Stuart Kelly has seen Margaret Atwood’s new book, The Heart Goes Last, described as everything from a psychedelic 60s caper all the way through to a comedy of errors. He’s not sure where the 60s comment came from but he knows that there aren’t many authors that could write a profoundly serious novel that featured Elvis impersonators and sex robots. Atwood then explains that she’s particularly glad to be in Edinburgh since she had to get the publication date moved for the event after twitter complaints about a lack of events here. She also urges all of us to write to the Scotsman and tell them not to even think of removing the book reviews from their paper, as it would be a terrible loss.
Before beginning to read a section from The Heart Goes Last Atwood explains that it features a couple having to live in their car thanks to a financial event much like 2008. The first chapter is appropriately titled ‘Cramped’ and features one of the main characters pondering sleeping arrangements within their, rather small, car. The threat of gangs and vandals means they can’t open the windows any more than a small crack, something that makes their difficulty in finding a shower or washing machine more aggravating.
Atwood stops reading and explains that they are then introduced to a project that seems like a solution to all of their problems. It promises a good job, a nice house, and safety. It is essentially a closed community where everyone spends half their time as a prisoner in order to share out the jobs and resources. Each couple time-shares their house with another and you are not supposed to meet those who occupy your house during the month you are in prison. The main catch of this project is that once you have signed in, you can’t sign out. As the book progresses people begin to act differently according to the environment. When out in their idyllic 50s style community they lean more towards that lifestyle and perspective, when in prison they act like prisoners.
Kelly brings up the theme of technological sexuality and Atwood points out that there has always been an element of the artificial in what we consider beautiful. We know that the ancient Egyptians had an extensive range of cosmetics, as did many other societies. We have become increasingly good at artificial beauty in recent decades and we are already beginning to see ‘prosti-bots’. One of the latest Japanese inventions is a robot that can get goose bumps. This, she jokes, is progress.
Kelly asks what she thinks of eroticism and war being two major drivers for technological advance. Atwood feels that human sexual desire is infinitely stretchy. We acquire something new and love it but then we get bored and begin to experiment with different uses and ways to change it. The range of objects people have had sex with is vast and includes shoes and furniture (there is even a blog titled ‘I had sex with furniture’).
The Heart Goes Last began as a series of longer short stories on a site called Byliner, which was filling the void left when magazines stopped publishing longer short fiction and journalism. There are plenty of literary journals but they often have different aspirations compared to the old magazine style. She was following the model of authors like Charles Dickens who started with serial publishing. She tells us how people used to write in to Dickens to ask for more of a particular character or to complain about how one was too mean to another. This sometimes led to characters having a complete change of heart or a relatively minor character becoming the main focus. On one notable occasion he ignored the pleas of his readers and killed a well-loved character. Readers in New York were alerted to this event by telegram and the ship carrying that issue was greeted by a crowd of weeping readers dressed in black.
The serial format also means that each chapter must end with a cliff-hanger and begin with a brief reminder of what had happened previously, which is something you have to change when consolidating a serial collection into a novel.
Kelly says he found it to be a very funny book but also the most moving end of any book of hers that he’s read. He did however note that there are some pessimistic elements and a situation that is quite similar to the Stanford Prison Experiment. Atwood reprises her earlier sexuality comment with ‘human nature is infinitely stretchy’. We all find ourselves wondering what we would do in a certain situation. What would I have done in Nazi Germany? What would I have done if I were the person in that news story? She then suggests that if you have spent your life behaving well then you have probably been living in relatively good circumstances.
Kelly then turns to the audience for questions. The first asks about a graphic novel kickstarter Atwood promoted recently, prefaced with profound thanks that she came to Edinburgh to let us adore her. Atwood explains that the kickstarter was for a graphic novel organised by Hope Nicholson, which will be about the secret loves of geek girls. Atwood has contributed four comic strips to the book and also assisted by providing perks for people who had donated larger amounts of money. She has drawn comics in the past, which can be found on her website, including a book tour comic, much to the embarrassment of her publisher. A graphic novel version of Handmaid’s Tale is also in the works and will be published in 2017. When a question arises about whether it was strange to see Handmaid’s Tale become a graphic novel Atwood points out that it has already been adapted for a film, an opera, and a ballet. An HBO adaptation of the MaddAdam trilogy is another upcoming project led by Darren Aronofsky.
Another member of the audience asks about the tendency for great female writers to be depicted as set apart from the general writing community and rather isolated. Atwood laughs that this question is essentially ‘are you allowed to have a social life?’ Her answer is yes, you can be a human being and do art. She explains that it was different for 18th and 19th century writers because they could pretend to be men, though that can still be done on the internet to a certain extent. Many of her twitter followers are apparently cats and one is a revolving skull. Chaucer is also very active on twitter and has a blog, which Atwood had an interview on, conducted in Middle English.
Both Atwood and Kelly then recommend the blog Terrible Minds by the writer Chuck Wendig, who apparently swears a lot and writes brilliant blogs on anything and everything related to writing. One particularly good one was on the subject of ‘Clean Reading’, an app that will alter all of the naughty words to ‘clean’ ones, to varying degrees of success. Switching wiener to groin provides some confusing culinary descriptions and changing every God to gosh and Jesus to jeez rather ruins Paradise Lost. This does however lead to the brilliant description of ‘Lucifer in deepest heck’.
It was a funny and thought provoking evening in a packed hall that served as a reminder of why Atwood is so loved.