Talking with Margaret Atwood, digital maven
Margaret Atwood, a master at creating clever names, is always on the lookout for more. On a gorgeous morning in Manhattan's Bryant Park, she points out a sandwich kiosk called Wichcraft.
"I like that one," she says. Gracious of her, since it pales in comparison with monikers of the fantastic creatures populating "MaddAddam" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.95), the conclusion to Atwood's trilogy about a small band of humans -- and gentle humanoids -- trying to survive after a man-made plague leaves the planet in shambles. There are the Painballers (former hard-core prisoners now roaming free), pigoons (giant feral swine infused with human DNA), and Mo'Hairs (sheep bred to grow long tresses in a rainbow of colors).
Atwood has just an hour to spare before gathering up longtime partner Graeme Gibson and heading for a pier in Brooklyn. There, the couple and their two grandchildren are to board the Queen Mary, where she is launching "MaddAddam" on a cruise from New York to London.
Of course she is: Atwood never takes the usual route when more interesting options are available. At 73, she sports a slate-gray mass of curls framing lively, crinkly eyes and an arch, permanently bemused expression. Although she's written 14 novels and several dozen other books of poetry, stories and commentary, as well as winning the Booker Prize and many others, Atwood's wide-ranging conversational topic choices make it clear that she is more interested in discovery than accolades.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her headlong, early-adopter embrace of the Internet.
There seems to be no corner of cyberspace, no form of social media or online techno-trend that Atwood has not plumbed. She's practically giddy over a new video-game app, Intestinal Parasites, which was developed as a tie-in to "MaddAddam" (one of the characters plays the game, which features eyeless predators that turn your insides into a "festering patty melt").
She crowdfunds for Fanado, a new site that helps fans and artists connect. She recently has written online-only fiction for not only Byliner, a site for established authors, but Wattpad, where anyone can publish. She appeared in full goalie gear on YouTube in a hilarious video called "How to Stop a Puck." Pinterest, Flipboard, you name it, she's all over it. And she's quite active on Twitter, with 426,000 followers (her handle is @MargaretAtwood).
Life of the Twitter party
"Twitter is like having your own little radio show," she says. "It's also rather like being at a large, fun party where you don't know all the guests, and they turn out to come from all corners. And they think people my age don't understand this stuff."
In turn, the Internet generation has welcomed her. Unusual for an author of her age, Atwood's fan base is growing broader and skewing younger.
"I am read by 10-year-olds, 90-year-olds, gays, straights, men, women," she says.
"MaddAddam" finishes the story begun in 2003's "Oryx and Crake" and continued in 2009's "The Year of the Flood."
In the near future, a juggernaut of bioengineering and Big Pharma experiments has turned North America into a giant "Island of Dr. Moreau," where mutants and soulless psychopaths run amok following a scientist-induced pandemic that nearly wiped out the human race.
Amid all the gloom and doom, rape and murder, Atwood inserts perfectly timed bits of wit. Toby, a main character who narrates much of the book, wonders whether the Mo'Hair transplants on her head will attract unwanted attention from the rams, and decides to "watch herself for signs of sheepishness."
"The Handmaid's Tale," Atwood's popular 1985 novel, launched her as a prominent voice in sci-fi, then dominated by men even more so than it is now. For its themes of women oppressed by patriarchal government and religion, she became a feminist hero, though she shrugged off the mantle.
With her post-apocalyptic settings and dystopian futures, Atwood has been ahead of the curve in mass-appeal pop fiction, chockablock with such scenarios. She prefers to categorize her work as "speculative fiction," saying she depicts events that could possibly happen; whereas, science fiction, in her view, focuses on impossible fantasy.
Young-adult fiction, in particular, seems to be heading right down the Atwood path. The popularity of "The Hunger Games" and similarly themed young-adult series just keeps growing. So why are we all so interested in bracing for doomsday?
"We're rehearsing," she says, flashing her cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smile.