On November 16, Margaret Atwood, the grande dame of all things literary (and of dystopian nightmares that have revealed themselves to be unnervingly prescient) graced Cleveland with her presence at a sold-out William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage event. While I’ve had the fortune of seeing Atwood speak before, I understood this appearance, which comes on the heels of her extraordinary year filled with a renewed fervor for her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its Emmy-winning Hulu adaptation, would be something different.
Atwood came on stage dressed in black with a massive red scarf flowing around her neck. Her wide-ranging discussion covered writing, reading, fame, Justin Trudeau, the Nobel Prize, all the crazy Handmaid’s Tale-themed gifts fans have given her, and more. (And in what appears to be an emerging trend for authors at this reading series, she even sang—in this case, a snippet from the opera she wrote for her home economics class in high school.)
At this point I have to concur with author Thrity Umrigar, who introduced Atwood by saying, “How does one describe or introduce an icon?” So without further ado, here are a few of Atwood’s choice comments from her evening in Cleveland:
On her high-profile year: I’m calling it my year of living famously. It’s a very strange year.
On attending the Emmys and her handbag’s unexpected moment of fame: I went [to the Emmys] because I thought I might have to go out to the bar afterward and say, “There, there, you didn’t win and it’s okay,” but of course it turned out differently. People thought it was weird I took my bag on stage, but it had my passport in it.
On fashion culture at the Emmys: At the Emmys, I was even shorter than usual. Women wore these high shoes they put on when having their picture taken, then took them off to walk around. The shoes make you look even more willowy and slender—I did not have such shoes.
On what she calls the “lighter interpretations” of The Handmaid’s Tale craze: Someone made me Handmaid’s Tale cupcakes. They had a red velvet base with cream cheese topping. And thank you for all the pictures of your cats and dogs wearing the outfit. There was a two-day-old baby in a little red dress—strange. And a tap-dance number . . . This is what happens when something gets out from the cupboards and runs out into the world.
On the politics in The Handmaid’s Tale: I have never believed anyone who says it can’t happen here.
On the Women’s March in Toronto: It was really a sympathy march since our Prime Minister is not the same as your President. Plus, he’s cuter. It was difficult to march because it was so much more packed with people than expected. We didn’t exactly march, we sort of shifted.
On what she wore to the Women’s March: I didn’t have time to knit a pussy hat. I had a nice pink sunhat, so I wore that. Someone knitted a little Margaret Atwood . . . those knitters, they’re out of control.
On sexism in the literary world: I’ve had the reviews that say, “She transcends her sex.” Basically, you’re an honorary man because you’re good.
On being taught blatantly sexist notions regarding women’s writing when she was young: Had I been an impressionable and less pig-headed person, it might have affected me. As it is, I laughed.
On her early literary influences: I had one of those blessings in life: a mother who read out loud.
On kids and what they read: There are three types of books: Those you read in school, those you read out of school, and those you read on top of the garage roof where your parents can’t see you.
On her early reading days: I first read Animal Farm at about age nine thinking it would be about animals. I didn’t know it was an allegory about the Soviet Union. I thought it was about horribly behaved pigs. Then I read 1984 quite soon after.
On cultivating diverse reading habits: I read everything. Occasionally I would dip into Harlequin romances just to see what was up. I find it’s good to check in with these books every 10 years or so. The women [in romance novels] have better jobs now. They’re not just governesses, nurses, or “picture restorers” anymore. Now they can be self-employed or interior decorators.
On careers for women: I did not know at the age of 12 I was going to be a writer. In ninth grade, I was given a guidance textbook. It was gray. Your life as an adult: gray. It was mostly filled with jobs for men, and only five for the female type: school teacher, secretary, stewardess, nurse, and home economist. I didn’t want to be any of those. I wanted to be a painter, a fashion designer. But if I had to be one of those, I thought I’d pick the one that paid the most, which was home economist.
On the opera she wrote for her high school home economics class: It was about three fabrics: Orlon, Nylon, and Dacron. Their father was Old King Coal, C-O-A-L, because they were all coal derivatives.
On how technology helped her writing: In addition to being a bad typist, I was a terrible speller. The personal computer solved both of those problems. And the dancing box—do you remember the dancing box? It would dance around saying, “You seem to be trying to write a letter. Can I help you?” I appreciated that because someone was taking an interest.
When asked why an old boyfriend gave her a cow’s heart with an arrow through it for Valentine’s Day: He knew the kind of person I was. I appreciated the gesture. It wasn’t like going to a flower shop—he really had to put it all together. Not every girl would have appreciated it.
On why Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice is a terrible romantic role model: He led young girls to believe every rude man with money is secretly nice underneath. This is not true.
On her 2005 Celebrity Tip appearance as a hockey goalie: Those were my skates; I put black socks over them to look like hockey skates. The video took five hours to make, but it ended up two minutes long. When we got on the ice they said, “Hey, you can skate.” Yeah, I’m Canadian.
On the process of writing a novel: I asked writers what it’s like going into a book. They all had the same answer—it’s to go into a place where it’s dark and come out where it’s light. Virginia Woolf said it was going into a dark room and holding up a lamp to show the furniture that was there all along. Or it’s to go into the underworld and the back into the light. What you bring back you share with your community.
On the mysteries of reading: The reader is the musician of a book. In music, it’s the same notation but everyone interprets it a little differently. Similarly, every reader reading a book? That rendition is unique to that reader.
Why a book seems different when you return to it as an adult after reading it as a child: Because the book is being read by a different person. I’d teach Middlemarch to 18-year-olds who didn’t like it because the characters make bad choices, marry the wrong people, and fail at things. They said, “But we’re not going to do that.” When I taught Middlemarch to adults, they loved the book for the same reasons, because that’s real life.
On how Lewis Hyde’s “gift economy” applies to readers and writers: Readers don’t come back and say, “Your book cost $22, it should have only cost $18.” No. They say thank you. Because that’s what you say about gifts.
When asked if she might continue the MaddAddam series: I never say what I might or might not write because I’m often wrong about that unless I’m already writing it. I have started two novels in my life—I got to the 100-page mark—that I had to throw out because they weren’t working.
On teaching writing: On the whole, writing students are the same as readers—they’re all individuals. It’s a little like tea-leaf reading. Someone else might benefit from this, but for you…
On mid-career challenges and the reviewer-writer dynamic: The hardest part for a writer who becomes a professional is the middle part of your career. When you start, the reviewers are older—you’re either the cherished protégé or about to be squashed. In the middle of your career, the writer and reviewer are the same age, so it’s like sibling rivalry. Later, when you’re older, you’re either a washed-up has-been or the cool granny. Which would you rather be?
On how writers should find their subject matter: Write what you’re passionate about writing and do it the best you can. The issues of your time will find you, you don’t need to search for them. They’ll fall from the ceiling onto your head. You’ll tackle something that is yours.
When asked about the Nobel Prize, and how Kazuo Ishiguro apologized for winning it this year instead of her: Lifetime achievement awards have a downside. You don’t want to get one when you’re 25. They are slightly creepy. I have won a number of them and you don’t quite know what to say but “Goodbye!” And it’s nice to have one you still haven’t won. It means you’re still alive.