“Storytelling is built in, something human beings do”.
Margaret Atwood filled the Milton Centre for the Arts with energy and enthusiasm for the One Book One Milton event. She was described as “the force of Canadiana” and the audience shared a love of reading during an inspiring evening of laughter and learning.
Atwood began writing The Heart Goes Last as an online serial, writing in instalments that ended in cliffhangers in the style of Charles Dickens. She told the audience that once her publisher noticed the serial, it was suggested that she adapt the content into a novel. To do this, the “connective tissue” was excised, removing the repetitive parts that reminded readers where they had last left off. Writing in a serial format was a unique experience, especially since she usually finishes a draft and then “messes around with it”. She described the book as a “kind of mangled version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream”.
The genesis of this story came from Atwood’s research into prisons while she was writing Alias Grace. She had visited 19th century Australian prisons and participated in a protest to save the farm program at the Kingston Penitentiary. She spoke of how prisons had changed over time, how hunter gatherer societies did not have prisons and found other solutions (like death) to deal with discipline needs. As architecture was built, a need for prisons grew including a history of debtor’s prisons and ransom prisons. Over time the prisons became more positive as they became penitentiaries and reformatories, teaching prisoners skills and how to read. More recently there are prisons for profit which creates an incentive to criminalize people to keep them full.
“Anything can be like a prison if you don’t like where you are and can’t get out of it”.
Although the story was written before the American election, Atwood considered how a leader with flaws could appeal to a majority and how if conditions are bad enough, people will give up their freedom. She shared that there is too much power at the top and not enough being redistributed and how the main characters in the book were desperate, living in their car, making barely enough for gas while they sought a 1950s idealistic experience (a time where there were high paying jobs for everyone, society was stable and everyone knew the rules of society).
The book features a couple, living in their car who see a new life opportunity. They alternate with another couple spending one month living at home and the other living in a jail. The couples are not supposed to know anything about their alternates but a note leads to fantasies. I have not read the book yet and am adding my signed copy to my growing TBR pile.
The conversation was incredulous at times. Atwood shared where she had gotten the idea of having sex with chickens… yes I did say sex with chickens! She told the story of being a a literary festival where BC poet, Pat Lane tried to shock the English audience with his poetry. He had shared that a high percentage of American boys had their first sexual experience with a chicken proceeding to read a poem from the perspective of a chicken.
“People think I have a devious and twisted mind but really, I just read the newspaper, and poetry”.
A question was asked about managing the public who know so much, yet nothing about her and she relayed what she learned from older author mentors like Farley Mowat. He had invented a public Farley Mowat along with the private Farley Mowat who was quiet and serious. She described how he had been floating in the pool when he told her daughter about an interview where the announcer accidentally introduced him as Fartley Morfat which had the audience chuckling.
“There are always two – the one you see before you and the one who wrote the book… the one who has sublime thoughts and the one who walks the dog”.
When asked about her writing process she spoke of multi-tasking and adjusting her process to fit her life. When she worked a day job, she wrote at night. When she had a child, she wrote when her daughter was asleep. When her daughter went to school, she wrote during the day. She laughed that she throws things out “constantly” and that she had even written the first 100 pages of Alias Grace and started back to page 1. She prefers to write with a pen and paper despite the fact she describes her handwriting as illegible. She had never become a strong typist, choosing the home economics stream over the secretarial stream.
Atwood tends to write strong women characters and in many ways does this as it is easier than writing from the point of view of another gender. She laughed that when she writes nice male characters that they are described as weak yet which she writes an obnoxious male character she gets asked why she hates men. Sometimes, we just can’t win!! When she wrote Oryx and Crake from the point of view of a man, she had a “young man with commitment problems” to give her pointers.
Atwood described writing as pushing a boulder up a hill. Despite challenges, she keeps on writing and described her “excellent mother” who instilled the values of being a “roll up your sleeves kind of person” who just has to “get through it”. She encouraged writers to take time to write every day, as “the more you do it, the better you get”. She was also asked about the challenge of having a book banned and laughed that it “makes my day” as she knows that this will sell a lot of books!
It was a wonderful author event which ended with a book signing where Atwood graciously signed copies of her books. I was a bit worried that the author might only sign the books that she was promoting but I left happy with all 5 of my books autographed. She was also very open to conversation and chatted with me about having seen my blog on twitter.
I was very inspired by this strong author and hope that when I reach her age (77) that I will have her spunk and energy! It was an excellent evening spent with Margaret Atwood along with my friends Kim and Ashley. It was well worth the drive to Milton on a rainy evening!