Margaret Atwood, the best-selling and world-renowned author of over 70 works of literature, just published a new collection of short stories in September titled Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. In true Atwood style, the collection covers a range of topics; there’s love, death, starving artists, and even some vampires. Regardless of each storyline’s outcome, the author’s words are always cause for laughter, deep thought, and pure enjoyment.
The short story collection comes one year after Atwood completed her MaddAddam trilogy, which she published last September and was also picked up by HBO to be turned into a television series. The combination of Atwood’s recent career moves leaves us wondering if there’s anything she can’t do. Our guess: No.
In the meantime, BuzzFeed had the chance to catch up with the author on the phone while she’s busy globe-trotting and promoting Stone Mattress. Here’s what she had to say:
Stone Mattress is your first short story collection since you published Moral Disorder back in 1996. What inspired you to get back into writing short fiction again?
Margaret Awood: Well I think probably the first one is the title story. I guess I wrote a couple of them earlier than that, but the title story really was written on a boat in the Arctic to amuse the fellow passengers. They were really interested in how you might murder somebody on a ship in the Arctic. I think they were a little too interested. So I started that, and I started reading it to those people. It wasn’t finished by the time we finished the trip and they said they really wanted to know how it came out, so I finished it. Then it got published in the New Yorker so I sent them all an email telling them where they could read it. I actually received quite a lot of responses from people who were very keen on it.
So enough people liked it that you continued writing more short fiction?
MA: Yeah. My original idea was to put together all the somewhat wacky stories that I had written but some of them were too short; I didn’t include them. But I did include the one in which the family of the girl puts her out of sight because they’re afraid that it will influence their other daughters’ chances of getting married.
MA: There really was an ice storm just like that last year. So I was writing that story right after that ice storm and indeed I did put the kitty litter on my front steps because all of the ice melt had been used up, and it took really a long time to get it off. I didn’t realize it but now I know what kitty litter is and it’s clay.
Oh wow, I never knew that.
MA: Well, you’d know it if you put it on your front steps. It really sticks to it and then it turns into this clay. In the summer it turns into dust. Anyway, a lot of people did that because they couldn’t get the ice melt, and a lot of other people had a terrible time because the electricity went off and it was very, very cold. So there were people huddling in stores and doing everything as I described [in “Alphinland”]. It’s all true.
Some of your other work, like the MaddAddam trilogy, focuses on how people survive in these post-apocalyptic words. But in Stone Mattress the stories also touched on the different ways that human beings have to survive in more general terms — not necessarily in the event of an apocalypse, but just in everyday life.
MA: In everyday life or in other things: for instance, earthquakes, wars, any of those things, ice storms. Any of those things that disrupt the social fabric and the infrastructure that we all depend on. Then you start thinking, what am I going to do next? And sometimes you make a wrong decision.
Do you think that the theme of survival is something that you intentionally included or is it just so inherent to human nature that it made its way in there?
MA: Well, a bit. I mean some of them are just playing around; they’re risk takers. For instance, the speaker in “The Freeze-Dried Groom” likes being on the edge. And a lot of people do like that; that’s why they go surfing and do out-of-the-box skiing, and all sorts of risk-taking things like that. They find it very exhilarating.
Do you think that writing fiction and creating these new realities and world building is an effective way for people to cope with reality, as a survival tool?
MA: In a way, it’s a psychic survival tool but it’s very, very, very ancient. So, the Romans had a festival called Saturnalia in which you could act out in ways that you probably could’ve gotten into a lot of trouble for doing on an ordinary day. And Carnivale and all those things, Halloween, those are all pretty old things. And they are a holiday, they are like a, take a break from reality and to go into another reality, but the ticket is only good for a limited amount of time.
MA: I did a piece with a young German artist, Tobias Benzel — a conceptual piece of art. He was going around the world talking to artists and writers in cemeteries, and then taking their picture in the cemetery with the Polaroid camera. Then you sat on a park bench in the cemetery and discussed mortality for a radio segment that he did. He’s now published a book of these quite silvery-looking photographs, and he said that the younger writers up until the age of about 33 or 34 were quite happy to do it because they, of course, don’t think they’re ever going to die. The older writers, from about 60 on, were quite happy to do it because they know they are. But the ones in between didn’t want to think about it. So, the moment when they’re having their families, when they’re making their mark, when they’re having the middle part of their life, they didn’t really want to consider it.
MA: Naomi [Alderman]’s the author of this game called Zombies, Run! It’s an exercise that you stick into a portable device, and into your ears — it’s not a visual thing — and you go for a run, and you know how boring that can be. So, you get something like an old time radio serial, but you’re in a world of zombies and you’ve been sent out to get the water bottle, supplies, and things for your belabored humans. You’re running along and your dispatcher says, “You’re all clear, pick up the water bottle. Pick up the Band-Aids. Oh no, I made a terrible mistake, there are zombies all around you! RUN!” So then you run faster, and it’s measuring your rate and things, and then when you get clear of the zombies you can slow down.
Do you use this? Have you ever played it?
MA: Even better, I appear on one of the episodes in Series 2. I appear in the one in which they have lost contact with Canada for months and months, but they finally make contact with me at CN Tower in Toronto, which is quite high and the zombies can’t get up there. And I’m describing what’s happening in Canada, namely the entire government has been zombified and worse than that, so has the NHL hockey.
MA: You know that on the audiobook, Rob Delaney reads “The Freeze-Dried Groom”?
I did not know that.
MA: It’s pretty hilarious. That’s a use of the internet, because I’ve never actually met Rob Delaney but we seem to be having this little flirt going on.
The internet, technology, social media are all present in the book; you drop these little hints of it and talk about it. I know you mentioned Craigslist and Dropbox.
MA: Well, that is the universe that we live in, just as once upon a time you would’ve had people using a telephone of a certain kind, or you would’ve had them listening to the radio but not a television because no one had a television yet. You have characters using stuff they use. Very few people are not connected.
As someone who didn’t grow up using the internet in the same inherent ways a lot of younger people do today, what has been your experience in learning to adapt to it? I know you have a great Twitter presence.
MA: My experience with it is that I try everything, so I’m quite familiar with BuzzFeed, and I’ve retweeted quite a few things from it. People like it. BuzzFeed is quite followed, especially when you do things like, “10 Most This,” and, “10 Most That.” People like those. I try all of these things and I find that some of them are better for me than others, and some of them are better for writing than others are, and some of them are better for pictures.
Do you know the site called The Toast? There’s The Toast, and the other thing for young people to try out their skills is of course Wattpad. Do you know about Terrible Minds? It’s this guy called Chuck Wendig — actually there is a lot of swearing; I just warned you. But when you get through the swearing, the advice on writing is pretty good. It’s very interesting on gender. He’s in the genre field and of course there’s quite a lot of pushing and shoving, and “you can’t come into the clubhouse” that goes on. But he’s a very astute commentator. And Story is a State of Mind is an online course that you can take in short story writing, and it’s very intensive and personalized, by which I mean that you pay for it, but not nearly as much as you would if you were at a university.
Do you think that utilizing technology and the internet is an important thing for authors and publishers to do?
MA: Well I think for publishing, I think finally the lightbulb went on. I built my own website for [2010 novel] The Year of the Flood because I felt that it wasn’t going to happen otherwise, and that’s when I started using Twitter. Then later, [the publishers] got on to Facebook and now they’re very good at it. But people working with publishers and internet tools in the early days, they were sort of in the broom closet. You know, people didn’t quite get it. But they do now, and Random House Canada, for instance, has a very good online magazine called Hazlitt in which they do the right thing; it’s not all about their authors — that’s the right thing. If it were all about their authors, we wouldn’t be interested in it.
MA: You have to tell people doing Twitter: Don’t make it all about yourself. That isn’t what you’d do at a party. You should talk about things that you might be interested in talking about with other people at a gathering. You should share the stuff you find interesting, the stuff you come across that you think other people might be interested in. Social media, social means sharing, and it also means gossip. It actually means quite a lot about that.
We actually just created a BuzzFeed Canada.
MA: Oh did you? Let me look at it. BuzzFeed Canada… that takes up a lot of characters.
Recently they’ve been writing a lot about Drake. Are you familiar with Drake, have you ever listened to him?
There are these rumors that he got a tattoo of the emoji praying hands and BuzzFeed Canada has been writing and sharing things about it. I’m convinced he didn’t do it.
MA: Has he denied it?
He hasn’t spoken about it, so he hasn’t denied it but he also hasn’t confirmed it and I feel like if he would be very proud of something like that if he actually did get the tattoo.
MA: Maybe he hasn’t heard about the rumor, but I can’t imagine that.
In your Acknowledgments section you wrote, “Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, and the long-ago teller of tales. We may safely assume that all tales are fiction, whereas a ‘story’ might well be a true story about what we usually agree to call ‘real life’. … Several of these tales are tales about tales.” I thought that was a beautiful way of putting how these stories were shaped. Which stories are the tales about tales?
MA: “Alphinland” is obviously a tale. So, Constance writing about Alphinland, me writing about Constance writing about Alphinland, is a tale about a tale. The second form of writing in that trio of stories is Gavin the poet, and the third form of writing is Margin and his transliterations from latin poetry of a smutty kind. And the fourth kind of writing which hasn’t happened yet is the graduate student who is going to write about all of these things. She’s the one who’s going to have the last word on them, no matter what they’ve written. So that’s quite funny.
When readers pick up your book and read these stories, is there any kind of message or anything you hope people take away from it, or is it just up to our own imaginations?
MA: Well, reading is one of the most individual things that happens. So every reader is going to read a piece in a slightly different way, sometimes a radically different way. So you can’t actually anticipate or dictate to a reader what they’re going to take away. It is like writing a piece of music: You put it out there, and each person playing that music is going to have their own interpretation of it. It will be recognizably the same piece of music most of the time, but it will be a different interpretation.
I’ve gotten a couple of messages from people I know [who’ve read the stories], and one of them said, “ROTFL.” And another one said that having just been put to bed with sciatica, she was reading the book in bed with the sciatica and laughing her head off. But those are people more of my generation who think this stuff is funnier than you do, because you’re still horrified by yucky old people … Kafka thought his stories were hilarious. We don’t necessarily have that reaction to them, but he certainly laughed his head off every time he read them out loud.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed reading Kafka.
MA: Yes, but he did. Because he didn’t know what was coming. That’s the thing, he didn’t know what was coming, in which some of the things that he sort of thought were funny stories like “In the Penal Colony” turned out to be way too close to the truth.
I guess you can never really anticipate everything, can you?
MA: You just never know.
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