Award-Winning Author Margaret Atwood Reads at Hunter
Renowned author offers an informal reading
If the unseated audience members lining the edges of the English Department’s packed faculty dining room were slow to heed Atwood’s call, it may have been out of intimidation. In his glowing introduction, Executive Director of the MFA Program Peter Carey compared Atwood’s novels to “quantum mechanics, proof that a work of art, like a subatomic particle, can be in two states at the same time. In her case, everything is totally invented, and everything is completely real.”
Following such high praise, one could be forgiven for wondering if Atwood’s humble, intimate demeanor was real or imagined. But sure enough, as audience members settled into spots on the floor surrounding the stage, the reading began to feel more like a gathering of friends than an event for fans, though admirers were aplenty.
Reading from 2009’s futuristic novel “The Year of the Flood,” Atwood drew the audience into a world that, though markedly different than our own, felt disquietingly similar. One character, Toby, works at SecretBurgers, the “secret” being that “no one knew what sort of animal protein was actually in them. The counter girls wore t-shirts and baseball caps with the slogan, ‘SecretBurgers, because everyone loves a secret,’” Atwood read. The audience laughed uncomfortably, not just at the gross-out factor, but at how close it hit to home: McDonald’s, pink slime, anyone?
During the fifteen minute reading, Atwood carried the audience from SecretBurgers to high-end strip club Scales and Tails to a festival thrown by God’s Gardeners, a “green cult.” The endlessly complex dystopian universe might have seemed too overwhelming for a short reading, were it not for Atwood’s sly humor and deadpan delivery.
Of the rumor that controlling entities were using SecretBurgers’ meat grinders for disposing of human bodies, Atwood read with winking sarcasm: “During the glory days of SecretBurgers, there were very few bodies found in vacant lots.” The sentence worked two ways: as a demonstration of a society gone awry, and a punch line.
Here, Carey’s premise that Atwood’s work could be two things at once proved true; it was at once hilarious and dark. The guest herself proved to be something of a dual presence: superstar author and accessible companion. Atwood read with command, but just as easily lapsed into giggles. When one audience member’s musical ringtone interrupted the reading, she seamlessly played it off: “The secret of SecretBurgers was that no one knew... what sort of music was playing on your phone,” she joked.
During the Q&A session Atwood was equally charming, her answers frequently punctuated by the audience’s laughter. Asked if she keeps certain hours, the author muttered: “I wish ... But for you, I would advise a nice, sort of, padded cell or something where other people can’t get in. Maybe a little cabin on a mountaintop.” A beat. “Maybe not.”
Much of her advice to students echoed the teachings of many a Creative Writing teacher: try and schedule time to write, keep a notebook and take notes on everything that inspires you. “They’re not always good ideas, but some of them may be. So if you’re having them, write them down, and then you can weed them out later,” she recommended. Though students may have heard some variation of that advice before, much of Atwood’s insights were remarkably candid.
She spoke of needing two years to “get [her] brain back” after becoming a parent, calling writing at that point “like walking through mud [...] Part of it is, you just lose your motivation,” a sentiment that elicited murmurs of surprise from some audience members and nods of agreement from others.
Atwood’s final anecdote also prompted a strong reaction, this time raucous laughter. Speaking about her first novel— never published—Atwood confided: “It ended with the heroine wondering whether or not to push the male protagonist off the roof. So the publisher took me out to lunch and said he thought it was very promising, but could I change the ending? I said no, I didn’t think I could. And he leaned across the table and patted my hand and said, ‘Is there any way we can help?’” With the audience in stitches, Atwood dryly added: “I thought that was cute.”
Perhaps that publisher wasn’t ready for Atwood’s predilection for blurring boundaries and genres, her ability to balance humor and horror, past, present and future. But those who attended her reading would probably paraphrase the author in urging the uninitiated to “come forward, come forward” into Atwood’s world.