Margaret Atwood and other authors have penned novels that won't publish for 100 years

Updated 22nd November 2018
Credit: Kristin von Hirsch
Margaret Atwood and other authors have penned novels that won't publish for 100 years
Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN
On a lone tree in the Nordmarka forest just north of Oslo, there's a sign that reads "Framtidsbiblioteket - Future Library."
In the year 2114, the wood from 1,000 spruce saplings growing here will be turned into paper and used to print an anthology of 100 unpublished books -- which no one is allowed to read until then.
This forest-to-be is part of the Future Library project, started four years ago by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, who wanted to create an original library of 100 manuscripts from established authors, to be printed 100 years in the future.
"I was on a train doodling and drawing tree rings and I just made a very fast connection between the rings and chapters in a book, and the idea of trees becoming books in the future and growing over time," she said in a phone interview.
Margaret Atwood's Future Library book is titled 'Scribbler moon,' and she believes that readers in 2114 may require a 'paleo-anthropologist' to decode some of it, because of how language will have evolved over the course of a century.
"And so I imagined this forest, that embodied time and the authors' words, growing over a century. And each author's voice became like a chapter inside the growing rings of the trees. That was many years ago, but I never thought that it was actually going to happen."
The forest is a 30-minute hike away from the northernmost stop of the Oslo metro. Credit: © Bjørvika Utvikling by Vibeke Hermanrud

Four down, 96 to go

The idea found support in a public art program from the Oslo city government, which in 2014 established an organ to manage the project, the Future Library Trust. So far, four manuscripts have been completed and archived, each the subject of a special ceremony that takes place every year in the forest, called "The Handover." One more will be added each year for 96 years to come -- if all goes well.
The first writer to submit a manuscript, in 2015, was Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker Prize in 2000 for "The Blind Assassin" and whose 1985 dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale" has been recently adapted into an acclaimed TV series.
The mechanism is fairly simple. Every year, the Trust comes together to select a new author and sends a handwritten letter with a formal request to participate. The are only two rules: that the manuscript must be a new, unpublished work and that there can be no illustrations. "Other than that, authors are completely free: there is no word limit, and they can write anything they choose. Nobody will edit it or read it until the forest is fully grown," said Paterson. The writers donate their work without receiving financial compensation, and are asked to reveal nothing about the book except the title.
Once the manuscript is ready, the writers print it on archival paper, put it in a box, and bring it to the Handover ceremony, where they give a small speech for the attendees. The event is open to the public, and the site is about a 30-minute hike from Oslo's northernmost metro stop. It's a great way to connect with the forest each year, and check on the saplings, which are currently about one foot tall.
"It's quite awakening to be in the forest at the handover event and see very small children there -- I actually had a baby who's just over a year old now, but he was in the forest with us last year and it's that generation, those just born, that we hope are going to live to read the books and maybe even be part of cutting down those trees," said Paterson.

The authors

Margaret Atwood's Future Library book is titled "Scribbler moon," and she believes that readers in 2114 may require a "paleo-anthropologist" to decode some of it, because of how language will have evolved over the course of a century. By that time, Atwood's novel will be the oldest in the anthology, while the last work to be filed -- due in 2113 -- will have only aged one year.
Margaret Atwood with her manuscript at the 2015 Handover ceremony.
Margaret Atwood with her manuscript at the 2015 Handover ceremony. Credit: © Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch
The second book, "From me flows what you call time", was handed over in 2016 by British writer David Mitchell, whose notable works include 2001's "number9dream" and 2004's "Cloud Atlas," which were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Mitchell said that he finished the 90-page novella just before leaving for the ceremony, and he also let slip that it includes the lyrics to the Beatles' song "Here comes the sun," because in 100 years it will be in the public domain and will therefore not command any royalties (although that might be debatable).
In 2017, it was the turn of Icelandic writer and poet Sjón, who has also frequently collaborated with countrywoman and singer Björk on her lyrics. His book is titled "As my brow brushes on the tunics of angels or the drop tower, the roller coaster, the whirling cups and other instruments of worship from the post-industrial age." Sjón, whose 2013 novel "Moonstone -- The boy who never was" won the 2013 Icelandic Literary Prize, described the project as "A game played on the grandest of scales."
The last manuscript delivered thus far came from Turkish novelist and activist Elif Shafak, whose previous works include "The bastard of Istanbul" and "The forty rules of love." Her book's title is "The last taboo" and she delivered it during the most recent Handover ceremony, which took place in June 2018.
The fifth author has already been selected: South Korean novelist Han Kang, a recent winner of the Booker Prize for "The vegetarian" in 2016, which was her first work translated into English. She will deliver the manuscript during the next ceremony, scheduled for May 25, 2019.
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The silent room

At the moment, the manuscripts are kept in a temporary location in the Oslo city archive, while their final resting place gets built. It's a room in the New Deichman Library, Oslo's new public library that is due to open in 2020 in the city's Bjørvika district, close to the Oslo Opera House and the Munch museum.
It's called "Silent room," and it will house the manuscripts in locked glass cases. "We actually cut trees from the forest to make space to grow the new ones, and we're using that wood to build this room, which will be a very quiet, intimate space to hold the 100 manuscripts over the 100 years. Each author's name will be engraved in the glass along with the year of the handover, so you'll be able to get a glimpse of the manuscripts but nothing else," said Paterson.
Trees from the forest will line the Silent room. Credit: © Katie Paterson
The connection to the forest will be enhanced by windows that face in its direction. Each case will be locked with a key -- a traditional one, to avoid relying on digital technologies that might become obsolete -- and the room itself is positioned on the top floor, to protect it from potential floods in the future (the building is in a harbor).
Paterson says that all authors who were asked to participate have so far agreed. "It's a definitely an unusual ask, but the authors have connected with the project in a really magical way. I think part of it has to do with bringing the manuscripts to the forest: those have been really special moments. Sjón described it as walking in the footsteps of those past, but also those yet to come -- a chain through time of all these authors walking that same path," she said.
Eventually, says Paterson, it will be inevitable that some will decline, and she also reveals that a few writers who were on her list have passed away in the last year. But she also believes that accepting to write a novel without any prospect of feedback can be enticing. "There's no criticism, no connections with publishers or agents or readership, and of course that could be limiting for some authors but for others it may mean the freedom to write absolutely anything they choose."

Will we still be around?

A project like this is based on optimistic assumptions. A lot can go wrong, even without invoking apocalyptic scenarios. An entirely new set of people will be on the planet at the end of the project's life compared to its beginning -- provided the human race doesn't go extinct altogether.
These challenges are an integral part of the idea itself. "This is an attempt to create something for people that aren't born yet. I'm used to working on deadlines, just like everybody else, and for an artist they're usually one to three years in the future. Working on a 100-year time scale is something really new and forces you to think in terms of a century down to details like the materials we use. And it's about time that happens in many different spheres -- to think beyond our years, not just for our children but for our grandchildren as well," said Paterson.
Katie Paterson with a model of the New Deichmanske Library. Credit: © Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem
When 2114 comes around, the 1,000 trees planted in the forest should yield enough paper to print about 3,000 anthologies of 100 books each, or around 300,000 volumes in total. They will function as a literary time capsule, with the earliest manuscript reflecting a presumably very different society compared to the latest one. But there are a number of logistical uncertainties, too. Will there be any interest in printed books in 100 years' time? Will there be equipment available to print and bind the books? Will the forest or the library survive the next century of political instability, climate change, or simple lack of continued interest in the idea?
"There's a great deal of unknowns. But ultimately we've got to have some hope that it's going to continue and do everything we can to make sure that the trees are still there and there are other people to see it through," said Paterson.
"It's very few of us running this and we're trying to wrap our head around so many unknowns. For some of them, only time is going to tell."