tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS November 21, 2015 4:30pm-5:01pm PST
- [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation. improving the quality of life within our community. also by hillco partners. a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith she's an acclaimed poet, critic and novelist best known for the handmaid's tale, cat's eye, the blind assassin, and oryx and crake. her latest book the heart goes last has just been published. she's margaret atwood this is overheard. (inspiring music) (applause) - [evan] let's be honest is this about the ability to learn or about the experience of not having to talk at all. how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa-- you say that he had made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time took it on-- (laughter) let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you going to run for president?
i think i just got an f from you actually. (applause) margaret atwood welcome. - thank you. - very nice to have you here. - lovely to be here. - so interested in this new book, congratulations on it. may i say nobody does dystopian like you do dystopian. (laughs) - is that a compliment? - oh my god it's the biggest compliment in the world. i mean the world that you've created in this book will come back to the handmaid's tale at some point here soon reminiscent to my mind of the dystopia in that book. but i love the plot of this story, i love the characters and i think it goes in odd places that make it a very compelling read. - it goes in very odd places. - very odd places. my read on this was it was 1984 crossed with the truman show with a little of masters of sex in there. (laughter) others may have their own equation. what was the genesis of this book and of this story? - once upon a time... - yes. - long long ago. - [evan] we're gonna go
all the way back good okay yes. - once upon a time i worked with an editor called amy grace lloyd from the magazine world. - [evan] yes. - and she had been with new york review book, she'd been with the new yorker and then she was with playboy. and it was when she was with playboy that i worked with her on some non-fiction - [evan] yeah. - pieces. and then she moved over to a new venture which was an online thing called byliner. - yeah. - which was going to make a space for longform journalism and-- - [evan] longform journalism, know it well. - [margaret] and longer short stories. - yeah. - and it's since been swallowed up by other bigger fish but at that time that's what it was doing and she was doing it with them. so she talked me into doing a thing for byliner which was the first of a series of four that i ended up doing. - right. - and by the time i had done the fourth one, my book publishers, books with covers and pages publishers. - i remember those. - look they're back.
- i can touch it there you're right. - they're back. right. - they started becoming agitated in the way that they do. - [evan] right. - they'd wring their hands. - why are you doing that and not this. - yes exactly. - [evan] yes yes yes. - yes why are you doing that and not this, and can't you make that into this? - yes. - so i thought that was quite a good idea, so i had to unpick some of the stuff that i had woven together. - [evan] right. - i had to make a beginning and since i had left our hero disguised as an elvis presley sex robot (laughter) in a packing case-- - people think you may be kidding but you're not. - i'm not kidding no. about to be shipped off to las vegas. - yeah. - that was the end of episode four. i had to get him out of that. - yes. - i couldn't just leave him, - one hopes. - i couldn't just leave him there. - so really parts of this had been as they say previously published, in a very different form. - in a very different form - right. - in parts and of course i pulled it apart. - reordered it unpacked it repacked it.
- added more subtracted. - right. - and i asked amy to remain as the editor because she already knew-- - [evan] knew the story. - stuff. - [evan] right. - so she was very helpful in that first go through as a work book. - right. so but for your publisher not haranguing you, but for them i should say haranguing you, - [margaret] yes. - you would not necessarily have gone this route. - i might've. i might've harangued them. - i mean you don't know - [evan] right. - [margaret] what you might have done. well i guess the reason i'm asking is this book is being billed as your first stand alone novel in 15 years. - well they have to bill it as something. - they do. (laughter from audience) they do they do indeed. but i guess the point is it didn't seem like you were in any particular mood or rush to go back to writing a novel and so i'm just wondering if there was a reason for that and they interceded and you went okay fine. or were you planning on doing something anyway? - oh i never go okay fine. - yeah you're not in the okay fine business. - no no no no no no. - so had you stopped writing novels
for an express purpose? - no i hadn't stopped writing them. - yeah. - i wrote oryx and crake, year of the flood-- - that trilogy. - and maddaddam each of those is a self contained novel. - right. - they just happened to overlap time wise. - with one another. so there's really been no interruption in-- - in my-- - output. - spewing forth of fictional words. - well before we come to your spew, let's talk about-- (laughs) let's talk about the plot of this book. so the main characters charmaine and stan begin the story living in their car. so what gave you the thought to set the book in this way with these characters in this situation? - well i started off with the idea-- so stan and charmaine are living in their car it's really awful. they did have a house, they did have jobs. they ended up losing those and they're in their car and it's a very unpleasant place to be because there's also no social controls and there's people roaming around trying to get their car away from them.
- right the world around them - it's very dangerous. - [evan] has really kind of fallen down. - yeah no social structure. so then they see an ad on television. and the the ad on television says sign up for our project which promises full employment for everyone. - [evan] right. - you get sort of a digital tour of what you get and you get to live in a real house again, you get fluffy white towels. now the inspiration from that was, do you remember those leona helmsley hotel ads with the towels? - [evan] oh of course. oh yes of course. - those were so appealing. - you're taking us back. it stuck with you. - yeah it did. - [evan] it did okay. - that spoke to me in those towels. (laughter) and they spoke to charmaine as well, and they also get a bed that they can actually sleep on rather than curling up in their car. - right. - and they have a toilet that flushes, i mean this is a good thing. - [evan] right. the only hitch-- - the only hitch is-- there's a couple of hitches. number one. the full employment scheme is that inside the town where you get this nice house,
there's a prison. and you spend time in it month in month out. so one month you're a prisoner in the prison, and the other half is looking after you and taking care of the town, and then you switch over. and the other people are in the prison, and you're in the town. not only that, you time share the house so that you have a couple who's in the prison when you're in the house and vice versa. - [evan] vice versa. - you're never supposed to meet them of course we know what happens with that. - well anytime you set that up as a parameter it's not going to work out. - no. - right. - it might in real life but it doesn't in this book. - and this is a private prison corporation. - it's a private for profit prison corporation, and we don't quite understand at the beginning what they're making the profit out of. - [evan] off of yes. - but they're extremely happy to see those sheets and towels and so would you be if you were living in your car. some people say to me things like, well why did they sign in it? come on you know why. - [evan] this is the option [evan] that they had to take of course. - yes you would do it immediately.
- of course. and the story takes all kinds of twists and turns and i mentioned masters of sex you were talking about tnd turns and i mentioned the woman who did playboy originally. there is sex in this book. - of various kinds. - of various kinds. - yes. (laughter) - just gonna leave it out there. - yes. (laughs) - [evan] right. sales will now skyrocket actually. - yes well let me say that i put nothing into the book that isn't already present in the real world or the paper i'm working on. so they have made great strides in sex robots. - yeah. - have you noticed that? - no i'm sorry we don't write that. (laughter) - well i have because i fool around on the internet. have you heard of pepper the facial expression reading robot that they've developed in japan and-- - no i haven't why don't you tell us about it? - pepper just got launched. and he is a greet- i think it's a he. but it's hard to tell because he looks like a chessman with a big wheel thing underneath. - [evan] okay. - he's not a sex bot.
but he can shake hands with you. and apparently he can read your expression, he can say... you're looking a little sad today. or my we look quite happy. i don't know actually what he says. - right. - they have them as greeters in banks and enterprises like that. traditional greeter positions. they put a bunch of them on sale for private consumption. they were snapped up in about one minute. apparently a lot of people want pepper in their home. - what a strange world. - it is a very strange world. pepper came with instructions that said you weren't supposed to use it for sex. i don't know how you could. - and also who had to be told that? (laughter) - exactly. - right? this is a strange world. - it is a strange world and therefore what's in my book is no stranger than the strange world we live in. - [evan] we're living in. - so you noodle around like a lot of people who write fiction, it's fiction but it's actually the component parts of things that are out in the world. and you spent a little bit of time noodling around on the internet
and thinking about how we can bring the real world. - [margaret] i don't want to want to be accused of having a twisted imagination. - right. - and that it's just me thinking these things up. - how much of this though is commentary as opposed to you stitching together things that you think about or find out in the world? you are often thought of as a political novelist. that you have a political agenda or that the discussions of whether it's the patriarchy that we all live under. - yeah but i don't think i have a political agenda. - you're not trying to make a point. - i just describe what's there. - right. - so if you're making a collage or a montage out of pieces of newspaper-- - [evan] right. - there is some way in which the order and the arrangement are a commentary. - right. - but the material itself is found out there in the actual world. - right but surely it's not a surprise that there are novelists who set out to write a fictional story that is itself though a commentary on the world in which we live. they're very deliberately trying--
they have an agenda they're trying to make a point. - sure but you can set that out but the person who decides what the meaning of that story is is always going to be the reader. - [evan] it's going to be us. - it's going to be the reader. - right. - and even if you think you're not putting a moral into your book, the readers will put one in for you. - right so the people for instance ms. atwood, the people who saw the handmaid's tale as a feminist novel or a commentary on gender relations at that time-- i mean that book actually feels quite familiar going back to it now 30 years later, there's still a lot of the same issues that people might interpret in the book, but you didn't necessarily set out to write that book we may interpreted them. - i'm interested in totalitarianism. - [evan] right. - and there's no great surprise there because i was born in 1939. - [evan] right. - so that's the year world war ii began. so i've always been interested in reading about the lead up to that. - [evan] yeah. - how did hitler do it? how did stalin do it, how did mao do it? how did putin do it?
how did these things get going? and the question i asked when i was setting up to write the handmaid's tale was if there were going to be a totalitarianism in the united states, what kind of totalitarianism would it be? so it's not just about women. because you cannot change the position of women without also changing the position of men and vice versa. - [evan] right. - they're absolutely interconnected. - [evan] yeah. - i told it from the point of view of a woman because so often those stories are told from other points of view. - right. - so george orwell of course i read when i was 12 that book 1984 came out then. it was in the drugstore with quite an alluring cover. - is that right? - it's a little less alluring now, maybe it seems less alluring by comparison. - i think a lot of people read great literature because they saw alluring covers in the drugstore. (laughter) - right. - and then they thought wow and then they ended up reading faulkner and orwell and these great authors,
but not on purpose. - right. (laughter) the other thing i took away from this book, honestly was it would be a great movie if somebody could figure out how to tell the story. - that one. - yes this one. - yes. - yeah. - possibly. - are you comfortable when-- this has happened i mean the handmaid's tale is probably the most famous example, i'm not sure when exactly as you or anybody else would have intended for it to the way that the story was told. - it was quite an interesting process. - yeah. - so harold pinter wrote the screenplay. - right. - and the director was a german director who had directed the tin drum his name is volker schlöndorff. - [evan] yeah. - and natasha richardson whom i had known as a child oddly enough, was the central character. and pinter had written a voiceover for that character and she played against the voiceover she recorded it and everything. - [evan] right. - and then the director took it out because he was in his minimalist phase. - so her approach to the part was assuming that this voiceover - [margaret] exactly. - would be in the movie.
- and then she thought that her performance was flat. - am i remembering that pinter at the time, he started on the film but also sort of stopped at one point? - i don't remember that part. - [evan] yeah. - i remember i was the what shall we say. i was the only person who knew what they had for breakfast if it wasn't in the text. - [evan] right. - so i could give them you know inside tips like what kind of socks they never actually asked me about, they asked me other things and i was on the set for part of the shoot. - but i'm remembering some kind of odd production process around it and then in the end some people, maybe natasha richardson, late natasha richardson, not very happy with the way it evolved. - no she wasn't happy about the voiceover coming out. - i liked it i remember thinking with robert duvall, faye dunaway... - yeah they're all great they're all great. - are you comfortable when whether it's that book or if it were to be in this case, they come in and say we want to make this into a film do you feel like once they take it over for that purpose it's no longer mine i don't feel-- - it's a different art form. - yeah and mostly invested in it.
- yeah well the only thing you can do is have a conversation with them ahead of time. - right. - and if you really think they're make maidens in leather or whatever the heck they might have in mind you say no to the deal. - [evan] right. - and that did happen a couple of times with the handmaid's tale. you just knew that they wanted to make a pretty schlocky thing and the answer was no. - [evan] no. - but pinter and schlöndorff were tippity top. - well i can't imagine pinter doing leather clad schlock that seems yeah. - no not him. - not a whole lot of worries on that, so i remark that the book was published 30 years ago the film was 25 years ago. you've actually been at the business of writing books now it's getting to be-- the edible woman was 60-- (laughter) no no it's great! it's impressive actually to think it's a long time. - [margaret] long time. - and in fact your first book of poetry i think was as far back as maybe '61? - yeah well that was something i actually hand set myself on a flatbed press.
- right. - yeah seven poems we had a shortage of aides so we had to assemble each poem to do the next one. - i mean it's an understatement to say the world has changed in the years that you've been doing this. i wonder from your perspective as an author as a novelist as a poet as somebody who lives in this world, what that change has meant to you. whether it's your process or dealing with the outside world, publishers or all of us, how's the change affected the way you do things. - well number one. - yeah. - i got older but don't tell. - no you seem spry to me-- - thank you. spry is not a word you'd use for a 20-year-old. - no but you said-- - spry 20-year-old. (laughter) spry! - basically i'm screwed no matter where this conversation goes. (laughs) - i had a very nice compliment today in the airport i said to the guy, i'm so old i don't have to take my shoes off. and he said oh honey you don't look it. isn't that nice? - that is a good honestly that is a good thing. (laughter) i'll reuse that one actually that's good.
so the world has changed for you in a practical sense. - the world has changed for everybody. - yeah. - pantyhose got invented in 1966. - that's true. - do you know that? well you weren't even born. - i didn't think-- no that's exactly when i was born. i didn't think this was heading to pantyhose. (laughter) i've been dealing with publishers. - okay dealing with publishers. - [evan] and the fact that in the old days you would write a book it was a fairly straight forward a to b process, you write a book they send you out on a tour, the consumption of books-- - no when i started there were no tours. so all of the infrastructure that you see spread before you including the extremely lovely texas book festival in austin-- - yeah. - none of that existed. there weren't any book festivals, there were no tours, they came along towards the end of the 60s. - [evan] yeah. - and it was actually canadians who invented them because-- - all good things come from canada. - no that's not true. - we should do a half hour on that. - not true. a lot of bad things come from there too. and some of them come from there and stay there. they're there right now.
- oh is that right? (laughter) i like those both very much. - oh good. (laughter) - we're not in agreement on that, okay fine we'll put canada to the side. so in any case at some point it evolved to a place where you were doing tours and festivals. - yeah that happened in the '70s. - yeah. - be careful what you wish for and now people have to do them don't they. - yes they do. - yes they do. - [evan] right. - it was never really straight forward and publishers have always complained about the state of publishing and they continue to do so. - right do they do so more legitimately now since there are many other ways to get to consume. i mean you alluded to the-- - it's a multi platform. - well you alluded to the unusual thing that we have an actual book here that we can touch. - yeah well actually paper books have made a comeback. - [evan] yeah. - we saw e-books go up to maybe 30% and then we saw them come back down to maybe 22. they've never taken off in europe. there seems to be a neurological reason for that. it's easy to read short things
online on a screen. but it's harder to read to long books, it's hard to orient yourself in them and it's hard to-- apparently the brain has more trouble with it. - even on the devices deliberately created for those purposes it's not the same experience. - well they're trying. - [evan] they're trying. - they're trying they're trying. i think each of those platforms is good for something. - right. and i think the e form is extremely good for searching. you want to buy something very good for that. traveling. - [evan] portability is unique. - portability all of that is good. so i use both. - [evan] right. - a lot of people use both. - [evan] right. - and i think kids are reading and writing a lot more than people know because they're doing it online and they're also writing on things like wattpad which is a stories sharing site which has got 40 million users a month. in 25 different languages. - right. - and that gives young people in particular
access to publishing. you know they can put their story up there and chapters and get an audience get feedback. - right well in that respect, publishers can't love the fact that they're now being cut out of the process in a lot of ways. it's a very diy world-- - i don't think of it as cutting it out. - yeah. - the book is still the desired thing. - right. - that's what people really want. - and from your perspective as an author you're agnostic about how people consume your stuff it doesn't matter to you if they consume it in hardcover or they consume it on a kindle or some other device? does it matter to you? as long as they consume it? - how could it matter i don't know them. - [evan] yeah. (laughter) - but your life as an author has really been more in this world over the last 10-15 years. - it seems to be in both worlds quite a bit. - right. you're obviously very comfortable with the discussion of technology, you know about these apps and all that kind of stuff it's not-- - and i have quite a few twitter followers. i'll tweet you. - i wish you would. (laughter)
just gonna leave that right out there actually. i'm always interested in people like you whose work i respect so much and who's been at this for so long and you know you do criticism as well as write your own stuff. whose stuff do you like now? so if somebody comes up to you and says i'm interested in discovering somebody i might not know. whose stuff do you like? - well okay first of all if they're interested in discovering something they might not know, we would first have to have the discussion about what they like. - [evan] right. - 'cause reading is a very very individual thing, every person has their own taste so we would have to have that discussion. - well how about your taste, so if i asked you about your-- - my tastes are extremely eclectic. - talk about that. - oh well which one of my eclectic tastes would you like to talk about? (laughter) - you pick. - okay so pop-science i read a lot of that. - yeah. - 'cause i grew up among the scientists. - right. - i have a library of books on the salem witchcraft trials. - that's a particular interest - [margaret] very eclectic. - [evan] of yours.
- yes there is a book coming out about that this fall which i'll get ahold of immediately as soon as it appears. the black death is another thing that just always interested me. - real upbeat stuff huh? (laughter) - yes those things are pretty interesting because they have changed world history. - but of course it tells me something that those two things interest you to come back to your writing because i guess you think of it as, i've heard you say speculative fiction. the nature of your books, not just the two we've mentioned extensively this book and the handmaid's tale but others contain elements of a world that is clearly appealing to you as not just an author but also as a reader. - as a reader and also just as a person who lives in the world. - right. - so the causes of things. what changes pivotal moments in history, i'm pretty interested in all of that. - [evan] yeah. well it's great because it clearly informs the work that you do and it's always great to find people who are interested in a wide range of things. - very wide. - makes it better.
in the couple minutes we have left, what are you doing next? what are you working on? - okay. - what are you thinking about? - okay right now i'm working on a very interesting project. it's called the hogarth shakespeare project. and the hogarth press in great britain has asked a number of different writers of different genres to each pick a play of shakespeare's and revisit it as a prose novel. - [evan] as a prose novel. - so jo nesbø is doing macbeath, he's a murder writer. - [evan] okay. - suitable. i'm doing the tempest. - why the tempest? - you'll find out. - oh i guess i will! (laughter) you're just leaving a lot hanging out there. - i never tell in advance. - no i understand. but obviously this interests you as a project. - [margaret] fascinating. - what an interesting project. - yeah very very fascinating project. the first one has just come out, it's by jeanette winterson and it's on the winter's tale which is a pretty difficult play to do that with 'cause the plot is so weird.
she's done a very good job with it, and her book is called the gap of time. - the gap of time. - yes. - so when will your book be out? - 2016. - that'll be the next thing from you that we see. - [margaret] yes. - yes. - anything else you have cooking, another book of your own separate from this project? i mean obviously you're not in any kind of downshift mode. - i'm not in a downshift mode that's right, i'm not in a downshift mode. well we have a graphic novel of the handmaid's tale coming in 2017. - [evan] is that right? - yes. but i'm not neither writing it 'cause i already did that or drawing it, we have a very good artist. - but how wonderful to think about all the things that have been spawned by that. but we talked before we came out here, the film obviously but there was an opera? - the opera was terrific. - an opera based on the handmaid's tale? - really liked the opera. and the opera was a danish composer. - [evan] yeah. - and he got hold of me in the lobby of the hotel d'angleterre in copenhagen and he actually fell on his knees,
it was quite romantic. (laughter) and he said i must do the handmaid's tale, i have to do the handmaid's tale, it's the first commission for the royal danish opera in 34 years. but if i can't do the handsmaid's tale, i don't want to do any opera at all. - how could you say no. - well i thought he was-- okay either he's crazy and it will be bad and it will just go away, or else he's not crazy and it'll be good. so why not take a chance? so it was good it was terrific. it was actually great. - so opera and now a graphic novel. - yes and i haven't told you about the ballet either. (laughter) - and there's a ballet? - yes. - wow. well i'm fascinated by this, i'm gonna be sure to look for that graphic novel that'll be very interesting i think. - you might not be able to avoid it. - i may not. (laughter) - we're gonna stop here, congratulations on this. - thank you very much. - [evan] it's an honor to get to meet you. - oh thanks. - [evan] it really is and a pleasure to talk to you. - and you too. - great margaret atwood thank you so much. (crowd applauds) - [voiceover] we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at klru.org/overheard
to find invitations to interviews, q & a's with our audience and guests and an archive of past episodes. - one of my ancestors involved in that on the hanging side. quite an interesting person called half-hanged mary. they strung her up. but they hadn't invented the drop yet so she didn't die. and then they came together the next morning and there she was. still alive. don't you think that's a good ancestor to have? (laughing) - [voiceover] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by mfi foundation. improving the quality of life within our community. also by hillco partners. a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. (light music)