|Official Texas Book Festival Photo – Author Margaret Atwood
It was such a beautiful morning in Austin, showing all the signs of an approaching autumn season, that I really hated to head indoors immediately for my first session of the 2015 Texas Book Festival. But my reluctance disappeared when I remembered that I was there an hour early for one reason: to attend Margaret Atwood’s presentation on her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last. At this point, I’m going to have to admit an embarrassing thing about my reading relationship with Atwood; I have never read her. As in Never Ever. And how that happened, I can’t explain. After all, I have several of her books around the house (and now I own a signed copy of The Heart Goes Last). Heck, I’ve had a first edition copy of Cat’s Eye on my shelves since February 1989 when it was first published. I know that she’s a major writer of our times, etc., but somehow or another I’ve never read her. Weird, I know.
As a reflection of Atwood’s literary prestige and popularity, her presentation was one of the few given inside the chambers of either the Texas Senate or the Texas House of Representatives. (The vast majority of the presentations are made in rooms located in the basement area of the building or outside under the cover of large tents.) The line was long and moved slowly into the lower level of the House meeting area, and I was convinced that I would be moved to the upstairs gallery despite having been lined up for a bit over an hour, but I got lucky and was one of the last dozen or so to be able to squeeze in downstairs. So I was off to a good start.
Margaret Atwood is everything I heard she was: funny, personable, bright, energetic, opinionated, adventuresome, and well-versed on the changes in bookselling. Kelly Luce, the session moderator, began the session with a series of interesting questions to Atwood but made sure to save some time at the end for what turned out to be several really good questions from the audience. First up, of course, was a question about the new book. Atwood mentioned that The Heart Goes Last, which is 306-page novel, actually began as a series of short stories for Playboy magazine (she laughed about the magazine’s recent announcement that it would no longer focus on nude pictures, meaning that people really will be buying it for the “articles” now) but that her publisher finally said to her “why not make this into a real book.” From there, the author went on to discus the serialization techniques of Charles Dickens, mentioning as a side note that she had once been allowed to sign her name with the very quill pen Dickens used to write his books, and pointed out that some of Dickens’s books were changed to suit the feedback he got from his weekly readers (especially regarding his extra attention – as the book evolved – to those characters which were proving to be the most popular).
It was while discussing her own writing techniques and the structure of her books that Atwood most often showed her rather self-deprecating sense of humor. For instance, when discussing how a writer “suffers” for her art, she said that she “had a little bit too much fun because I know you should suffer. And I did. But not too much…you don’t want to suffer too much at my age.”
Here are a few other interesting tidbits that I managed to jot down during the presentation:
· Atwood is not an “outliner” of novels and stories. As she put it, she prefers to see them “grow up.” She went on to remark that teachers of her work can see the structure because they have the whole book in front of them to teach from, while she never had that advantage during the writing process.
· She is a fan of “fan fiction” and gave a brief history of fan fiction, including the fact that it’s been around forever, mentioning that Don Quixote was covered by dozens of “fan writers” hoping to cash in on the book’s characters – and that some of Shakespeare’s writing could be characterized as fan fiction.
· Atwood mentioned two interesting projects of which she is a part. The first involves her re-writing of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the second is one in which she has written one, of what will eventually be 100 novels or stories, that will be sealed up for 100 years before they are “opened” and made available to the public. The work is sealed away in Oslo, Norway.
· The author took note (as so many authors have before her) of the setting and mentioned that she heard “laws are made here.” She went on (again, as usual) to speak of the Texas laws that she wishes she could change from her seat in the chamber: penal laws, women’s right issues, etc. No surprises here, and I found myself starting to tune her out, so I was happy when she moved on to something else.
· Atwood closed the session by addressing public libraries and how important they are to society. Interestingly enough, the library issue was brought up by a questioner in the audience who mentioned the many millions of dollars Austin is spending to build a new library while, at the same time, the current library sits largely empty and unused. She considers access to books in libraries to be a “cornerstone of democracy” and said that the coke-addled mayor of Toronto was finally pushed out of office on that issue alone. Apparently, he wanted to cut library funding and the voters were having none of it.
I enjoyed the session most, I think, because of the access that Atwood allows to her feelings and personality. She is open, sometimes blunt, and pretty much always interesting. And this time around, I’m certain that I’ll be reading a few Margaret Atwood novels…starting with The Heart Goes Last.