5 memorable things Margaret Atwood has told us about her childhood

Author Margaret Atwood has made a living telling stories — and she once told us some memorable ones about her childhood.

In her grade school days, she had a pet praying mantis and was once a semi-pro puppeteer

A sheet of photos of author Margaret Atwood is shown in this image. The photos of the author were taken in June of 1975. (Arnaud Maggs/Library and Archives Canada/R7959)

"Let's talk about you before you became a public persona," CBC Radio host Judy LaMarsh told her guest Margaret Atwood.

During a 1975 interview on Judy that proceeded like an episode of the old television program This is Your Life, LaMarsh peppered Atwood with questions based on intel gleaned from childhood friends and teachers.

What they discussed is sometimes not so surprising — "you were in the brain class [at school]" — and sometimes a little surprising (one teacher interviewed had been skeptical about the extent of Atwood's future success). 

Through the rest of the interview, Atwood, who turns 81 on Wednesday, shared some memorable tales and tidbits about her chidlhood.

Margaret Atwood, "a precocious and creative child," talks about dabbling in puppetry, opera and her first TV appearance.

She loved horror comics (the good ones)

Margaret Atwood, seen in a 1967 appearance on CBC-TV, once told us about her childhood love of horror comics. (CBC Archives/Extension)

LaMarsh quoted Atwood's childhood best friend about the young Atwood's love of horror comics — "you used to tell spooky stories and scare her to death."   

Atwood confessed that yes, "that was part of my general interest in things like that," explaining that by the end of Grade 6, she'd read all of Edgar Allan Poe, and "the entire unexpurgated Grimm's fairy tales," which she described as real "blood and thunder stories." 

The author further explained that the horror comics have "gone downhill." 

"But you still read 'em?" LaMarsh asked. "It's just really odd, you know? The great literary titan of the country into horror comics?" 

"I'm a word addict," Atwood said, noting that as a grown-up, she also read Reader's Digest, true-romance magazines and Ann Landers columns.

"Other people are addicted to coffee, cigarettes, booze, dope — I'm addicted to words."

'I was going to be a painter'

Margaret Atwood, a.k.a. Bart Gerrard, draws her Kanadian Kulture Komic character Survivalwoman for 90 Minutes Live host Peter Gzowski in 1978. (CBC Archives/90 Minutes Live)

LaMarsh then suggested Atwood had known from the age of five that she was going to be a writer. 

Atwood disagreed. "I had a period when I wasn't going to be a writer at all," she said. 

Which brought the discussion around to her interest in painting, and her dabbling in cartoon illustrations and caricatures — "[Montreal Gazette political cartoonist] Terry Mosher is one of my idols," Atwood confessed.

She had a pet praying mantis

A praying mantis from a file photo. (Michael J. Mullen/Scranton Times-Tribune/The Associated Press)

"How can you write a beautiful piece of poetic prose about a praying mantis?" asked a perplexed LaMarsh. 

"They're gorgeous," Atwood responded, telling LaMarsh she once had one as a pet. 

She went on to tell LaMarsh that "you can train them."   

"To do what?" LaMarsh asked. 

"Well," Atwood said, "my praying mantis would walk up my arm and drink out of a spoon."

Atwood further explained that led to her "first public appearance on television," on a TV show about pets, with a return visit to demonstrate the feats of a flying squirrel. 

But it was not the end to Atwood keeping pets, who listed cats, dogs, a horse and "a flock of ducks" as part of her current menagerie, at the time of the interview.

Her career as a puppeteer

Margaret Atwood, seen during a 1973 appearance on CBC-TV's Impressions, and a friend used to get paid to perform puppet shows. They even had an agent. (CBC Archives/Impressions)

From comics and odd pets, LaMarsh and Atwood moved on to the author's experience with puppeteering.

Atwood explained that after she and her friend took a marionette course, they discovered that the large puppets were too unwieldy to do shows with — that led them to working with hand puppets, and a portable stage. 

"We ended up having an agent, believe it or not," and bookings to do "mammoth company children's Christmas parties."

On stage, Atwood and her friend told stories like Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and Hansel and Gretel.

And the kids watching their productions loved them.

"The kids become totally involved in these stories ... and they would scream, you know: 'Look out for the wolf! Don't let him do it! He's going to eat you!'" said Atwood. "And there would be these roars coming up from the audience."

A home economics operetta

Margaret Atwood -- shown here in a 1978 image -- didn't like the career choices recommended for "girls" when she was growing up. But she felt being a home economist was the best of those recommended options. (CBC Archives/Time For You)

It must have seemed unlikely to some listeners, but Atwood also revealed in the interview that "before I was going to be a writer I was going to be a home economist." 

How could that be?

Atwood listed the careers that were suggested by the guidance book for girls, and for her, airline stewardess, secretary, teacher, and nurse were out. That left being a home economist as her remaining choice.

"It was the only thing in the guidance book that ... girls could do that I could stand." 

Difficulty with sewing seams pushed her to find a creative way to choose her special project, and "I didn't want to make a stuffed animal." 

So what's an aspiring writer to do, but write an operetta for her home economics course instead? 

The class voted on it, and "Sir William Woolly who shrank from washing" was born.

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