Before 'The Handmaid's Tale,' Margaret Atwood was broke and washing dishes in a bathtub

Margaret Atwood attends the PEN Center USA's 27th Annual Literary Awards Festival on October 27, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.
Tara Ziemba | Getty Images

Prize-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood has sold thousands of books and had her work turned into both movies and television shows. But before "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Alias Grace" were household names, Atwood was a struggling writer living in Toronto and working as a teacher by day.

Because she wasn't bringing in much in terms of salary, she relied on her own thriftiness to get by. "As a young writer, I didn't starve because I was very frugal," she tells Wealthsimple. "I once lived in a rooming house with a hot plate."

Atwood had to scour the grocery store for the best deals and live on potatoes, onions, hot dogs, Kraft dinners, and vegetables that came in plastic bags. "I once bought this enormous cow's tongue — they were fairly cheap — and put it in this pot and started to boil it," she says. "It was horrifying, this tongue sticking out of my pot."

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Living cheaply also meant living simply. Her room didn't have an oven, refrigerator or kitchen sink, so she kept food in her dresser and washed dishes in the house's communal bathtub.

After her books "The Edible Woman" and "Surfacing" were published in early 1970's, she began earning more money and was able to better support herself, even as a full-time writer. By the time she published the best-selling novel "The Handmaid's Tale" in 1985, which continues to resonate decades later, she had established herself as one of North America's most prominent and interesting writers.

Still, she says, "I never stopped worrying about money."

Atwood first learned to be financially responsible from her parents, who grew up during the Great Depression.

"They both worked from an early age to support themselves," she says. "My father lived in a tent and cleaned out rabbit hutches when he was a graduate student and still managed to send money home. My mother had four envelopes labelled Rent, Groceries, Other Necessities, and Recreation. She divided up my father's paycheck every month and if there was money left over for Recreation, they went to the movies."

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Atwood's hardly the only author to go from rags to riches. J.K. Rowling was famously a single mother living off the dole and writing "Harry Potter" from coffee shops while her daughter was an infant.

"I couldn't have written this book if I hadn't had a few years where I'd been really as poor as it's possible to go in the U.K. without being homeless," Rowling said in a 2012 interview with Jon Stewart.

Although she struggled as a single mother, Rowling says she is prouder of those years than any other period in her life. "Yes, I got off benefits and wrote the first four 'Harry Potter' books as a single mother," she says, "but nothing makes me prouder than what Jessica told me recently about the first five years of her life: 'I never knew we were poor. I just remember being happy.'"

Don't miss: 'Handmaid's Tale' author Margaret Atwood: 'I've never stopped worrying about money'

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