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Margaret Atwood on MaddAddam, the HBO Adaptation, and Genetic Engineering

Margaret Atwood. Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images

With last year’s publication of MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood capped off a trilogy of speculative-fiction novels that is currently being adapted for HBO by Darren Aronosfsky. The paperback just came out and a new collection of her short stories arrives in September, giving Vulture no choice but to call up the Canadian author to discuss how she envisions the adaptation of the postapocalyptic world she created with 2003’s Oryx and Crake and continued into The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam. One of the many questions we had for her was: How will the nude, innocent, hybrid human race known as the Crakers — who have certain body parts genetically engineered to turn blue and who engage in group sex when they are in heat — translate to television? While Atwood didn’t have all the answers to our questions (yet), she was game to chat about the early stages of the HBO show, the appeal of postapocalyptic books, and how to commit the perfect murder.

Your new collection, Stone Mattress, includes two stories involving authors of books that weren’t respected initially by the literary community but that became commercial successes with geek cache. I was wondering …
… if it’s me? [Laughs] No, it’s not me. But it’s certainly people I know and know of. One of my good friends used to write nurse novels under a female name — a lot of those [types of books] were written by people whose names weren’t the ones on the books — and everybody thought it was trash! [Laughs] They did it to make money, and nobody paid any attention to those things. When I was working at Harvard, I was doing a thesis on a certain kind of fantasy literature in the 19th century, so I researched it quite a bit, and I looked for it in the States, and the only kinds of places where you could find it were in weird tales. So Conan the Barbarian — remember him? He existed at first as a pulp-fiction installment character in the ’30s, but far below the radar of anyone in the literary community. Like really far below. And if it was turned into a movie in the ’50s and ’60s, they were made on very low budgets. Not a chance to be like the blockbusters of today. So the zombies that we have with us today, the difference came with Night of the Living Dead, which was essentially a bunch of kids making a schlocky movie for about a dollar [laughs], but it’s actually a very good film!

But those [books] would not have been considered; nobody paid any attention to them. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had a cult following in those days, but you were thought a bit weird, a Hob-head, if you like … It went from nerd to mainstream, but Comic-Con, there were none of those things, none of it existed except far below on the radar. The British Library did a retrospective of science fiction, and there were some literary-science-fiction books that were “acceptable”: 1984, Brave New World, and H.G. Wells was the granddaddy of them all. R.U.R., the play by Karel Čapek which introduced the word robot, was a well-known play in those days, in the ’20s, and gave rise to the film Metropolis. But as far as Comic-Con, conventions, huge sales, that didn’t happen back then. People wrote these things to make quick money from pulp magazines, but under a different name. Particularly if you were a woman, you didn’t want people to know that [you were female]. You used your initials. Why do you think J.K. Rowling is J.K.?

Now that your book trilogy is being turned into an HBO show, you might get to see the Comic-Con experience first-hand.
With academics giving papers while dressing up in character? [Laughs] This would not have happened in 1961. I was just in Germany, and I was at a very serious book festival, and even they were having a cosplay! I’ve got no idea who some of those people were. I identified Godzilla, and I had a picture taken with it, of course. But who were those blue fairies with wings? I just don’t know. It’s a whole other world!

People might come to Comic-Con dressed as characters from MaddAddam — or possibly undressed, if they attend as Crakers …
That is a question that has occurred to me as well! It would require quite a bit of chutzpah to do that! Are they going to use shrubs? Nude behind the shrub, and just let the top half stick out? Are they going to go Adam with the fig leaf? How daring will they be?

When they first announced the show, I immediately thought, How are they going to adapt the wagging blue penises?
How indeed?! [Laughs] Yes, my very thought. Well, we’ll have to wait and see. I’ve not got any inside information on that.

At least they’re pretty comfortable with nudity on HBO.
But blue nudity? We do not know! We don’t know! How much nudity? We just don’t know. [Laughs] And the wagging part, how will they … Well, that will be easy to simulate. Perhaps with little motors? We’ll see how far they’re willing to go, and how much people are willing to put up with it! [Laughs] Book Riot did a pretty funny post, which was a dream cast.

Let me look. Okay, Aaron Paul for Jimmy, that could be doable.

Paul Dano for Crake? He’d be perfect. Do you think so?
[Laughs] This isn’t my generation.

Are you familiar with any of these actors?
Not very.

Paul Dano actually has a huge range.
So he’d be good for it?

Yeah. He’s a really nice guy, but he’s great at playing sadistic, sociopathic types.
Charming but cruel? Okay. We don’t know exactly what kind of take they’re going to have on Crake, but we’ll find out!

Anna Kendrick for Ren? Not so sure I can see her as an exotic dancer, but maybe? Ellen Page would be great, but she’s way too young to play Toby. I could see her more as Ren than Toby. Toby needs to be a little older than Ellen is, right?
Yeah, I would think so. She does look awfully young in the picture. She looks almost underage. Maybe they should reverse them? Let them argue about that. [Laughs] I stay out of [casting].

You’re a consulting producer?
Yes. We’ve already met and had quite extensive conversations about structure.

How do you see the series working in terms of storytelling, since so much of the plot of the books is told via flashbacks and memories?
That remains to be seen, for both of us!

Would you like to write an episode?
Oh, no. I’m too old. [Laughs] I think for a series, you really need a team. I’ll wait until I’m invited. [Laughs] Anyway, they’re very smart, this whole group of people. Very clever, and thoughtful. And I think they will do it justice. I think it’s appropriate that it’s a series, rather than trying to put it all in one movie, which would be very hard. I think my role as a consultant is to stay alive until they finish it, so I can actually see it! That’s good. I think that’s a goal to have. [Laughs] Maybe it could be an opera.

Didn’t some of the God’s Gardeners hymns in The Year of the Flood get set to music?
The songs are all in the book, and the music was composed — and it’s all in the audiobook — by my agent’s partner, who is a musician and composer. I wrote the hymns originally to standard hymn tunes, but he got hold of it and wrote original music because he was so keen on it, and that enabled us to do a book launch that was a combination of musical and dramatic performance, and book launch, and bird-conservation-awareness event.

Perhaps they can use some of that music in the show?
Yeah. Who knows what they’re going to want to do? Sometimes people want to use preexisting music, and sometimes they want something composed for the show. We don’t know what they’re going to do in that respect. It’s early days. There are many, many considerations.

Including how they’re going to depict the bio-engineered animals, like the pigoons and liobams.
At least they won’t have to make them talk English! They’re not talking pigs. They’re telepathic. They can use actual pigs, versus special effects and digitization. If you look at the B-movies of the ’50s, you’ll realize how crude things used to be! For instance, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman — when she becomes 50 foot, she also becomes transparent, because they were imposing a picture of her on another picture. [Laughs.]

If HBO wants a real-world tie-in, they could develop the game Extinctathon.
A more exciting game would be Blood and Roses, but that would be quite complex to put together! Who knows where it will go? There’s a whole Handmaid’s Tale cult, where people dress up as it on Halloween. Oh, that’s been going on for years! It’s become a sort of meme, especially with the most recent elections, when certain Republicans opened their mouths on the subject of rape, real rape versus not real rape, or the idea that women can somehow will themselves not to get pregnant, that rape could be a form of birth control. It’s a mind-meld! People will be all over that, tweeting, “Please tell the Republicans that The Handmaid’s Tale is not a recipe.” When the book came out, some people thought this could never happen, but on the West Coast, they were spray-painting, “The Handmaid’s Tale is already here.”

Some of the things you conceived of in Oryx and Crake are already here or are about to be here.
Yes. They’ve come true. Some of them were already true. Some I knew people were working on, but they hadn’t succeeded then, but now they have. They’ve done the pigoons — by that I mean pigs for human organ transplants. They had said, “Oh, we will never ever ever  … perish the thought! We would never try to grow human brain tissue in them.” Fingers crossed behind back. So that genetic engineering is proceeding at quite an astonishing pace. And with all our technologies, we always pursue them with good results in mind, so they all have pluses, and they all have minuses, and they all have things we haven’t thought about, unintended consequences. Don Rumseld was right — it is the “unknown unknown.” And anytime any of these things happen, my Twitter pals let me know about it quite quickly. So as soon as they ate the first lab-meat hamburger, I got a lot of messages about that: “Here it comes!”

Someone recently recommended Oryx and Crake as a beach book.
Ah, yes. That is not exactly how I would have pictured it myself, as a relaxing, fun thing to do on your holiday. But on the other hand, I like to read murder mysteries when I’m at the beach, on those rare occasions where I’m at beaches.

Or on a cruise? Such as the character in your story “Stone Mattress” who plots the perfect murder while on vacation?
That really did come out of one of those conversations that one has: “If you were going to murder somebody on this boat and get away with it, how would you do it?” [Laughs] And now you know how! Now, to really murder somebody … never mind! [Laughs] All those people who say, “Surely it’s all autobiographical,” I say, “In that case, Agatha Christie would have to have been a serial killer!” I guess as long as you think, It’s not really really going to happen, it can be an escape. I think people are also secretly reading those [postapocalyptic] books because they’re asking themselves, How would I do? Would I know how to make a fire out of two stones? Actually not … I guess I better find out.

That’s sort of the appeal of The Hunger Games.
Except we all know that’s taking place in a simulated environment. I think the real issues there are moral: Would I kill my best friend? It’s funny how when girls are given weapons, it’s quite frequently bows and arrows. What is that? Because you don’t get to get up close with a bludgeon to actually bash somebody’s head in. So in the Narnia books, I think it’s Susan who got a magic bow and arrow. And that goes way back to Artemis the huntress, and the Amazons.

Have you ever read Y: The Last Man?
Now which Last Man is that? There are a number of them.

This is one where a plague kills off most of the males, both human and animal, on the planet …
Ah! That goes back to a novella by John Wyndham called Consider Her Ways.

And within Y: The Last Man, there is a neo-Amazon tribe of women who’ve lopped off one breast in tribute to those archers.
Oh, yes. Cute. So I take you back to a B-movie called Love Slaves of the Amazons, from the 1950s, which was made for a very low budget, and the Amazons are wearing potato sacks dyed green, through which you can see their little white panties and breasts. As I say, special effects were not perfected! But our men get lost in the Amazon, and they get captured by this tribe of very good-looking, green-potato-sack-wearing Amazons, who have an Amazon queen. She’s very, very nice to them, and they have what looks like a psychedelic orgy. But then they get put in an enclave with other men who have been there for a while, and who are extremely emaciated, and they say, “Get out of here quick, because they’ll fuck you to death!” They don’t say that in exactly those words, it was the ’50s, but that was the implication, that their vital juices are going to be drained out of them, and they will be left as shriveled-up husks.

Didn’t you design some costumes for some Oryx and Crake fans once?
I designed some costume events for these doctors who were going to one of these events and didn’t know what to wear. So I asked them the superpowers they would like to have, and designed them based on these superpowers. The male doctor was a kidney surgeon, and he wanted the magic power to immediately implant kidneys in people, so his alter ego was named Kidney Boy, and the female doctor was Dr. Snit, and she had pain issues. And I gave them some little flying kidney helpers, because you have to have helpers. And Dr. Snit got a magic wand with a little halo of Tylenols. They were very pleased.

See? You’re going to be right at home with the Comic-Con crowd.
Exactly! [Laughs]

Margaret Atwood on MaddAddam and the HBO Series