Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin (for which she won the Booker Prize), is no stranger to innovation. She writes about what the world could be—although it’s often what the world could be if things go wrong. (She’s even an inventor herself.) Now Atwood, 72, is joining another avant garde group: authors of serialized e-books, a trend explored in this week’s issue of TIME. Atwood’s book Positron is being serialized by Byliner, the literary web hub perhaps best known for Jon Krakauer’s take-down of Three Cups of Tea, with the first two episodes available now. The author spoke to TIME about writing in installments, turning her work into TV, interacting with readers—and why books don’t need saving.
TIME: How did your relationship with Byliner begin?
Margaret Atwood: I always try everything. I wrote a story [for Byliner] called I’m Starved For You, and that had two results. One of them was that the reaction to it was so good that they said, “Why don’t you continue it?” And also we add almost immediate interest in turning it into a television series, but they needed more of the story. Therefore I set about to write more of the story, and wrote Choke Collar, which is part two. And I’m now finishing the third one, which is called Moppet Shop.
When you were deciding to turn Positron into a serial, how did you envision it?
Going back to Dickens, people in that part of the 19th century routinely published in something they called “numbers.” In other words, they made maybe three chapters or something and they put it out in a pamphlet form and if the readers’ response to it was vigorous enough, they then continued it—that’s how Pickwick Papers got written. It was like daytime television that was written serially. If somebody liked a character that character got a bigger part, and if they weren’t getting too much lift on that character they might kill them off or have them take a vacation. That’s what Dickens did. His character called Sam Weller was so popular with readers that he gave him a bigger part.
Has that been your experience as well, incorporating reader feedback?
Well, they’re not rooting for one or more characters, but they were rooting for more of the story.
How has that interaction been taking place?
Twitter, largely. It’s the one thing I kind of know how to do. Some of the other forms I’m not very literate in. Byliner has an interactivity of its own, it has a place where people can comment, and I also have a Wattpad page.
What’s it like to get feedback as the story is being written?
You get an idea whether or not you’ve grabbed some peoples’ interests. You can do that with book publication as well, because people write you letters. They usually send those letters to your publisher so it’s a slower process.
And with a single-volume novel I guess it’s different.
With a single-volume novel, it gets reviewed. How does one review a serial? You can review the episodes as they come out but since nobody knows how it ends there’s no overall way that you can comment on the whole thing, which is in some ways one of the charms, that nobody can peek. There aren’t any spoilers. In some ways, not even the writer can peek because they haven’t written it yet. This is not a finished story that I’m chopping up into bits and putting the bits up. It’s one that I’m actually writing as it unfolds, and that’s pretty interesting. It’s a lot more like oral storytelling.
How exactly does that process work?
It works sort of like walking along the edge of a cliff. It’s pressure. But that can be interesting.
No, psychological pressure, like, “Now what? I put them into this really dire situation, how am I going to get them out?”
At what point do you know what’s going to happen in the next installment?
Probably when I get to the end of that installment.
So it’s really as you go along.
In this case it has been.
Is that very different from your usual writing style?
No, with an all-in-one novel that happens during the writing process but then you get to revise. With this you’re really stuck with what you set in motion in the first one. You can’t go back and change the entire premise.
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And you mentioned a possible TV series based on Postitron. What’s the status of that?
The status of that, I’m told [as last week], is that they’re working on the contract. That means I can’t tell you right now who it is—as you know, these things can fall through the cracks—but I have met with the person who wants to do it. That person is really very good and understands everything.
There are a few different organizations trying digital serials right now, like Byliner, and Amazon launched their own version recently. Do you have any theories about why the format might be experiencing such a surge right now?
Because they can. This was a very common way of publishing up until probably about the mid-20th century. Newspapers ran serials; magazines ran serials; comic books certainly ran serials; there were many, many serials on radio drama. There would be no Sherlock Holmes if it were not for serial publication. A number of the 19th century writers that we have come to know and love published in serial form. That happened up until about the middle of the 20th century when publishers for some reason stopped doing it. Then the Internet was invented and as it has built out, it lends itself to serial publication for pretty obvious reasons.
Do you think it could become a way that we more commonly read books?
People who don’t want other people revealing the end or people who want to participate in the cliff-hanging, parachute-jumping thrill of the pressurized writing—Write harder! Run faster!—may find it pretty interesting.
It seems like you’re very much an early adopter of new ways of reading.
Of some things, simply because of my insatiable curiosity. I like to see how they work.
Which ones do you particularly like?
I particularly like Twitter, because it’s short and can be very funny and informative. It’s a little bit like having your own radio program. But on your own radio program it’s counter-indicated to talk about yourself all the time so it’s a very good way of promoting other peoples’ work. If you say “I’m wonderful, I’m wonderful, I’m wonderful,” people think, “What?” But if you say, “Jane’s wonderful,” that’s different. They’ll all go read Jane, or they’ll at least look at Jane’s website if you got the URL right.
So it’s very powerful.
Social media is called social media for a reason. It lends itself to sharing rather than horn-tooting. There’s a notable effect from that, and you can also do things like how the move to close some Toronto libraries had an adverse reaction from Twitter and therefore petitions and letters and all sorts of things happened. That’s one of the big plusses. One of the big minuses is if a false rumor gets going it may be somewhat difficult to counteract, but on the other hand if you put out the real truth that gets going pretty quickly too. It’s like a very sped-up world of telegraphs. And I’m just right now figuring out how to use an iPad.
As someone who thinks about the future in your work, is the future of the book something that you think about as an author?
I do not think the paper book is going away any time soon.
It offers too many advantages. The book is very portable and when the lights go out you can still read it. And also the neurology, they’re working on the neurology of on-screen reading versus on-page reading. Apparently there is a difference. I think for reading shorter things e-forms are fine and can provide pretty pictures, various enhancements, hyperlinks, other things that people may find useful. If I’m reading a novel, I actually don’t want things popping up and saying “this is what Jane Austen’s petticoat would have looked like.” Every prediction—radio would kill books, it didn’t; television would kill movies, it didn’t; e-reading will kill books, it hasn’t—these predictions have all been wrong. You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.