Meeting Margaret Atwood

My favourite photo from my evening with Margaret Atwood. PIC: Sarah Obern

The chance of a lifetime

My interview with Canadian mega star author, Margaret Atwood could easily not have happened and I would have been none the wiser. 

On January 6, 2020 I received an email from Fane Productions inviting me to interview Atwood on the last date of her NZ/ Australia tour on March 1.

My junk filter had prevented me from seeing Fane’s original invitation that arrived in December.  Luckily my silence wasn’t taken as a no, and on January 6, I said yes within minutes.

If ever an email could focus my attention it was that one.  I had eight books to read and analyse for the Perth Writers Festival scheduled for the last weekend in February… and now, I had Atwood.

She was touring her latest work The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, her seminal work, which was written over three decades earlier in West Berlin while the Berlin Wall still stood.  

As I said in my onstage introduction of Atwood, no matter how prescient The Handmaid’s Tale was considered at the time, no matter how celebrated it was in it’s first thirty odd years…no-one could have predicted how, in a Trump presidency, it’s relevance would take on stark new dimensions, which, combined with a new audience watching the TV series, catapulted Margaret Atwood from literary rock star, to outright mega stardom across generations.

The Testaments is a phenomenal work.  The book was joint winner of the prestigious Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.  Not content to rest on those considerable laurels, Margaret Atwood took on a gruelling tour schedule, interspersed with bird watching and nature walks.  Atwood, who had recently turned eighty, is a ten thousand steps a day walker, energetic and with vibrant mental acuity.  The more I studied her, the more intensely I understood that if I were underprepared, I would be a hapless ant under Atwood’s magnifying glass on that hot summery March evening at the Perth Convention Centre.

Her audience would be adoring and deeply invested.  They would be informed and fannish.  They would find any holes in my knowledge unforgivable.

Even if she had written just the two masterpieces – The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, this interview would have been daunting, but Margaret Atwood has written over fifty works – novels, short stories, poetry, critical essays and children’s books.

No pressure

On top of the research and the expectation, I grappled with Margaret Atwood’s own thoughts on being interviewed.

“I don’t mind being ‘interviewed’ any more than I mind Viennese waltzing, that is, my response will depend on the agility and grace and attitude and intelligence of the other person. Some do it well, some clumsily, some step on your toes by accident, and some aim for them.”

I mentally prepared for a consistently elevated heart rate between sending off my acceptance email to Fane, and the end of the event, almost two months later.

There’s no limit to how much preparation you can do for Margaret Atwood.  I work alone so no-one was reflecting back to me the insanity of my obsession. My friends and family got tired of hearing my latest discoveries and observations about the author.

Preparation is not limited to reading her work, although I read and listened to the audio versions of a number of her books as well as the requisite two.  It also involves listening to Atwood talking about her work, reflecting on her practices, demonstrating the kinds of questions she relishes and those she annihilates.And it’s listening to other people talking about her work – as her career spans decades, so do the interviews and analysis.

In gathering all of that information, my goal was to

  1. Create a conversation that would satisfy her audience. They are so invested in Atwood, her work and her world view that they were willing to spend a lot of money on their tickets.
  2. Create a conversation that allowed Atwood to demonstrate many facets of herself. One that she would enjoy as much as the audience.

A memorable moment

In the week before the conversation, with the Perth Writers Festival behind me, the tunnel vision widened and I started to think about having a good time.  I also became acquistive, searching local second hand bookstores for all the Atwood they might have. This desire to acquire, as I told her onstage, was the source of an interesting discovery.

Sadly, there’s no recording of the conversation, but I remember the gist of it. I mentioned to Atwood that I’d had some adventures in my preparation for the conversation, and that I went searching for Atwood back catalogue.  I searched online at Elizabeth’s bookstore, explaining that it’s probably the biggest in WA and that when I typed in Atwood two things came up.  I doubted the result and typed in Margaret Atwood and the same two things came up.

MA: “What were they?”

MF: “Can you guess?”

MA: “Well I know there’s a figure skater called Margaret Atwood”

MF: “They were two vintage copies of Playboy!”

Audience erupted and Atwood enjoyed the moment.  She went on to tell a great story about how Playboy went through a phase of publishing the work of significant literary figures and that she has been the first woman invited to write for the magazine.

Another memorable moment

The failure came before the success.  We were duty bound to spend a proportion of the conversation talking about The Testaments and after a while I asked a question about the first of three quotes she had included in the beginning of the book, this one from George Eliot:

“Every woman is supposed  to have the same set of motives or else be a monster.”

and how it could be interpreted as an explanation for Aunt Lydia’s decisions.    

Atwood’s retaliation was swift and brutal.  Something like “Oh that’s such a grad student question.  Do you want me to write your thesis for you?” It was a moment that a number of audience members mentioned to me afterwards with faint horror, but on stage it was over in a flash. To me it was an example of the brain’s astonishing capacity weigh up, on autopilot,  a number of possible responses (and respond) in a split second. An example of the emotional work of interviewing, the close watch you keep on your guest to constantly scan the mood, even when both people can come to a conversation with the best intentions. It’s the most taxing thing about the job.

I ignored it. 

In that moment my demeanour didn’t alter.  And in the next moment she answered the question, and from there, carried on quite amiably for the rest of the conversation. I make no excuse for the question, clearly not my best work, but I will say that I had listened to Atwood in every interview about The Testaments that I could access.  The questions were necessarily repetitious and I think I was trying to reach into different territory for her sake.

Looking back in that moment and the flurry of possible responses I’ve thought of since and I thank my lucky stars I put on my poker face and we moved on.

The photos taken by audience members are all I have and I treasure the one at the top of this page, taken by author Sarah Obern, where Atwood and I are looking warmly at each other and clearly enjoying the moment.  I’d spend ninety minutes with her in the green room before the event, ninety minutes on stage and thirty minutes chatting after it was all over.  That photo is the best expression of my evening.

After we said goodbye, I went to my car, elated and exhausted.  I drove to the final show of the Perth Festival where I heard Mavis Staples sing the final two songs of her set on that balmy Perth evening. Seeing two exceptional octogenarian women own their stages that night gave me a powerful sense of agency and potential.

Post script

I have another powerful woman to thank for that night.  Sisonke Msimang, curator of Perth Festival’s Literature and Ideas program for 2020. Sisonke was the first to be asked to interview Margaret Atwood. At the time, this exceptional woman, author of “Always Another Country:  A memoir of exile and home” and sought-after essayist on race, gender and democracy, was at the pointy end of preparing the festival and deferred the invitation, suggesting me as her replacement.  It’s rare that a professional gift is so generously bestowed and I will never forget it.