Toronto goes to the zombies

At age 72, Margaret Atwood has had a long and enviable writing career, and she is one of the most honoured fiction authors in recent history. Many of us are familiar with some of her titles such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. However, it’s her most recent project — a foray into the comic-horror genre — that has everyone talking this week.

Atwood recently announced she is releasing an online zombie novel co-written with her protege, 37-year-old British author Naomi Alderman. While “zombies” and “Margaret Atwood” aren’t words you’d expect to see in the same sentence, many fans aren’t shocked. After all, Atwood is known for her interest in embracing new technologies.

How did this remarkable project come about? Atwood met Alderman through the Rolex Mentor & Protege Arts Initiative, which pairs rising artists in the fields of film, theatre, dance, music, literature and visual arts with masters for a year of collaboration.

The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home is set in Toronto, where a zombie infestation has left the undead roaming the city in search of humans to consume. Thus far, the story focuses on Clio — a retired gardener and resident of the upscale Rosedale neighbourhood. Clio is unfazed by the zombies and is fearlessly ready to take them out.

“I for one am not about to allow my arm be chewed off just because another person — another former person — is feeling like a snack,” the character says in the opening lines of the novel.

While some may feel Atwood’s diving into the cultural obsession with zombies is odd, her first novel, The Edible Woman, shows an interest in cannibalism that began early on in her career.

But it isn’t just the choice of genre that has has some people turning heads. The authors are publishing their book in serial format — in installments instead of as a whole — marking a return to early modes of publishing. The technology is new, however. Atwood and Alderman chose an online book publishing platform, Wattpad, to share their latest work.

Wattpad CEO Allen Lau announced the release of the new novel:

“We are so proud that Margaret and Naomi chose Wattpad as a way to quickly and easily share this work with a global audience of millions. They both understand the new patterns of engagement that are happening around serially published stories. The majority of people on Wattpad are reading on their mobile phones, so we believe there is a great fit between serialization and today’s mobile-first, social networked culture. The chapter-by-chapter model is something that is helping many writers connect with readers to find success.”

In a statement about their work together, Atwood and Alderman talked about the fun of setting each other up by ending each chapter in a way that leaves the other challenged to write herself out of an emotionally heavy scene, or leaves frightening problems to be solved.

Atwood said, “The whole process kept me on my toes; it was a lot of fun. We shared interests in technology, the history of religion, and little-known monsters.”

Alderman noted the weight of working with her idol: “It was pretty daunting to know that my words would be sitting next to those of my personal writing hero. But once I managed to swallow that — like a zombie chewing on delicious brains — it became gleefully joyful to think of some interesting challenges and new wrinkles on what we’d done already.”

Curious to see it for yourself? Read the first chapter from The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home.

For Atwood, the novel is the latest project in a long and fruitful career. Her success began in the early 1960s with her first poetry collection, Double Persephone. She enjoyed great success throughout the decade as a poet, winning the Governor General’s Award for her 1966 collection The Circle Game. In 1969, Atwood released her first novel – The Edible Woman. She followed up that work with Surfacing, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man and Bodily Harm.

In 1985, she penned the novel that would earn her the Arthur C. Clarke Award and another Governor General’s Award as well as landing her on the shortlist for the Booker Prize: The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood deemed the work speculative fiction: a dystopian story set in the near future, where a totalitarian Christian theocracy has overthrown the government and women live in subjugation. It has been adapted for the stage, screen, radio and opera and is taught in literature classes throughout the world.

Next came Cat’s Eye, which focused on the reflections of a controversial painter on her childhood and teenage years, and how those memories of a certain group of girls colours her relationships — and her art — into adulthood.

Throughout the 1990s, Atwood released The Robber Bride, Alias Grace (which won her the Giller Prize) and The Blind Assassin (for which she won the Booker Prize). More recently, she released Oryx and Crake and its companion novel, The Year of the Flood.

She has also published countless short fiction collections, non-fiction works, poetry collections, anthologies, children’s books, and even some e-books.


Watch Margaret Atwood discuss reading and new technologies in her IdeaCity 2010 presentation:

Sources: Wattpad, Calgary Herald, Wikipedia

Gearing up for the Giller Prize
Five writers and their big breaks
Movies about writers