Margaret Atwood: Plork and Awe

Guest post by Viv Langham (aka fan-girl)

It is a full house. The audience murmurs in anticipation, gazing at the seats placed front and centre on stage. The hush when kick-off is announced is instant and reverent. We are here to drink in the words of a living literary treasure.

Jennifer Byrne, of ABC TV’s First Tuesday Book Club, ushers our heroine on-stage. In her long, dark outfit, vivid red scarf notwithstanding, Margaret Atwood looks like a nice older lady on a bus whose thoughts run along conventional lines. She sits demurely: back straight, hands resting in lap, feet flat on floor. The illusion is broken as soon as she speaks. Wisecracks flow and throughout the night, after any one of her many excellent one-liners, Atwood squirms in her chair and giggles, face crinkled in an imp’s grin of glee. This is the woman we recognise from her writing: the author who brings an edge of genius hilarity to the most serious of issues.

We start at the very beginning, delving into her decidedly low-tech childhood of family wanderings in the forests of Canada. She pooh-poohs the idea of deprivation, asserting that no child feels deprived at the time. Besides which, many hours of sitting in cold, damp row-boats taught her never to whinge, which is probably a skill as valuable to an interviewee as to a writer.

Fast-forward to her early 20s when, in Canada at least, the idea of being a professional writer was ludicrous; of the female variety, doubly so. The mere suggestion that you might like to write for a living was not even viewed as serious enough to merit counter suggestions, eliciting only a bald “What?” of disbelief. Local publishing houses were victims of a cringe to rival Australia’s, swinging between insisting on the one hand that Canada had no culture to express and on the other that your books were, mysteriously, “too Canadian”, hence unmarketable.

What would she have been if she hadn’t become a writer? Probably a scientist, like her brother. And, Byrne wonders, what sort of scientist would she have been? “A MAD one!” Thus begins a discussion on the history of mad scientists in literature, with delicious diversions into lurid mid-20th century pulp fiction, replete with giant brains plotting to destroy the world. What fun!

But, as Atwood points out, we have no need of giant brains to destroy the world nowadays. The inaction of our governments, solely intent on vote garnering and placating big carbon emitters, is doing nicely by itself, thank you very much. She likens not believing in climate change to not believing in gravity: jump off a building and gravity is going to get you whether you believe in it or not.

Her passion for the environment, and birds in particular, is well-documented, and she accounts for the prominence of Aussie bird names in Oryx and Crake: her partner, Graeme Gibson, has a Brisbane-born mother. Atwood not only knows well our Red-necked Crake and Bush Thick-knee but is personally acquainted with our Cassowaries’ love of pie, thanks to a pie-on-the-windowsill incident during a holiday in Arnhem Land. “Does this mean we can claim you for our own?” Byrne asks, much to the audience’s amusement, although the allusion to our habit of adopting anyone famous with a tenuous connection to our shores appears to pass Atwood by.

Some may assume a technophobic bent to such an environmentally aware individual, but they would be greatly mistaken. She goes on to enumerate her many internet “experiments”, describing the advantages and disadvantages of various social networks. Twitter seems amongst her favourites, although it is best, in her opinion, not to blow one’s own trumpet there–that’s what blogs are for!–while Pinterest is mainly for photos of people’s sofas and of sofas they have seen and liked.

One of her latest internet ventures is the zombie/comedy short-fiction The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, co-authored with Naomi Alderman, which is freely available at www.wattpad.com. The plot revolves around a retirement home for your recently-zombified family member. The problem, she reveals, is how to avoid being eaten, by your loved one or other zombies, while en route to the Home.

It would not be an evening with Margaret Atwood were she not asked to state the bleeding obvious on the subject of feminism. She points out, most politely, that she would be surprised if everyone in this room, even the majority of people one might meet on the street, did not agree that women should have the right to health care, to education etc. Most of us are, ergo, feminists. How could being associated with such a worthy and broadly-accepted concept be embarrassing? Oh, and by the way, being feminist doesn’t mean believing that all women are sweetness, reason and light. “We even take different clothing sizes, you know!”

And so we meander finally to writers and writing. Is there, for her, a gold standard writer? “Am I allowed to say Shakespeare?” she asks, almost sheepishly. There are just two kinds of writer, in her opinion: Miltons and Shakespeares. No matter what the Miltons write about, they are always writing about themselves. The Shakespeares are driven by their characters, able to take on an existence seemingly separate from that of their creator.

Two kinds of writers and four kinds of books: those that are good and make money, bad and make money, good and don’t make money and bad and don’t make money. “You can live,” she says, “with three of those!”

As to whether she finds writing hard work at times, she has a problem with the dichotomy of “work” versus “play” when applied to writing. A third category is required. “Plork?” she proposes. Expanding on this theme, is the book she is currently working on always, at the time, the best thing she has ever written? She doesn’t know about that. You have to be in love with what you’re writing or it’s not worth doing but, as we all know, being in love with something or somebody does not mean they are the best. We will only know that in retrospect, and perhaps not even then.

“Thank you, Margaret Atwood,” Byrne concludes. “And all the best for your future life and plork.”

It’s over. Our books are signed and fuzzy photographs have been taken of us grinning like loons while she smiles reasonably benevolently. Outside, heading back to the car, I glance through the windows and see her at the signing table. I have to stop and look, just look and look, and get a bit shamefully teary, thinking that this is most likely the last time I will ever see her in the flesh. I have the urge to press my nose against the glass, puppy-fashion, whimpering, but I fear that would only convince Margaret that the zombie apocalypse is upon us.

Farewell, I hope only for now, Margaret Atwood. Keep writing the good stuff, being intelligent, provocative and above all cheeky, although I don’t think you need anyone’s exhortation to do that.

> More from the Perth Writers Festival

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