A photo of Margaret Atwood, side-by-side with the interview title, 21 Questions, on a pink and grayscale background.

‘I was in love with Sherlock Holmes’: 21 Questions with Margaret Atwood

Ahead of new essay collection Burning Questions, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments and more discusses the novels that shaped her life, her fungi obsession, and serving a cheese soufflé to Ursula K Le Guin.

Some authors need no introduction: their novels, so well-known and well-loved worldwide, made them a household name even before they were adapted into TV shows and audiobooks; they’ve published poetry collections and graphic novels; won oodles of literary prizes, sometimes twice; and they’ve had bestowed upon them their country of origin’s highest honour.  

We’re writing, of course, about Margaret Atwood, who’s literary bona fides go so deep we could fill a whole book with her achievements. This month, the Canadian literary icon will release Burning Questions, a collection of “Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004-2021” (to borrow the book’s subtitle) touching on the climate crisis, literary criticism and the very nature of storytelling.

To celebrate its release, we asked Atwood our 21 Questions about life and literature, and she answered with charming aplomb. Below, she writes about the life-changing book that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale, the charm of Sherlock Holmes, and why books are not a contest.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I never answer this question, as some writers – all writers! – will object to being left out. Even the dead ones object. That’s not fun. You don’t want Sam Johnson or even Virginia Woolf pissed at you. They can be very cutting. Milton sulks. Edith Wharton got overlooked for so long; she was grumpy for a while, but she got over it.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

'I was in love with Sherlock Holmes; you could depend on him never to be lecherous on a date'

The collected Mother Goose. A very layered and enigmatic work. Who WAS that old man dressed all in leather? A dubious character! And what was the old woman doing tossed up in a basket, seventy times as high as the moon? And … who tossed her?  So many questions!

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I was in love with Sherlock Holmes, if that’s what you mean. You could depend on him never to be lecherous on a date. In fact, you could depend on him never to ask you on a date. Like pop stars, he could be admired from a distance. Suited both of us.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

At what age? It’s been a long path. I’ll stick with Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. (“Someday I’d like to try a book like that,” I said to myself, “only with a female narrator. It would of course be quite different.”)

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

'[I asked] a 36-page questionnaire about bowel movements for a laxative company'

Where to begin? How about working the archery range at the Sportsman’s Show in 1956? “The pointy part of the arrow goes at the front.” Or going door-to-door in 1963, when I was a questionnaire re-writer for a market research company, asking a 36-page questionnaire about bowel movements for a laxative company. “No one is going to answer 36 pages on that!” I bleated. “They’ll kick me out after three pages!” “Ah, but those who don’t,” they said – “those are our target market!”

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

In 1972, by Farley Mowat, after I’d had a modest success: “Now you’re a target, and people will shoot at you.” Which is not about how to write, but about some of the consequences of having done so. As for the best piece of advice I’ve given: “Don’t have all the characters’ names start with the same letter.” Unless you’re doing it intentionally and alliteratively, like Donald and Daisy Duck.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

During tense moments, such as elections and hurricanes, I crawl under the bed and read Lord of the Rings. Bad things happen, mayhem takes place, but at least we know how it comes out.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

What is this guilt of which you prate, Earthling?

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

'During tense moments, I crawl under the bed and read Lord of the Rings'

At this age? A batty old lady wandering around talking to herself? But I do that anyway. Oh, you mean what would I have been. Maybe a botanist. If so, I’d be genetically engineering drought-resistant crops right now. Either that, or sentient fungi. (I know, I know, Mr. Sheldrake: they’re already sentient. So, more sentient.)

What makes you happiest?

Not thinking about whether or not I’m happy because I’m immersed in something else.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Depends what surprises you. None of them are surprising to me. How about mushrooms? No, you expected that. (Cackles ominously.)

What is your ideal writing scenario?

The phone doesn’t ring.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

What is this embarrassment you prate of, Earthling? But maybe the time I went on a daytime TV show right after the duo who were demonstrating how to use a colostomy bag. Having written a book is pretty dull by comparison.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

'If [I had] a big superpower, presto shazam, no more climate crisis!'

Is this someone I might like, or someone I might want to do in with the mushrooms? If the latter, I’d invite Ruth Rendell as well as the intended victim, and she could advise. If the former, I’d ask Ursula K. Le Guin, because she was always good fun and we would have a lot of things to discuss, especially considering the current political climate. What would I serve? Probably a cheese soufflé – you don’t see them much anymore, but they always look beautiful when they come out of the oven – and a big green salad.

What’s your biggest fear?

Why would I waste my short remaining time on the planet having fears?

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

If a big superpower, presto shazam, no more climate crisis! If a little superpower, I’d like to perfect my Toxic Glare. It’s not bad, but it could stand some improvement. If a very little superpower, tap-dancing. I’m taking it up again, after a hiatus of 77 years. It’s less hazardous than ice-skating.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

I’d never say “best.” The other books feel slighted if you do. Right now I have The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English in the bathroom. It’s very soothing.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

'Why would I waste my short remaining time on the planet having fears?'

What is this bath you prate of, Earthling? But yes. A critic I knew long ago used to read all the review copies in the bath. If the book got wet, that meant it would receive a bad review.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Please stop with the “best”! Not everything is a contest! There are 1,000 ways of being “good.” Who can choose?

What inspired you to write your book?

My publishers pestered me, and I have a culturally determined resistance to saying no. Especially when they start crying. (Actually, Burning Questions is a book of selected essays, so I didn’t exactly “write” it. It’s sort of like the Antiques Roadshow: a bit of rubbish here, an historical artefact there, and over there, something you’d forgotten about for years but then came across in the attic and wondered how it got there.)


Burning Questions is out 1 March 2022.

Photo at top copyright Luis Mora
Image by Flynn Shore

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