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Margaret and me at Harvard

October 27, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s Sunday night in Cambridge and the crowd has lined up for more than a block to get into the Unitarian Church Meetinghouse to hear Margaret Atwood read from — and perform bits of — her new book, The Year of the Flood (Doubleday.)

We hadn’t expected to encounter Canada’s pre-eminent author during our weekend visit to Boston. A casual examination of an events magazine told us she would be in town, so we headed out on the “T” to Harvard to catch the reading.

Margaret Atwood is deep into the third month of what is probably the most gruelling book tour of her career. But it’s one she’s obviously enjoying. She was having great good fun reading, answering questions, and singing one of the hymns she’d written for God’s Gardeners, the church devoted to the melding of science and religion that she’s invented for her 40th book.

Ms. Atwood says Flood is neither a sequel nor a prequel to Oryx and Crake, her 2005 work that took readers into the same abandoned territory as her latest opus. She admits it’s a dystopian outlook she offers, but insists that it’s a destination we’re bound for if we don’t change our ways.

All the same, the message comes with an infectious spirit of deviltry. The same deviltry that must have seized hold of her when she created her two protagonists who begin the book as the only survivors of a natural calamity: Ren, a trapeze dancer trapped inside the upscale sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God’s Gardener who’s locked herself up in a luxurious spa “where many of the treatments are edible.”

Year of FloodI had to wonder whether she had as much fun writing Flood as she’s having in talking about it. I suspect not. But Ms. Atwood clearly enjoyed being back at Harvard where she spent four postgraduate years.

She let us in, by the way, on the fact that she’s used many Harvard buildings and locales for settings in past works.

Amid the good humor of the evening, it seemed to me that Ms. Atwood was a bit defensive about the bleak future she depicts. Asked if she didn’t agree that we’re better off than at any time in the past, she answered with a question: “Who do you mean by we? The billion people in the world who are starving to death?”

My answer would be: Yes, we are better off. The fact there are more people starving now than ever is because there are more people now than ever. But a larger proportion of the planet is living better than at any time in the past.

Asked whether she thinks the demise of mankind (it’s assumed it will come) will result from misuse of technology or from some psychological cause, Ms. Atwood opted for a combination of both.

And she graciously gave mention to The Golden Mean, the novel by Annabel Lyon that’s made the short list of Canada’s three biggest writers’ awards (while The Flood has been shut out). She said it’s the book she’s most recently read, and greatly enjoyed.

The Flood is being driven by the biggest PR campaign ever mounted for a Canadian book. Margaret Atwood has been everywhere in the media: op ed pieces, interviews, author readings (supported by musical performances) and an international tour that takes her to, for instance, Chicago on November 6th.

Considering the usual discreet, “gentlemanly” promotion  given Canadian books, I’m wondering if this intense, high profile campaign has anything to do with the reluctance of the award juries to short list The Flood. It’s been overlooked for the Giller, the G-Gs and the Rogers Writers’ Trust award. All this fuss a bit “unCanadian” perhaps?

Doesn’t matter. Any writer would sell their soul to have hundreds line up the way they did after Sunday night’s reading, Atwood books in hand, to meet the author and go away with a precious signed copy.

With Duceppe in Toronto

October 4, 2008 Leave a comment

The Economics Club of Toronto attracts the heavyweight speakers from politics and business, and so when I heard Gilles Duceppe would be speaking there, I was glad to go along to yesterday’s luncheon.

I had a chance to chat with Mr. Duceppe after his talk. He was warm, persuasive, and friendly. I joked that if he were a federalist, we’d all want to vote for him. His response: “Maybe I should open a franchise in Ontario.”

About 250 people were  at the Sheraton Centre to hear him. He said he hadn’t come to tell Canadians how to vote, but then made it clear that he was preaching to both Quebeckers and other Canadians that the Bloc represents the best opportunity to prevent Stephen Harper from getting a majority.

Our outstanding lady of letters, Margaret Atwood, was a guest at the head table and afterwards, told reporters that if she lived in Quebec she’d vote for the Bloc.

 “I’m here because Mr. Duceppe understands the contribution that culture makes to our economy. He understands $84-billion, and he understands 1.1 million jobs,” she said.

Duceppe received standing ovations both before and after he spoke, although a few remained in their seats at the end of his talk.

“Quebec is the only place in Canada that can still stop Stephen Harper,” Duceppe declared.

He stressed that the election wasn’t about sovereignty, but added:

“One day or another this problem must be solved. I’m more confident than ever that sovereignty is the best answer for Quebec and for Canada. Then, we’ll be able to go forward as two countries together.”

Duceppe reminded us of Pierre Trudeau’s declaration in 1976 that “separatism is dead.” Two months later, the PQ won its first term of office.

Duceppe talked a lot about culture, recognizing Margaret Atwood’s presence in the room.

“Not only is culture tremendously important to our national identity, but also a huge part of our economy — it’s worth $84 billion to Canada and gives jobs to a million people.” He slammed Stephen Harper’s recent remarks that “ordinary Canadians” aren’t interested in the arts.

“I’m here to defend both Quebec and Canadian cultures,” he said. “We don’t want to live on Planet Hollywood.”

I saw a few notables aorund the room, and had a chance to visit a bit with Judy Rebick, the left-wing activist and feminist who has a new book coming out soon.

In the event that the Conservatives are returned with another minority, she’d like to see an NDP-Liberal-Bloc accord that would keep Harper from forming a government. She points to the NDP-Liberal accord engineered between Bob Rae and David Peterson in Ontario in 1985 that let the Liberals govern even though the Conservatives had won the most seats in that election.

This may sound like grasping at straws, but Mackenzie King used the same tactic once federally. He governed successfully with Progressive party support when the Tories had won the most seats.

I’ll ponder Judy’s idea and maybe write about it next week.

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