As part of Tallahassee’s Seven Days of Opening Nights celebration of the arts, Margaret Atwood came to read and answer questions at Florida State University. Thanks to the largesse of author Mark Mustian, whose The Gendarme will be published late this year by Putnam, my wife Ann and I had front-row seats right next to Robert Olen Butler, who we were kind enough not to bother as he pecked away at his iphone.
Atwood was charming and had a dry wit and wickedly dark sense of humor. She mentioned that she’s currently reading E.O. Wilson’s Anthill, a first novel out in April, for review, and noted that she’s perfectly qualified for this assignment given that her father was an entomologist. Wilson is also revered as a saint in her near-future novel The Year of the Flood. Wilson, of course, is best known for his groundbreaking nonfiction works on ants. Wilson was "brave" for switching to fiction at this point in his career, Atwood said, a mischievous gleam in her eye, and confirmed that she would not be ditching books for ant studies any time soon. However, Atwood did mention that her first novel, written at the age of seven, was about an ant. "For the longest time, nothing happened" in the novel because Atwood made the fatal mistake of beginning her novel with her protagonist as an egg, then a pupa, and so on. Wilson's chosen, she said, "the definitive moment" for his opening: "It starts with the death of the queen, and what comes after."
Atwood also made good, serious points about specificity of detail. One audience member asked her how things have changed for women since her The Handmaid's Tale came out, and Atwood rightly noted that her novel was about a specific type of possible dystopic society, regardless of any reflections of contemporary attitudes it might have contained—more in the vein of 1984, Brave New World, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We than something like Orlando.
When asked about how to foster creativity, she noted that kids all paint, sing, dance, and express creativity, only to later be given the impression that they must specialize in something “since we all need dentists,” but made it clear that everyone has creativity and expresses it in some way. This is a different question than whether someone has what it takes to be, for example, a professional writer. Writing, Atwood insisted, is a vocation that can become a profession, but if it isn’t a calling she implied that perhaps pursuing a career in it isn’t the best idea. She further made a quietly impassioned argument for novels being the most immersive way in which we can experience what it’s like to be inside another person’s head.
As for the reading, she chose three sections from her latest novel, The Year of the Flood, corresponding to snippets from all three viewpoint characters. Bravely, she ended with a section that was a sermon by an environmentalist religious leader on the occasion of the festival of underground creatures—a children’s festival “since things that live underground tend to be small.” The brave part was actually singing the hymn that concludes the scene, although as she said after “hymns were meant to be sung by ordinary people, and that’s what you got.” It was a confident and entertaining performance.
In terms of her place in world literature, she said without arrogance that if she’d known she was going to become so famous, she wouldn’t have named the company that protects her copyrights something as frivolous as "O.W. Toad" (an anagram of "Atwood"), and in a darkly funny way stated that soon enough Canadian writers wouldn’t have her around to intimidate them, since she’d be as dead as “the English writers I read growing up, who thus posed no problem” to her development, "being so remote". Here's to hoping that day is many years away.