Margaret Atwood is unnerving. Whether you are reading her novels, which feature chillingly realistic dystopias, or talking to the pin-sharp author herself, there's this sense that you're way out of your league in the smart stakes.
Atwood will be 76 on November 18. She has just written her 16th novel, The Heart Goes Last, and a collection of short fiction, Stone Mattress, is also out. She is addicted to Twitter @margaretatwood; her satirical National Post op-ed contribution lambasting then prime minister Stephen Harper's hair during the Canadian elections was quickly pulled by the website, but led to #hairgate trending on social media.
When I pass on a quote I found about her – "I like Margaret Atwood's books, but I don't care for her politics" – she's quick to ask what her politics are.
"It's very interesting that people know what my politics are – which end I'm supposed to be at – when I've been quite clear, always, about the fact I'm a swinging voter," she says.
"I'm happy to say I vote on the issues."
"Political parties have labels, but what the label says isn't necessarily what they do ... you think you know what's in the box, but more often than not, you don't."
It's difficult not to notice the politics in her books. In The Heart Goes Last, protagonists Stan and Charmaine are surviving after a near-future economic collapse. They are living in their car, scraping by, when the opportunity arises to join a project where, for one month, you live in the security of a gated middle-class community and get a job. The fact that the following month you live in prison, and continue to swap in and out, doesn't faze them and they jump at the chance.
"If I was writing about being tossed out on the street 20 years ago, that might have been considered pretty far-fetched," Atwood says.
"But now it's not far from reality; in many places it is a reality. People are living in their cars, even if they have a car … you could totally understand why many people would do what Stan and Charmaine did."
Atwood says some inspiration for The Heart Goes Last came from her reading of Anne Summer's seminal book Damned Whores and God's Police, which looked at the role of women in Australian society from its earliest days.
"It's a very Australian subject. The way the British handled women when they were transporting convicts to Australia astounded me.
"They transported men for things like housebreaking, but there weren't many female housebreakers about and they wanted women to act as a civilising influence, so they lowered the bar so you could be transported to Australia if you were a woman for a much less serious offence. They were basically rounding women up and shipping them down to Australia because they had a quota. Any prison system which has a quota is very suspicious."
I ask her what she expects people will think of her books when the near future about which she writes becomes the present; if she's hopeful, I suppose, about the future and, as an off-shoot, hopeful about the future of books.
She tells me about her latest project, the inaugural contribution to the Future Library, a project in Norway where every year for the next 100 years authors will donate works to be read once those 100 years are up and not before. A forest of trees is being grown to provide the paper for said books and in 2114 they will be printed and made available.
"The reason people like this project is that it's very hopeful. It says there will be people, there will be books, there will be a library, people will be reading.
"I did the project because I am hopeful. There's no point in not being hopeful, because then you just get depressed.
"But there's no point in placing your confidence in hope alone. Hope should inspire action, rather than be a substitute for it ... to know you have a chance is what drives people to do amazing things."
The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, $32.99).
Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood (Hachette, $19.99).