Margaret Atwood knows how to work a room- so long as the room is in darkness and the spotlight is on her. That's just what she did at a recent reading in Hudson, leaving the audience enthralled with her performance of the first few paragraphs from one of her short stories.
Atwood recently appeared at Greenwood's StoryFest, a literary festival celebrating Canadian authours. The grand dame of Canadian literature was a major score for the Greenwood folk, who have also welcomed Michael Ondaatje, Romeo Dallaire and Atwood's husband Graeme Gibson.
She was feted in the small town and graciously endured cocktail parties, meet and greets and at her request, only two reporters. The novelist and activist is famous for being a tough interview subject, but after 50 years on the literary scene she knows she has to run the press circuit.
“I think the most important thing to ask is what the readers get out of [the interviews] because they’re not for me, they are for the readers the publishers, the journalists, all those people,” she said in her signature drawl. “It’s not what I do for entertainment. Politicians are elected by voters and novelists are elected by readers.”
Atwood is coming off a long international tour launching the last book in her MaddAdam triology, MaddAdam, as well as a new collection of short stories, The Stone Mattress.
Sitting with her in historic Greenwood House was an oppportunity to discuss these latest works, and perhaps to get into the nitty gritty of her early feminist contributions but the conversation was aimed at one specific topic. Zombies.
For a writer who has always had a finger on the pulse of human neuroses, to the point that her romans d'anticipation describe a world so uncomfortably familiar and utterly alien that readers are left squirming, it is no surprise that she can handle this particularly popular element of contemporary subculture.
“When times are good vampires come to the fore because they’re aristocratic and have outfits and are very vocal. Vampires are individuals. Zombies are always a horde and they are always poor, they always look like shit, they have no responsibilities,” she explained. “It’s the horde threat. I connect them also with the Black Death and World War I, the imagery in [T.S.] Eliot’s Wasteland. The imagery has been around for a long time.”
Atwood's recent foray into the Walking Dead-heavy marketplace was a collaboration with one of her mentees, Naomi Alderman. The two produced a short story “The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home”, which is available for free at wattpad.com.
“[It was] absolutely 50/50 and absolutely not scripted. It was the old tennis match, hit the ball over and the other person has to hit it back,” she said as she described the process of working with up and coming novelist Alderman. “You’ll notice we kept writing the other person into a corner out of which they had to escape.”
Infectious hordes aside, speaking with Atwood gives one a sense of how long she has been on the writing scene and just how much she continues to invest in it. The 75-year old is as comfortable on social media as she is at a book-signing and encourages all manner of causes and artists on her Twitter feed.
“Twitter is good to publicize the works of other writers. It’s not a good platform to say how wonderful you yourself are,” she mentioned. “If they want to do that they should link to another platform....If you tweet somebody else’s book, they will get a lot of hits on their website.”
There is no denying that when Atwood talks about social media, book tours, the apocalypse and the business of being a writer, her opinion is rooted in something solid.
She makes no claims that being a novelist is glamourous and she gets what it takes to break in. That is why she is supportive of young artists and their creative initiatives. “How am I going to pay the rent, how am I going to buy cheese sandwiches? That can be some other pursuit that you have, such as zombie exercise apps, or teaching in a university, or having another job,” she said. “You make enough out of the market, or marry somebody rich, or you inherit money, those are the choices.”
Atwood is past worrying about where the next cheese sandwhich is coming from but she is showing no signs of stopping. Her next big adventure- seeing the MaddAdam series on the small screen. Black Swan director Darren Aronovsky has signed on to the project and with that kind of star power, the series may give other post-apocalyptic series a run for their money.