Margaret Atwood can do anything. The legendary Canadian writer has left her mark in a plurality of forms and genres. Best known for her brilliant novels, she can write horrifying, prophetic speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale), show us the complicated truth about female friendships (Alias Grace), and even reflect humanity’s trajectory right back at us (the Oryx and Crake trilogy).
Atwood turns 75 today, and she’s still as vital and curious as when she first published. A prolific Twitter user, she’s also participating in a giant art project that means her next work won’t be read for 100 years. To celebrate the wit and wisdom of Margaret Atwood, we rounded up some of our favorite quotes and notes on her writing process:
“As for the plots, they are by and large fictional, but they are the kind of thing that does happen, can happen or might happen. It’s the business of the fiction writer to be plausible. That’s another way of saying it’s the business of the fiction writer to tell you lies you will believe!”
“So for me, I think it’s not a question of sitting around wondering what I’m going to write. It’s a question of sitting around wondering which of the far-fetched and absurd ideas I’m going to try to tackle. Sometimes, I think I should be a lot safer and less risk-taking and stick to somebody, or something, a little bit more manageable.”
“You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.”
“I did not know that ‘poetess’ was an insult, and that I myself would some day be called one. I did not know that to be told I had transcended my gender would be considered a compliment. I didn’t know — yet — that black was compulsory. All of that was in the future. When I was sixteen, it was simple. Poetry existed; therefore it could be written; and nobody had told me — yet — the many, many reasons why it could not be written by me.”
When ideas hit her, she scribbles phrases and notes on napkins, restaurant menus, in the margins of newspapers. She starts with a rough notion of how the story will develop, ‘which usually turns out to be wrong,’ she says. She moves back and forth between writing longhand and on the computer.
“I’m not often in a set writing space. I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about it, except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!”
She doesn’t, despite her enormous output, write every day. “You always think, ‘Oh, if only I had a little chalet in the mountains! How great that would be and I’d do all this writing…’ Except, no, I wouldn’t. I’d do the same amount of writing I do now and the rest of the time I’d go stir crazy. If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive. I have no routine. I have no foolproof anything. There’s nothing foolproof.”
“You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”
“There’s no way of knowing in advance what will get into your work. One collects all the shiny objects that catch the fancy — a great array of them. Some of them you think are utterly useless. I have a large collection of curios of that kind, and every once in a while I need one of them. They’re in my head, but who knows where! It’s such a jumble in there. It’s hard to find anything.”
“If invited to read at a festival, try not to get drunk, hit people, throw up onstage, smite the sound technician, etc. Such incidents make colourful gossip, and it’s a small world… It’s tough out there in Bookworld. Tread carefully. Don’t speak so softly that you can’t be heard, nor so loudly that you’re deafening. Carry a medium-sized shtick. And avoid wearing mini-skirts up on stage unless you have very good legs. Zip your lower front apertures. What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. People have cameras.”