All stories relating to Margaret Atwood
Less than 24 hours before the Scotiabank Giller Prize reveals this year’s five shortlisted authors, the three judges – Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, and Esi Edugyan – discussed the jurying process in front of a small audience of fans and industry folk at a downtown Toronto Indigo bookstore.
Hosted by CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, the jurors described the “Herculean task” of reading 147 books over the span of several months, an activity the three saw as a way of giving back to the literary community. “It’s a vote of participation in the literary culture,” said Lethem.
According to Lethem and Atwood, prize founder Jack Rabinovitch played an important role in convincing them to participate. “I was flattered into it,” said Lethem. When Rabinovitch told Lethem that Atwood would also be on the jury, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “I started to read [her] books when I was 17 or 18,” he said.
For her part, Edugyan, who won the prize in 2011, said it didn’t take much convincing. “I got to talk books with Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem, and so intimately,” she said.
Atwood’s participation on the jury ruled her new novel, MaddAddam, out of consideration. As winner of the 1996 Giller Prize for Alias Grace, there was some speculation that she participated in the jury in order to leave the prize open for new Canadian talent. However, Atwood told the audience: “I didn’t think it would be in contention anyway. It’s the wrong kind of book.”
Absent from the discussion was any talk of the individual longlisted books (nor did they discuss the recent controversy surrounding nominated author David Gilmour), but each juror shared their selection process. Edugyan gave each submitted book 100 pages, whereas Lethem sometimes quit after 50.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, currently the country’s richest prize for fiction. To mark the occasion, the Giller administration is making some changes, including one that will likely come as a welcome surprise to many people.
One significant change involves the announcement of the longlist, which will take place this year in a location outside Toronto. The longlist will be revealed on Sept. 16 at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Co-hosted by the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival and the UBC Creative Writing Program, this year’s event “underscores the wealth of talent fostered by creative writing programs across the country,” according to a press release.
But the big news is that for the first time in Giller history (or in the history of any major Canadian literary prize, for that matter), the Giller jury – composed of novelists Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem – will appear at a public event to discuss their process in deciding on the longlist. The event, called “Behind the Curtain,” will be hosted by CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, and will take place on Oct. 7 at the Manulife Centre Indigo in Toronto.
The Giller jury will announce the shortlist on Oct. 8 and crown the eventual winner at a gala on Nov. 5. Both events will occur in Toronto.
Never let it be said that Margaret Atwood is one to shy away from a challenge. The author of The Handmaid’s Tale and the just-released MaddAddam has already updated Homer in The Penelopiad, a feminist reworking of The Odyssey originally published as part of Canongate’s series of contemporary retellings of famous myths (and subsequently adapted for the stage). And now, she has been added to the roster of contemporary writers who will undertake updating the Bard himself.
According to a press release from Knopf Canada, Atwood will join authors Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, and Jeanette Winterson for the “Shakespeare project,” which will adapt selected plays as novels for a modern audience. Slated for publication in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the books comprise “a major international publishing initiative across the Penguin Random House Group led by Hogarth UK and published in partnership with Hogarth U.S., Knopf Canada, Knaus Verlag in Germany, and Mondadori in Spain; and Random House Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.”
Although the Guardian points out that no one has been bold enough to undertake an update of one of the major tragedies, Man Booker Prize winner Jacobson has done something almost as daring, choosing to take on one of Shakespeare’s most notorious “problem” plays: The Merchant of Venice.
Atwood, for her part (and somewhat unsurprisingly), has chosen The Tempest. The play “has always been a favourite of mine,” Atwood says in the Knopf release, “and working on it will be an invigorating challenge. Is Caliban the first talking monster? Not quite, but close.”
The other confirmed titles are Tyler’s update of The Taming of the Shrew and Winterson’s reworking of The Winter’s Tale.
The books will appear simultaneously in print and digital forms.
There are always practical matters to attend to in the course of publishing a book. What if, God forbid, the URL corresponding to your chosen title is already taken? When this conundrum arose for Margaret Atwood while writing her latest novel, MaddAddam, she opted to throw in a couple extra letters. “[S]omeone already had the domain for ‘Madadam,’ and I didn’t like the idea of my book title being used, possibly, for a porn site, as has been known to happen,” she writes in an essay posted on the online publishing platform Wattpad.
A long-time fan of Wattpad, Atwood has partnered with the site to release an essay on the book’s development as part of MaddAddam’s sizeable promotional campaign. Last fall, Atwood teamed up with U.K. author Naomi Alderman to publish “The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home,” an apocalyptic short story exclusive to Wattpad.
For keen fans of the trilogy, Atwood offers details about the characters and their motivations, as well as her own reasons for writing the book. “We live in extraordinary times,” she writes. On the one hand, we live in an age of astonishingly capable technologies, but, on the other, “we are destroying our biological home at breathtaking speed.”
“On the third hand (for there’s always a third hand), the democratic form of government we have extolled and promoted in the West for centuries is being undermined from within by super-surveillance technologies and the power of corporate money,” Atwood continues.
Read the full essay here.
Margaret Atwood knows her angles. As she posed for a portrait in late spring – we met to talk about MaddAddam, the forthcoming and final instalment in her speculative fiction trilogy – she clutched a giant tote bag just beneath the camera’s frame. (It was stolen once so she takes it everywhere, even onstage.) Wearing an oversized suit and sensible shoes, she curled her mischievous smirk on cue, first under an archway of stone skulls and cherubs at the University of Toronto, then while leaning against a café wall – she’s done this a thousand times. It was all very relaxed, until the photographer asked her to turn to the side. She kindly but adamantly refused: “I’m too old for profiles. Hee hee.”
Atwood will be 74 this fall, but it’s hard to imagine her being too old for anything. While other writers of her generation, like Philip Roth and Alice Munro, recently announced their retirement, Atwood has transformed herself into the poster author for digital publishing. In a little over a year, she finished her trilogy; wrote Positron, a serialized dystopian story tinged with Fifty Shades of Grey raciness for the long-form narrative website Byliner; collaborated with British writer Naomi Alderman on a novel called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home for the self-publishing platform Wattpad; and launched the Fanado app – part LongPen, part Skype, part chatroom – for hosting virtual signings and readings. That’s in addition to releasing In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a collection of essays on science fiction; appearing in Payback, a documentary based on her 2009 CBC Massey Lectures; delivering keynote speeches at tech and environmental conferences; promiscuously contributing to literary blogs; and sending out nearly 18,000 tweets (and counting).
Despite achieving canonical status for the publication, 28 years ago, of The Handmaid’s Tale and authoring 50 volumes that have collectively sold several million copies in North America, Atwood hustles like an MFA graduate dying to build an audience, not a member of the literary elite. But she has never been the type to sit back. When no one would print her first book of poetry, Double Persephone, she handset the first 220 copies herself (which, incidentally, now sell for $3,950 each) and designed and printed the cover for her second book, The Circle Game, using a Letraset kit – a lo-fi method even in the 1960s. That DIY ethos hasn’t faded with success or age. If anything, it’s intensified with the Internet, which lets her channel creative impulses through more venues than ever before.
Atwood’s online presence ballooned with the release of The Year of the Flood, the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy. The novel appeared in 2009, just after the economic meltdown, at a moment when every book blog and newspaper was pre-emptively eulogizing the publishing industry. “Publishers were in the spin-dry cycle of their lives – they were all going, ‘Ahhhhhhhh,’” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ll have to do this for myself.’”
So Atwood organized her own publicity extravaganza, starting a blog with interactive add-ons to the novel, which centres on the evangelical eco-cult God’s Gardeners. Fans could find out about avian-friendly Atwood blend coffee and ringtones of God’s Gardeners’ hymns, downloadable for $1.99 each. For the tour, she ditched the usual read-the-book, sign-the-book formula, and staged pageants in 19 cities, featuring an original score, choirs to perform it, and local actors playing the book’s environmental zealots. To keep readers abreast of the road show, she opened a Twitter account, something she had previously dismissed as a game for “the kiddies.” An early follower messaged her, “OMG! Is it really you? I love it when old ladies blog.” She was one of the first – and remains among the few – literary authors to engage with readers so openly online, and to meld her activism so unabashedly with her fiction.
On the morning I met her, Atwood had just broken 400,000 Twitter followers. She rewarded her devotees (T-pals, she calls them) with three Twitpics of herself, one a photo from her high-school formal in the 1950s, her trademark silver afro glossy-black and tied back in a ponytail.
Atwood is famously impish with the media, disabusing reporters of their assumptions and demanding precise language (don’t even try to call MaddAddam science fiction; it’s speculative fiction, thank you very much). But on Twitter, where she talks directly to readers, Atwood shows a side of herself that verges on vulnerable. When finishing MaddAddam, she wrote, “[A]lways blush-making to find all those typos and dropped stitches.”
There’s an openness to her recent online fiction as well. The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, about a 15-year-old girl’s gory adventures in zombieland with her undead-walloping grandma, was the product of a mentorship program that paired Atwood with up-and-coming novelist Naomi Alderman. Cultivating the next generation of readers and writers is another of Atwood’s pet projects, and she suggested to Alderman that they contribute to Wattpad, which has more than a million registered users, most of them young readers.
“I got in a certain amount of hot water for saying the Internet encourages literacy,” she tells me, referring to comments made during a media conference in 2011, “but I wasn’t talking about Finnegan’s Wake. I mean at the very basic level, kids have to be able to manipulate symbols. Wattpad is great because you don’t have to use your real name, so for teenagers, they don’t have to encounter their parents or teachers reading it. They can just let it rip.”
Atwood and Alderman did exactly that. You can almost hear the bratty vocal fry in the narrator’s voice when she opens the story: “I for one am not about to allow my arm [to] be chewed off just because another person – another former person – is feeling like a snack.”
“I knew Margaret as a writer who took on some heavy subjects,” says Alderman, “so when I opened that first chapter I was surprised by how funny it was.” Atwood wrote the first chapter, and the two alternated sections, trying to throw the other off with plot twists. “She was fiercely encouraging,” Alderman continues. “The only criticism she offered was that I have a tendency to tell my readers what to think, and she’s right.” The story, which they posted for free, has now been read by nearly 700,000 people.
Positron, the serialized ebook, is a darker, sexier lark, a dystopian story in which Atwood imagines a radical solution to America’s overpopulation/underemployment problem: convincing citizens to voluntarily go to jail every other month. She compares the project to the serialized novels of Charles Dickens: “He was making it up on the fly, and quite frankly, that is what I am doing,” she says. Seldom do we get to see our literary icons winging it.
The MaddAddam trilogy is anything but off-the-cuff. Atwood has been either plotting or promoting it for the last 10 years, although she points out, with deadpan understatement, that she’s been busy with other things as well. Oryx and Crake, the first in the series, came after two historical novels: the Giller Prize–winning Alias Grace and the Man Booker Prize–winning The Blind Assassin. The choice to follow up with speculative fiction ran counter to expectations – it seemed like she was baiting prize juries, like an actor after winning an Oscar. The pulpy Planet Zycron chapters of The Blind Assassin – which involved Snilfards, Ygnirods, and a bevy of sacrificial virgins – weren’t promising. But Atwood is a canny manipulator of genres, rendering the line between the literary and lowbrow irrelevant.
Oryx and Crake tapped the dystopian darkness of The Handmaid’s Tale, introducing readers to an exquisitely imagined late 21st-century nightmare warped by biological experimentation and ruled by sinister corporations. The book was shortlisted for the Booker, and sparked the speculative fiction phase of the Atwood oeuvre, a period shot through with eco-activist urgency, propelled by cliffhangers, and tinged with morbid zaniness.
“When I wrote Oryx and Crake, a number of these things hadn’t happened yet,” she says, referring to the bio-experiments described in the novel, which include lab-spliced rakunks and wolvogs. “Now, there really is someone experimenting with a headless chicken, and they’ve created a form of transmissible avian flu in the labs in China. You can’t make this stuff up, and when you do people will actually do it. I’m waiting for someone to do the mohairs. Take your own DNA, grow hair on a sheep, any colour, and then stick it on your head. I think that would be commercially successful.” The way she veers effortlessly from macabre lumps of lab-grown flesh to the spectre of real-life bioterrorism to only half-joking silliness encapsulates the peculiar tone and roller-coaster appeal of the MaddAddam trilogy.
Whereas Oryx and Crake was tightly plotted and intimate, The Year of the Flood was chaotic and blackly comic. Atwood took up the humanity-ending plague story from the previous book, but told it from the perspective of the God’s Gardeners, who practice a patchwork religion of veganism, freeganism, communism, pacifism, and Al Gorism. Taken individually, the first two volumes are End Times page-turners – the first gripping, the second romping – but it’s only after reading the third novel that their mythic ambition and narrative complexity come into focus. The story picks up at the scene that ends both of the previous two novels, a Groundhog Day–like trick enabled by a series of flashbacks that expand the world without actually moving the action forward.
In MaddAddam, time finally advances as the remaining God’s Gardeners meet up with the more militant MaddAddamites, who had previously broken away from the group. They form a motley future for the human race, along with a gaggle of placid, naked blue Crakers created by the biology savant Crake in book one. Holed up in a cluster of cobb houses, the group fends off circling painballers (empathy-deficient criminals with a predilection for violent sex) and pigoons (highly intelligent pigs implanted with human stem cells). They contemplate procreation and, as in many Atwood novels, they tell stories – interrupted, overlapping, chronologically scrambled tales that reward careful reading.
The narration largely alternates between Toby and Zeb, the radical brother of peace-loving God’s Gardener guru Adam One. Atwood clearly enjoyed writing the character of Zeb, who speaks a kind of poetic potty-mouth in which tree branches are “frilly and intricate and see-through, like whore’s underpants” and asses are “as taut as an implanted tit.” Unlike the majority of her previous works, which centre on female friendships, the fraternal bond between Zeb and Adam ignites MaddAddam.
Atwood bristled slightly when asked about creating a male voice; she gets the gender question a lot. But she patiently, pointedly explained the careful symmetry of the trilogy’s narrators: she had taken heat throughout her career for not writing from a male perspective, so she wrote Jimmy in Oryx and Crake, which in turn drew criticism that the book excluded female points of view. So the second book was Toby’s, and the third book is now balanced between male and female narrators. She dispensed with the subject on a practical note: “Men and women have different concerns. When you have a character climbing over a fence, their point of view will be different … because of the dangly bits.”
Dangly bits came up again when I suggested the trilogy could make a blockbuster movie, an idea Atwood is open to but suspects may not happen because of the Crakers’ waggling blue penises. I offered that perhaps they could be loin-clothed, like the Na’vi in Avatar, to which Atwood said, eyes widening, “No. No. I’m afraid that bits of shrubbery would have to be involved.”
Once we finished talking about the book, Atwood turned the questions around on me. (I’d been warned about this.) We had been talking about age, and the popular narrative that follows her around lately, the one in which she’s exceptionally plugged in – for a septuagenarian. She asked my age (32) and, quite fairly, bandied back, “You’re 32 – and you’re writing all those words…? The reverse is, ‘How can this old person still be walking the earth upright?’ It’s all relative.” Then, in a mentoring tone, she asked a broad question: “Do you enjoy being 32?”
Perhaps it was because of all the talk of dangly bits and procreation, but I blurted out an inappropriately honest answer: “I do like it, thanks. But I’m single so I worry about my ovaries a lot.” Not missing a beat, Atwood asked me a series of questions about what I want in life, arriving at two pieces of advice, “Well, when you go on dates, you should look for the qualities you want in a father … or you could take out an ad on Craigslist for a donor.”
After some nervous laughter on my part, we parted ways. She raised her delicate arm, weighed down by her book-filled satchel, to wave goodbye, and wished me good luck with my project. Whether she was referring to the profile, the childbearing, or both, I’ll never know.
“Rare-books libraries and special collections aren’t just about old books,” says John Shoesmith, outreach librarian at University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, the oldest repository of its kind in Canada. “They are about fine books produced in small quantities, books that have lasting value.”
Shoesmith is the curator of the library’s new exhibition, A Death Greatly Exaggerated: Canada’s Thriving Small and Fine Press, celebrating the craft of the printed book and the small presses that keep the art form alive. Included in the show is Margaret Atwood’s first chapbook, Double Persephone, produced and published with Hawkshead Press in 1961, and Le demi-dieu, an obscure 1930s French imprint bound in 2011 by young Toronto bookbinder Robert Wu.
Q&Q spoke to Shoesmith about the show.
What inspired this exhibition? The basic idea started six years ago at the University of Toronto when I was taking a rare-books class. I was studying archival papers, and I became interested in the personal papers of writers like Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, because we have their papers here at the Fisher.
So many writers have gotten their start over the years publishing with small presses, including Atwood. Her very first book is here, Double Persephone. She produced it in 1961, sold just over 200 copies at $0.50, and now this book is probably valued around $3,000. It marks the fact that every writer has humble beginnings.
What was the first material you decided to include? Part of it was flying by the seat of my pants, sitting in our reading room and going through 500 books, deciding what would look nice in the exhibit, and what is significant in terms of telling a story about the small press.
Which press stands out to you? Barbarian Press out in Mission, B.C. – using the term “barbarian” was sort of ironic because they make such beautiful books. Barbarian are probably the highest craftspeople. We have their archival papers that relate specifically to the creation of Shakespeare’s least-known work, The Play of Pericles. That’s probably my favourite item because you get to see the development.
Have you observed a distinct aesthetic or intellectual tradition in Canada? I would argue that the emergence of what we now consider the CanLit canon really started to come out of the small presses in the 1940s and ’50s, from publications like First Statement or Contact Press, a very influential publishing firm started by three poets, Raymond Souster, Irving Layton, and Louis Dudek. Leonard Cohen’s very first book was published by Contact Press.
It was hard for a Canadian writer to gain a foothold in the Canadian market. That is what it was about early on, and small presses are still doing that duty.
What do you see as the future for Canada’s small presses? These guys love what they’re doing, and we are going to continue to collect this stuff at the Fisher. We want to be the main repository for small presses in Canada. It will tell a good story 50 years from now about the fact that people were still making beautiful books, and I predict that 50 years from now they’ll still be doing that.
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is open to the public Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A Death Greatly Exaggerated closes on Sept. 9 with a small-press fair.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
From the press release:
From her earliest works, in which Atwood established herself as a vanguard of feminist fiction, to such genre-blurring novels as The Handmaid’s Tale, she has always sought new ideas and forms of expression. Most recently, her engagement with and enthusiasm for social media, electronic publishing initiatives, and innovative outreach to her readers have made her a trendsetter in digital culture and inspire a new generation of fans and writers.
The award, which spotlights cutting-edge business models, technology, or applications of narrative art, will be presented April 19 at the 33rd annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes held at the University of South California.
The jury for the 20th anniversary of the Scotiabank Giller Prize was revealed today. The three-member panel will include Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood, 2011 Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan, and American author Jonathan Lethem.
Following in last year’s footsteps, publishers will be required to provide digital copies of submitted titles alongside print copies.
The longlist for the 2013 prize will be announced Sept. 16, and the shortlist announcement will follow in October. The award will be presented at a gala dinner Nov. 5. Last year, Will Ferguson took home the award for his novel 419.
Atwood’s new book, Maddaddam (McClelland & Stewart) comes out this August but will not be eligible for the prize owing to her position on the jury.
Atwood and Alderman’s collaboration originated through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, an international program that pairs emerging artists across creative platforms with authorities in the field. The writers contributed alternating chapters to the novel, which follows 15-year-old Okie and her mother as they make a treacherous journey from New York City to Toronto after a zombie eats Okie’s father.
Wattpad CEO and founder Allen Lau recognizes the growth potential of serialized books. In a press release he says:
We are so proud that Margaret and Naomi chose Wattpad as a way to quickly and easily share this work with a global audience of millions. They both understand the new patterns of engagement that are happening around serially published stories. The majority of people on Wattpad are reading on their mobile phones so we believe there is a great fit between serialization and today’s mobile-first, social networked culture. The chapter-by-chapter model is something that is helping many writers connect with readers to find success.
Chapters are free to download from the Wattpad website or through its app. Additional instalments will be posted every Wednesday until Jan. 2.
Wattpad, a Toronto-based online community for international writers and readers, has put out a call for submissions for its first ever Atty Awards recognizing work by undiscovered poets. Winning entries will be selected by Margaret Atwood, the prize’s namesake, who in July began posting a new series of poems to the site under the title Thriller Suite.
“We want to create a digital-first opportunity for poets to share their work and for audiences to discover the genre. Poems can be submitted from anywhere, and we anticipate that some entries will be written on mobile devices,” says Wattpad CEO and co-founder Allen Lau in a press release.
Award hopefuls are encouraged to enter their English-language work as either a competitor or an enthusiast. Competitors are to put forward a collection of 10 poems, each one following a different poetic form. Prizes for the competitor category include $1,000 (U.S.), feedback sessions with Atwood via Fanado, copies of The 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology (House of Anansi Press), subscriptions to Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind online writing courses, and participation certificates signed by Atwood.
Enthusiasts are required to submit one poem, and will be entered in a draw for prizes such as a Nexus 7 tablet and a special-edition Atty Award t-shirt signed by Atwood. All entries in both categories will be considered for a draw to name a character in Atwood’s upcoming novel, MaddAddam.
The deadline for entries is Oct. 31. Details can be found via Wattpad.
In addition to the Attys, Wattpad offers more than $10,000 worth of prizes through its annual Watty Awards, which celebrate the most popular and well-liked stories posted to the online community.