how i get it done

Margaret Atwood Doesn’t Read Reviews

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

82-year-old Booker Prize and Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood is best known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Adapted into a popular Hulu Series in 2017, the story became a cultural siren, warning us of the dangers of authoritarian society in which human rights are far from inalienable. But she’s also the author of over fifty books of poetry, critical essays, graphic novels, and fiction. Now, Atwood has released an essay collection — her third — called Burning Questions, which spans the post-9/11 era from 2004 to 2021. She spoke to the Cut from her basement home office in Toronto about drinking beet juice, reading her own book reviews, and the advantages of shopping with a wheely cart. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning routine: 
I get up around 7:30 or 8. I make coffee and have breakfast. I would have some form of fruit. I’m keen on beet juice these days, it lowers your blood pressure. I don’t usually bother cooking up yummy things for myself. If junior members of the family are in residence, they might make french toast or some concoction with a younger-generation staple called chia. There are all kinds of young-people foodstuffs that didn’t used to be there, such as kale. I have no objection to these things.

On a typical workday:
I check in with my assistant, Lucia, and we go over the day. (I have had an assistant since I first had a baby.) We have a running to-do list with deadlines. Lucia gives me a sheet of paper that says “Hope is calling,” for example, and what you’re calling for. It varies depending on what’s going on. Right now I’m in the pre-book-launch month, so there are a lot of interviews.

My office is in the cellar. We got the house in 1985 when it was a street that had a lot of cults on it. It had cults, rooming houses, and call girls. A cult called Therafields had owned the house and divided it up in a way that was very useful to me, because there was a separate back entrance and two rooms downstairs that were already being used as offices. They had glued indoor/outdoor carpeting onto the bare naked cement. The mildew, the mold, all of that had to come out. We had to undo some of the renovations, which were life-threatening. So my office is down there. Books and files and contracts, the printer, the copier, the scanner. I have my other office where I answer a lot of emails and do my actual writing. Or in the kitchen.

On forgetting meals:
There is that moment when a junior member of the family will say, “What did you have for lunch?” and I’ll say, “Oh, you think I had lunch?” They keep an eye on me. I was a teenager who could hardly wait for dinner to be over so I could go off and do one of my projects. So sometimes eating slips my mind.

On maintaining a regular schedule:
I’m a great disappointment in that respect. As a student, I was a night-worker. When I had a child, the writing took place when the child was asleep, which varies during the life of a child. Then when the child goes to school. Then the child goes to university and you revert to some of your former bad habits, such as writing at night. I still do that, but it’s a bad habit. You can lose track, and you don’t get enough sleep.

On staying active:
I try to do 10,000 steps a day, throughout the day. I don’t drive, and I go shopping with my little wheely cart, embarrassing junior members of the family. I think it’s my function to embarrass them — it gives them a conversational topic. But the carts are very useful — it means you don’t have to lug 16 bags home on your shoulders. Sometimes I take a pac-sac.

On the moment she felt she’d “made it”: 
I was always doing what I wanted, but it depended on how many side jobs I had to have in order to support it. The moment when I didn’t need to have another job but could be a freelancer — that was 1972 — that was it.

On dealing with writer’s block:
What I usually do is switch to another project. I was the most stuck when I was trying to write a novel in 1983. We were living in England, on the Norfolk coast, a very good bird watching spot. We [Atwood and her husband, Graeme Gibson] were each trying to write a book and neither of our books came to anything. I was writing in a stone fisherman’s cottage. I got stuck and found myself reading books left behind by summer visitors about Mary Queen of Scots. Historical romances. When you find yourself doing that instead of your own writing, it’s a clue that maybe you’re not that interested in what you’re doing.

On professional envy:
Envy is a potent force, not just in artistic communities, but in life in general. Some cultures even think that if you’re ill with a disease, it’s because someone is envious of you. If you are in a career or in a vocation where you start out with a group of other people at your same level and one person makes a breakthrough and gets a six-figure advance, there’s going to be envy. There’s envy among chimpanzees, so why wouldn’t there be envy amongst us? So be aware.

On reading critics’ reviews:
Why do it? The work is finished. There’s nothing you can do. And sometimes — excuse me — they can’t read. Later I may do it, but not before the book tour. Because if there’s a stinky review, it’s useful to say, “I haven’t read it.” There’s no upside to getting into an argument with a literary critic.

On advice she’d give her younger self:
Learn to type. I didn’t. It’s very useful to touch-type and not have to look down all the time and back to the screen, the way I do. It gives you a sore neck. I can type, but I have to look. Also, do back exercises.

On her evenings:
I’m always having dinner with somebody. I just did two dinner parties back-to-back recently. Rapid tests were provided by junior members of the family to make sure that silly old granny doesn’t get COVID from her dinner party guests. Everybody is social to a certain extent, but if you’re too social as a writer, you don’t get any writing done.

Then I might watch a really soothing kind of murder mystery. I just watched the new production of Macbeth, which I thought was very well done.

How Margaret Atwood Gets It Done