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“We are in the era of pushback”: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments Book Tour Event, November 12th, 20

By Romy Shoam

@alagacedowson - Via Twitter

One chilly November evening, over a thousand montrealers trod through the snow covered streets to congregate inside the St. James United Church, waiting anxiously to be in the presence of the famed Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood. The stage was lit in an eerie, neon green, similar to the cover of Atwood’s latest novel, The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Paragraphe Bookstore organized this event, co-sponsored by Blue Metropolis: Words After Dark with Margaret Atwood. It had been postponed to a month later than its original date, due to family illness, so the audience was anxiously waiting in the pews for Atwood to appear.

Anne Lagacé Dowson, a Canadian radio journalist, introduced Atwood, and as soon as the author walked onto the stage, the audience rose to their feet and applauded her.

Atwood admits that despite 35 years of refusing to write the sequel, it had “gotten to the point I couldn’t keep my hands off it, let’s face it.”

By 2016, before the American presidential election, it was “crying out to be written.”

Atwood let the audience in on the publication process of the novel, notably its cover. The publisher sent Atwood the cover design in a pale blue (like the Pearl Girls’ outfits in the novel), white, and black colour scheme. She thought it was very glacial, and did not like the look of it. So, true to the artist that she is, Atwood took crayons to the cover, and coloured the pale blue clothes with neon green. Her suggestion was accepted, but her additional change - orange lettering - was not, Atwood confessed with a laugh. 

When asked about her thoughts regarding the use of Handmaids’ outfits and signs such as “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again” as activism, Atwood replied that although “it doesn’t matter what [she] think[s] about it, [because] it’s happening anyway,” she thinks it’s “brilliant.” Atwood proposed a “users only” right to make laws regarding matters specific to women’s bodies, or at least that the current lawmakers understand “just a smidgen of biology.”

Atwood boasted her Twitter usership, proudly stating that she has had a presence on the platform since its “innocent” days. One user asked her, referring to the world of Gilead, “How do you come up with this shit?” and to that, Atwood answered that “It’s not me, [...] it’s the human race.” In fact, in writing the novel, Atwood had a rule: a reference for everything in order to refute people when they claimed that her novel is a work of unrealistic fiction. Thus, every character or event is linked to history, such as Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union being the inspiration for the radical Gilead regime. Many accuse Atwood of expecting the worst out of humankind, but she claimed she is an optimist, because (spoiler alert!) “[she] didn’t kill off everyone in the end. [She] made Gilead disappear.”

Lagacé Dowson asked the author to read a passage from her novel, claiming that it was very funny. Atwood opened the book skeptically, looked over the chosen passage, then abruptly closed it. She chided the interviewer, saying that “telling people what to think of something they read is very risky,” and would like to “let the people read the book” and decide for themselves what to think of it. 

Atwood educated the audience about the nature of Canada’s publishing industry in the 1960s. It was apparently very difficult to publish fiction at that time, as opposed to poetry. It was only discovered in the 1970s that the novel had an audience in Canada. Nevertheless, “It appears that [Atwood] was a poet first, because it took [her] so shrieking long to get a book published.” After her poetry collection The Circle Game won the Governor General’s Award in 1966, publisher Jack Kellman agreed to publish her novel, The Edible Woman, without even having read it. The manuscript had apparently been on his office floor for months, but he fed Atwood the lie that it had gotten lost because he had given it to a pregnant woman, but Atwood “ha[s] her spies everywhere.” The novel was published in 1969, Atwood actually preferring the later date, since it was released during the new wave of women’s writing and would have been less well-received had it been published several years earlier. 

At the closing of this momentous event, Atwood reveals that she is working on her next collection of poems. The interview ended with Lagacé Dowson raving about the author, and Margaret Atwood expressing her worry that she “ha[s] a stalker.”


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