Margaret Atwood On The Science Behind ‘Oryx And Crake’

33:36 minutes

“This is a fun-filled, joke-packed adventure novel about the possible downfall of the human race.”

Margaret Atwood had a sense of humor about her post-apocalyptic story Oryx and Crake when she first spoke with Ira Flatow about it in April 2004. The book, which she preferred to call “speculative fiction” rather than sci-fi, may be about “bleak times,” as she put it, “but lots of times have been bleak,” she said. “And one of the things we can do as human beings is we make jokes and we laugh.”

The book is told from the perspective of Snowman, the seemingly lone human survivor of a mysterious catastrophe that has wiped out mankind. But Snowman isn’t exactly alone. He lives near a group of human-like, genetically-modified creatures called “Crakers,” named for their creator, the brilliant scientist (and Snowman’s childhood friend) Crake.

Margaret Atwood (c) Jean Malek
Margaret Atwood (c) Jean Malek

“They’re genetically engineered to be better than we,” Atwood explained. “For instance, they’ve got built-in sunblock—that would be a plus. They’ve got built-in mosquito repellant—another plus. They’re completely vegetarian, and they can eat grass and leaves, unlike us,” she said. “But best of all, they will never have any sexual jealousy, because unlike us—we’re serially monogamous—they are seasonal, like lots of other animals and fish and birds.”

While Crakers still exhibit many of the traits we think of as quintessentially human—they dream, make music, and encounter theological issues—Atwood explained that, “Crake designed them to avoid the problems that we have as a species. So they’re not unhappy over all of the things that we ourselves get unhappy about. We get unhappy over limited resources. Well, they don’t need a lot of resources.”

The prospect of limited resources was forefront in Atwood’s mind when she pictured the future. “I think, for the first time in human history, we see where we might go,” she said. “We can see far enough into the future to know that we can’t go on the way we’ve been going forever without inventing, possibly, a lot of new and different things”—specifically alternative energy sources.

The Booker Prize-winner was also quick to point out that many of her novel’s seemingly far-fetched inventions had, in fact, already become reality.

“The things in the book that people may think are very weird—and they may think that I just made them up—some of them already existed when I was writing the book,” she said. “For instance, the luminous green rabbit—that was made for a magician who wanted to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but he wanted the rabbit to glow in the dark. So now it does.” The book’s “spider goat” was also “up and running,” she said. “It makes silk in its milk—very good for bulletproof vests.” (In fact, Science Friday visited a taxidermied BioSteel™ goat on display at the Center for PostNatural History in 2015.)

Atwood’s scientific research for the book filled up two big, brown boxes in her cellar, she said.

The Canadian-born author grew up with science in her blood—her father was an entomologist. “He had a little insect research station in northern Quebec, and that’s where I spent a lot of time as a child,” said Atwood. Her brother became a neurophysiologist. Atwood joked that her father “used to shake his head and say, ‘Botany lost a fine botanist in you.'”

But the desire to write ultimately drove Atwood’s course.

“You write the novels you can’t avoid writing, especially if you’re a congenitally lazy person such as myself,” Atwood joked to Ira. “If you absolutely can’t avoid it, and you know that you’re going to be thinking about it all the time unless you do it, then you have to do it.”

Segment Guests

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: You’re listening to “Talk of the Nation” Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, and for the rest of the hour, I’m joined by poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, author of over 25 volumes of fiction, non-fiction poetry, including the Handmaid’s Tale and Blind Assassin, which earned her the Booker Prize. Her latest book, Oryx and Crake is just out in paperback and is on the short list of nominees for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

And if don’t know what the Orange Prize for Fiction is, you put that into a search engine, and it’ll tell you it’s either awarded for the best short story about citrus fruit growers or to a woman who has written the best full-length novel in English. Margaret Atwood, which one is it? I suspect the latter.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, it would be kind of nice if it were the former, wouldn’t it? Give you a ready-made subject.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I don’t think I need a ready-made subject with you. You certainly have lots of subjects to talk about. What do you–

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yes, citrus fruit would be a challenge.

IRA FLATOW: Did you hear the last interview we did with this stem cell researcher?


IRA FLATOW: I was thinking of you–

MARGARET ATWOOD: –very interesting.

IRA FLATOW: I was thinking of you when we were doing that interview.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, if you picked up the Toronto paper today, a thing I’m sure you’re in the habit of doing, would have seen that we have a science story right on the front page. And what is it? Remember SARS? Remember that? that was the last year at this time.

They’ve now found a marker for it to allow you to tell it apart from ordinary flu very quickly. They just announced that today. It’s an immune molecule that turns up in SARS and not so in the flu. And they were able to do that because they whipped around and got samples from all of the SARS patients that were in hospital last year at this time.

IRA FLATOW: You speak like you’re a science reporter.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, I’m just giving you a few tips here.

IRA FLATOW: No, I like that. 1-800-999-8255. And your books, certainly The Handmaid’s Tale and now Oryx and Crake are certainly loaded with science in them. I mean, how much research do you have to do for these?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Not so much The Handmaid’s Tale. I would say that’s more of the costume design and you know, design a nation, design and political system.


MARGARET ATWOOD: But this particular one, we accumulated clippings from every little factoid in the book in our big brown research box in the cellar. And we got so many, then we actually had to go to two big brown research boxes. So all of the things in the book that people may think are very weird, and they may think that I just made them up, some of them already existed when I was writing the book, for instance the luminous green rabbit that was made for a magician who wanted to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but he wanted the rabbit to glow in the dark. So now, it does.

And the spider goat has been up and running in Montreal for some years. It makes silk in its milk, very good for bulletproof vests. And a number of the other things have either been made already, or people are working very hard to make them, for instance, the pigs that can grow transplantable organs. That would fit in with your previous item.

They’re working on that. They’re still having the rejection problem. But I think the kangaroo lamb might be a hit, because it would make– it would make sheep that would burp less. And this would reduce– don’t laugh now– you’re a science reporter.

IRA FLATOW: I’m listening

MARGARET ATWOOD: You’re not supposed to laugh.

IRA FLATOW: I’m taking notes. Go ahead.

MARGARET ATWOOD: OK. It would reduce the methane being released into the atmosphere.

IRA FLATOW: And that is a major problem. I know that.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, it is, actually. And they’ve got a substance that you feed to cows orally. It’s sort of like Beano. And that has the same effect on cows.

But if you could make cows that don’t even need this pill, think how good that would be. And there might even be a human application.

IRA FLATOW: The poorer condition the cow is in, the more methane it releases into the atmosphere.

MARGARET ATWOOD: I didn’t know that. So maybe we just need to have healthy romping cows.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s something there. And that’s why you say you don’t consider yourself to be a science fiction writer, because all these things you write about are quite possible and happening.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, no. Let’s just go back a few steps. It’s just a question of terminology. And some people call everything that isn’t say, a Jane Austen-like social novel, they call all those kinds of weird tales science fiction. And some people make a division between science fiction, which is the Flash Gordon of other planets, Star Trek, Star Wars kind of thing, and speculative fiction, which is more your 1984 could happen here type of fiction.

And I write the latter kind, could happen, probably part of it has happened and might well happen.

IRA FLATOW: Were you influenced by 1984?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I read Animal Farm as a child. And I thought it was going to be a fun book, sort of like Wind in the Willows about happy animals. And I had no idea that it was a political satire. I knew nothing about Stellan and Lenin and all of those goings on.

And I just was very upset by it because the horse dies. Not only that, the horse is horribly betrayed. He’s going to get made into dog food. And the bad guys win, namely the pigs who take over everybody and turn into tyrants. So I was quite disturbed by it.

And then I read 1984 probably a couple of years after it came out. So it was written in 1948. I think it must have been published in ’50, so just in time for me as a young teenager to read it in high school and be very upset by it too.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you were surrounded by science as a teenager. Weren’t you?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, from the moment I was born, really, because my father was an entomologist. And at that time, he was a research entomologist with the Canadian government. And he had a little insect research station in Northern Quebec. And that’s where I spent a lot of time as a child.

And my brother, who is an older brother, turned into a scientist. He started as a marine biologist and then became a neurophysiologist specializing in the synapse. So I strayed off the path. I was always a disappointment.

IRA FLATOW: Where did I go wrong, your father must have been saying.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yeah, he used to shake his head and say, botany really– botany lost a fine botanist in you.


IRA FLATOW: But on the other hand, it did not make you afraid of science. You were sensitive at an early age.

MARGARET ATWOOD: No, I’m not afraid of science.

IRA FLATOW: So you can write about it, yeah.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, yes, and scientists, of course, there’s no more skeptical person than a scientist about claims of other scientists. So we also learn to view these miracle cures and astonishing new things. You ask immediately, how did they do the study? You know, exactly what were they counting? Will this work? Does it really work? And what are the side effects of it going to be?

IRA FLATOW: On the other hand, Oryx and Crake deals with dystopia, which was technology goes nutty, dehumanizing everybody.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, technology never goes nutty by itself. You know, it doesn’t sit in a room going nutty yet.

IRA FLATOW: Not yet.

MARGARET ATWOOD: It’s people who–


MARGARET ATWOOD: Maybe we shouldn’t use that term, go nutty. Maybe we should say people who don’t always color inside the lines with the science that they have made. But any kind of science is really just a tool for expressing and perfecting human desires. And sometimes, it’s a tool for counteracting human fears.

For instance, we work very hard at ultimate weapons, because we’re afraid the other side might also get ultimate weapons and use them on us. So that’s the fear side. And the hope, wish, and desire side as things like fixing your heart with stem cells.


MARGARET ATWOOD: We wouldn’t be doing those experiments unless we wanted to fix our hearts. OK? So that’s part of the human dream, to live a long time. Along with that goes, be young and beautiful all the time as well, and a whole other wish list.

And a lot of the science that is done is aimed towards perfecting that list. Now, the residue is aimed towards satisfying our curiosity, which is also a very human thing.

IRA FLATOW: So is the bleak future in Oryx and Crake, is that a warning? Or is that a prediction?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, let us just say that this is a fun-filled, joke-packed adventure novel about the possible downfall of the human race. There’s lots of jokes [INAUDIBLE].

IRA FLATOW: Fun-filled, get it? And you have quite a sense of humor. I remember from the Kentucky Author’s Forum when we talked last time, I learned what a great sense of humor you have.


IRA FLATOW: And it’s in the book. It’s there in the book.

MARGARET ATWOOD: There you go. So we can say bleak, bleak times, but lots of times have been bleak. And one of the things we can do as human beings is we make jokes and we laugh. I suspect that parrots and occasionally even cats and dogs do the same thing secretly. But we certainly do it.

And while you’re laughing, you’re still alive. Let’s just put it that way. Back to your question, yes, how dystopia possible future. Well, as I said, all of the factoids have their back up in the research books. But on the other hand, nobody can predict the future, because there are too many variables.

I think for the first time in human history, we see where we might go. We can see far enough ahead into the future to know that we can’t go on the way we’ve been going forever without inventing possibly, a lot of new and different things. And the other question is, will we have the political will to do that?

IRA FLATOW: And you’ve never been shy about expressing politics.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, in the larger sense, that’s true. It doesn’t usually come down to who you should vote for. But like everybody else, I’m very fond of making up speeches that I wish some leader would give. I wish some later would say, I know that we should not be snarled up in oil in the Middle East, and therefore, I’m going to devote a lot of time and energy to alternate sources of energy right here in North America.

IRA FLATOW: Is that a topic for a book, alternate sources of energy?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I think it should be a topic for– well, I’m sure people are writing them. I can name two right now. You can look them up on your search engine. Type in “waste into oil.” And if you don’t get it that way, type in “waste into oil Butterball turkey,” because one of these plants is up and running near the Butterball turkey farm. And it’s recycling the parts of the Butterball turkeys you don’t want to eat into oil.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ve–


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we talked about that.

MARGARET ATWOOD: You’ve done that one.

IRA FLATOW: Well, not that one, in particular. That’s a good one. We’ll have to look into that. We’ve talked about the oil that comes out of the McDonald’s deep fat fryers being recycled.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Oh, that’s last year.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m going to have you more on more often so you can point this in the right direction.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yeah, on this one, you can put in not only parts of the Butterball turkeys that you don’t want, but you can put in any carbon-based form. So the mob can recycle people it wants to. Anything except metal shirt buttons. They come out a little separate drawer at the end.

IRA FLATOW: Have to look for the pile of those–


MARGARET ATWOOD: You get water and oil, and it’s a nice light grade oil, very usable. Think of how good that would be. And the other thing you should look into is gas hydrates, because there’s enough gas hydrates frozen on the earth today to run the economy as it now stands for 117,000 years.

IRA FLATOW: What do you think about hydrogen?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Don’t know much about hydrogen. I’d say that it’s not there yet, by any means. But should we not get there in say, 30 years, we would be well advised to have developed these other things first.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Margaret Atwood this hour, author of Oryx and Crake on “Talk of the Nation” Science Friday from NPR News. Lots of people would like to talk to you. So how about we take a phone call or two and see where that– what kind of trouble we can get into there.

Susan in Oswego, New York. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

SUSAN: OK, well, first of all, I’m just thrilled to be able to speak with you, because your books have had a profound effect on me, as well as bunch of people that I know. Now, my question is, is obviously, you’ve been highly steeped in science family, whatnot, but trying to look at your books as a whole, do you think that this is a progression, your latest novel? And also, your characters from previous novels? I mean, like Cordelia in Cat’s Eye, for example, I mean, she could have a book all to herself.

What do you think about maybe reinventing some old characters and bringing them back?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, you know what they used to say, art is long, life is short.

SUSAN: Yeah.

MARGARET ATWOOD: If I have some of these guys get to work on my heart with their stem cells, and maybe I’ll live another 100 years and be able to do all of those things. They all– don’t think they haven’t occurred to me. I don’t know about this book being a progression. It’s the first one that’s had a male narrator who got the whole story all to himself.

So whether you think of that as a progression or not, I’m not sure. It’s certainly the most disastrous novel I’ve written. Would that be a progression or–

SUSAN: All depends how you look at it, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you put “men” and “disaster” together in two sentences.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Oh, would I make such a link?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, come now. There’s some gambling going on in here. Thanks for calling.

SUSAN: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: So we can’t expect another science-related book coming out next?

MARGARET ATWOOD: We don’t know what to expect next, because as I said, nobody can predict the future.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, OK. I read between those lines. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We’re talking with Margaret Atwood. But let me ask you why you came so late to the table– let me put it a different way– with having a science-based book like this?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Why I came so late to the table. Well, I’ve had some many fictions before that time, which you can find sprinkled. For instance, there’s a little book called Good Bones and Simple Murders. And some of those are– they’re very, very small. They’re a couple of pages long– but one of them is narrated by intelligent insects from another planet.

And one of them, called Hardball, is a mini disaster story. So I haven’t been slacking off. I’ve just been painting on a small canvas in this area.

IRA FLATOW: So did you just think this was the right time to do this? Or just something that was bubbling in your mind?

MARGARET ATWOOD: You know, you write the books you can’t avoid writing, especially if you’re a congenitally lazy person, such as myself. Think how much fun it would be actually not to write a book.

IRA FLATOW: I can’t think like.

MARGARET ATWOOD: You’re thinking.

IRA FLATOW: I can’t remember the newspaper columnist who retired recently from The Times. I can’t think of his name. I’m having a senior moment. He said, “I love the act of having written, but not the act of writing.”

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yes, well then, it was time for him to retire. But I’ve been like that all my life.

IRA FLATOW: So is this not your swan song then?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Oh, no. Not by any means, no. But I think my point about the novel is that if you absolutely can’t avoid it, and you know that you’re going to be thinking about it all the time unless you do it, then you have to do it.

IRA FLATOW: So you just then sit down and do it?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Then you do it. And sometimes, you then throw it out. And that is one good thing about writing books. You get a second chance. It’s not sort of messing up the grand aria of the opera, where everybody’s watching you. You can write in secret and then say, this is truly bad. Now, I shall put it in the wastepaper basket.

IRA FLATOW: OK, we’re going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with Margaret Atwood, author of Oryx and Crake, just out in paperback. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.


This is “Talk of the Nation” Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You’re listening to “Talk of the Nation” Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, talking with Margaret Atwood, author of Oryx and Crake, her latest book, which is now out in paperback. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Let’s go to the phones. Bobby in Tallahassee, hi. Welcome to Science Friday, Bobby.

BOBBY: Hi. How are you? Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Fine. Go ahead.

BOBBY: Besides your parents and your brother, were there anything else that influenced you into writing?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, they didn’t really influence the writing. I came to that on my own, although the family always read books. So they were the science end. My dad was a scientist. My brother was one.

And everybody else in the family, except my aunt– maybe here’s the influence– my aunt wrote Sunday school stories. So she was the writer. And I think she was an early encourager of mine when I was in high school.

And I should mention also, my high school English teacher. His name was Bessie B. Billings. And Bessie B. Billings, when I was 16, was encouraging to me, whereas Florence P. Smedley, the one from the year before– when asked by a documentary maker whether I had shown any promise, she actually told the truth. And she said, not in my class. Refreshing honesty.

So I don’t know how it happened. It was the ’50s. It was Canada. You wouldn’t expect such a thing to happen, becoming a writer then. But I just started doing it.

BOBBY: Do you only write fiction?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I write poetry, and I write non-fiction. I do quite a lot of writing for sometimes, newspapers, and sometimes magazines. And I write film scripts from time to time. I’ve never written a play.



IRA FLATOW: OK, thank you for calling.

BOBBY: You’re welcome. Have a good day.

IRA FLATOW: You too.


IRA FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let’s see if we can get a few more phone calls in. Let’s go to Chris in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. When I worked in a car factory, I read a Handmaid’s Tale. And now, I’m having trouble hearing the exact title of Margaret’s current book on my car radio. It sounds like it’s works and something, as in Tolkien, you know? So what’s that title?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Let me spell it for you. Oryx, O-R-Y-X, and Crake, C-R-A-K-E.

IRA FLATOW: Does that help, Chris?

CHRIS: And this is a paperback original?

MARGARET ATWOOD: It’s a paperback. The hardback came out last year.

IRA FLATOW: Margaret, tell us the genesis of how you came up with that name for the book.

MARGARET ATWOOD: With the title– there are two characters in the book, Oryx is a female character, and Crake is a male character. And when the book opens, it opens in the middle of events. You’re not seeing either of them. You’re seeing the guy who’s telling us the story. And he started life as Jimmy.

And Crake was his best friend. And Oryx is a girl they both met on the internet. And when the book opens, which is, as I said in the middle of events, Oryx and Crake are both dead. But they’re continuing to occupy Jimmy’s mind.

Jimmy is living in a tree. And you’ll be happy to know that in the future, there will be duct tape. And with the duct tape, he’s made himself a platform in the tree. And there are no other human beings like himself in view. But there are some other people-like people who have earlier, been designed by Crake. And they have a lot of improvements.

IRA FLATOW: They’re genetically engineered?

MARGARET ATWOOD: They’re genetically engineered to be better than we. For instance, they’ve got built-in sunblock. That would be a plus. They’ve got built-in mosquito repellent, another plus. They’re completely vegetarian, and they can eat grass and leaves, unlike us.

So they’ve been modified in the direction of the rabbit, as to their digestive systems. But best of all, they will never have any sexual jealousy. Because unlike us, we’re serially monogamous, they are seasonal like lots of other animals and fish and birds. And to make things even more clear, when they’re in season, parts of them turn blue. Think how useful that would be.

There will never be any more, “no means yes.” There will never be any more, “I’m washing my hair, and I’ll be washing it again next Friday.” But mind you, these people will never write Othello. They’ll never write Shakespeare’s sonnets. They’ll never write Wuthering Heights, because they can’t write. Think of what an improvement that would be.

IRA FLATOW: What an improvement. And another thing they’ll never do is live very long. You’ve given them a definite lifespan.

MARGARET ATWOOD: They’ll never get old. They’ll never get old. Think of it as a plus. They just topple over at the age of 35. But they haven’t found that out yet, because none of them are 35.

IRA FLATOW: Why such limited people? Or well, they’re called Crakers in the book. They’re not really people in this–

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, they’re limited in– Crake designed them to avoid the problems that we have as a species. So they’re not unhappy over all of the things that we, ourselves, get unhappy about. We get unhappy over limited resources. Well, they don’t need a lot of resources.

We get unhappy about falling in love with people who don’t fall in love with us. That will never happen to them.

IRA FLATOW: So Crake has taken all the ambiguity, all the choices that we have to make, all the things that drive us nuts out of these people.

MARGARET ATWOOD: All of the things that drive us nuts, he’s tried to deal with them. Now, we’re not sure that he has succeeded. But he did his best. He was unable to get rid of dreams. They seem very hard-wired.

You’ve probably seen your dog dreaming. That’s the part where it kicks its legs and howls when it’s asleep. He could not get rid of music. That seems to be very deep in us. And he may have been unable to get rid of ultimately, theology of some kind, because we are a species that asks questions. And he couldn’t get rid of the desire to ask questions. And sooner or later, we’re going to ask, where did we come from?

IRA FLATOW: Did he get rid of love and beauty?

MARGARET ATWOOD: He got– oh, no. He made the beauty more beautiful. These people are very beautiful people. And they’re very loving and kind and affectionate. So no, those qualities are still there.

They even like Jimmy, who is not like them at all and is actually having quite a few challenges because he’s falling apart. But they’re very kind to him.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255, David in San Jose. Hi, David.

DAVID: Hi. It’s my first time on your show. And I always enjoyed your show, and, Ms. Atwood, I enjoyed your book.


DAVID: And I just want to quickly know, is it going to be made into a movie like the Handmaid’s Tale, which was also a great book and a great movie?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, thank you. We have been doing movie talk. You know movie talk? Movie talk goes on before movies actually happen. And in order to make this a movie of any interest whatsoever, you would have to make it quite well. Because otherwise, it would be a strange looking person hopping around in the shrubs.

DAVID: Well, maybe talking to Peter Jackson then.


MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, that’s a possibility. But you would have to do it– you would really have to put a lot of thought into it, I do believe.

IRA FLATOW: Would you allow Hollywood to take this on, or a smaller filmmaker?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Hollywood isn’t always bad. You know, people say Hollywood, and you go shock, horror, throw up your hands, roll your eyes. But you know, Hollywood isn’t always bad. In fact, Hollywood has done some great movies.

And with any movie, you have to keep in mind that you can have the best director, the best scriptwriter, the best actors, the best everything, and it can still be a horrible movie.

DAVID: Well, can I follow–

MARGARET ATWOOD: You can have–

DAVID: Oh, sorry.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yeah, you can have a completely unknown person who makes some terrific movie.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow, and this is “Talk of the Nation” Science Friday from NPR News, talking with Margaret Atwood. Go ahead, David, you want to–

DAVID: Well, were you happy with that way Handmaid’s Tale was made?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Handmaid’s Tale was a movie.

DAVID: Right.

MARGARET ATWOOD: And any movie is going to be more literal than a book, because movies can’t handle metaphor. I think, considering the fact that it was a movie, it was really pretty good. They did change the ending. And they couldn’t do the ending that’s in the book, because it would have meant a whole new cast of characters, and it would have been very puzzling.

But I think on the whole– and if you see it now, it actually seems a bit closer to something that might happen than when it came out. It came out in ’89 just when the Cold War was ending and the walls was coming down, and everybody thought we were entering a brave new future in which there would be no further conflict and everything would be wonderful forever. And that hasn’t happened.

IRA FLATOW: All right, David, thanks for calling.

DAVID: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: So who would you have starring in your new movie?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Who would I have starring? Oh, you’ve entered a category of questions I can’t answer.

IRA FLATOW: I knew there was something going on in the negotiations.

MARGARET ATWOOD: I usually turn to my people who work with me in the office, both of whom are under 30. And they’re really up on these things. They’ve got a lot of opinions. So I say to them, who would you have starring in that? They would reel off about 10 names. But I’m not up– I don’t read movie magazines the way they do.

IRA FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, let’s go to– is it Orrin, in Ann Arbor?

ORRIN: Yes, it is.

IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

ORRIN: Hello. Just like to start. This is a great honor, Margaret, I think you’re an amazing–


ORRIN: –author. I’m an English teacher, matter of fact, in Michigan here. And I’m teaching a creative writing class. And I’m thinking about having them read Oryx and Crake. I’m wondering what you might be able to say to this crew, who is just starting off and very interested in writing and all of that. What kind of thing could you tell them to kind of, I don’t know, get them started along the route of becoming a writer?

MARGARET ATWOOD: How old are they?

ORRIN: They’re juniors and seniors in high school, so 17–

MARGARET ATWOOD: So they’re 17, 18?

ORRIN: Yeah.

MARGARET ATWOOD: One page at a time, one foot at a time. Don’t look down. Why don’t look down? Because you’re on a tightrope. Don’t look down. Just keep going one page at a time.

ORRIN: OK, wonderful. Well, thank you for that. I’ll pass it on.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for calling.


ORRIN: Of course. Goodbye.

IRA FLATOW: Bye bye. You know, in an article in the New Scientist Magazine, they asked you about– you taught Kafka to engineers in British Columbia.



MARGARET ATWOOD: Well, I was supposed to be teaching them grammar at 8:30 in the morning. And I thought, how can I teach grammar to engineers in any way that’s going to keep them awake at that hour, plus myself keep awake? And so I gave them Kafka’s parables, which are quite short and also have puzzles embedded in them.

And engineers are problem solvers. So of course, this idea of having a puzzle in a piece of writing appealed to them. And I asked them to write little parables like that that had puzzles in them. So it was a way of getting them to write English sentences, you know, sentences made of words in the English language on a subject that would appeal to them. Because if I’d asked them to write my summer vacation or why I love flowers, it was not going to work.


MARGARET ATWOOD: So it actually worked quite well. Yeah, it was something for them to solve. And they could make up puzzles of their own to baffle the other engineers. And they could examine the idea of paradox. OK?

IRA FLATOW: So are you working on something now?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I’m always working on something.

IRA FLATOW: I knew that was the wrong question to ask you. I knew that.

MARGARET ATWOOD: I’m always working on something. And I’ll never tell you what it is.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I didn’t ask you. Did I? I didn’t ask you what–

MARGARET ATWOOD: Yes, but I’m just forestalling, even if you did ask me, I’m not going to tell you, because it’s a puzzle. It’s a paradox.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a conundrum. But you always say that what motivates you to write is something in there that has to come out. So something has to come out now?





MARGARET ATWOOD: This is called stonewalling.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I know from talking with you before that you’re not the kind of person going to write something once and it comes right out. It takes a while for you to rewrite and rewrite it, correct?

MARGARET ATWOOD: I do, yes. I pore over it. It’s true.

IRA FLATOW: Well, join the rest of us. That’s the only thing I think I mean in– my ability to write and your ability to write are on opposite ends of spectrums. But that’s the only thing that we share is it takes me forever to write something also.


IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us. And by the way, Margaret and I have like a road show. You can catch up at the Kentucky Author’s Forum, which I interviewed her a few weeks ago. And that’s going to be playing on your local public TV station. And you can check the time and date for that broadcast.

Thank you very much, Margaret, for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you.

MARGARET ATWOOD: Always a pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Margaret Atwood is author of Oryx and Crake, out in paperback, also the Handmaid’s Tale all the other great books that she has written in poetry and actually, her nonfiction books. Thanks. And thank you very much.

Kevin Waite is our technical director. Our audio engineers are Matt Galick, and Paul Masiello in New York. Gregg Smith composed our theme music. And we had help today from NPR librarians Key Malesky and Alphonse Vinn.

If you have comments, you can write to us at, surf over to our website there. All the links that you missed today are up there. Have a great weekend. We’ll see you next week. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.


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