When I first read ‘The Handmade’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood something inside me shifted. Her writing has the power to do that, to pull together nebulous strands of thought and give them coherence. I have read many although not yet all of her books over the past thirty or so years. It pleases me that I still have some to look forward to as she has in that time become one of my favourite authors.
Thanks to the fabulous independent bookshop, Toppings in Bath, I had the opportunity yesterday to meet her. I joined a number of her fans, two of whom had travelled all the way from the Lake District specifically for this event, as we listened to Ms Atwood read from her latest two books. She chose an excerpt from one of the short stories included in ‘Stone Mattress’ which she had not previously read to a live audience. We were also treated to two readings from the concluding instalment of her MaddAddam trilogy, a dystopian tale which is to be adapted for television by HBO (although she pondered how they will depict the Craker’s blue bits).
As well as the readings Ms Atwood answered questions from the assembled audience and at the end I was offered the chance to talk with her briefly. I do not embrace the cult of celebrity which appears to have pervaded society but I do enjoy meeting writers. I wonder what she thinks of these literary events: flattered that people wish to see her? a chance to engage with readers? Perhaps it is now simply a necessary part of the job.
Listening to any writer of fiction read from their work is fascinating, I like to hear the voices that are given to the characters they have created. What made this event worthwhile for me though was observing Ms Atwood’s interactions with her audience as she answered their questions.
One gentleman was interested in a perceived South American influence in her writing. A young lady who was studying her work wished to expand her academic knowledge. One question gave Ms Atwood an opportunity to expound her environmental passions, a topic that is an important part of the Maddaddam series. My interest was particularly piqued by two other points that she discussed.
Margaret Atwood’s brother is a biologist and she works hard to ensure that the science she includes in her books is based on fact. She told us that even the most outlandish, futuristic developments are either already possible or are being developed. Her website gives more detail on this but she did mention one example that amused me. The Crakers in Maddaddam purr over people who are sick. Apparently a purring cat has been shown to help heal certain brain conditions in people. Getting a cat to sit still on someone’s head could be tricky, but perhaps some budding entrepreneur could develop ‘the cat in the hat’.
A question was asked about writing poetry as opposed to prose. Ms Atwood suggested that the creation of poetry was like music or maths and could involve a great deal of staring out a window. Fiction on the other hand was inspiration followed by perspiration, requiring a different type of dedicated work over a lengthy period of time.
I asked Ms Atwood if she had known that the Maddaddam series would be a trilogy when she started to write the first book, Oryx and Crake. She told me that it was only as she was concluding the novel that she realised there was so much more of the story to tell. Her books evolve as she writes them and do not always go where she intended. To take George RR Martin’s words, she is a gardener rather than an architect. Given her interests and favoured fictional subjects this seemed somehow appropriate.
This particular literary event was held in a beautiful church built by benefactors in the eighteenth century who realised that many of Bath’s residents could not afford to attend the cathedral for worship. As I sipped my wine and admired the creative skills of those who had long ago created such a fabulous building it seemed fitting that I would be there to enjoy it with someone who has the ability to create whole worlds, and who can transport us there with her words.