Margaret Atwood’s face shows no signs of anger. It’s unseasonably cold outside, but she slips into this busy Brooklyn café with ease, removes one of her jackets, then her hat, and reveals a mop of curly bluish-gray hair. Her bag slips from underneath her arm on to the floor.
“Oh well! That’s where that goes, then,” she says gracefully, carefree. She smiles.
No, there’s no trace of outrage in Atwood’s voice. And that is a bit of a shock to me because right now, in America and across the world, people are quite angry at the agenda being set by President Donald Trump — in many cases so angry that they’re in the streets, attending local meetings, calling senators. And many of them are taking respite in Atwood’s work, especially The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of one woman’s efforts to survive a totalitarian theocracy that overthrew the American government. I encountered three people on the subway reading it in the last week alone, and there’s a new TV adaptation on Hulu, too. What does she make of this resurgence of interest?
“People are afraid of the future,” she tells me bluntly, and slightly removed. “People are afraid of a different kind of future that they weren’t afraid of, say, a year and a half ago.”
But to Atwood there are two kinds of futures. One is “politically bad” and the other is a “climatically bad” — one that would invariably lead to a “politically non-existent future, because there wouldn’t be any society.” A year and a half ago, Atwood explains, people were worried about a climatically bad future. But now they’re worried about both a climatically bad future and a politically bad future. And she writes about both possibilities, which is why people are coming back to her books (The Handmaid’s Tale has been back at the top of the best-seller lists since Trump’s inauguration.)
I tell Atwood that I’m also re-reading the book, and it’s helping me to feel less crazy. She laughs sweetly. “Well, I’m glad,” she says. Then she turns to the photographer, Adrienne, and asks her: Do you feel crazy too? “Definitely,” Adrienne replies. “But I like crazy.”
Atwood shakes her head. “No. No. Only to a point,” she says, firmly. “How about you can be crazy, but only if you’re calm about it and make uncrazy decisions.”
One way to make uncrazy decisions is by learning how to survive. And Atwood’s work deals a lot with survival, as well as often featuring women protagonists. She grew up in the northern woods of Canada and once said that “you had to know certain things about survival” and that she was taught “certain things about what to do if I got lost in the woods.”
Writing is Atwood’s own way of surviving. Now 77, she is prolific in almost every form she tackles: 16 novels, eight short story collections, 17 books of poetry, and 10 non-fiction books. She tweets. She reads voraciously. She has innumerable side projects. The day before we meet, she received the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle. When I congratulate her, she looks at me straightfaced. “There’s always a downside to that,” she replies, drolly. “You only get one.”
What advice does she have for people who have all this political energy and fury?
“Well, I think there’s creative anger and destructive anger,” Atwood tells me.
I can tell I’m going to be settling in for a detailed explanation.
She explains that “creative anger” occurs when you’re able to channel it “without panicking,” and create a system, a series of steps to achieve a goal outside of anger. But “destructive anger,” she tells me, is when “you shout out all around you” and direct your feelings of rage and anger at an object “which doesn’t deserve it.”
In times of extreme stress, she advises me, it’s important to avoid panic.
“Panic is your enemy, no matter what situation you’re in. So [you should be] training yourself not to panic. I would say that’s the basic thing, don’t panic.”
She offers a scenario: Someone begins shooting into a crowd. Should you drop to the ground? Are you within reach of a corner? In a split second, Atwood says, it’s impossible to know what your best option is. But she knows one thing: “Panic is not your friend. Running around circles screaming is not necessarily the best thing for you to do.”
Still, there’s a lot of panic in the air. White House policies — banning groups of people from the country, taking away affordable healthcare for millions, alienating allies — have a lot of people feeling terrified. She’s a guide for millions as we’re entering some very unchartered, dystopian waters.
Atwood laughs at the idea. “It’s been worse!”
Has it though, I ask? I’m only half-joking. “I know it has,” she says. “It’s been worse! Come on! In a lot of ways, for a lot of people.”
I’ll be honest: This doesn’t seem easy for a person like me who suffers from anxiety, and who has a few panic attacks under their belt. Her advice to use anger constructively seems reflective of her own constitution, her own survivor qualities.
“I don’t get enraged very easily,” she admits. “I have a notion that certain things are wrong… but I’m not angry, I’m energized.”
But it’s history, she says, that she relies on to keep her grounded in that energy. She rattles off dictators throughout history: Stalin, Hitler, Mao. “There’s a long list of them.” Younger generations don’t remember and didn’t live through these atrocities, she says. “They weren’t there and they didn’t live through them at the shipwreck moment, at the ‘what is happening?’ moment.”
In fact, history isn’t just a core element of her ability to cope — it’s central to Atwood’s writing process. Every character Atwood writes has a corresponding timeline of their life: She investigates their birthday, their birth year, and everything that occurred in the years before the novel takes place. “I just need to know: What was happening when you were 20, what was happening when you were five? What was the imagery and mood surrounding you?”
She offers her own life’s history as an example of how we’re informed by it. “When I was three it was dark, because it was not clear that the allies were going to win the war. So people were really gloomy. 1945, I remember being at VE day. I was old enough to remember that.”
Somehow, it’s a comfort to hear Atwood talk about old atrocities, to list old autocratic regimes and totalitarian leaders. And she reminds me that life has been — and is — worse for so many others in the world. For Americans, we’re lucky. People like me “were born into this situation where they already had certain rights, so the idea they’re going to disappear makes them go crazy,” she tells me. “It’s happened and un-happened many times in history.” ∆