Canadian author, poet and critic Margaret Atwood has been a member of the Royal Over-Seas League since 2003, but her connection with the club goes back much further; winning the 1987 Canadian/Caribbean region of the first Commonwealth Writers Prize competition. With The Handmaid's Tale having recently been turned into a hugely successful television series, we look back at an interview she gave to Overseas magazine shortly after becoming a member...
When did you start writing?
I began seriously at the age of 16, though I has written much earlier, as children do. But I had given it up and had some idea of being a painter. There is a particularly muddy depiction of an orange and a glass bowl that dates from the pre-writing era.
Some of your work has a science-fiction element, some has taken a more historical look at society and some examines more contemporary issues. What inspires you?
Always the most improbably thing - the book that appears impossible at the beginning. If I have a complete idea of a book it's more than likely that I won't finish it. You have to want to know what's around the bend in the river - the part you can't see until you go there. And you go there through the writing. The writing is the labyrinth, the thread and the monster at the heart - all three.
The Handmaid's Tale was recently adapted and performed as an opera. How does it feel to see you work interpreted by someone else and presented through a different medium?
Strangely enough, opera as a form is better adapted to translate a very inward book such as The Handmaid's Tale than is, for instance, film - because in opera, characters can sing their unspoken thoughts. And opera is a less literal form. It has no pretence to realism. So it can be very powerful without depicting every pore on the nose.
In Oryx and Crake the narrative vehicle is a man called Snowman. Your main character is usually female and normally serves to highlight certain women's issues. Did you come across any hurdles as a woman writing from a man's perspective?
Of course there is no such thing as 'a man's perspective', that is, a perspective that represents every man. Characters in novels are individuals. Elizabeth Bennet is not Molly Bloom. Snowman is not Mr Darcy.
Apart from that, I sometimes joke that I grew up in an all-male household - my father was a boy, my brother was a boy, and my mother was a boy too. She was a tomboy. So I got a close-up look, and then I was a counsellor at a summer camp in a cabin full of boys, and so it goes. I usually get my manuscripts read by experts in the field before I even send them to the agents, and thus it was I got a male opinion on Snowman. He had a couple of suggestions.
Oryx and Crake raises questions about the future of society as we know it. You have said that everything that happens in The Handmaid's Tale had either happened or is happening. As a writer is your main priority to warn your readers or to provide an enjoyable read?
Do you feel you should make a lovely thing or grind an axe? Perhaps you could make lovely thing while grinding an axe? If a book is not entertaining in any way at all, no one will read it. But if it is only entertaining, no one will read it twice.
Have you any ideas for your next book?
Absolutely none whatsoever. You always have to work up to it. There has to be an excellent reason for putting yourself through it. A novel is hard work.