Author Margaret Atwood on The Year of the Flood

Photo: George Whiteside

Margaret Atwood is one of the most respected authors of our time, with dozens of books of poetry and fiction to her name, among them Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, and Oryx and Crake. Her latest book, The Year of the Flood, is set in a fallen future: society has crumbled, climate change and pandemics ravage the planet, and people are forced to rediscover their relationship with the land. Miss Atwood chats with TreeHugger about the God's Gardeners (the book's rooftop-gardening eco cult), her pantheon of ecological saints, and the greening of her book tour and her own life. (Our apologies for the sound quality--we did our best.)

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download. Music from Piers Faccini.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: Could you describe some of your characters in "The Year of The Flood" and bring us into this world a little?

Margaret Atwood: OK. Being a techie person, I have a website, and it's at www.yearoftheflood.com, where there is in fact not only a handy summary, but all kinds of other stuff, including things that we are doing as fundraisers for bird conservation.

In a nutshell, "The Year of The Flood" is not a sequel, it's not a prequel, it's a meanwhile. It's a simultaneous time span that goes with "Oryx and Crake," which came out in 2003. In "Oryx and Crake," we're in the future where the invention of new biological forms is proceeding apace. Sometimes with good, sometimes with bad effects. But where it is possible--as it is in fact possible now--to manufacture diseases ourselves. We don't need assistance anymore from the natural world. We can actually do it.

So somebody has, in fact, done that, and we all know what happens when a microbe hits a population that has no resistance to it, because it's what happened in North America after Columbus landed. The mortality rate among native people was in many cases 100%.

So this is taking place in the future, and we follow several people who have waited it out and managed to survive it while it burned it's way through. They find themselves, to all intents and purposes, alone. They don't know whether they're alone or not, because as soon as the communications network goes down, you in fact don't know that.

They feel that they are probably alone, and two of them in "The Year of The Flood" are women. They have been connected with a green religious group which has been operating for 25 years, called God's Gardeners, who are very pure in their relation to what you should consume and how you should consume it. What you should eat, where you should live, and how you should behave.

They attempt to combine science, nature, and religion with somewhat mixed results sometimes. So that is the plot. We watch these two women as they make their way through, and we also follow the remnants of the God's Gardeners, because of course as soon as they became effective they also became dangerous to the powers in control.

You have probably seen, in your lifetime, various green organizations becoming quite suspect to things like security agencies.

TreeHugger: In this world, North America has been ravaged by storms, law and order is totally taken over by private corporations. I want to know how much of what you describe is really just extensions of your own view of where we're headed already in our own world.

Atwood: I think it's not extensions of my view. I think it's extensions of what I'm reading in the newspaper. It is one road we could potentially go down. And what I would say to people is, this is a very hopeful book, because right now it's only a book. You can shut the covers and it's still inside there. What you want to do is keep it from getting out of the book and becoming real life.

TreeHugger: You mentioned God's Gardeners, this eco splinter group who gardens on rooftops and lives this very strictly pure life. Really it's a religious group. What do you see going on right now between established religions and the ecological movement?

Atwood: There is a merging going on in some aspects of the established religions. They're not stupid--they read the papers too. For that very reason a number of the events that we have done, because we have been doing these musical and dramatic events in conjunction with our bird conservation organizations, and a couple of other groups. We did one for a community food group, for instance.

For that reason, a number of them have taken place in churches, with the welcome of the people in charge of those churches. In fact in some instances they've even asked if they could sing some of the God's Gardener's hymns, because the God's Gardeners have their own oral hymn book and they celebrate their own feasts and saint's days too.

There is in fact quite a bit of crossover. We've also got the Green Bible, which has just come out. It's got an introduction by Archbishop Tutu, the green part is highlighted in green and there's a list of useful green things at the end that you can do. I think this is going to be a trend. I think it has to be a trend, because unless there's an emotional content to peoples' save-the-world behavior, it's a lot harder to do. Unless you believe in it, it doesn't work. It's hard to do simply on rational grounds.

TreeHugger: Our writer Lloyd Alter was actually in Toronto at St. James Cathedral where you did the launch. Tell me a little bit more about how this went down, little more about the music and the hymns.

Atwood: It's a really ground-up operation in that we send up the basic script, the music, the sheet music to whoever wants to put on one of these. And we say do it your way, however you want to do it. I turn up as the narrator to stick it all together with the narrative bits. But I often do not know when I arrive what the interpretation is going to be. I'm seeing it for the first time that day.

So for instance I arrived in Vancouver and they had three wonderful women pop singers doing the music. In Bristol they had about 16 people, a mixed choir who had sung together before, and they were just wonderful. They raised the rafters. So it's been done all different ways. We had a group called Sonos in Los Angeles. They were three and three (three men, three women). They are a professional singing group and they will be with us in New York.

But some of the events have been strictly amateur. For instance in Ely Cathedral it was the church choir. And two people who worked in the Topping Book Store, and a Topping customer who had wandered in off the street. So all you need is three readers, two women and a man. And you need somebody who can sing.

And I've also done solo events in which I've done the reading and then I've played the songs off the CD, which you can get not only on Amazon and in stores, but on the website as well. The music was composed by Orville Stoeber, sort of by accident. He happened to be reading the manuscript and he started channeling the gardeners, and he ended up writing all 14 of the hymns, the music pieces.

And my feeling is that anybody who wants to use these at any kind of a fundraiser, as long as it's not a professional or any type of for-profit a things, is quite welcome. Do it yourself.

That way we saved a lot of carbon because we weren't traveling with whole shows. We're carbon neutralizing it anyway through ZeroFootprint. And we gave people a lot of room to play, and they had a wonderful time. In Kingston, for instance, they made all their costumes themselves.

They made hats out of cardboard and woven newspaper: it was quite spectacular. You can see pictures of it on the website blog.

TreeHugger: I noticed that the book itself is 100% recycled, and on your blog you talk a lot about the way you're working with the tour itself to minimize your environmental footprint. I know that's been an orientation of yours for a while. Tell us a little bit about what you did personally.

Atwood: First of all, we have been carbon neutralizing the tour thorough a company called ZeroFootprint. They calculate how much carbon you're using and then they offset it. And you get a choice as to how they will do that. My Canadian publisher just used them for the entire tour.

For the rest of it, I'm telling them where I went and what vehicles I used, and then they make the calculations. And you can do this yourself. There's a ZeroFootprint calculator right on the website.

So that was one thing that we did. Another thing we did was I took a vow to drink nothing but shade-grown organic coffee. And the reason for doing that is that pesticides sprayed on sun-grown coffee is a major killer of migratory songbirds. Their habitat is destroyed to grow that coffee and then everything is sprayed, which kills any food supply that they might have left and frequently kills them outright.

So if you see a drop in migratory birds, and if you want to restore those birds, don't drink sun-grown, pesticide-sprayed coffee. If there's one single message we would want to get across, it's that. The book is called "Silence of the Songbirds" and it's by Bridget Stutchbury.

I also took the Veggie Vows for the duration (although I'm not sure, it might be a good plan to support locally grown, organic meat, for instance). That also might be a good plan. But for the book, I'm doing nothing with fur or feathers, although I allow the occasional clam and shrimp, or fish item. I've had those.

But mostly it's been vegetarian. It's been very interesting traveling around. In some places there a lot more of it than you might think, if you start looking. And one of the beauties of the iPhone is you can use that map thing and you can type in "organic coffee cafe" and up come the little pins to show you where they are.

Tags: Arts | Book Reviews | Diet | Farming | Gardening | Global Warming Effects | Local Food | Music | TH Interview | TreeHugger Radio | Vancouver | Vegetarian

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