Atwood goes digital

Margaret Atwood's latest book The Heart Goes Last began as one of her online experiments

Margaret Atwood has posted on free fiction site Wattpad and developed a video game app, among other things.
Margaret Atwood has posted on free fiction site Wattpad and developed a video game app, among other things.PHOTO: JEAN MALEK

NEW YORK • Like a mad scientist from one of her futuristic novels, Margaret Atwood is an avid tinkerer who seems willing to experiment with almost any digital technology.

She has posted her writing on free fiction site Wattpad and published fiction on Twitter, where she has more than 885,000 followers. She banters with fans on online message board Reddit and has livestreamed footage of herself on video platform Periscope. A video game app, Intestinal Parasites, was developed as a tie-in to her dystopian MaddAddam novels. She even invented a device called LongPen, envisioned as a way for people to sign their names remotely.

Her new book, The Heart Goes Last, grew out of her obsession with new forms of digital narrative. The project began three years ago as an online serial for e-book publisher Byliner and morphed into a novel.

The story unfolds in a grim, futuristic America, where financial collapse has left much of the population unemployed, homeless and scavenging. A destitute married couple, Stan and Charmaine, are living in their car, dodging roaming bands of criminals and subsisting on dismal meals such as stale doughnuts. Their luck seems to turn when they are offered a chance to join a new planned community called Consilience, which promises free housing and jobs.

There is a catch, of course. Consilience is basically a giant prison, where residents alternate between spending time as inmates and living in an oppressive, tightly controlled community as free (but not really) citizens who tend to the prisoners.

Eventually, Stan and Charmaine discover the shocking secret at the heart of the enterprise and separately plot their escape, a caper that involves Stan posing as an Elvis sex robot and being shipped in a box to Las Vegas.

Atwood, 75, said the idea came to her when she was reading about for-profit prisons. "For-profit prisons are never a good idea, because to keep them profitable you have to keep having more prisoners," she said in a phone interview. To make her fictional penal system even creepier, she created greedy villains who victimised poor people by offering them jobs.

Initially, she had planned to publish a single e-book with Byliner. But she got absorbed in the story. The concept was a hit. The first instalment, I'm Starved For You, sold 40,000 copies after its release in 2012, said her editor Amy Grace Loyd at Byliner. Three more episodes followed.

But the online serial experiment ended in May 2013, leaving fans hanging.

To transform an episodic narrative into something more sweeping, she rewrote the early chapters, adding the backstory about how the characters arrived at Consilience. She worked out the novel's madcap climax, which culminates with an outlandish plot twist involving Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, a city that struck Atwood as a perfect dystopian setting.

"Nothing in it feels quite real," she said.

She has long been imagining disaster scenarios that threaten to annihilate humankind, from an epidemic of infertility in her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale; to a deadly virus that wipes out most of humanity in her 2003 dystopian novel, Oryx And Crake. The Heart Goes Last wrestles with many of the same themes that have preoccupied her for decades, such as sexism, the dangers of unbridled greed and the risky moral terrain that comes with technological progress. But critics are divided over whether her new novel deserves a place alongside her earlier, celebrated dystopian works. Some reviewers dismissed The Heart Goes Last as a digital experiment gone awry.

"Maybe the fractured process of composition is to blame for the jarring unevenness of The Heart Goes Last," critic Ron Charles wrote in The Washington Post.

For someone who has spent a chunk of her career plotting the collapse of civilisation, Atwood is surprisingly bullish on the future of publishing - optimistic enough, at least, to write a book that will be sealed in a time capsule for a century.

In May, she delivered a new manuscript titled Scribbler Moon to Future Library, a literary art project in Norway that will collect 100 texts over the next century and publish them in 2114. Atwood was the first writer to submit a manuscript.

"It's a very hopeful thing," she said. "It assumes that 100 years from now, there will still be readers, there will still be a library, there will still be books."NEW YORK TIMES

  • The Heart Goes Last is available at Books Kinokuniya from $37.40.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Atwood goes digital'. Print Edition | Subscribe