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Meeting Canada's Doyenne: Margaret Atwood

abstract:Not to be discouraged by the blue-rinse and scarf-set of women populating the Vancouver Chan Centre, I sip a glass of wine and browse the Vancouver Writers Festival brochure in the lobby before taking my seat in anticipation of meeting Canada's doyenne writer, Margaret Atwood. Vancouver has arrived with a line-up of front-list authors that any self-respecting festival would be proud of.


October 20, 2005
Alma Lee can bow-out gracefully, as the new Artistic Director, Hal Wake succeeds her.  Alma comes onstage to emotionally introduce Ms. Atwood saying that the evening represents the closing book-end in her 19-year term because Margaret Atwood opened the very first Vancouver Writer's Festival by giving the Duthie Lecture in 1988.

Since that time other luminaries such as Mordecai Richler, Michael Ignatieff, Peter Newman, Robertson Davies, Carol Shields, Mavis Gallant, Miachael Ondaatje, et al have filled the role. 

Margaret Atwood is author of more than 35 internationally acclaimed works of fiction, poetry, critical essays and books for children. She was nominated for the first ever Man Booker Prize and has been shortlisted for it since. She has received the Governor General Award, and the The Giller Prize among others, and has been nominated into many prestigious memberships and orders. She is undoubtedly one of Canada's most well known and respected writers.

Five Visits to the Word Hound

The title of Margaret's talk tonight is, "Five Visits to the Word Hound." The expression hound is a tribute to Anglo-Saxon poets, meaning their well of inspiration; words represent a mysterious treasure to the author. The talk provides insights into the writing of five of her novels.

When asked about her writing, Margaret Atwood says she is usually terse and evasive. She feelsóbelieves, that people really don't want to know how it is done. Using the metaphor of a magic trick she goes on to say that pulling three, four, five and six novels out of a hat can only be done when "you've  got the hands [otherwise] you've got one un-cooked omelet after another," and "an unforgettable performance is an unforgettable performance, regardless." Then she goes on to remind us that Robert Louis Stevenson burned three novels before writing Treasure Island

She feels the craft is not reasonable or predictable, much depends on good teachers. Most writers can remember exactly the book that inspired them to become a writer.

Visit One

Her first novel to be published was not the first written. That one was a dark tale, written when she was twenty-three and living in a rooming house on seventy dollars a month, making meals on a hot plate of mostly "boiled dinners," that she washed-up afterwards in the bathtub.

She had an undemanding day job that meant she could toil on her novel while at work, and that gave her a pleasing industrious look. After submitting the manuscript to a publisher she was told that she... "might change the ending to something a little lighter." [laughs all around]

Visit Two

On visit number two to the hound she was working with a marketing research company and teaching grammar to engineering students at 8:45 am in a Quonsete hut at UBC.  She mostly gave them writing exercises on Kafka's parables, which she felt was good preparation for their future careers. [more laughter]

In 1965 she began work on her next novel. She kept handwriting in empty exam books left-over from her teaching -- still had no furniture, still no TV, which was "a thing parents had," she adds with a twinkle of rebellion. At this point the audience is completely in sync with Margaret's acerbic wit and sarcasm. She throws out a one-liner and waits for us all to get it, and acknowledges our collusion in her game with a demure Mona Lisa smile.

The Handmaid's Tale was completed in six months. It was sent directly to the publisher, as in those days there were no agents. This was when she was teaching at Harvard while studying for her PhD orals. She passed her orals and went in search of the publisher -- who had LOST her manuscript then found it again. It was finally published in 1969.

She then moved to Edmonton, [pause for audience recognition of our cue to chuckle at this regional dig] where she did her first ever book signing in the Men's Sock and Underwear Department of a department store. Only oil tycoons and ranchers came in, but remarkably she made two sales of Edible Woman.

Visit Three

Her third novel writing experience was more complex. It was the spring of 1994 and she was on a vacation in Europe where she began the first chapter of her next book. She would write ten to fifteen pages by hand and then take half the day to type them up before carrying on.

When she was 100 pages into the book, she realized she had started it all wrong, and on the train to Paris she decided she would change out of the present tense and move into the past tense, then she changed from the third person to the first. It was an arduous process and meant to illustrate the hard work involved in the craft.

Margaret kept throwing out bits of advice, such as, "If you have a real bad headache, go to sleep. This will help." By September she had 395 pages and submitted the book in January of 1996.

Margaret advises to "begin by writing slowly and then as the speed increases so will the hours."

Visit Four

In 2000 she began The Blind Assassin.  It started out with a vision of her grandmother and mother drawing upon pictures from a photo album. She wrote one character after the other.

Visit Five

Her fifth visit to the world of hound came from a designer-stubbled British publisher named Jamie Bing who cornered her one morning in a hotel before she "had had her coffee and was thinking clearly." He had the idea of approaching a dozen authors to each select a parable and write a modern version.  This became her current book, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus. [Globe and Mail article on the Myth Series]

After many miss-starts and a close encounter of, "I can't write this," she came upon her chosen approach. The story is based on the the female character in the Odyssey named Penelope whose twelve maids are all hung, and this detail fascinated Margaret, "What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?

The story is narrated by Penelope and a serial progression of maids.

Margaret's parting advice to writers is that they must possess three things: talent, hard work and passion, and luck!  Well -- we now know that it's in the hands, right Margaret?

Other Books

Orynx and Crake (2004) Set sometime in the future, this post-apocalyptic novel takes scientific research in the hands of madmen to its logical and frightening conclusion. Inspiring readers to pay more attention to the world around them, Atwood offers cautionary notes about the environment, bioengineering, the sacrifice of civil liberties, and the possible loss of those human values which make life more than just a physical experience.  

The Blind Assassin: A Novel (2001) One of my favorite of Margaret's books. The Blind Assassin is a tale of two sisters, one of whom dies under ambiguous circumstances in the opening pages. The survivor, Iris Chase Griffen both benefits from, and is haunted by her dead sister's unpublished manuscript. It is a fascinating study in passion and age, (akin to the triumph of Margaret Lawrence's The Stone Angel.)


The Cat's Eye (1998) Elaine Risley, an avant-garde painter, finds herself reflecting on her tumultuous childhood when she returns to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective art exhibit. It has been many years since she set foot in Canada, where she grew up moving from place to place, due to her father's career as an entomologist. The story is told in flashbacks, of her current life as a painter on her second marriage, and in-between there is the story of her childhood. Two plot lines run parallel to each other, until the very end when both the past and her present collide.

The Handmaid's Tale (1998) won the Governor General's Award. A future dystopia in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the state of Massechusets in the United States, where far-right Schlafly/Falwell-type ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government where women's roles are defined into three categories: child bearer, wife and hoar.

 The Robber Bride (1985) Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride is inspired by "The Robber Bridegroom," a wonderfully grisly tale from the Brothers Grimm in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair and devours them, one by one. But in her version, Atwood brilliantly recasts the monster as Zenia, a villainess of demonic proportions, and sets her loose in the lives of three friends, Tony, Charis, and Roz.

Alias Grace (1997) Based on a real-life criminal trial around Grace Marks who was a house maid accused of murdering her employers. Atwood reconstructs the story in chilling detail leaving the ending sufficiently ambiguous for us to decide - was she a murder, an accomplis or a bystander?

Bodily Harm (1981) This is one of MA's first novels that set critics on their ears. The story of a young woman afflicted with cancer who travels to the Caribean only to find danger from without.

Lady Oracle (1976) Lady Oracle is Margaret Atwood's third novel, a comic masterpiece in its parodies of literary forms and subversion of literary expectations

Surfacing (1972) Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec 

The Edible Woman (1969) is both a funny and a terrifying story about a young woman who works for a consumer company.



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