BROOKE: The Svalbard Vault in Norway, just over 800 miles from the North Pole, preserves a global seed bank in case of an environmental disaster. Now another kind of vault is under construction in Norway, a literary one. Which is why we’re talking to Margaret Atwood.
She’s known for her dystopian novels - like "The Handmaid’s Tale" and the Maddaddam Trilogy, which starts with “Oryx and Crake.” Her most recent novel, “The Heart Goes Last,” comes out this fall. But actually, her latest work, called "Scribbler Moon," won’t come out for another 99 years -- because Atwood is the first author to contribute a manuscript to a project called 'The Future Library,' based in Norway. One hundred writers, each will contribute one work to the collection that will be published in 2114.
ATWOOD: Your text has to be made of words, no images, any length - it can be one word, it can be a thousand pages - and you can't tell anybody what's in it.
BROOKE: The next contributor will be English novelist David Mitchell who wrote "Cloud Atlas" and the Bone Clocks. His work will be published in 99 years, the next author in 98 years, and so on, so the last author will just have to wait one year.
ATWOOD: That's right. And there's going to be a lot more pressure on that person.
BROOKE: Scottish artist Katie Paterson chose you as the first of the hundred authors to contribute to the Future Library. Isn't part of it because you have spent so much of your literary life envisioning the future in such disquieting ways?
ATWOOD: It might be partly that. And it wasn't just her; there's an invitational committee. I think they wanted people who were interested in time, technology, the future and the sort of person who might like to take a chance, roll the dice, or maybe go to ComicCon, which I have done.
BROOKE: I'm so struck by the fact that this project is so tangible, so palpable. One thousand trees growing from 100 years to print 3,000 copies of one hundred manuscripts. The Future Library also includes instructions on how to make paper, there's a printing press, again, with instructions in case we forgot how to do that --
ATWOOD: And she's also selling certificates as part of the funding for this, that entitle you or your heirs and assigns to collect in 100 years a copy of this book.
BROOKE: Yeah, they cost 600 pounds each, right?
ATWOOD: They do. They're like a deed, they entitle you to the book should your progeny manage to pass it down from hand to hand.
BROOKE: The New York Times described the project as the literary equivalent of a seed bank. Did you approach your contribution with that in mind? That this might persist as a kind of safe haven for literature in case all else fails?
ATWOOD: [Laughs] Well, any time you write something, you're always anticipating a future reader. Just as when you write down a musical score, you're anticipating a future player who will come along and unlock the score and turn it back into music again. A seed bank is the same idea: you put the seeds in there with the idea that somebody will in the future plant them.
BROOKE: I'm just wondering if there is a difference writing for readers who aren't born yet.
ATWOOD: Are we talking about the idea of me maybe dying?
ATWOOD: Is that the subject here? [Laughs] Any book when you write it there's always a time gap between when you write it and when somebody else reads it. It's just that time gap is a little bit longer. Well, to be frank, quite a lot longer.
BROOKE: But didn't you say that readers might need a paleoanthropologist to enjoy the book?
ATWOOD: Yeah, we know how language changes over time. And we know that words are appearing all the time; words are changing their meanings all of the time. We know that we can still understand Shakespeare, though the further along in time we go, the more footnotes we need. Maybe the languages themselves will be extinct in a hundred years, and if so, should they be putting in a dictionary?
BROOKE: In "Oryx and Crake," Crake says, "All it takes is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything: beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French - whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it's game over forever."
ATWOOD: I'm afraid so.
BROOKE: What do you think the world's gonna be like in 100 years?
ATWOOD: Well now. The good news is from the physicists is that time really does move in one direction. Things aren't all simultaneous they way they were in "Slaughterhouse 5." So choices you make now actually can influence the future. The bad news is that Donald Rumsfeld was right about one thing: it's the unknown unknowns that get you. So we don't know about the unknown unknowns. We know about some of the knowns, we know that our actions can change some of those knowns. I just read in the paper today that they cod fishery has rebounded.
BROOKE: That is actually very encouraging!
ATWOOD: Don't you think? Something has rebounded. [Both laugh] We hear about all these things bounding, but we don't hear about them rebounding. So, the other thing that's helpful is that there's a great endeavor underway to plant a lot of milkweed so that the Monarch butterflies will rebound. And a man has discovered that one of the biggest soakers-up of oil spills is actually milkweed fluff, that he's making into oil spill sucker-uppers. [both laugh] And he's got a bunch of farmers growing milkweed for this project. So, people are very ingenious and they come up with all kinds of solutions.
BROOKE: You know, I have to admit, I'm a little taken aback by how positive you sound. Your imagined worlds are so dystopian.
ATWOOD: It's not all bad. Duct tape has survived the meltdown of the human race. It's very positive! The thing about my books is they're books. And just think of it this way: we've known how for decades to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, and we haven't done it yet.
BROOKE: And so it now makes sense to me why you told the Guardian newspapers a few years back when asked what your favorite word was -- do you remember what you replied?
ATWOOD: Oh, something stupid, I suppose.
ATWOOD: What was it? What was it? [laughs]
BROOKE: You said your favorite word was "and."
ATWOOD: It's a good word!
BROOKE: It's so hopeful, you said.
ATWOOD: Yeah. An and. It think it's better than therefore. [Both laugh.]
BROOKE: Not nearly as prescriptive.
BROOKE: A character in the Blind Assassin said, "Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive we wish to assert our existence like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. What do we hope to get from it?" And you said, or the character said, "We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent, like a radio running down."
ATWOOD: Is what she says true?
BROOKE: Is it?
ATWOOD: Is it? [Brooke laughs] I'm asking you, you're the reader. [Laughs]
BROOKE: it sounds right, and I guess that's the impulse for writing. But when you're staring 100 years from now in the face...
ATWOOD: I think it's very hard to imagine yourself not existing because even in the sentence in which you say "I will not exist" there's still an 'I.'
BROOKE: So, what about the digital dark age?
ATWOOD: What happened the dark ages: is that going to happen to our current modern times in which a lot of information will just be lost? So that's why you should be carefully scribbling in your diary, on paper. [Laughs]
BROOKE: Do you worry about that?
ATWOOD: You know, people keep using this word 'worry.' Young people worry a lot more than older people. And the reason they worry a lot more than older people is that they don't know the plot of their own lives yet. They don't know how it's going to turn out for them. At my age - and I am starting to sound like one of those people who says "at my age" - [both laugh] at my age, I kind of know how the story goes. So, should I get hit by a truck tomorrow, the plot will pretty much have unfolded.
BROOKE: And the rest of the human race?
ATWOOD: Well, of course I worry about them, but they have to worry about themselves. Because it's not going to be my problem very shortly.
BROOKE: Margaret Atwood, thank you very much.
ATWOOD: And thank you very much. How old are you, anyway?
ATWOOD: Oh, you're a mere child.
BROOKE: [laughs] Yeah, right.
ATWOOD: No wonder you're so worried!
BROOKE: Actually less and less every day.
ATWOOD: Yes this is what I mean, yeah. I could have been your babysitter and popped you into the microwave. No, I take that back.
BROOKE: They didn't have microwaves when I was that --
ATWOOD: No, they didn't, yes, yes. I thought you might spot that. [both laugh]
BROOKE: Margaret Atwood's latest collection of short fiction is out in paperback now called "Stone Mattress: 9 Wicked Tales." A new novel, "The Heart Goes Last," comes out this fall. And "Scribbler Moon" comes out in 2114, published by the Future Library in Oslo.
JACOB: My name is Jacob and I’m calling from Stockholm, Sweden. I lost everything in 2005 - all of my digital files, and basically my life - when I moved to Costa Rica to be part of a business deal that went bad. And at first I was terrified, because I had absolutely nothing. But I went back to my home in Texas and stayed with my parents for a few months and I applied for jobs to work as an English teacher in Korea, and I started a brand new life with nothing - with no money, with no digital past, with no yearbooks, with no class ring, with no photographs. And it was the best decision of my life because my life before that period was...sad and heavy and burdened. However, by losing everything, I could start over again. So losing the past is not always something to lament, but could be a possibility to celebrate.
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Kasia Mychajlowycz, and Sam Dingman. We had more help from Jenna Kagel and Maya Brownstein. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Greg Rippin.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.