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Margaret Atwood & Speculative Fiction

Margaret Atwood is an author of over 50 works. Well known for her feminist, dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, she has a knack for predicting a grim future. Kat shares about Atwood's life, a bit about her influences, and more about her. Gabe covers the classic themes in Atwood's work and how she masterfully blends real-world scientific, political, and economic horrors with a terrifying future.

Sources in this Episode:

Margaret Atwood on feminism, culture wars and speaking her mind: 'I'm very willing to listen, but not to be scammed' How Margaret Atwood became the voice of 2017 Four Ways 'Oryx and Crake' Predicted the Future The unnerving relevance of Margaret Atwood's 'MaddAddam' trilogy Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia


A Mix of Science & Literature: Margaret Atwood's Life and History by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Thank you to and their Biography of Margaret Atwood as it helped in filling in areas of information that Britannica and Margaret Atwood's website were missing.

They have authored more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays.

Margaret Atwood was born on November 18th, 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Her parents were Margaret Atwood, née Killam, and Carl Atwood. Her mother was a dietitian and her father was an entomologist. Her mother read to her quite a lot and was described by Atwood as a tomboy. Her grandfather didn’t want to pay for her mother’s schooling, so she took a job teaching and saved to pay her own way. In college, she met her father - Carl Atwood and they got married. They spent much time in log cabins next to insect research labs, living for many years without electricity or running water. Her mother apparently was an ice dancer into her 70s. Margaret was the middle child, and had two siblings. In her youth, they moved around Canada, living in northern Ontario, Quebec and Toronto.

Atwood didn’t start attending traditional schooling until the age of twelve, but was an avid reader. She read a variety of things, from traditional literature to comic books. She loved writing as much as she loved reading, and wrote children’s plays and stories at the age of six. She continued her schooling, moving on to high school at Leaside High School, in Toronto. They moved onto college and their undergraduate was at Victoria college at the University of Toronto and their master’s was from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. She almost followed that up with a PHD but ended up not completing her dissertation.

Following school, Atwood married an American writer - Jim Polk. They got divorced five years later. She met and fell in love it a fellow Canadian novelist named Graeme Gibson in 1976 and they lived together until Gibson’s death in 2019. They never got married but they had a child together, Eleanor Atwood Gibson. Atwood published her first book of poetry in 1961 called Double Persephone.This book of poetry was well received and won the EJ Pratt Medal, naming Atwood one of the foremost Canadian poets of the modern era. Poetry made up most of Atwood’s early career, where she focused more on teaching. She worked teaching at three Canadian universities joining their English departments. This allowed for her to travel across Canada where she taught English at the University of British Columbia Vancouver, then at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, and finishing at the University of Alberta.

During this period of teaching, she also published three collections of poetry, the Kaleidoscopes Baroque, Talismans for Children, and Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein. In 1966 she published the Circle Game which one an award from the Governor General’s Literary Award. In 1968 she published The Animals in That Country. The first decade of her career in writing, poetry was their main focus, and they published poetry exclusively. In 1969, Atwood began taking on novels, and published her first novel The Edible Woman. This was the start of Atwood covering more societal critiques through speculative fiction. During her journey into novel writing, she continued to teach, this time at the University of Toronto where she became a writer in residence.

In her residency Atwood published three more novels known as Surfacing in 1972, Lady Oracle in 1976, and Life Before Man in 1979. In 1973 is when she got divorced, and soon after fell in love with Graeme Gibson. Their daughter was born the same year that Lady Oracle was published, in 1976. These novels carried similar themed as the Edible Woman and started to establish her as an author who covered themes of gender, sexual politics, and identity intersection between national and personal identity. While she pursued novels, she did continue to write poetry and gained more fame through poetry. She continued to publish six collections of poetry between 1970-1978. Her most famous book, the Handmaid’s Tale which we’ll discuss next week, was published in 1985. The perspectives shown in this are very reflective of the time period it was written in, and before technology, the internet had made a real impact on humanity.

In addition to being a writer she was also an inventor and worked on remote and robotic writing technology. Following Handmaid’s Tale - Atwood wrote Cat’s Eye which was also well received. Throughout the 1980s, Atwood continued teaching but did hope to eventually leave teaching to a lucrative enough writing career. Teaching did allow for her to travel more, and she was able to teach and write in New York, and Australia.

In the 1990s, Atwood continued novel writing that focused on morality and feminism, covering many topics and styles. In 1993 she published the Robber Bride, and in 1996, Alias Grace. Both novels depicted villainous female characters. Alias Grace is apparently based on a real story, where a maid was convicted of murdering her boss. Both novels won awards and recognition. At the turn of the century, Atwood published her tenth novel - The Blind Assassin which won many awards and earned her place into Canada’s Walk of Fame. This also moved Atwood towards including technology into her speculative fiction as well as in real life. She came up with the idea for a remote writing technology that allowed a user to write in real ink from a remote location. This technology is called LongPen, and she’s used it for book tours that she couldn’t attend in person.

In 2003, Atwood published Oryx and Crake which was a post-apocalyptic speculative fiction novel that turned into a trilogy called the MaddAddam Trilogy. The Trilogy follows a post-apocalyptic scenario where humans have pushed science and technology to alarming places, including genetic modification and medical experimentation. She also write an opera in the early 2000s called Pauline for the City Opera of Vancouver, that is about the life of a Canadian poet/performer named Pauline Johnson.