An Interview With Margaret Atwood

The acclaimed author on hope, science, and writing about the future.

By Ed Finn


Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Climate fiction, or “cli fi,” can be a dreary genre. Storytellers like to make a grim business of climate change, populating their narratives with a humorless onslaught of death, destruction, drowned monuments, and starving children. Margaret Atwood is the conspicuous exception, somehow managing to tackle the subject, including these familiar elements, with deadpan wit and an irreverent playfulness, making it both more interesting and believable. The flood is coming, her MaddAddam trilogy promises, but there is hope.

Atwood’s intensely literary, human focus on environmental issues and the future of the planet is shaping a more optimistic vision of cli fi, one that sidesteps the blame games and the “will-they, won’t-they” battles over carbon emissions. Her response is clear and compelling: The planet is changing. We need creativity, ambition, and some powerful new stories to understand how we can change with it.

My colleagues and I invited Atwood to Arizona State University in November to help launch a new project about these challenges, the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Our conversation was inspired by the idea that an effective response to what Atwood calls the “everything change” will take more than better batteries and lightbulbs (though we’ll need them too). To answer the challenge, we need to think much bigger about what it means to be human in the era when we dominate every corner of this world.

Last fall, you became the first author to submit work to the Future Library project—and no one will be able to read that story until 2114.

The Future Library project is something thought up by a conceptual artist called Katie Paterson. She was approached by the Oslo Library in Norway, which is building a new facility, and it wanted a special thing. What she came up with was Future Library. A forest has been planted in Norway that will grow for 100 years. Each one of those 100 years, one author will be invited to contribute something to the future library in a sealed box. It can be one word. It can be a poem. It can be a story. It can be a novel. It can be nonfiction. There are two stipulations: No. 1, no images. No. 2, you cannot tell anybody what is inside the box.

These boxes will accumulate in a special room—the Future Library room—and people will be able to go into that room and see the titles and the authors and imagine what’s in the boxes. Meanwhile the forest is growing, and at the 100-year moment, the boxes will all be opened and enough trees will be cut from this forest to make the paper to print the Future Library books. The first person to put a box in there—their book will be a hundred years old. The last person to put it in—it will be 1 year old. You will get a continuum through 100 years of what writers have seen fit to communicate to the future.

The selecting committee will renew itself as it will have to do, and the people who will be on that final committee have not been born yet nor have their parents been born. The final authors have not been born yet nor have their parents been born, so it’s completely an unknown. It’s the kind of project you are going to either say yes to immediately because it grabs your imagination, or you’re going to say no to it immediately because you’ll not be able to see the point of writing something that will not be published in your lifetime.

Rest of the interview:


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Filed under 2015, author interview

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