Out of the roughly 500 pieces Margaret Atwood has written over the past two decades, a mere 60 made the cut for her new book. As Atwood writes in her introduction to Burning Questions: Essays & Occasional Pieces 2004-2021, she publishes about 40 pieces a year. “There’s a limit,” she writes. “This has to stop.”
But there is no sign of that happening. Atwood, 82, revealed in an interview this week that she is finishing the manuscript of a collection of stories and, after that, will begin a “tell-all literary memoir.”
Burning Questions is divided into five parts, each marked by a major event or turning point, and includes previously published essays, speeches she has delivered and other writings. She addresses everything from her novels, to her early career, to, in the final section, losing her spouse, Graeme Gibson, and then the pandemic. There are also odes (including two to Alice Munro) and obituaries (Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin among them). There are essays about birds, climate change, human rights and #MeToo – including the controversial 2018 essay she first published in The Globe and Mail, Am I a Bad Feminist?
She writes about the genesis for The Handmaid’s Tale, which she began in 1984 in what was then West Berlin and completed in 1985 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. And its decades-later sequel, The Testaments: The major writing of the book, she explains, stretched from 2016 to 2019 – the Trump era. Much of it was written as the TV series was rolling out.
It’s novels like The Handmaid’s Tale that have led some people to refer to her as a sort of prophet.
“As a person who has all too often been asked, ‘How did you know?’ I’d like to make it clear that I don’t go in for prophecy, not as such. Nobody can predict the future. There are too many variables,” she writes in a piece about Tarot cards.
She is as prolific as she is famous, having published more than 50 books.
What is her secret? How is she so productive? I asked. “I think the secret is I can’t say no. But that’s not true either because we say no to a lot; it’s just that the ones that get through tend to pile up. It’s always some emergency or other, like now,” she said, meaning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which she is observing with deep concern (and, as she does, is tweeting about).
When I asked if she was going to stick to her “this has to stop” pronouncement, she laughed. She said she was almost done the story collection and then would begin writing the memoir. “Why not? While I still have a brain,” she said.
Assembling information for the memoir, she has learned things that she had not previously known – about her father, in particular. Her sister uncovered an account their father, born in 1906, had written about his early life.
“It was very interesting to me, because he wasn’t a person who talked about those things at all. You just had to sort of guess,” Atwood says. “I heard some of it from Mom, but the early stuff I had never heard anything about.”
They included accounts of his early fascination with insects; he grew up to become an entomologist.
“Somebody came to him with this ginormous caterpillar and he kept it in a little cage and it turned into a pupa and then it emerged and it was this gorgeous moth,” she says – a Cecropia moth. “And then he found another one, which was a brilliant green and he kept that one. And out came a Luna moth, also very attractive. And that set him off.”
Helping to assemble information for the project, Atwood’s sister also unearthed some letters the author wrote “to amuse her” when the writer was living in France and working on Alias Grace, which was published in 1996.
More evidence that Atwood does not appear, more than 25 years later, to be slowing down (and still has a hard time saying no): She will appear on March 17 in Theatre of War’s The Nurse Antigone, an online dramatic reading of Sophocles’s play, to help frame a discussion about the challenges nurses are facing, particularly with COVID-19. Atwood says the original person cast to play Tiresias couldn’t do it and she received a last-minute call. “Sure, I said. Why not play a scary old blind prophet?” she quipped. “Perfect typecasting.”
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