Margaret Atwood talks forgiveness, climate change and her fears for the human race

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Five Minute Philosopher is a weekly series in which Stylist gets profound with people we love. What will the author Margaret Atwood make of our existential questions?

What is the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is life: what an organism has when it is not dead. Life is also the section in some newspapers devoted to furniture, food, clothing and lipstick. Make of that what you will (are only women alive?)

What is the difference between right and wrong?

When you are knowingly treating someone in a way that you would not wish to be treated yourself, you are probably doing wrong. Though if that person is a psychopath about to commit a murder and you can stop it, then not so much.

Where is your happy place?

Happy or soothing? If soothing, the bathtub. If happy, a canoe. Afloat, however. Not so good if sitting on land.

Nature or nurture?

50-50, plus epigenetics.

Is it more important to be liked or respected?

Respected. To be liked requires dimples. I’ve never had those. If you were a strong woman of my generation you had to go for respected, because liked was not on the table.

Atwood believes it's more important to be respected than liked.

If you could be remembered for one thing what would it be?

I don’t care, since I won’t be around to enjoy or disapprove of the remembering. But I do hope there will be a human race in the future. Without that, no remembering. Or no human remembering.

Who or what is your greatest love?

I don’t have only one. My family, the boreal forest, the Arctic, my work. All of that will keep me busy for now.

When did you last lie?

Today at lunchtime, when I made up a fake name for the potted plant in the restaurant and put it over on one of my companions. But I confessed I’d made it up almost immediately. Novelists, being licensed liars, have to keep in practice.

Does the supernatural exist?

Being a strict agnostic who makes a distinction between beliefs and provable facts, I have no opinion, since this quantity can be neither proved nor disproved. Let’s say the belief in the supernatural certainly exists, so it is a factor in human life and history. 

Are you fatalistic?

No, not really. Though I am sometimes resigned. Mostly, however, I am annoyingly upbeat.

What is your greatest fear?

That human beings will follow their stupid and greedy side, rather than their smart side, and go down the plughole. We’re circling the rim.

There's plenty of food for thought in Robyn Doolittle's Had It Coming, says Atwood.

Animals or babies?

Babies. Then you can add some animals for them as pets, if desired. Whereas you can’t add babies for the animals. But if you mean in the broad picture – then baby animals, of wild species at least. We’re running low on them.

What talent do you yearn for?

The ability to play a musical instrument. I could still learn, I suppose. But given a choice between musical practice and writing, I know that I will always choose the latter.

What book do you recommend most to others?

At the moment: Drawdown. It’s about all the practices we are already doing that, if expanded, would result in a net carbon drawdown from the atmosphere, and give us a crack at halting or reversing the climate crisis. I’m also recommending Robyn Doolittle’s Had It Coming: What’s Fair In The Age Of #MeToo? Lots to ponder.

Do you like to be complimented?

Who doesn’t? But not too much. It’s like too much dessert. If you suffer a compliment overdose, you might swell up and burst.

Do you have a high pain threshold?

In a word, yes. In several other words, fairly high, but less high as the pain source moves further away from the head. So: teeth, bad. Elbows, not so much, as a rule. Toes can be painful, however.

Which lesson has been the hardest to learn?

How to forgive. I’m working on it, but I’m inclined to be vengeful. I try not to act out this feeling, as I disapprove of it. 

What food sums up happiness? 

No food sums up happiness. But I am fond of avocados, and also mushroom soup.

What have you never understood?

That would be a very long, multiple-choice answer. The short answer would be trigonometry. But I have no wish to understand it.

What is the one thing you want to know before you die?

Whether we’ve turned the corner on the climate meltdown. If not, other concerns – including women’s rights – will soon become irrelevant.

Are you scared of dying or what happens when you die?

Of dying, only if painful and protracted, or if I get stuck inside an inert body. I would also not wish to be trapped in a jar.

Quinoa or Quavers?

There are no Quavers here, so I default to Cheezies. They are Canadian. Quinoa Cheezies will shortly be invented, however. Watch for them. 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (£20, Chatto & Windus) is out now in hardback.

Hillary says:

I love that The Handmaid’s Tale series renewed enthusiasm for the extraordinary Margaret Atwood. She’s fabulous. 

Images: Getty

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