In conversation with Margaret Atwood

Potentially brilliant evening let down by insubstantial questions

Seats set out for ‘In Conversation with Margaret Atwood

Sadly this is not a one-to-one interview with the legend herself, but a review of one of her tour series. To promote the release of her new Booker Prize winning The Testaments (sharing the prize with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other), the long-awaited follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood conducted a number of ‘In Conversation’ events across the UK. Put on by Fane Productions, they purport to cover ‘the length of Atwood’s remarkable career, her diverse range of works, and why she has returned to her seminal handmaid story, 34 years later’.

Advertised long in advance, my Handmaid’s Tale loving sister and I snapped up tickets to the show at the New Theatre, Oxford, as soon as we saw them on sale. There were a few empty seats in the house, but I was relieved that we had booked early. We were immensely excited by the opportunity to see Atwood in person, and hear about her works from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

I must admit to being perhaps the last woman I know who hasn’t read The Testaments yet (by sister, by contrast, read it in its entirety in the first 24 hours after its release). I somehow have managed not to find time for it. Nor have I watched all the TV shows. I was slightly concerned that attending the event would spoil the book and the shows for me. I need not have worried though: Atwood considerately enforced a spoiler-free zone. But more than that, the conversation barely touched on her writing, even The Testaments, which the evening was supposed to be a celebration of.

“the conversation barely touched on her writing”

Unfortunately, the event was considerably let-down by the choice of interviewer. Viv Groskop is a journalist with a wealth of experience, having written for the Daily Express, the Guardian and Vogue Russia, released several documentaries, written two books, and even served as Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival. In addition to this, she also performs as a stand-up comedian. It is thus not totally unreasonable to assume that she would serve as a good interviewer for Atwood. She was at times funny, but overall she did not come across as up to the task of a serious literary conversation. Questions relating to Atwood’s work were limited – there was some discussion of the Aunt Lydia character, but otherwise questions were so superficial as to have been asked of any writer, and answered by a quick google of the thousands of other interviews of Atwood available online. How does she know when to stop writing? How does she know what to keep and what to discard? Which is her favourite of her books? (A question Atwood noted she always refuses to answer.) As expected, Atwood had interesting and amusing answers to these questions, but in all honesty the interviewer seemed ill-equipped to pose any truly insightful questions. Atwood presented interesting anecdotes about the process of writing, such as when she secluded herself in a fisherman’s cottage to write, but found herself more interested in reading other people’s books than writing the one she was working on. She reflected that if even you, as the author, are not interested in your work, it is time to push it aside and try something else. Groskop questioned Atwood as to why she had brought her handbag on stage. Atwood responded that she keeps it on her at all times, as she had once had one stolen by an over-enthusiastic fan. This was desperately latched onto by the interviewer, and the ensuing conversation lasted at least ten minutes. I honestly think Atwood’s handbag got more airtime than The Testaments. It grew into a long saga about her requirements of a handbag, the handbag she had just bought (its accompanying purse triumphantly pulled from Atwood’s existing handbag), where she bought it from, what make it was, and so on into parody. I am very happy that Atwood bought a handbag that pleased her, but there must be some irony in having one of the greatest living feminist authors in front of you, and making her talk at length about her handbags (especially when the audience was promised a literary discussion).

“I honestly think Atwood’s handbag got more airtime than The Testaments

A twenty minute interval was followed by the #AskAtwood portion of the evening. As we waited I perused the hashtag on Twitter, to which we were encouraged to submit questions. I was pleased to see that the majority of questions were regarding specific books, ideas and themes. A smattering addressed Atwood’s thoughts on the current state of political affairs. There was certainly scope for more in-depth discussion than we had yet experienced. Once Atwood and Groskop returned to the stage however, it quickly became apparent that this was not to be the case. Armed with an Ipad, Groskop swiped through questions, reading them verbatim, and apparently at first glance. Thus, we were treated to such questions as ‘Pint?’, an advert for a short story competition (closing the next day), and ‘are you a knitter?’. As a knitter myself, it was vaguely interesting to hear about the items Atwood had knitted for her family, but, as we had come to expect, not quite what we had turned up to hear about. There were also shout-outs to members of the audience. Atwood had earlier spoken of viewing Twitter as her own little radio show, but I don’t think she meant it quite like that. Some great questions went unnoticed: one in particular I would have appreciated a discussion of asked about the role of race in Gilead, or rather the book’s seeming lack of interest in it. The slightly uncomfortably white-feminist feel of The Handmaid’s Tale is one of its greatest downfalls. Perhaps understandable, given that Atwood herself is white, but in writing a world supposed to be a vision of our own future, and based on the crimes of the past, neglecting to consider the role race might play in the structures of that world seems a rather glaring omission. Especially as the actions of its society seem to more and more closely foreshadow those of the present-day ‘Alt-Right’ (Neo-Nazi) movement. Authors cannot be expected to be comprehensive, but it would have been interesting to hear Atwood’s thoughts on this aspect of her works and their reception.

Perhaps this could have be seen as an inflammatory or unflattering question, but there seemed to be a general reluctance on the part of the interviewer to ask any truly probing questions. When serious topics were addressed, it was as if by accident, Atwood turning her response to sincerity having been offer little of any depth to work with. A closing question on what Atwood’s ‘ideal world’ would be, explicitly intended to be a cheerful and positive note on which to close the evening, elicited a thoughtful answer on the danger of ‘idealised’ worlds, due to the othering and extermination of people and ideas that bringing them about always seems to involve. ‘Or,’ she offered, ‘I could say “when the crocuses come up in the spring”, which would also be true’, in a high-pitched, simpering voice she used to great effect several times in the evening to poke fun at the type of questions she was presented with.

The overall sense of the evening was of a wasted opportunity. As we left people around us grumbled (quite rightly) at having heard so much about Atwood’s handbags. I am pleased to have seen her, to have heard her, and have got some sense of her views. I could have gained as much knowledge from any of the dozens of written interviews available online, but it is always slightly thrilling to see the ‘real’ person. For true literary insight, I will have to look elsewhere.

The no photography policy was quite ruthlessly policed by the stewards, who took their duties very seriously, hence my sad lack of photos of Atwood herself! What are your thoughts on Atwood? Have you read many of her works, and, unlike her, do you have a favourite? I’d love to hear your opinions on her writing, and the current resurgence in interest in her novels.

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