An Evening with Margaret Atwood
Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts
April 5, 2019
If you weren't familiar with celebrated author Margaret Atwood before the 2016 Presidential election, I bet you are now. Her most famous novel, The Handmaid's Tale, didn't just win the Arthur C. Clarke Award, it's also the basis for the Emmy-winning Hulu television series (recently greenlighted for a third season), while her novel Alias Grace was recently adapted for Netflix.
Atwood's written everything from poetry collections to treatises on Canadian literature (Atwood was born in Ottowa and attended the University of Toronto), from the "speculative fiction" of THT and the "MaddAddam Trilogy" to children's books. Her list of accolades includes the Nebula Award and the Booker Prize. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of our greatest living authors.
And with the New Yorker referring to the "oracular sheen" of her reputation (a charitable way of describing our country's descent into evangelical madness), Atwood could be forgiven if she decided to let her ego get the better of her. To the contrary, last night's appearance showcased the 79-year old's self-deprecation and dry sense of humor. As she put it, "We don't do adulation in Canada."
Atwood got the Jones Hall audience on her side early, reminding us that Texas was a separate republic from Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, and even had a wall (though on the northern side of the state).
She started by reading a series of new poems, the first about female werewolves as a metaphor for liberation, followed by a nine-stanza examination of alien invasion in film. And I gotta say, for an author who's been quick to distance herself from the term "science fiction," Atwood certainly has an affinity for the genre.
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The program moved from the podium to the stage, where Atwood participated in a loose back and forth conversation that, frankly, was not nearly as illuminating as it could've been. Her interviewer never followed up on obvious verbal cues (when your subject describes her childhood thusly: "Words were the only outlet allowed me," maybe follow up on that) and admitted to not reading Alias Grace, though he did say he has "watched the show."
Imagine interviewing Kurt Vonnegut and telling him, "I haven't read Slaughterhouse Five, but wasn't Valerie Perrine great in the movie?"
Atwood, ever the consummate professional, took control of their exchange and did impart some wisdom about her process, from describing inspiration ("somebody doing something somewhere") to discussing who writes the best dragons (Ursula K. LeGuin). She also talked about the reception of the Handmaid's Tale following the 2016 election, reminding us its basis is in "utopias gone mad."
Things improved significantly when audience questions were introduced, and Atwood got to give her feedback on artistic discouragement ("Just write"), capitalism ("Once you've turned everything to gold, there's nothing left to eat"), and the stages of struggling writer-hood ("I'm venerable"). But as great it was too see her in person, too often she had to deal with clumsy questioning. Getting one of the greatest living authors on your stage should warrant a little more effort.