Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Margaret Atwood at the Texas Book Festival in 2015

Margaret Atwood was interviewed at the Texas Book Festival in October of 2015. I have only read one of her books, The Handmaid's Tale, and as we know, it's a depressing and scary book. Considering that, the interview was surprisingly (to me) light-hearted and revolvedheavily around popculture. I got an impression that Margaret Atwood is quite engaged with it. She participates in art / experimental projects that revolve around books and reading.

One of such projects was the Future Library in Oslo. It was started by an artist Katie Patterson. In May of 2014 she planted 1000 trees near a forest in Oslo. These trees will grow for a 100 years. Every year a different writer from around the world, invited by a committee, each writing in a different language and different genre, will contribute a manuscript in a sealed box to the future library. 100 years later all the boxes will opened. There will be enough wood from the trees that have grown to make paper to print the anthology of those stories.

As Margaret Atwood explained, the stories can be in any form: one word, a poem, a short story. No images. And you cannot tell anybody what is in the box, except for the title. But these boxes will be in the future library with the author's name and title visible. You can go into the library, see the names and titles and imagine what could be in them. "So in May (of 2016), I'm going to Norway with my box, tied with a nice blue ribbon," said Margaret Atwood. "I imagine there might be a moment at the immigration checkpoint where they're going to ask me what is in that box, and I'm going to have to tell them, I don't know," she said, adding that that might not go over well.

She also noted that the success of this project was based on a number of assumptions: that people will want to read and will be able to read, that Oslo will still be there. (Not to mention an even more questionable assumption that books in a hundred years will still be printed on paper -- E.)

Margaret Atwood seems to encourage all the ways in which people consume and produce the written word nowadays, including mashups and remakes. For example, she wrote her own version of Shakespeare's play "Tempest" for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, in which modern writers reimagined Shakespeare's works. She had a fan fiction contest for her latest book. (And no, she replied, she wasn't going to read all the thousands of entries herself. She had slush readers for that.) When asked if she was ready for other people to take over her characters, she indicated she had no problem with that. She said: "Fanfiction is very very old, except it wasn't called fanfiction. It started with the Greek mythology. When Don Quixote was published, there were a lot of other books published about Don Quixote by other authors. So Cervantes had to put out a notice that those other books aren't authentic."

She also contributed, even if in a small way, to the Zombies, Run! app. It's an interactive app for exercise, based on the premise that a zombie apocalypse is taking place, and you are running from the zombies. At one point the run takes you to Canada, but the entire Canadian government has been zombified, and the entire NHL hockey league are zombies on skates. However, you can establish contact with Margaret Atwood. Naomi Alderman, co-creator of the Zombies, Run! app, wrote her into the game. The way Margaret Atwood explained it, "I'm a pushover. You want to put me in a zombie game? Okay."

Margaret Atwood at the Texas Book Festival in October of 2015, surrounded by the audience members
Margaret Atwood (left) at the Texas Book Festival in October of 2015, surrounded by the audience members.

Despite the lighthearted tone of the conversation, the interviewer couldn't help but note that we were at the Texas Capitol, the place where Texas Legislature makes laws -- and some or many laws that they passed recently resonated strongly with the themes in Margaret Atwood's most famous dystopian novel "Handmaid's Tale". You could get an impression that Texas Legislature used "Handmaid's Tale", um, aspirationally. So, not surprisingly, the interviewer brought up political topics.

"Margaret, you do a lot of advocacy work. And we are in the Texas state capitol, so I want to ask you about how far we have come and how far we have to go," said the interviewer, Kelly. (I don't remember her last name -- E.)

Margaret Atwood quipped something about making a law from here. (The interview took place literally in the House Chamber of the Texas Legislature. All the audience were sitting at the lawmakers' desks.) Then she said:

"The people who passed it (referring, I think, to a recent law severely restricting availability of abortion -- E.) don't think about the effect there will be down the line. Real people will have to live with these things. The effects will turn out to be not what they thought to be. For example, California reversed its draconian prison legislation because they couldn't afford it. I don't think you can really sustain the society if you alienate a lot of young people, because they're going to move somewhere else, and then who's going to pay for your old age? If you are prohibiting abortions, you may think that there will be lots of babies born, lots of poof children, future serfs? That might not work out that way."

As usual, there was time for audience questions.

A question from the audience. Oslo is building huge library, but a few hundred feet from here there is a huge library that's mostly empty, there's nobody there. (I think he might have been referring to the Austin Public Library central location. -- E.) So why do you think that the Oslo Future Library be successful?

Margaret Atwood replied that some libraries were very heavily used, for example, the New York or Toronto public library systems. "So I don't think it's a question of library or no library, it's a question of what kind of library, how accessible it is, and what kind of interactivity do they do? I believe that access to books and reading is one of the cornerstones of the democracy," she said.

A woman from the audience says she's getting her PhD in literature, and (if I understood correctly) is teaching literature to freshmen. Making them read feels like she's murdering them. She asks if Margaret Atwood sees it a general rule of thumb for this generation (unwillingness to read), and if so, does she have any advice?

Margaret Atwood. Freshmen read all the time. You can't use internet without being able to read. There is a place where they can write anonymously, and post what they're really interested in, which may be vampire stories. Another way you can help them is audiobooks. But sometimes they just want to put in the studying time. When I was teaching grammar to engineering students, I started them on Kafka's parables, which are very short. So you can start your students on flash fiction. They're all 18, it's a difficult age. When I taught the same class to returning students, there was a huge difference. They wanted me to challenge them, they argued with me.

Make your students write a zombie or vampire story. Or an article of economics of vampires. Vampires are always rich. Why is that? They are immortal -- if they became a vampire in 1930, how much money you have accumulated? Have them do a business plan for being a vampire. There are two vampire movies where this accumulation of the riches is done explicitly. 1. An Iranian vampire western movie called "A girl walks home alone at night" - a feminist Iranian vampire, who was killing only bad people, but in the process she accumulated a lot of diamond watches. 2. "Let the right one in", with a 12 year old girl vampire. There is a classic line in it: a little boy says to her when he [starts suspecting something]: 'How old are you really?' She replies: 'I'm really 12. I've been a child for a very long time.'"

A woman from the audience. What words of comfort you have for readers who know they'll never lay their eyes on your contribution to the future library?

Margaret Atwood. There are many books you'll never lay your hands or eyes on, because you've never heard of them. As a tribute to that idea, find a book you never heard of, read it, and find other people who love it.