Margaret Atwood came to campus last Thursday, April 28 for “An Evening with Margaret Atwood,” an event sponsored by Binghamton University’s Anderson Center. Atwood, with her deadpan humor and slight Canadian accent, talked about her childhood, career and novels.
Susan Strehle, director of graduate studies in English, moderated the event, and begun with an opening statement.
“Margaret Atwood needs no introduction,” Strehle said. “You’re here because you read her — you know what a visionary writer she is.”
Atwood’s works have been praised as visionary. As Strehle discussed, Atwood is a winner of multiple accolades, including winning the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious book awards in the United Kingdom and Ireland, six times, with the most recent being 2019.
Strehle started the interview by asking Atwood about her childhood, which was spent mainly outside in the backwoods of Quebec.
“We had no electricity, we had no running water, we had a hand pump, we had kerosene lamps…we had no schools, we had no theaters, we had no grocery stores, we had no people, basically,” Atwood said.
Strehle then asked Atwood whether she was a “good child,” which prompted Atwood to respond with humor.
“What does that mean?” Atwood said. “Did we get caught? Not much.”
Atwood’s father was a forest entomologist, which is the reason why so much of her childhood was spent outside. Atwood was homeschooled by her mother alongside her siblings in the backdrop of World War II, and spent much of her time in the great outdoors, which is what she wrote her first stories about as a young child.
“I started writing poetry when I was about six and a half,” Atwood said. “And I started writing novels when I was approximately seven and a half. My first novel was about an ant. Its story arc is not a recommended one. Ants do nothing for the first three-quarters of their lives.”
Strehle also asked Atwood when she decided she wanted to be a writer. Atwood said she stopped writing as a child and decided to paint for a while, but changed her mind after encountering oil paints. Then, she wanted to be a fashion designer. Atwood’s fashion design dreams stopped when she started going to high school, or “real life” as Atwood called it. It was her first time going to school full-time — she used to go in the winters, she explained — but other than that, her mother homeschooled her. By the time Atwood was 16, she was back to loving literature and decided she wanted to pursue a career as an author.
Atwood then talked about her novels, which is what many audience members were looking forward to. Chelsea Cohn, an attendee and junior majoring in linguistics, said she shared some of Atwood’s passions.
“I’ve always been really interested in reading and literature,” Cohn said.
Cohn, along with Lauren Unterreiner, a senior majoring in biology, had both read, among other Atwood novels, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is Atwood’s most famous work. As such, Atwood discussed the novel extensively, from the history behind the story to its post-publication journey.
Atwood spoke about the difference between writing historical fiction, like “Alias Grace,” and speculative fiction, like “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“In speculative fiction, you’re making it up,” Atwood said. “However, for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ I didn’t make it up — I relocated it. I took things that had already happened, that already were happening, for which we had the technology, and I put them all into Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
On her inspiration for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood explained that she was “a great reader of sci-fi and [speculative fiction] as a teenager” and had a desire to write something like that herself. Still, the books of her youth were not the only driving forces behind “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Atwood was also interested in utopias and dystopias, places that started with the belief that everything would be perfect and quickly went, as she put it, “pear-shaped.” Atwood said that the Bible and the political climate at the time of writing “The Handmaid’s Tale” influenced her writing of the novel, too.
“I took some of the things that [politicians] were actually saying, such as ‘Women belong in the home’, and tried to work out how you might do that,” Atwood said. “How would you take these women that were running around here … having jobs or making money, how would you reverse that?”
Atwood said one of the central questions that led her to write “The Handmaid’s Tale” was, “What would a totalitarianism of the United States be like and how would it justify itself?” Atwood described “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its legacy.
“I think one of the lessons that we have learned over the last little while is that things can change very quickly,” Atwood said. “They have changed in history and they can change. There is no ‘It can’t happen here.’”
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” though Atwood’s most famous novel, was far from the sole focal point of the evening. By the end of the event, Atwood had discussed a variety of topics, ranging from the role volatile weather plays in her writing to her role as a climate activist, discussing women asserting themselves in a male-dominated writing world, reversed gender-stereotypical book covers, the importance of supporting independent bookstores, Canadian humility and dozens of other topics and stories, ranging from historical interests to book launches.
Perhaps the only thing Atwood didn’t touch on was her controversies, which may have come as a disappointment to some audience members, such as Cohn, who had expressed curiosity toward Atwood discussing such topics prior to the event.
“I would like to hear [Atwood] talk more about modern feminism … her take on modern feminism and, like, third-wave,” Cohn said. “I know there’s been some controversy on the internet, so I want to see if she talks about that.”
It’s difficult for some not to acknowledge her controversial status. Atwood has been criticized at times for issues ranging from a controversial article she had shared on Twitter — perceived by many as transphobic — to literary critics highlighting the marginalization and co-optation of the historical experiences of women of color in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Still, Atwood was candid about other matters, such as the current abortion laws plaguing the United States, the war in Ukraine and the United States in the wake of Trump’s presidency. Annette Burnett, event organizer and director of the Anderson Center, felt Atwood discussed such matters with “great finesse.”
Great finesse included, Burnett felt the evening was a success.
“The event went very well,” Burnett wrote in an email. “There was a lot of thoughtful and engaging dialogue between [Atwood] and our moderator Susan Strehle. The questions the audience submitted were excellent and Susan was [an] expert in incorporating them into the discussion … From the very positive feedback we heard last night, I think it was truly a memorable experience for all who attended.”Margaret Atwood discusses “The Handmaid’s Tale” and more at the Anderson Center