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Video: Atwood on Heart, Marilyn Monroe-bots and the near future

Her latest novel The Heart Goes Last began as a serialized story published online in 50-page instalments.

Author Margaret Atwood poses for pictures at Penguin Random House offices.

Torstar News Service

Author Margaret Atwood poses for pictures at Penguin Random House offices.

TORONTO — When Margaret Atwood was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, science fiction was all the rage, from "Flash Gordon" comic books to novels like Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" and George Orwell's "1984."

A voracious reader, the aspiring writer was so drawn to the genre that she later made it her subject of study in graduate school.

So it's no surprise that some of her best-known novels — "The Handmaid's Tale" and the trilogy "Oryx and Crake," "The Year of the Flood" and "MaddAddam" — have what some call a sci-fi flavour, though Atwood eschews that label, calling these dystopian works "speculative fiction."

At first glance, her latest novel "The Heart Goes Last" (Penguin Random House) might also be classified as equally fantastical and part of a future not yet glimpsed, but the author disagrees.

This one is set "only very slightly" in the future," says the First Lady of CanLit.

"In fact, it could be today."

"The Heart Goes Last," on sale Tuesday, is the story of spouses Stan and Charmaine, who have been living in their beat-up car after losing their jobs and home following an economic and societal meltdown.

Terrified by roving gangs, the couple enrols in the Positron Project in the locked-down town of Consilience, where they spend one month living in a comfortable house, working at set jobs, then the next month as inmates of the local prison.

When Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in the house with his wife on alternate months while she and Stan are in prison, a series of events reveals how Positron's scheme for ensuring full employment using incarceration really works — putting Stan's life in jeopardy.

Despite its underlying theme of how the profit motive can bring out the darker side of human nature, "Heart" is marked by Atwood's hilariously wry and wicked sense of humour: the novel features Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, Marilyn Monroe robots and a Teddy bear as a love/lust object.

The genesis of the book was a little unusual, though in keeping with Atwood's comfort with — and some would say mastery of — social media and other forms of electronic communication.

"Heart" actually began as a serialized story on the website Byliner, with the author publishing roughly 50-page instalments in the same way Charles Dickens put out weekly or monthly episodes of his major novels in popular magazines more than 100 years ago.

"In order to write the novel you see before you," Atwood confides in a recent interview, "I had to pull it all apart and put it back together in a different way, and throw out all the repetitions you have to put in when you're writing in serial form to remind people of what just happened.

"It's a lot bigger," with a beginning and ending, she said. The Byliner version had ended with the fourth instalment, in which — spoiler alert — "Stan was in a box waiting to be shipped to Las Vegas disguised as an Elvis robot."

Where on Earth does she get this stuff?

"It's all around us," she says with a laugh, recalling that in the mid-'50s, when she was about 15, a young, hip-swivelling Elvis Presley made his debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show," much to the horror of parents everywhere.

"Elvis really put it out there. I was also a Marilyn fan. It's my little homage to the Elvises and the Marilyns," the Booker Prize-winning author says of her latest offering.

"Heart" won't be her last novel — she's in the midst of reworking "The Tempest" in prose form, one of several such projects by international authors who were asked to reimagine Shakespeare's plays for the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death next year.

And with 50-plus novels, short fiction, poetry and non-fiction works to her credit, there is sure to be more from the literary icon.

Yet nothing Atwood writes from here on in will be the final offering that fans will get to read.

That honour goes to "Scribbler Moon," the first of 100 manuscripts by mostly yet-to-be-chosen authors, which will be collected annually for 100 years and locked away in the Oslo library until their unveiling in 2114.

But doesn't it bug Atwood that she'll never know what readers a century from now will think of her book? 

"I think it's hilarious. It's like a time capsule. So you bury a thing in a cornerstone or whatever and you won't be there when they open it up," she says.

"It's sort of like being a non-existent fly on the wall."

When the final author adds his or her manuscript to the Future Library collection in 2114, it will be that writer's contemporaries reading the work, which the project hopes will be printed on paper made from trees planted around the time Atwood's book went into the vault.

"In my case, the people who will read it aren't born yet and their parents aren't born yet, and most likely their grandparents aren't born either," she says.

"So it's a rollover from generation to generation and a big vote of hope because it says that there will be people that will be in Norway, the trees will grow, the trees will supply the paper ... and people will be reading and they will know how to read.

"So it is a big plus-vote for the continuation of the human race."

Still, Atwood herself will be only a memory.

With her 76th birthday approaching in November, does she think much about death? Does it scare her?

"Death!" she exclaims with mock horror.

"Dinner table conversation used to be about who loved whom and who was getting divorced, and they were about babies and the kids."

Now, she says, table talk often focuses on whether one should choose natural burial, cremation or some other form of being laid to rest.

"There's this other thing called the Urban Death Project where you can get composted ... It's the same technique that farmers are now using to get rid of dead cows, covering them with sawdust and wood chips.

"I quite fancy it," says the avowed environmentalist.

"And it beats the hell out of being injected with a lot of chemicals and laid out in a casket."

 

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