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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.

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