How Margaret Atwood achieves it

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Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Margaret Atwood, the 82-year-old Booker Prize and Arthur C. Clarke Prize-winning Canadian author, is best known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Adapted into a popular Hulu series in 2017, the story has become a cultural siren, warning us of the dangers of an authoritarian society in which human rights are far from inalienable. But she is also the author of more than fifty books of poetry, critical essays, graphic novels and fiction. Now Atwood has released a collection of essays – his third – titled burning questions, which covers the post-9/11 era from 2004 to 2021. She spoke to The Cut from her basement home office in Toronto about drinking beet juice, reading her own book reviews, and benefits of shopping with a wheeled cart. Here’s how she does it.

On her morning routine:
I get up around 7:30 or 8 a.m. I make coffee and I have breakfast. I would have a fruit shape. I love beet juice these days, it lowers blood pressure. I don’t usually bother to cook myself delicious things. If junior family members are in residence, they can make French toast or a concoction with a younger generation staple called chia. There are all kinds of youth foods that weren’t there, like kale. I have no objection to these things.

In a typical working day:
I check in with my assistant Lucia and we review the day. (I’ve had an assistant since I had a baby.) We have a to-do list with deadlines. Lucia gives me a piece of paper that says “Hope is calling,” for example, and what you are calling. It varies depending on what is going on. Right now I’m in the pre-book launch month, so there’s a lot of interviews.

My office is in the basement. We got the house in 1985 when it was a street where there was a lot of worship. There were sects, rooming houses and call girls. A sect called Therafields owned the house and divided it up in a way that was very helpful to me, as there was a separate back entrance and two rooms downstairs that were already used as offices. They had glued indoor/outdoor carpeting over the bare bare cement. Mold, mold, it all had to come out. We had to cancel some of the renovations, which were life threatening. So my office is over there. Books and files and contracts, the printer, the photocopier, the scanner. I have my other office where I answer a lot of emails and where I write. Or in the kitchen.

If you miss a meal:
There’s that moment when a junior member of the family will say “what did you have for lunch?” and I’ll be like, “Oh, do you think I’ve had lunch?” They watch me. I was a teenager who could barely wait until dinner was over so I could leave and do one of my projects. So sometimes, eating escapes me.

On maintaining a regular schedule:
I am a big disappointment in this regard. As a student, I was a night worker. When I had a child, the writing took place while the child was sleeping, which varies over the course of a child’s life. Then when the child goes to school. Then the kid goes to college and you pick up some of your old bad habits, like writing at night. I always do, but it’s a bad habit. You may lose track and not get enough sleep.

Stay active:
I try to take 10,000 steps a day, all day long. I don’t drive and run errands with my little wheeled cart, embarrassing the junior members of the family. I think it’s my job to embarrass them – it gives them something to talk about. But trolleys are very useful – it means you don’t have to carry 16 bags home on your shoulders. Sometimes I take a pac-bag.

When she felt she had “succeeded”:
I always did what I wanted, but it depended on how many side jobs I had to have to support it. The time when I didn’t need to have another job, but could be independent – that was 1972 – that was it.

On treating writer’s block:
What I usually do is move on to another project. I was most stuck when I was trying to write a novel in 1983. We lived in England on the Norfolk coast, a great place for birdwatching. We [Atwood and her husband, Graeme Gibson] were each trying to write a book and none of our books came to anything. I was writing in a stone fisherman’s house. I got stuck and found myself reading books left by summer visitors about Mary Queen of Scots. Historical novels. When you find yourself doing this instead of your own writing, it’s a clue that you may not be very interested in what you’re doing.

On professional envy:
Envy is a powerful force, not just in artistic communities, but in life in general. Some cultures even think that if you have a disease, it’s because someone envies you. If you’re in a career or a vocation where you start with a bunch of other people at your same level and one person breaks through and gets a six-figure lead, there’s going to be envy. There is jealousy in chimpanzees, so why wouldn’t there be in us? So be aware.

Reading reviews from critics:
Why do it? [The work] is finished. You can’t do anything. And sometimes — excuse me — they can’t read. Later I might, but not before the book tour. Because if there’s a stinky review, it’s helpful to say, “I didn’t read it. There’s no point in arguing with a literary critic.

On the advice she would give to her younger self:
Learn to type. I did not do it. It’s very useful to type on the keyboard and not have to look down all the time and come back to the screen like I do. It hurts your neck. I can type, but I have to watch. Also, do back exercises.

During his evenings:
I always have dinner with someone. Just had two back-to-back dinners recently. Rapid tests were provided by junior members of the family to ensure this silly old granny doesn’t get COVID from her dinner guests. Everyone is social to some degree, but if you’re too social as a writer, you don’t write anything.

Then I could watch a really soothing kind of murder mystery. I just watched the new production of macbethwhich I found very well done.

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