Carl Atwood ran a forest insect research station in Northern Quebec, and every year the family would spend the spring and summer in the wilderness with him.
Atwood showed an interest in writing from an early age, reading and creating comics with her older brother, Harold. When she began attending school full-time, aged 8, she was very advanced. By the time Atwood was 12, she was in a high school class with children aged 15.
Atwood took a BA in English at the University of Toronto, and was encouraged by one of her lecturers to continue her postgraduate studies at Radcliffe College, which awarded Harvard diplomas and later became part of the university. During her time there, Atwood continued writing and publishing, and her second volume of poetry, The Circle Game (1964), won the 1966 Governor General's Award. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969.
Atwood's work covers a wide range of genres, including fiction, poetry, children's books, plays, essays and literary criticism.
Among other awards, Atwood was presented with the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction for her seminal 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood prefers to describe the novel as 'speculative fiction'). She explained in an interview with Wired.com in 2009 that, 'Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see. We can do the lineage – sci-fi descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.'
The inspiration for Oryx and Crake (2003) came when she was birdwatching in Australia during a promotional tour for her 2000 novel The Blind Assassin. She has said in interviews that many of the ideas for the book came from dinner table conversations with family: 'Several of my close relatives are scientists, and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the universe.'
Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Atwood's 2009 novel, The Year of the Flood is set during the same time period as Oryx and Crake and includes some of the same characters.
Critical of religion, despite her belief that it's hard-wired into humans, she describes herself as a 'strict agnostic' on the grounds that she considers atheism 'a religion': she sees it being predicated on the belief that God definitively does not exist. She said, 'You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not. Therefore you can't say anything about it as knowledge. You can have a belief [in atheism]... just can't call it knowledge.'
She has lived with the novelist Graeme Gibson for nearly 40 years. In 1976 they had a daughter, Eleanor.