The stories that changed Margaret Atwood's life

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Photo credit: Jean Malek

We're asking Canadians to share how a novel or story changed their life. There's a great prize on the line: you could win a trip for two to the Canada Reads live shows in Toronto March 3-6, 2013! 

But we thought it wouldn't be fair for Canadians to have all the fun. We asked the Canada Reads Top 10 authors to share their stories of change too. Today, we present you with the book that changed Margaret Atwood's life. Her novel The Year of the Flood is in the Canada Reads Top 10.

"Usually the books that change our lives in measurable ways are advice books. Elizabeth Baird's Classic Canadian Cooking gave me the best date square recipe ever, Mushrooms of Ontario has kept me from poisoning myself, and so on. However, I take it something less physical is meant, and, since I'm a writer, a book that changed my writing as opposed to my daily life is doubtless the item sought.

Books that change our writing seldom do so immediately: the effect is often long-range. Shall I invoke the collected works of Beatrix Potter, absorbed at an early age? Think of all the Potterian lessons that came in handy later! For instance: gentlemen with foxy whiskers who appear to be kind may have ulterior motives (Jemima Puddle-Duck); adventuring in dark places may be a great way to escape from tea parties, but you risk ending up in rats' puddings (Tom Kitten); placid surfaces may conceal sharp-toothed monsters (Jeremy Fisher); acts of altruism may generate unexpected rewards (The Tailor of Gloucester); true love is possible even if you're a pig (Pigling Bland).

Beatrix Potter was a considerable stylist, and it was from her that I first learned the virtues of oblique discourse, as in the following exchange from The Tale of Mr. Tod:

'Cottontail had seen Tommy Brock passing in the distance. Asked whether her husband was at home she replied that Tommy Brock had rested twice while she watched him. He had nodded, and pointed to the sack, and seemed doubled up with laughing. --"Come away, Peter; he will be cooking them; come quicker!" said Benjamin Bunny. They climbed up and up; --"He was at home; I saw his black ears peeping out of the hole." "They live too near the rocks to quarrel with their neighbours...'

At the age of four, I quickly grasped that Cottontail had lied, but the "rocks" remark took some thought. Finally I got it: Tommy Brock has a shovel, and those that live in burrows too near the rocks are easy to catch by digging. Long-term craft lesson: no need to spell everything out, because the reader is the co-creator of the story and can be depended on to pick up the dropped clues.

My delight in animal tales soon led me to Orwell's Animal Farm, which I was expecting -- from the title -- to be similar. Innocent as I then was of political allegories, what a rude shock I had! And how vile were the pigs depicted! It was a short trip, however, from Animal Farm to 1984, arguably a major influence on one of my far-distant future books, The Handmaid's Tale. And, in the pigoons of the MaddAddam trilogy, we might trace -- if so inclined -- the struggle in my soul between the two earlier pig role models available to me: the benevolent, gallant, kidnapped-pig-maiden-rescuing Pigling Bland of Potter's tale, modest but brave, and the ruthless and selfish Napoleon and Snowball of Animal Farm.

But such untanglings are best left to others, since to ask authors to anatomize their own lives and works in this way is uncomfortably close to demanding that they perform their own autopsies. It's a hard thing to do while you're still alive. Or at any time, come to think of it."

Have a story that changed your life? Enter our contest here! And be sure to check out all the great stories shared from Canadians around the world!

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