At 82, the Canadian author has seen it all – and her novels predicted most of it. Just don’t presume you know what she thinks, she tells Hadley Freeman
‘How are you? You’re named after Ernest Hemingway’s first wife,” Margaret Atwood announces by way of a greeting when we meet on a hotel’s heated patio near her home in Toronto. Atwood, 82, has often been described as a prophet, thanks to her uncanny ability to foresee the future in her books. When Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in January 2021, it looked, terrifyingly, like a scene out of The Handmaid’s Tale, when the government is overthrown and the dystopian land of Gilead is founded. She seemingly predicted the 2008 financial crash in her nonfiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, published that year. Atwood has always scoffed at any suggestion of telepathy, pointing out that every atrocity in The Handmaid’s Tale had been carried out by totalitarian regimes in real life, and she “predicted” the crash by noticing the number of adverts offering to help people with their personal debt. But as she stands in front of me, snowflakes glittering around her like stars, the flames of the hotel’s gas heaters leaping on either side of her, dressed all in black save for her little red hat, correctly guessing who I’m named after, she certainly seems to have a touch of magic about her. How did she know about the Hemingway connection?
“Because I’m deep into Martha Gellhorn,” she says, launching into a long discussion about the celebrated war correspondent and Hemingway’s third wife. Atwood isn’t writing a book about Gellhorn (yet), but she found a letter from her to the father of her late partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019, and is now a Gellhornologist. After six or so minutes, I wonder if we’ll ever talk about anything else, but Atwood has a regal quality that makes interruption unthinkable. It does not, as I later learn, render argument impossible.
I don’t like to favouritise my books. The others would be out to get you: ‘How could you? I spent all this time with you!’