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Margaret Atwood Reflects on the Joys and Perils of Late-Life Creativity

'The Handmaid's Tale' author, 81, discusses fame and what she's hopeful about

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At last count, you've published 17 novels, 16 books of poetry, 10 books of nonfiction, eight collections of short fiction, eight children's books and three graphic novels, as well as other work. What's your secret?

I don't think I have a secret as such, except I suppose you could say that I'm not very easily discouraged.

Does that determined attitude go back to your childhood?

Yes, it probably does. I think it has to do partly with growing up in the woods without electricity or running water during wartime, which meant you didn't have a lot of stuff. There were always work-arounds. If you couldn't do it this way, there was some other way of doing it. You learned a lot about levers and pulleys and little pieces of bending wire that you would never throw out because they would come in handy later.

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And you applied that to writing?

Yep, little pieces of bendy wire in a drawer. Sooner or later, you'll use them for something else.

Your observation of detail is remarkable. Do you write things down in journals, or do you just keep it all in your head?

I have a memory that's like your granny's attic — full of junk but you never know what you might find. If I'm working on a project like The Handmaid's Tale, I save things that are pertinent to that. But really, I just remember a lot of stuff.

Do you have any special rituals you use when you need to create?

I would love to say I did, but, unfortunately, it wouldn't be true. Some people have special pens or can only write in a cork-lined room, like Proust. But what happens if you lose that special pen or you're not in the cork-lined room? Things aren't going to work for you, are they?

What do you think is the biggest misconception about creativity?

I think one of them is that only geniuses have it. But, in fact, everybody has it because it's a human thing. It's just that people employ their creativity in different ways. Some people write. Some people knit. Some people make music. But it all has to do with our human capacity for invention and for seeing things from different points of view.

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I love a poem in your new poetry collection, Dearly, that pokes fun at the notion of aging into wisdom. What wisdom can you share?

Well, I don't know whether people who have wisdom think that they have wisdom. They probably just think that they're having life experiences.

Are there aspects of your writing that become easier as you age?

No, I'm afraid not. It's the same blank page with nothing on it. Everybody has that page, and everybody has that moment of having to begin.

And what gets harder?

I can't tell you that yet. I'm not old enough.

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What impact has fame had on you?

I'm Canadian, so we take a dubious view of fame. We think it's in slightly bad taste. If I were American, it would be different. Americans love fame. I just soft-pedal it here because it would be considered in slightly bad taste to go around acting as if you're famous. The most famous I got in a visible way was when the person who is now the premier of our province said, “Margaret Atwood? Who's she? I wouldn't recognize her if I passed her on the street.” It was about libraries. They'd closed a bunch of them in the city, and that caused the most frantic uproar. So, I made a thing about it. I would be going down the street, and people would say, “Margaret, I recognize you.”

Is it hard sometimes being a cultural icon?

I don't think of myself as a cultural icon, because I know what happens to icons. You don't actually want to be an icon, because once you're an icon, you're made of wood and you don't do anything anymore.

Do you feel freer now?

As an older person, you're actually quite a lot freer, which is why there are so many pesky old ladies and men around. They're freer to speak their minds without getting into horrible trouble, except possibly with their bridge club.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I'm not interested in having a legacy, because you can't control it. If you follow the posthumous careers of writers, they can go many different ways. You can be very popular and famous in your lifetime and then completely forgotten 50 years later. Or you can be somewhat obscure during your lifetime and then be very famous afterward. Or you can be neither. What I say to young people is that there are four kinds of books: good books that make money, good books that don't make money, bad books that make money and bad books that don't make money. Of those four, you can live with three of them.

What gives you hope now?

I'm hopeful about young people because they're taking an interest in the future of the planet. And I'm also hopeful about America, at a time when some Americans are not, because I don't think it's over for America yet. I think America is an ornery and diverse enough place that it would be very hard to get everybody to line up and do some kind of weird salute, even though the country has had a fascist undercurrent since the 1930s or so. I'm counting on Americans’ crankiness and orneriness to keep things from going too far in either extreme.

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