As It Happens

Margaret Atwood says book prize honours late partner Graeme Gibson, champion for Canadian writers

The Testaments author speaks with Carol Off about a new Writers' Trust prize named for her and late partner, Graeme Gibson, and about a half century of advocacy around writing.

The newly renamed Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize celebrates couple’s advocacy over five decades

Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson attend the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony in New York in 2017. (Julie Jacobson/The Associated Press)

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Margaret Atwood has won a lot of literary prizes, but never the one that now bears her name. 

The newly renamed Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize will award $60,000 to the year's best work of fiction in Canada — and honours both The Testatments author and her late partner, Canadian writer Graeme Gibson

The fact that neither of them ever won this particular award is, perhaps, fitting. While they've both had illustrious careers, the duo dedicated as much energy to advocacy on behalf of their fellow writers. And according to Atwood, Gibson was the person driving that work. 

"I would never have done any of these things on my own, not in a million years," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Asked how it feels to see the Trust rename its fiction prize after them both, she says Gibson's name should really be the one that comes first.

"He actually really enjoyed getting people to work together on a common objective. And it's not a thing I'm good at. I don't like meetings."

Graeme Gibson was a writer, conservationist and co-founder of the Writers' Union and Writers' Trust of Canada. (Dennis Minty)

Today, the Writers' Trust of Canada is one of the country's most formidable literary organizations, distributing more than $970,000 to Canadian writers in 2020 alone. But at its inception 45 years ago, it was a sometimes chaotic response to dire conditions Atwood recalls all too well. 

"When we first set it up, it was a screaming mess," she said. 

She said the Writers' Trust was born from a kind of desperation, as was the Writers' Union of Canada, which Gibson co-founded in 1973 to advocate for writers' rights.

"Very few [Canadian] novels were being published because it was assumed there wasn't a readership for them and that good books came from other countries such as the United States, England and France," Atwood said. "If you were a Canadian writer, you were sort of second rate just by definition." 

If you were relying just on the royalties from your Canadian book sales in those years, you needed another job.- Margaret Atwood, novelist

Today, Canadian writers of the 1960s and 1970s are considered titans. Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Austin Clarke, Al Purdy and Marian Engel are household names for many.

But at the time, Atwood says they were struggling. 

"Go into the life stories of those people," Atwood said. "I worked with [publisher] House of Anansi at the end of the '60s and early '70s. We published Austin Clarke. We published Marian Engel. I knew about the financial situations of those people … If you were relying just on the royalties from your Canadian book sales in those years, you needed another job."

The Writers' Trust was, quite simply, about making it possible for writers to live off their work, she said. 

"It has always been a problem of economies of scale," Atwood said. "It's going to cost about the same to print a book no matter where you are. But if your audience is 10 times bigger — or your prospective audience is 10 times bigger — it makes a lot of difference." 

Recipes, variety shows and 'soft porn'

The Writers' Trust was founded by Atwood and Gibson in 1976, alongside fellow writers, Pierre Berton, Margaret Laurence and David Young.

In the years that followed, the group would struggle to fund its prizes, as well as their Writers' Union and a still nascent Chapter of PEN International, which advocates on behalf of persecuted writers. 

"We were strapped," Atwood said. 

The results was a series of inventive fundraisers, including the 1987 publication The Canlit Foodbook, which Atwood edited and illustrated. 

"We asked [writers] to send us their recipes … [but] unfortunately, a number of them couldn't actually cook. So Michael Ondaatje's recipe is for grapefruit," she said. "And Rick Salutin's was for toast." 

Published in 1987, the CanLit Foodbook includes a recipe for Margaret Laurence's cauliflower soup, Michael Ondaatje's preferred method for eating grapefruit and Farley Mowat's instructions on making 'creamed mice.' (CBC Digital Archives)

Another venture was a variety show called the Eclectic Typewriter Review, in which writers Rudy Wiebe and Andreas Schroeder performed Mennonite hymns, and literary critics Bill French, Doug Marshall and Robert Fulford danced the cha-cha. 

Other schemes were more ill-fated, she said, including an attempt at a Canadian version of Naked Came the Stranger, a "soft porn" novel written by a group of U.S. writers to poke fun at the literary culture of the '60s.

"The catch was that none of our writers were any good at it," Atwood said. 

An enduring challenge 

Over the decades, Atwood said, Gibson remained a driving force. 

When he was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for Lifetime Contribution to Literature in Canada, he used his speech to lambaste those he felt stood in the way of Canadian cultural expression. 

"Our mass market book racks — those in cigar and convenience stores, drug stores and airports — offer pathetically few titles by Canadian authors," he said. "Virtually everywhere, the cultural expression of our community of dreams is in danger of being overwhelmed by, at best, the dreams of others and, at worst, overwhelmed by the commercial solution to some transnational company's marketing problems.

"Is it any wonder, then, that Canadians often have such great difficulties in seeing who they are?" 

Virtually everywhere, the cultural expression of our community of dreams is in danger of being overwhelmed.- Graeme Gibson

It's a problem Canadians have yet to adequately address, Atwood said. 

"Getting books by Canadian writers into the hands of readers is still a problem," she told Off, pointing to a persistent tendency to devalue the work of writers and other artists. 

"It's a job. You have to get up in the morning. You have to work on it. It's one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration." 

Still, Atwood said awards offered by organizations such as the Writers' Trust have made a huge difference. 

"I was an early winner of an award," she said. "I won the Governor General's award in 1967 when that was the only kind of award that you could win. And it wasn't very much money, but it was a lot of money to me at the time. It was $1,000."

It's the kind of boost Atwood says can be life-changing for writers — not just in terms of their bank accounts, but in terms of morale. Thankfully, she says it's changed the CanLit landscape too. 

"If you were talking to people in 1965, they would say either, 'Well, there is a Canadian writer, Stephen Leacock, that's the only one I've heard of.' Or they would say, 'If there are any, they're second rate.'" 

Now, she says, most people can name plenty. 

"I think things have really changed a lot," Atwood said. "But there's still a lot of confusion as to who should pay for [an author's] lunch." 

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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