What year were you born:? If you are lucky enough to meet Margaret Atwood, she might ask you that. Knowing when someone was born tells her what happened to them, what books, games and media influenced their early learning and emotions between 1 and 5, between 5 and 10, as teenagers, etc. Was it during wartime? During a depression? During a pandemic? Having an historical perspective can help you understand a new acquaintance.
Atwood, best known as the author of the iconic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, joined Alison Cuddy for a Chicago Humanities Festival conversation about Atwood’s newest work—a book of poetry titled Dearly. Cuddy (CHF artistic director) asked wide-ranging questions and Atwood’s broad view of culture, technology and history made this one of the most satisfying conversations of this CHF season.
This was the first event to celebrate the release of Dearly on Atwood’s virtual book tour. She pointed out that she has been in Chicago many times, including visits to Women & Children First, the CHF bookseller partner for this event. Cuddy described Atwood’s latest book of poetry as moody, melancholy, magical and weird. She started by asking Atwood about the poem “Zombie,” which is introduced with a quote from Rilke: “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.” Atwood commented on zombies and werewolves, which were once thought to always be male.
Atwood read the poem, “Update on Werewolves,” which provides a new perspective on such creatures. Here’s an excerpt:
No longer gender-specific,
Now it’s a global threat.
Long-legged women sprint through ravines
in furry warmups, a pack of kinky
models in sado French Vogue getups
and air-brushed short-term memories,
bent on no-penalties rampage….
Tomorrow they’ll be back
in their middle -management black
And Jimmy Choos
With hours they can’t account for
And first dates’ blood on the stairs….
Cuddy asked her guest to talk about “the origin story of Margaret Atwood as a writer.” Atwood, who grew up in northern Canada, said she read widely when she was young but didn’t think of writing as a career option because only a few kinds of jobs were open to women. An English teacher in high school encouraged her writing. Then, she said, “I decided I wanted to be a journalist but my parents didn’t think that was a good idea.” They invited over a friend, a veteran journalist, “to tell me how journalism worked.” He said “women only get to write obits and ladies’ stuff” so she decided to major in English lit. (By the way, I was yearning to be a journalist at about the same time Atwood was and went to journalism school at Missouri. I was discouraged from a career in newspaper or broadcast journalism when I found out that I would only get to write “obits and ladies’ stuff.” My solution was to take the PR route instead.)
What were you reading in those years? Cuddy asked. Lots of early American and Victorian-era English literature, mostly by male writers, Atwood replied. “Sci-fi stories because my father read and collected them. And forbidden literature that I found in the homes of people I babysat for.” Like Forever Amber and Peyton Place. (I too had that experience and also found “forbidden” books in my mother’s bedside table.)
Is there a through line, Cuddy asked, from the Puritans to today’s evangelicals? Absolutely, Atwood said. There’s a fascinating history and a direct line to the Gilead society (where her books The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testament are set). Knowing about those years—and historical memory itself—are ways to understand the present.
Exploring further, Cuddy asked, other than dystopian fiction, what can help people understand the present-day conspiracy theories? Read spy stories, like John Le Carré, and murder mysteries, Atwood suggested.
What is the most important step in writing? Cuddy asked the inevitable question. “Starting,” Atwood said. Getting the first five pages written. Just do it. (A parallel to David Carr’s solution to writer’s block: Just keep typing and words will come out.) Atwood says she concentrates on the “first five pages” when teaching creative writing. “The beginning must be good to capture readers.”
Cuddy asked her guest, “Where are you finding hope in these uncertain times?” Atwood responded quickly, “I’m quite optimistic about young people. Their interests in the biosphere, in activism and joining in communities like Black Lives Matter” are inspiring. Right now, she said, we need to rebuild our ability to listen to others, not demonize them, and reassert the category called truth. She commented that both Stephen Harper, former Conservative Canadian prime minister, and president Donald Trump removed truth as a category, spread Machiavellian disinformation and sowed distrust in government. Harper (P.M. from 2006 to 2015), she said, was a tryout for Trump.
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I was happy to receive an early copy of Dearly so mine is well-thumbed and flagged. Some of my favorite poems are “Ghost Cat” (“Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?”) and “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift” (“What if I didn’t want all that— / what he prophesied I could do / while coming to no good / and making my name forever?”)
One section of the book is titled “Songs for Murdered Sisters” and another is “Plasticene Suite” with environmental themes. And there’s the poem, “Oh Children”:
Oh children, will you grow up in a world without birds?
Will there be crickets, where you are?
Will there be asters?
Clams, at a minimum.
Maybe not clams….
Oh children, will you grow up in a world without ice?
Without mice, without lichens?
Oh children, will you grow up?
Finally, the best thing I’ve found while asking Duck-Duck-Go to search for Margaret Atwood is this delightful listicle. Of these “76 Facts About Margaret Atwood,” I learned that “she was raised as a strict agnostic” and she wrote a rock song titled “Frankenstein Monster Song.”
Dearly, Margaret Atwood’s new book of poetry, is available from Women & Children First and other booksellers. (HarperCollins, 124 pages, September 10, 2020). You can view the Atwood interview on the CHF YouTube channel.