Hi, I'm so happy to see you again.
Hi, Kelly, here you are, yeah.
It's great to be with you. So we've been talking to all these people about stories, why we tell them and how we tell them, and what their potential is. I don't know if we've talked to anybody who has created more stories from whole cloth than you have. Do you have a point of view after all of this storytelling that you've been doing for all these decades about why people need and love story?
Long ago, Kelly--
Yeah, tell me a story about story, that's what I want! I wanna cozy up to your fire.
Before you were born, way back in the Pleistocene, we developed an incredible human tool, and it is probably the thing that distinguishes us as human beings, and that would be articulated language with a past tense and a future tense. And as soon as you have articulated language with a past tense and a future tense, you have stories. So if you look at what small children do without any prompting before t...
hey're, say, three or four, they pick up language. They pick up rhythm and music, little kids are into that just spontaneously.
I remember vividly.
Images, once they get to wallpaper and a crayon, it's--
Picasso time. And storytelling. And they can understand this happens, this happens, this happens, quite a ways before they can do that themselves. But they have the idea.
Of cause and effect.
There's a narrative thread. Maybe not even cause and effect, but sequence. So not necessarily this happens because of that, but this happens, and then this happens, and then you turn the page and this happens. So, that's really old, and it far predates writing.
And who are the great storytellers in your life growing up?
Growing up, that would be my mother, a bright storyteller, an oral storyteller. She wasn't a writer in any way. So, her, my brother, was at that time a great storyteller. And, being an older brother, of course he started writing before I did; was a role model. We did that thing that the kids do of making the book first with the pages, and sewing up the spine, and then you, of course, once you have the little book, you have to fill it in.
Yeah, 'cause we want the product, right?
Yes, so we were in the writing phase of human history pretty early, not just the pre-writing oral phase, but we did that too, so we did a lot of oral storytelling.
And did you admire, did you consciously admire their ability to tell a story, or did you just kind of take it in?
Well, the thing about stories is if they're well-told, they're inherently entertaining to small children, to medium-sized children, to young adults and to old adults alike. So it's not a story unless it has a shape of some kind. So my vacation in Paris, and here's all the photographs of--
(laughs) here's Clyde, you haven't met Clyde, but we met him in Paris and here he is standing in front of the Eiffel Tower! That is not exactly a story.
Yes, maybe we can make an extra note of that for all the people who are still trying to foist that upon--
You can make Clyde into a story, but there has to be something that has happened to Clyde.
What was the first story you wrote, do you remember?
My first novel?
No, your first, like, do you remember like the first--
Well, we wrote comic books. We were the comic, I'm really old, Kelly.
I had heard that about you, but you don't look it!
Well, thank you, I will say. Um, so, yes, it was the late 40s when all of this was going on, so it was radio and it was comic books. Television had not hit at the consumer level yet, so our idea of what we could do, was not only writing, print stories to put in these little books, but also writing comic books. So my first ones were probably comic books. And then my first novel, at the age of six or seven, was about an ant, and--
An ant on the ground, or an A-U-N-T?
An ant on the ground, yeah, so there was--
Uh huh, 'cause you were a nature girl, right? I mean, you were just in the woods?
Well, I was in the woods.
Raised by wolves.
Raised by wolves, raised by entomologists. Therefore it wasn't out of the question that this story should be about an ant, but the unfortunate thing about ants is that their early lives are uneventful. So, you're an egg, you're a larva, you're a pupa, none of these have any legs. And not until after all of that, so not until the last few chapters of the book, was there any action.
Tell me you have it, tell me you have it somewhere, please.
I do have it.
Oh, you've gotta publish it.
It's an object lesson in how not to begin a story.
(laughs) You have to publish it, it'll be the most encouraging piece of fiction--
You mean, look at Margaret Atwood cack up on her narrative?
Well I did that at lots of other occasions too, I have some later examples. But that is one. And then I started a sequel, otherwise I'd never have finished it.
I think it's interesting about comic books, though. I mean, if you, that's actually not a bad teaching tool for narrative, because something has to happen in each frame, there's dialogue, there's the limitations might actually lead you to think in terms of dramatic action. Do you agree with me?
Well they do, because most of the comics we were reading at that time were pretty action comics. So it was the first age, I think some people refer to it as the golden age. It was early Superman, early Batman, early Captain Marvel. And a whole bunch of others. And early Wonder Woman, I've gotta see that movie. Yes, and I notice that--
I can't believe you haven't seen it.
I can't believe you haven't seen Wonder Woman.
I've been busy!
You are Wonder Woman.
I know, I know, you have been.
But they seem to have set it in the first World War, whereas she was really a creature of the second World War. But she was the most popular action hero of the second World War.
And do you feel like you took anything away from those early obsession with comics?
Like that leads you, that has found its way into your storytelling?
Well, it found its way into my graphic novel series called Angel Catbird, which I didn't, however, draw myself, because my drawing is quite lumpy, but I have a wonderful illustrator called Johnny Christmas, his real name, and he can draw the appropriate musculature and wings for a flying cat-bird-human being.
Sure, sure, well I'm glad you found him. I don't think he would have gotten off the ground unless you had found--
As it were.
(laughs) Oh my god. You're so much faster than I am, like I'll never be able to keep up, I don't know why I'm trying. Um, how, what have you gotten much better at?
In my life?
Like, what did you de--
'Cause I've got a number of other things, but they're in the--
Yes, well we're open to that too, we don't need to--
The plumbing the apartment.
I've gotten much better at fixing toilets.
I'm quite good at caulking.
Okay, we're back, we're going back to story, what (laughs) have you gotten better at on the page?
The key to caulking, Kelly--
(laughs) Oh my god.
Is to have a good masking tape that is quite wide.
Yes, next time you're doing it.
Next on the Home Repair from Margaret Atwood.
You have written so much. I mean, like, 40 books or something crazy like that? You must have learned so many storytelling techniques over the course of that work. Like, what has been hard for you to figure out how to do that you are finally getting your head around?
I don't think it works like that. I think you're always faced with the same blank page at no matter what stage you find yourself.
That is so massively depressing to me.
It's not depressing. Think of it as an opportunity. It's the same blank page--
Is that how you think of it?
So, it's a blank page. Anything can go on that page.
I, I, I mean, I'm only four books in, like, but I feel like each time I'm newly furious that I'm starting at the same space on the board. I can't quite believe how hard it is each time. It seems like with practice, in all other endeavors--
Well, if you were writing a generic kind of book, that would probably be true.
So if you were writing, for instance, a standard romance novel for a company that publishes nothing but romance novels. And they have a formula, so, what is better for the hero, unmarried, widowed, or married?
Uh huh, widowed.
Right. You're right, so you're a natural.
I'm a natural trash novel, pulp fiction, thank you.
How much younger should the heroine be than the hero? Or should she be--
Pretty good, yeah, seven, five to seven.
Let's keep going, what other questions do you have?
When should the first, of course, this is altering because the genre itself is altering, but it used to be that the first kiss should take place no earlier than page?
A little bit later.
More or less. You know, in the 60s, it used to be, but I think now they're getting sex--
Yes, we're all very impatient now. If they don't go to bed together on the first night, it's kind of a dud.
Well, once upon a time, they never went to bed together at all. It ended with a proposal and that was it.
Point being that if it's a formula like that, then you can get better at it. But if it's not, then it's the same blank page every time.
In which case, you should, one should congratulate oneself that it's just as hard this time because it means that you are not falling into these grooves.
And therefore one could feel--
If that is what you want to do. If you don't want to write the same book, only better. Or faster--
Are you daunted every time you start something new?
One is always daunted. Daunting is part of it.
And do you have any ways that you work around it, or you just go straight through the middle of it?
Did you ever read any Victorian literature, Kelly?
I think so, I must have.
Did you ever read Alfred, Lord Tennyson?
Yes, a long time--
Did you ever read any long narrative poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson?
Oh yeah, Alfred Pru, Prufrock?
No, that's Eliot. (laughs)
But there's a long narrative sequence about King Arthur, and the court of King Arthur, called Idylls of the King. And one of these sequences is about the quest for the Grail. And, the knight who is doing the quest arrives at the perilous castle. And there's an inscription over the door, and it says, Doubt Not; Go Forward. If Thou Doubts, The Beasts Will Tear Thee Piecemeal. So that's a good thing to repeat when you feel daunted. You have to go through the door, and not hesitate, because otherwise the beast will tear you piecemeal. And those will be the beasts of your own doubts and fears.
What do you think you're really good at now, as a storyteller?
Uh, well, I'm Canadian. You're not allowed to say that you're really good at anything.
Okay, what are parts of storytelling do you like?
What are you not too bad at?
What are you not too bad at.
What do you not really suck at? That would be the Canadian--
Margaret Atwood, what do you not really suck at? Is that easier for you to answer?
Yep, that's easier for me to answer. Okay, so what I don't really suck at anymore because I learned from writing that story about the ant, I don't really suck at the first three pages.
And so is that a joy for you?
Canadians aren't allowed to have joys, Kelly.
God, it's rough being a Canadian!
It is, but you can get used to it.
It's impossibly modest--
And never too happy.
I know, it's boring.
Yeah, they'll say she's too happy, she's self-satisfied.
Yeah, that's it, yeah.
What could be more distasteful to a Canadian--
Very distasteful, yes.
Than to be self-satisfied
Yeah, it's bad.
When, when you have a thing you're hot on, either you've got a character in mind, or a theme in mind, do you always know what bucket it goes in? Do you always know this is a short story, this is a novel, this is an essay?
No, it's never a theme, it's always a character, a scene, or a voice. So you find out what the theme is later, once you're really into it. So, I usually know and sometimes I'm wrong.
But you have things that you care so deeply about. I mean, you're obsessed with the environment.
Yeah, but it's not like a, it's not like a box. So the novel is not like a box that you're gonna put these things into.
What is it like--
It's more like a mud pie that you're going to sculpt, okay? So it's more like a blob that you're working with. And as you work with it, you find out what it isn't. And then you squish it up again, and then you make another shape, and maybe that will be the right one. And sometimes it isn't the right one, Kelly, and sometimes it is never the right one.
Yeah, how much, how many projects since you've started--
How many horrible failures have I? (laughs)
Yes, please, tell me more.
Well, apart from short stories, which there are numerous ones of those that didn't work out, two major novels that I got more than 100 pages into before realizing that this was a total loss and waste of time.
And you were sure, they don't linger in your mind?
You mean at that moment? Um, okay, remember the thing about the ant. Let's go back to that.
The pupa, the pupa? (laughter)
The story in which nothing happened for quite a long time. So I had one of those, and it came out of my desire to be more organized, Kelly, which apparently was a mistake. Because I tried the filing card method. Talking to other writers, I find I'm not the only person who has done this. So I was gonna be very organized, I was gonna have filing cards, and I was gonna have eight characters, and each of them was gonna have a section in each of five parts of the novel. Quick multiplication will lead you to understand that there were 40 filing cards. So I wrote things on the filing cards, and I started working my way through this scheme. And I got through it twice, therefore 16 chapters. That's a lot. And, we knew a lot about these people, we knew what they had for breakfast, what sort of socks they put on. Who their boyfriends were. You know, all of these things that we knew, but no events had taken place--
In 16 chapters?
Right, I was already up to about 150 pages, and I thought this thing is gonna be a thousand pages long, and nothing has happened yet!
Why, why couldn't something happen?
I was too obsessed with being organized.
Oh, how terrible.
Did somebody put it in your head that index cards were the way to go?
No, it was a self-inflicted wound.
Ah, well, that's all right.
It came from feeling that I was just not pulled-together enough and that I should not do all of this plunging into the blob of mud without knowing where it was going, but apparently that is the way I work, and there is no hope for it.
Well, but it's so smart to learn, I mean, I think such a huge part of work, for anyone, no matter what they do, is knowing how you do it.
Knowing what doesn't work for you.
Yes, for you!
But it does work for other people. I've known people who have outlined their entire novel on a wall. You know, like that.
And it, see, I mean I can see the attraction of something like that, I can imagine that it might make you feel a little bit more in control, and like you can see the road ahead a little bit--
I think it it would, I think it really would. And I think if you were writing for some television series it would be essential, because you can't just improvise as you go along. You have to know what's going to fit in with what, and you also have to know who's going to play what part at what time.
Yes, and often you're collaborating So you need to be able to show people--
Exactly, where are we going.
Where the story's gonna go.
Where are we going. But, it doesn't work for me.
What do you suck at?
What do I suck at?
What still can't you do the way you wanna do it?
Punctuation, Kelly! Well, I don't think I suck at punctuation, but my copy editor frequently thinks I suck at punctuation, so.
Well, that is the perfect thing to suck at, if you wanna be a writer, because many people can fix it.
Spelling, and punctuation.
That can all be fixed.
I mean, I get so angry as a mother of young girls who are handing in these papers, how much emphasis is on spelling and punctuation. I think, really, is this what we're worried about, it's so much harder to teach ideas!
How old are these guys?
14 and 16.
Well, there are programs on the computer that will tell you things.
Now, sometimes those things are wrong, but nonetheless, it's not hard to fix. And when I announced at the age of that I was gonna be a writer, I don't know what put it into my head to come out with that, but I evidently had no inhibitions about it, my mother said, after biting her tongue, (laughs) she said, "If you're gonna be a writer, "you'd better learn to spell."
And I said, "Others will do that for me."
And you know what? That's right, yeah.
Yeah, my mom said, when she read my first book, which I mean, I write memoirs, so she's in it--
And you would think that the emotional engagement would be sort of given, considering that it's her life I'm writing about, or our life together, and she said, "Well, it's very good, Kelly. "I mean, I didn't see any misspellings, "and I thought your grammar was excellent!" (laughs)
And I was like--
That was backhanded compliment!
That's what you took away from like 300 pages about our family, is that I know when to say whom? She was delighted that I said whom, instead of who. Yeah, keeps you humble. (laughter) Um, how, how distract, I mean, you're in the middle of this Handmaid's Tale, like, explosion, and I wonder how distracting is it for you to have so much other in your life? Like here's writing and storytelling, and here's all the things that have sprung from it? Is that finding the balance between those two activities and those, like, is your mind taxed?
It's always been like that, but this is more.
This is crazy, right?
Yeah, this is quite insane.
Yeah, never could have seen this coming.
Not me, no! (laughs) No, I did not see it coming. And neither did, you know, maybe five people on the planet. There's one pollster, one expert on something or other who saw it coming, and apparently there's a chimpanzee or a famous monkey that picks presidential winners.
And the monkey picked Trump.
Oh, but I'm talking about, could you have seen Handmaid's Tale coming? But you're saying, could you have seen Handmaid's Tale and Trump happening at the same time.
That they were connected, for sure.
Are you pleased with it? Do you like what they did with it?
The series? The series is very well done. The acting is stellar, I mean, you can't name anything about it that is not well done.
Isn't that wonderful?
It is, actually very lucky.
To see it come to life, yeah. Have you seen other stuff come to life of yours that you did not like the way it turned out? You're not allowed to answer that.
Canadians are not allowed to be negative, except about themselves.
Yes, it's perhaps. Yes, but this goes back a long way into the past.
And does it seem insanely tempting to you to have your stories told twice that way, like the way you tell them on the page and to see them told again with different--
Well, this has been going on for a while, so we had a feature film in 1990. There's been an opera, which is actually pretty good. There's been a ballet, there has been, there's right now a graphic novel somebody's turning it into a graphic novel. So, and of course, it's been an audio book, Claire Danes did a very good rendition of that.
Uh, so it's had--
Why do you think so many people want to experiment with retelling that story? I think there are some books that escape from their covers. And become something recognizable. So if I say, Ebeneezer Scrooge, you know who that is. He's definitely escaped from his own story. He gets into ads for Christmas presents, all sorts of things. And if I say Captain Ahab, you know who that is. So, it's just somehow gotten out of the box. I think partly because it's visually so recognizable.
So you have people, for instance, dressing up as handmaids and sitting in legislatures. That's happened in several different states.
That must make you happy. Does that make you happy?
Well, no, because--
I mean, I know you're not allowed to be happy--
The reason that they are doing it is that they are silently protesting negative laws. So it's perfect, in a way, because they're not causing a disturbance, they're not saying anything, they're completely silent. They're just sitting there, but everybody knows what they mean.
Isn't that incredible?
So, in that way it's a recognizable symbol.
What did you think you were doing when you were writing that? I mean, were you just inside the story, or did you think this is gonna have such--
Well, the story is connected with human history in that I didn't put anything into it that has not happened somewhere, sometime, someplace, and often repeatedly. So right now I'm answering a questionnaire from a French publication, and one of the questions they have asked is what historical facts did you use? So, I've got several right from France that will make them very happy, they will recognize their own French Revolution, subject being, people torn apart by mobs.
It is, they shouldn't have asked that question.
So, in the French revolution, it was Princesse de Lambelle who was torn apart by a mob. In early Christian history, it was the female philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria who was torn apart by fanatical Christians. She was literally shredded--
When you sat down to write that, had you already sort of collected these historical references and thought I know what I'm doing here, and I know what the rules are of my world, and I know that I'm not going to invent, and I know that I'm gonna--
You know, I knew that I wasn't gonna invent. Had I already collected the historical things, they were there; I hadn't been collecting them. But once you start looking for something, so I sometimes say my mind is like your grandmother's attic. There's all kinds of junk up there, but when you want something, you can go up there and start pawing around amongst the dress forms and old ancestral pictures, and you will find the thing you're looking for. So, it's all there, but I don't look at it until I'm, until I know what thing I want. So there's a couple of different ways of doing the research on a book. And one of it is to do, one way is to do all the research ahead of time, which I find cluttering, because you often don't know what you need until that moment when you need it.
Yes, and also, sometimes I feel in different ways if you invest too much upfront into something, either making a sentence beautiful or going to the ends of the Earth to get some research, then you feel this greater need to use it.
Yes you do--
You're a little too precious about it--
And then you can clog things up. So the person who has a lot to say about that is Hillary Mantel, who's written this series about Thomas Cromwell of Henry the VIII, called Wolf Hall, was the television one. And she did do a lot of research, but that can create a problem. So I tend to do it backwards. I write the story, and then I check out the facts to see if--
And you're character-driven. You're seeing Offred first?
Character, voice, situation, um, setting, all of those kinds of things. So it's always a person with a voice someplace. Eating something and wearing something.
Uh huh. Are you working on something now?
I never tell.
Okay, we're sort of out of time. So I'm gonna ask you my questions now.
All right, these are the evil Kelly questions.
Name a book you wish you had written.
Collected Works of Shakespeare. You can't do better than that.
What was the last story that made you cry?
Okay, book or a story?
Okay, so I cry in movies more than I cry in stories. And the last one that made me cry was quite recently because I've just seen the first two episodes of Alias Grace, which is coming in September, on September the 25th. And one of the scenes in Alias Grace made me cry, and when you see it, you will know why.
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
My mother would never write a book, never written a book. But supposing that she had. My dad would have written a book.
What would his be called?
She Should Have Been A Botanist. (laughs)
Really, is that what he wanted you to be?
Yes, he did. My mother would have written one called That's Very Nice, Dear.
Or else, I Raised an Alien, one of those two.
Who can't you live without, creatively speaking?
Well, there's a lot of them. But I guess I just have to sort of pick one out of the air because otherwise you're not going to be satisfied, are you?
No, I'm not.
Okay, William Blake.
If you could get everyone in the world to read one book, what would it be?
All right, so we live in difficult times, Kelly.
Yes, we do, Margaret.
So it would either be a book called Behave, which is about human behavior from every possible point of view, 'cause we really need to know why we do the things we do, including a lot of the bad things we do as human beings. And the name of the author of that book is Sapolsky, and it just came out. Behave, it's 800 pages long. Enjoy yourself. Or, it would be a book about the most crucial problem facing us today, and that would be the fate of the oceans, because if the oceans stop producing oxygen, we will choke to death, but we'll become very stupid first. So, I think I would recommend a book called Plastic Ocean. There's a lot of them, things having to do with oceans. So those would be--
I'm gonna go with Plastic Oceans.
Human behavior and fate of the oceans, both very crucial for us to know about. That's where everybody in the world, before that can happen, we're gonna have to do a lot of literacy programs, Kelly, because some people can not read.
(laughs) Oh, I love you so much.
I love talking to you, I think you are--
It's 'cause you think I'm really weirdly pedantic, right?
I love it all, I love the whole thing, and I just feel so lucky to know you, and I think you're a treasure. And I'm gonna say it to your face, you're a treasure.
Mm hmm, thanks. (cheerful music)