Fiction-writing, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood told a group of MIT students, is a combination of world travel, political science, autobiography--and constant, automatic use of a purse-sized notebook.
Atwood is best known for "The Handmaid's Tale," her 1983 dystopian novel that has since been made into a feature film, an opera and a ballet. Earlier works included "The Edible Woman" (1970), "The Robber Bride" (1994), and "The Blind Assassin" (2000), winner of the prestigious Booker Prize.
"Oryx and Crake" (2003), her novel set in the aftermath of a bioengineered apocalypse, was Atwood's topic in the 2004 Abramowitz Memorial Lecture, which she delivered April 4 in Kresge. She spent the next two days visiting labs and classes at MIT.
Atwood's hour-long conversation with the seminar students ranged freely over pop culture, books and politics. Before zeroing in on her own writing process, she recommended movies including "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix," and books such as "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi, "Crusades through Arab Eyes" by Amin Maalouf and the Harry Flashman novels by George Fraser.
The daughter of scientists, Atwood described her faith in the "personal life, meaning everything that goes on in your brain," and showed how kaleidoscopic this "everything" needs to be for art to result.
To create the credibly cold, polygamous world of the ominous "Handmaid's Tale," Atwood drew from historical examples of totalitarian regimes and set the action in a place both she and the students knew well--a futuristic Harvard Square.
"My rule for 'Handmaid' was: Don't put in anything that human society hasn't already done. Hitler and Stalin both started with plans for utopian societies and tried eliminating people who didn't fit the plan," she said.
"Totalitarian regimes have a real tendency to try to control marriage, reproduction and sexuality, too. Take China's 'one baby, one family' rule, the law that mandated four children per woman in Ceausecu's Romania, and Hitler's permitting the SS to have 'extra wives.' And that's just the 20th century," Atwood said in discussing her research for "Handmaid's Tale."
Atwood also revealed her own family's place in the history of repressive regimes. "Handmaid's Tale" is dedicated to Mary Webster, an ancestor of Atwood who was tried as a witch in Boston. Webster was condemned to die, yet survived her own hanging and lived 14 more years. Atwood, dressed in a black outfit accented with a turquoise scarf, recounted this macabre tale with a comfortable smile.
But the gloom of history isn't the only one Atwood believes a writer must somehow befriend. The shadows within must also be honored. Advising young writers, said Atwood, means steering them away from the predictable and normal. "You need to go into the darkness. You need some blood in the cookie," she said.
To illustrate, she described herself as a child telling scary stories to other children, "giving them nightmares." As her own daughter grew, Atwood contrived murder-theme parties for her and her friends.
Thus, "everything" in a writer's mind includes a good dose of deep gray. For Atwood, this arises partly from memories of the impact of war on her country, and partly from traveling widely and seeing the effects of impending or ongoing modern wars. The sarcastic tone of early works such as "Edible Woman" now seems far away, replaced by Atwood's capacity to write about darkness head-on.
But tackling depressing topics for writing should not depress writing itself, which is always an "act of optimism," said Atwood. "Take 'Elizabeth Costello,' by J.M. Coetze, a depressing book about the futility of writing--but it is a book! Any act of poetry, fiction, nonfiction is an act of hope."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 14, 2004.