“The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale gave me a strange feeling, like sliding on river ice—exhilarating but unbalancing. How thin is this ice? How far can I go? How much trouble am I in? What’s down there if I fall? These were writerly questions, having to do with structure and execution, and that biggest question of all, the one every writer asks him- or herself with every completed chapter: Is anyone going to believe this?”
Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination
A great winter evening at home = Adele, a lit fireplace, a soft blanket and Margaret Atwood’s classic works. If writers had groupies, I might be tempted to join hers. The Handmaid’s Tale carried me through sleepless nights of a difficult pregnancy (interesting juxtaposition) and lured me to reread Cat’s Eye. Teamed with Pat Conroy and Anita Shreve, Atwood has been a teacher of how to structure stories, when to challenge readers, the many ways characters present larger than life.
The first time I heard Atwood talk about writing, speculative fiction, and her work was during a twentieth anniversary tour for The Handmaid’s Tale. Talking Volumes, a partnership of the Minnesota Public Radio and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in collaboration with The Loft, usually attracts older middle-age readers to its interviews with nationally known writers. Atwood drew people across most ages. She didn’t want The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake to be relegated to science fiction and pointed out that everything within her works was possible. She didn’t dream up magic potions or whizmos. She merely pushed her creativity to create that ”Ëœstrange feeling’ of being where everything is not quite the same. Not a timid speaker, Atwood provoked thoughtful questions when the floor was opened. She is comfortable with her direction, achievements and taking creative risks.
Today’s political environment provides an interesting backdrop for Atwood’s appearance at the 2012 AWP conference as the keynote speaker. Republican social conservatives rhetoric has opened doors many find uncomfortable. The exact kind of doors Atwood is willing to swing open and explore. It’s fair to say that she resists her body of speculative fiction being placed under the science fiction genre umbrella with its uncomfortable collection of speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, superheroes, and cyberpunk. Atwood may be the most influential writer talking about recognizing works like Handmaid’s as literature as something different.
Writing of a near future world isn’t easy. Reality is, that bar some gigantic environmental or military event, daily life ten or twenty years from now will be a lot like today—kids will be educated, adults will work, the sun will rise, governments will exist. In 2022 your day might be very similar to 2012 with slight alterations—on the simple side new gizmos or foods. Somewhere something might make those alterations significant. Instead of the writer beginning with a human “what if” question defining a character’s story, speculative fiction pushes to a “what if” question that defines the life of characters within an altered society.
My published works are all speculative fiction. Minnesota Cold is the story of an older woman called to lead a revolution. Along with confronting institutionalized production of future laborers and the ability to prolong life, she struggles with deep decisions impacting her family–as a mother and grandmother. While writing Minnesota Cold, I always thought of the book as the story of Sally Dodge who happened to live in the near future. Her past is my present. Her present is what Atwood calls that feeling of sliding on river ice.
For three years I’ve been living with the characters of Ashwood, a family trilogy beginning in the near future following an almost apocalyptic global depression and extending through two decades. On the surface, the trilogy has the comfort of living with a family from formation through the launch of its children as independent adults. But under that surface, this normal cycle takes place during the development of a necessary big government, struggles as the nation’s needs change, and the growth of gigantic corporations which seek to bend the definition of personal self-determination.
My next work may be a more contemporary family novel. But these years spent under the influence of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have been creatively satisfying. What a thrill to hear her again at AWP.