he's the most senior american official to visit the country since a military coup there three years ago. north korea has said it will not stop its nuclear programme despite sanctions cutting their exports by a third. while the us has downgraded relations with its oldest ally in asia, china has become more active in both politics and business. venezuela's opposition—led parliament has rejected the sacking of the chief prosecutor by the recently—created constituent assembly. luisa ortega said she lost herjob because the government of president maduro wanted to stop her investigations into corruption and alleged human rights abuses. now it's time for hardtalk. welcome to hardtalk. i'm stephen sackur. there are writers of world renown whose reputation rests on one great book. there are others who write more prolifically but always in the same territory.
and then there's my guest today. margaret atwood's output fizzes with energy, diversity and experimentation. she's best known for her novels, the handmaid's tale, the blind assassin, oryx and crake. but she's written poetry, blog fiction and, this year, a superhero comic book, too. she has a worldwide legion of fans. so what keeps her creative juices flowing? margaret atwood, welcome to hardtalk.
thank you. ijust referred to your prolific and diverse output over many years. but you've just done something you've never done before. you've taken on adapting shakespeare. and you've always said shakespeare is pretty much your favourite author. so how daunting was that? very, very daunting. first of all you knew that you were going to get a lot of people saying that you shouldn't do it, and you can't improve on shakespeare, etc. and second because i took on the tempest. and that has a whole slew of problems of its own. the brief was very broad. so it was, choose a play and do whatever, as long as it's a novel. and i mean, you've created this wonderfully sort of imaginative new take, where it's sort of set in a prison. prospero becomes a guy who is sort of a theatre manager who was thwarted in his career
and then goes back to the prison to produce a drama. there's a play within a play. there's a lot of music and dance. it's pretty extraordinary because it's so imaginative and yet, as you say, all anchored in a story hundreds of years old. yes, well i had to have something in the novel in each case that corresponded to all of the elements that were actually in the tempest. some of the people in the hogarth shakespeare series took a much broader approach and didn't do that. but i felt that this is the one play in which shakespeare is writing about something he himself did at the time, that's what he did for a living. he was a director, producer, probably sometimes actor and manager of a theatre company. that was his thing. and the tempest is about a director, not seen by the actors, working with a special effects guy, namely ariel, putting on a play. so the sprite becomes the virtual
reality special effects guy? well, that's what he is. make me a pretend tempest. ok, done. that's what a special effects guy would do. so here is this play going on which is the tempest, and within it is another play, which is the mask of the three goddesses. and there is prospero, unseen, as a director is, doing his stuff behind the scenes. and the special effects guy is also invisible. so it is in fact a play. as you say, you are not the only author who has been commissioned to do these. there are eight altogether. doing these updated shakespeare stories. ijust wonder, what do you think it is about shakespeare, you know, if one thinks of artistic creation as evolutionary, he has survived, he has proved to be the fittest of all the fittest in terms of the longevity
of his work. why? first of all, he was very good. but what does very good mean? 0k, he does have something for everyone, so he is very different from the french classical drama of roughly the same period which was for aristocrats. they wanted unity, elevated language for everybody. he mixes it up. so the posh people in shakespeare speak posh language, and the clowns, plebians and ditch diggers speak vulgar language and make dirty jokes. and his audience was very diverse. it was everybody. there were expensive seats for people who wanted to pay more money but there were also cheap seats. i love that answer, because i'm going to make a handbrake turn, or a lurch, to some of the other things you do right now in your writing.
you've just talked about shakespeare's ability to reach out to so many different groups, and to use diversity as a tool in his armoury. it seems to me you do just the same thing. because if i reflect on the way you produce now, you have embraced the internet, you've embraced blog fiction, you tweet like crazy and use that as a tool for some of your thinking and your take on life. you've got 1.3 million twitter followers. has it been very important for you to sort of utilise every available technology? i think i'm just curious pen monkey. that's a quote from a guy who has a blog called terrible minds. he calls writers pen monkeys and i think that's very good. chuck wendig. you should follow him on twitter, he's got some very good advice for writers. anyway, so it's not so much that i embrace things, i like to try them out to see what they are. so it is curious pen monkey.
i will try anything once. i have gone on a carnival ride called the mighty mouse. i'll never do it again. it was horrible. but i did it once. so i tried all of these things. this, for example, i believe your publishers insist you turn it into a classic traditional book. it started as a serial. so i've always been interested in serial writing because of course the 19th century did it a lot. early charles dickens novels, he wrote them in instalments. so this book, the heart goes last, is it written in a different way stylistically? is it different because it began as blog fiction? it isn't now because i picked it all apart and put it together. did you? well, when you are writing in a serial you then have to in the next instalment remind
people what it was theyjust read. if you did that in a bookity book book, it would get very annoying. so i had to take out the bits when i was reminding them about what happened before. now, maybe it is for you to argue, it seems to be your best known novel is the handmaid's tale. that is true, but remember how old it is. it had a lot of time to become well—known. when i talk about the evolution of creativity, and those that survive one has to assume are the best. you can't assume that. can't you ? do you feel that the handmaid's tale, because of its longevity, my daughter for example adores the book, and she's 18... i mean, do you see that as a sign of its quality or something else? it can be either one. there are only four arrangements of quality and fame. good books that are successful, good books that are not successful,
bad books that are successful, and bad books that are not successful. so why are some good books not successful, do you think? i don't know. sometimes they are successful later, like painters. painters who have not done very well in their lifetime and then become hugely successful, like van gogh. i think the handmaid's tale, it's two reasons. number one, the religious right in the united states has not faded away. and for those who have not read it, you wrote it in the mid—80s, the time when the christian conservative movement was really taking off, moral majority and all that. you clearly looked at that and extrapolated to what a society might look like if these guys, with their take on biblical fundamentalism, had their way, and it was a pretty dystopian vision. well, you may not get the costumes as such.
i got the costume of the old old dutch cleanser package. for people who don't know, the handmaids in your story, in this dystopian world where women are commodified receptacles for child—bearing and all that, the handmaids in question wear red garb and are easily identified. yes. big hats. you don't have to go very far back in western history to find the same kind of thing. here's my question and it's to do with your point about describing the handmaid's tale and some of your work as speculative fiction. there you were in the mid—‘80s speculating like mad about what society might look like if the moral majority took over. we're more than 30 years later now. do you now look back and think, i was a bit too worried about it, i got a bit carried away, or not? i don't think i was worried enough!
i think if you look state—by—state some of the laws they are putting in, i probably wasn't quite worried enough. the handmaid's tale has actually become a meme in us politics, you find it turning up on twitter. somebody needs to tell the republicans the handmaid's tale is not a blueprint. and when you hear donald trump talking about women? donald trump is in a category of his own. number one he's a throwback to sort of mashers in the ‘50s if we can put it that way. he's not religious in any way. he's pretending to be. but he is certainly not a true believer. but a lot of women in america might regard him a misogynist. that's a different thing.
you can be misogynist as all get out without being a true believer. i suppose what i'm getting is, the handmaid's tale raises all sorts of questions about gender equality, relationships between men and women. absolutely. but what i really see it as is a totalitarianism as told from the point of view of the woman. and in an even stevens, what you might call feminist universe, all the men would have more power than all the women, that's not the case here. women at the top have more power than the men at the bottom. so it is a true pyramid which is what totalitarianisms are. may i get personal with you about your motivation? you are canadian. you're kidding! how can you tell? i can tell. the handmaid's tale is set in a sort of mythical land, eastern seaboard of the united states of america, called, renamed gilead. renamed gilead, but it is actually cambridge, massachusetts,
and all the buildings are really there. are you a canadian, who like quite a lot of canadians, looks at the united states and thinks, my god, we are so much more civilised and progressive than they are? no, i don't think that. why? because i've lived there. number two, i've also lived in canada. we've got some very nasty skeletons in our own closet. some of which are coming out right now. we are unlikely to get a totalitarian theocracy simply because we are too diverse. you need about 30% of any population to get a really good totalitarianism going. and probably it wouldn't be canada. isn't that true of the us as well? and yet you speculated about a totalitarianism in the us. they've got 30%, that's just it. looking at the numbers they probably have a bit more than 30%. i do put into the handmaid's tale
what you need is a catastrophic event of an economic kind or an environmental kind, or both, because they're joined at the hip, to get people really scared. that's when you can really get a coup going and take over the country. interesting you talk about environmental concerns there. would it be true to say that in your own life over recent years the thing that has motivated you most, got you campaigning loudest and longest has been your concern for the environment and climate change? i'm just thinking again about canada. canada is one of the biggest oil producersin the world. i've just come back from a long trip to the tar sands in canada for hardtalk. did that frighten you? it fascinates
me, because you have a young prime minister, justin trudeau, who has signed up to the paris climate change agreement, he says he will cut canadian emissions by 35%, yet at the same time he is supporting the expansion of the tar sands. clearly, within decades, you're going to be, if not the biggest, the second—biggest oil producer in the world, if current trends continue. maybe, maybe not. i don't think he has supported the expansion of the tar sands as such. he has supported a pipeline. the two go together. some would say that. there is some debate possible pot do you worry about canada ? debate possible pot do you worry about canada? i worry all the time about canada? i worry all the time about everything! next question. if you are going to do that, if you are going to continue with the carbon fuels, you have to think of other ways in which you can cut emissions oi’ ways in which you can cut emissions or absorb carbon, and they are going to have to start thinking about that really fast. when you talk about these issues inside canada,
ijust wonder how canadians react to you, do you feel at one with your people, or somewhat out of sync. well, which people? there isn't a people, there are these people here and those people there. and these other people over here and those other people over there. so if we are talking about mowing through indigenous people's rights in order to do this stuff, i would be with the indigenous people. if we are talking about, we have to shut down all consumption and production of oil immediately, that's actuallyjust not practical. so how are you going to do it? i think at one with my people, i think most "my people" would accept both of those points of view, or at least 80% of them would. let me bring you back to writing and creativity. you have said that you always place your stories and imaginative efforts in some sort of reality.
although some people call you a science—fiction writer, you say you are not. it depends how you are going to define it. if you wanted to take science fiction as a great big umbrella that includes things like frankenstein and zombies then sure. we are all writing wonder tales in that area. but if you want to translate the genealogy of two different kinds of those tales, number one thejules verne line, he thought he was writing about things that really could happen, and a number of his things really did happen, like submarines. or on the other hand, hg wells, about whom jules verne said in horror "but he's making things up!" war of the worlds. so that gives us science—fiction, the time machine, the war of the worlds leads to the sci—fi on other planets that we know and love. so you are morejules verne?
only because i'm not good at writing the other stuff. let me then challenge you. because you have now in this last year put together with a wonderful illustrator a comic book which of course is pure fantasy fiction. that's fantasy, that's different. so you are not positing a future, you are just creating mythical beasts. i am writing a comic book, of the superhero kind. so, could superman ever exist? sorry to disappoint you, but actually no. superman's boring. your character is way more interesting. let me get this straight, it's a man who, through a series of events, becomes half owl, half cat. and half man. well, thirds. this is called angel catbird. i'm just thinking to myself, what possessed you ? ok, if you look at it very closely, you will see that it's connected with a parallel programme which is called www.catsandbirds.ca.
and that is run by nature canada, and it addresses the very serious problem of the precipitous decline in north american, particularly migratory, birds, both species and numbers within species. there are four horsepersons of the apocalypse in that scenario. one is glass window strikes, one is poisoning, one is habitat loss and one is predation by cats, which are out of control. but you cannot tell the cat people cats are bad, you must flush your cats down the toilet. do you like cats? yes, i have been a cat person for thousands of years. so you love birds and cats? a lot of people do. so how do you reconcile the two? how better than through a superhero who is part cat, part bird? it seems obvious to me.
so how much fun is it writing a superhero comic book? i cannot tell you how much fun i've had. so is that important to you, fun? if you are not having fun, then what is it? it's homework. you remember how much we didn't like that. you just strike me as such an interesting mix of things. there is a lot of humour in your books, even when they are quite dark, and you do appear to be somebody who loves a good joke. and yet you are campaigning, and you've talked about conservation, cats and birds, big oil, fossilfuel, climate change. there is one other thing i want to talk to you about which is your very passionate challenge to the canadian government over this legislation, c51, which you say is a fundamental threat to freedom of speech. well, it is. others would disagree. it is a throwback to the inquisition. so when last did we have a situation where people who you don't even know who they are, can testify against you and you have no right of reply?
how weird is that? some canadians might say when last did we face the sort of security threats that come out ofjihadi terror? well, i think possibly all the time. we have to respond to the world we live in. well, it's not that there shouldn't be any supervision, it's not that there shouldn't be any care taken with these things, but the structure of c51 is what is at issue here. nobody is saying we shouldn't have any intelligence people, that would be stupid. but should they have ultimate control over your lives such as that maybe one of them has a grudge against you because you slept with his wife, he can frame you, big—time? and you will never find out who did it. i just wonder, we've talked about the way you have impressed technology, and you are something of a sort of futurologist in that you love to speculate about where human society is going. i just wonder whether you are very worried about things like artificial intelligence, you know, the pervasive surveillance society we live in.
all the different ways in which technology is changing the way we human beings live. i'm not very worried on my behalf because i'm going to be dead quite soon. in previous books you speculated about what's going to happen over 20, 30, a0 years. paint me a picture of human society in the rich world a generation from now. ok, so there is no ‘the future', there isn't any one the future. there are an infinite number of possible futures, and as donald rumsfeld said, it was probably about the only thing he said that i agree with, it is the unknown unknowns that get you. so we don't know what the unknown unknowns are because they are unknown. but leaving them aside, should we continue down the road that we are on, the biggest threat to us as a species would be the death of the oceans. the reason that is the biggest threat for us is because we are not
plants, we breathe oxygen. 60—80% of the oxygen we breathe is created by marine algae. as it was created in the beginning, this did not used to be an oxygen atmosphere. so kill the oceans, we will choke to death. you have reflected a lot on what is in here, what makes us human and motivates us, most recently in rewriting the tempest because that is in a sense is what that is all about, too. so what's the conclusion? are we capable of coping with this? we are smart enough. we need to get more motivated politically. there are a large number of organisations working on these problems. one thing i would like to do before i kick the bucket is put together a group of sci—fi writers who are often very inventive
thinkers, to just noodle around these problems and see what they would come up with. you should do it yourself. write the scenario? but i'd want some pals. i'm working on that. i've got somebody that's helping me do that. the question is who are we going to do it with? are we going to do it with the government, with some private companies, are we just going to do it on ourown? i think it could be very productive. well, we will wait for that to happen and get you back in the studio. for now, margaret atwood, thank you. and thank you. well, no sign of summer for tuesday,
or indeed the rest of this week. it's going to be very mixed. it was certainly quite mixed on monday. this was yesterday. some sunshine there in cambridgeshire. we also had some rain at henley—on—thames in oxfordshire. tuesday will be no different. a real mixed bag on the way. brollies at the ready. you can see how extensive the cloud is right now across the southern half of the uk. through the night, rain from the south—west across the midlands into lincolnshire. even here there could be downpours and cracks of thunder. in the north it will be clearer. quite a stark temperature
contrast tonight. these are the towns and cities. look at the rural spots. six degrees in southern scotland, even in the sheltered glens, barely above freezing. tuesday's forecast. we are close to an area of low pressure in france, to the south of us. those of us in the south are quite close to that so this is where most of the downpours will occur. in the morning, some rain i think across the midlands into the north. scotland and northern ireland will be fine, with sunshine and the odd shower. the clouds will really get going across the south during the latter part of the morning into the afternoon, and we're in for some downpours. downpours means we will have sunshine, downpours, then sunshine again. a real mixed bag across the south on tuesday. most of the heavy downpours are in the south—east, east anglia, eventually into lincolnshire as well. lighter rain across northern england. better for cumbria, belfast, glasgow and edinburgh. the lowlands of scotland might end up with a fine, sunny day. feeling pleasantly warm as well.
how are we doing compared to the rest of europe? not too good. 20 degrees in london and paris, we match oslo. most other major centres are quite a bit warmer than that. moscow at 23. let's have a look at wednesday. that low pressure that was across france, remember, has actually moved to the north. quite an unusual direction for a low pressure system to take, tracking from south to north. usually they go like that, this one's going south to north. we're still closer to the low there, across east anglia and the south—east, so again, downpours in store on wednesday. look at wales. wales, northern england and scotland are in the clear, in for a fine day, but the weather will turn unsettled in other areas and i think some of us will get some rain towards the end of the week. bye— bye. welcome to bbc news, broadcasting to viewers in north america and around the globe. my name is mike embley. our top stories: defiance from north korea, it says new sanctions won't stop it developing nuclear weapons. embracing the strongmen —
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