Margaret Atwood on Her Work Habits As a Writer and Her Fight With the New York Times

From her conversation with Tyler Cowen, part of a series called Conversations With Tyler:

COWEN: What’s your best work habit, in your opinion?

ATWOOD: I have no good work habits.


COWEN: Well, there’s evidence to the contrary on this table, right [points to books on bookshelf]?

ATWOOD: Yeah, but those were not produced by good work habits. I tried to have good work habits once, but it was a terrible, terrible failure. I tried to be organized and methodical, but that didn’t work.

COWEN: What’s your most unusual work habit?

ATWOOD: Most unusual work habit. Well, it depends who’s calling you unusual, doesn’t it? I don’t have any fetishes, sad to say. I don’t have some mythic fountain pen or some . . . I don’t have a cork-lined room. I don’t have to have 15 . . .

Who was it that drank 30 cups of tea? I don’t know how they could have done that. I think it was [Samuel] Johnson. He must have been absolutely mummified inside. Balzac — how much coffee did he drink? I think he must have been insane. Anyway, no, I don’t have any really terrible work habits, except possibly caffeine.


COWEN: You gave a very positive review to John Updike. Do you feel that work has held up? Or does it look different now, looking back?

ATWOOD: I would have to go back and look. It was Witches of Eastwick — that’s what you’re thinking of.


ATWOOD: Okay. The most noteworthy thing about doing that review is that I had this big fight with the New York Times about what sorts of words I could use.

COWEN: Which words were they banning?

ATWOOD: They were banning words having to do with urine because there is urine in that book. So what were we to call it? We could not call it piss. We could not call it pee. We could not call it urine. They said, “This is a family newspaper.”

COWEN: What was in their style guide?

ATWOOD: Well —

COWEN: They have a style guide for everything.

ATWOOD: They didn’t have anything in it. So we ended up calling it bodily fluids, which was much worse in my opinion.

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