show," she told the Telegraph in 2013, about her love of the social media platform.
The author now has almost 2 million Twitter followers.
"We are very social entities, human beings," she said. "We love to interact, and we will do it in any way that’s available to us."
2010s: Atwood is an icon and her work gains new relevance
By the 2010s, Atwood stands as one of the most recognized contemporary authors in the world.
She has demonstrated mastery of multiple genres and remains an advocate for Canadian literature and political and social causes.
Her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale proves its relevance (again) by way of a successful television adaptation, bringing renewed interest to the original text and thematic content.
An anticipated sequel, titled The Testaments, is available on Sept. 10, 2019.
Atwood goes on unconventional and eco-conscious book tour
A documentary film called In the Wake of the Flood, directed by Ron Mann, was released in October 2010.
The film, shot in a cinéma vérité style, followed Atwood on a book tour for The Year of the Flood, a dystopian novel about a pandemic that wipes out most of human life.
The tour, which happened right around her 70th birthday, saw Atwood co-ordinate a series of grassroots theatrical productions based on the books. Local groups and choirs acted out parts of her narrative in churches and community halls, including singing hymns from the novel.
She also used the tour to raise awareness of the preservation of bird habitats and animal conservation. Each reading Atwood gave was a fundraiser for a green charity, Mann said.
At one stop, she urges the college crowd to pledge to only drink shade-grown coffee, which is grown under a canopy of trees and thereby preserves bird sanctuaries.
"What attracted me to filming Margaret was, here was an artist who was using her celebrity status for a cause — it wasn't to sell more books," Mann told CBC in 2010.
"The things that are killing them are eventually going to kill us," Atwood said. "They are the canaries in the coal mine."
Atwood gets whimsical with Wandering Wenda children’s book and animated series
Atwood took another foray into children’s books with 2011’s Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop's Wunderground Washery.
The whimsical book, which uses alliteration to tell a story about a girl in search of her missing parents, was adapted into a 26-episode animated series for CBC in 2016.
"Kids think [wordplay is] funny. But also it's a very painless way of teaching the alphabet because when you've been through a show with about a hundred 'W' words you know what a 'W' is," Atwood told CBC News in 2016.
Each eight-minute episode followed the titular heroine and her buddies, Wesley the woodchuck and the bookish boy Wu, as they embarked on globe-trotting escapades.
Atwood’s previous children’s books include Anna's Pet (1980), For the Birds (1990), Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995), Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (2004).
Atwood began creating entertainment for children in high school when she and a friend ran a business performing puppet shows for kids' parties.
"We were doing shows for five- and six-year-olds with hand puppets, and we only did the classics, which all involved cannibalism," she said.
"It was Little Red Riding Hood: cannibalism; The Three Little Pigs: cannibalism; and Hansel and Gretel: cannibalism."
Atwood writes a secret short story — that wouldn’t be read for 100 years
Atwood was the first writer to add a story to a literary time capsule called the Future Library.
The art initiative, which began in 2014, is a literary time capsule, with a plan for 100 authors to submit 100 original works over the next 100 years.
The material will remain unpublished and unread until 2114, held in trust in a special room of the new Deichman Library in Oslo.
After Atwood, 99 more writers — one writer per year — will contribute one print and one digital copy of a new manuscript to be stored away until 2114 when the trees growing now will be cut down, harvested for pulp and turned into paper for a very special literary anthology.
To mark her contribution, Atwood visited the Future Library forest in Nordmarka, where 1,000 new trees were planted to provide the paper on which the written works will be printed.
Atwood refused to divulge any information about her story to the public.
“My mouth is zipped tight,” Atwood told CBC News in 2015. “Everyone is trying to get this out of me in every possible way, but no dice."
Atwood returns to creating comics
In the 2010s, Atwood’s longtime love for comic books and cartooning was renewed with a series of projects.
"I was always a visual person," Atwood told CBC in 2016. "I spent a lot of time as a child drawing, probably because I had the materials for it, whereas I didn't have the materials for music, because I grew up in the bush a lot, and there wasn't a piano. I never had the piano-playing upbringing that a lot of children my age would have had.… I always had coloured pencils."
In 2016, Atwood unveiled Angel Catbird, a superhero series about a genetic engineer who is accidentally spliced with a cat and an owl, creating a complex new creature with both predatory and protective instincts. The comic was illustrated by Johnnie Christmas.
Angel Catbird tackled some of Atwood’s favourite themes, such as the environment and animal conservation.
"I loved the sense of wonder in Angel Catbird,” said Christmas, in a 2017 interview. “Like a lot of early superhero comics, it uses a scientific basis as a jumping off point into the fantastic.”
In 2018, Atwood teamed up with Victoria illustrator Ken Steacy to create the historic fictional graphic novel War Bears.
War Bears explored a golden age for Canadian comic books, telling fictional stories set amid real events that occurred during the Second World War in Canada.
"It's been a very real collaboration. Most of the script is mine, but it's done under her very watchful eye," Steacy said in 2018. "Working with her has been an absolute delight."
And in 2019, Atwood worked with West Coast-based illustrator Renée Nault to turn novel The Handmaid's Tale into a graphic novel. "In the novel, you experience it through Offred's narrative voice, which is very detached and sarcastic,” Nault told CBC in 2019.
“I hope in the graphic novel that you will get the impression that she is using that voice as a coping mechanism. The horror around her is very real, but she's very detached from it out of necessity."
Atwood reimagines Shakespeare again
In 2016, Atwood released Hag-Seed, a novel that re-imagined Shakespeares’s The Tempest in the modern day.
Hag-Seed was the most recent instalment of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which features a series of Shakespeare-inspired novels, including retellings of The Winter’s Tale, Othello and The Taming of the Shrew.
Hag-Seed is about a theatrical director who is so obsessed with his production of The Tempest that he fails to see his second-in-command has deftly engineered a behind-the-scenes plan to have him fired.
“Shakespeare is infinitely interpretable,” Atwood said in a 2016 essay in the Guardian. “Whenever people ask me that inevitable question, ‘Who’s your favourite author?’ I always say ‘Shakespeare.’”
The Handmaid's Tale makes waves with a new TV adaptation
The television series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered in 2017.
The series tells the story of Gilead, an authoritarian and deeply religious society that emerges after a civil war in the United States and a mass societal panic caused by the effects of environmental degradation and disease.
Unlike the 1990 film adaption, this version is a hit, resonating during a time of #MeToo, a Donald Trump presidency and rising climate change anxiety.
“Did I have any idea that we would be here at this moment? No,” Atwood told CBC in 2017. “But if things get too scary and chaotic, people will sacrifice their civil liberties for some promise of safety.”
"These are old human themes, and they've come up again and again in many different societies. There is no totalitarianism worth its salt that doesn't try to control women. They've tried to control men too, but in different ways."
The star-studded series — which featured Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Alexis Bledel
Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel and more — won multiple awards, including Primetime Emmys and Golden Globes.
A second season followed in 2018. A third season wrapped in 2019 with a fourth season slated for a 2020 release. The show diverges from the book in the second season.
Atwood is a consulting producer and made a cameo in the fourth episode of the series.
In a 2018 interview with the Guardian, Atwood admitted she has no control over the TV series — but is OK with that.
“I think I would have to be awfully stupid to resent it because things could have been so much worse,” she said. “The acting is great. They’ve stuck to the central set of premises.”
These are old human themes, and they've come up again and again in many different societies. There is no totalitarianism worth its salt that doesn't try to control women. They've tried to control men too, but in different ways.
- Atwood in 2017
Alias Grace comes to the small screen
CBC-TV and Netflix partnered to make an adaptation of Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace.
The series starred Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, Kerr Logan, David Cronenberg, Paul Gross and Anna Paquin and was written by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron.
Alias Grace dove into the true story of Grace Marks (played in the miniseries by Canada’s Gadon): a poor, young Irish immigrant and domestic servant who finds herself accused and convicted of murdering her wealthy employer and his housekeeper.
Polley said that if The Handmaid's Tale was a cautionary fable of where things could go, Alias Grace showed how far women have come. She told the CBC in 2017 that she wanted the historical tale to have meaning in the modern day.
"These aren't frivolous times … if you have political things to say or to make. This isn't the time to hold back. It's not the time to be polite. It's not the time to make the thing that's best for your career,” she said.
"It's really important to look back [to] where we came from, especially in this moment where our rights are precarious and the world, as we know it, is very precarious, and the things that have been so hard fought and hard won are precarious.”
Atwood was thrilled with the new adaptation.
"Sarah wanted to do this thing since she was 17. And the showrunner of The Handmaid's Tale wanted to make it since he was 19," Atwood said to CBC News in 2017.
"It gave me horrible nightmares, I have to say. It's very powerful."
Atwood wants a ‘rethink’ on climate change
Atwood has been an outspoken advocate for the environment for decades.
In November 2018, Atwood addressed the world's climate crisis at the 2018 Parliament of the World's Religions in Toronto.
The issue of climate change is personal for Atwood and something she's been thinking about for decades. Atwood drew a connection between faith and conservation in her speech.
"There's a big divide in faith communities between those who feel that people should be caring for the planet and people that feel ‘What the heck, we can do whatever we like because God said [so]. He used the word dominion.’"
"He [God] uses the word dominion right after having said that the imagination of man is wicked unto his youth. So basically he's saying, ‘Yeah, you've got dominion [laughing], but you're really bad people.’"
Atwood said human beings are at a crisis point when it comes to addressing climate change.
"It's not climate change. It's everything change," she said.
Atwood announces sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
In 2018, Atwood announced a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
The new book is called The Testaments and will be published on Sept. 10, 2019.
The novel is set 15 years after the original story, which followed Offred, a handmaid whose sole purpose was to get pregnant with the child of the family she is serving. Offred wasn't always a handmaid, though, and the book ends with her future left unknown to readers.
In a 2019 interview with TVO’s Nam Kiwanuka, Atwood gave details around why she wrote the followup.
"You write a book like that hoping that it will not come true.… 'Here is a possible future. You are possibly heading towards it. Is that where you want to live?'"
"I thought it would diminish — that it would become less true. Instead, it became more true."
There is a lot of anticipation for The Testaments. The initial Canadian print run is nearly 200,000 copies.
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