The Heart Goes Last: A Q&A With Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood/Photo © Liam Sharp

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy and The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson. We had to the opportunity to ask Ms. Atwood about the inspiration behind her latest novel The Heart Goes Last and what she took away personally from writing the book.

UNBOUND WORLDS: The novel’s protagonists, Stan and Charmaine, are challenged by severe financial distress along with some formidable “deadly sins”: lust, greed, and envy. Yet these transgressions seem to fly under the radar in the world of Consilience, while others like pride and sloth are discouraged in no uncertain terms. While creating this world, how did you determine what the participants in the Positron Project could get away with – and what they couldn’t?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Consilience takes the 1950s as its model world. In the 1950s, a work-ethic era, sloth was a no-no, as was “pride” in terms of standing out from the crowd too much. Whereas lust was rampant as long as it was not done publicly, greed was good as long as it was corporate, and envy… well, envy will always be with us as long as there are enviable things, and if you look at the ads of the era, it was a big motivator. You wanted to be envied, just not for anything too unusual.

UW: There are many clever names for places and objects in the novel: The Pixel Dust Bar, Possibilibots, Dimple Robotics, even the town itself — Consilience. Do these come easily to you or do they take time to develop? Are there any that you changed during the course of writing the novel?

MA: I took out a few of them. The fact is that we live in a world of corporate and brand names, so fictional companies and objects have to have names. Having been given a lot of magazines when I was ill as a child, I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of naming.

UW: There are so many vividly drawn characters in the novel. Did any character in particular stay with you once you had finished the novel?

MA: I’d like to know what Jocelyn will get up to next. She’s quite complex and smart. But I wish Stan and Charmaine well. And little Winnie Stanlita, of course.

UW: What current aspects of North American culture and society weighed most heavily on your mind while you were writing The Heart Goes Last?

MA: Prisons for profit. Always a bad idea, because such schemes require more and more prisoners to keep themselves going. Slave labor, when you come right down to it. We need to think very hard about what prisons are supposed to be for.

UW: Is there one message in particular that you hope readers ultimately take away from The Heart Goes Last?

MA: 1. Desperate situations inspire strange choices. How can society avoid such desperate situations?
2. We like bath towels.
3. But also: people fall in love with the darndest other people, or robots, or teddy bears. It’s all in Shakespeare. In fact, it’s all in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which gives the book its third epigraph. For once I managed to write a kind of romantic comedy, though admittedly a somewhat screwed-up one.