From backwoods bacon to Half-Hanged Mary, 13 things we learned about Margaret Atwood
In her special 80th birthday q interview, Atwood also remembers the very moment she decided to be a writer
Originally published on November 18, 2019
Today, revered Canadian author Margaret Atwood is celebrating her 80th birthday.
Over the course of her 60-year career, Atwood has published a staggering 17 books of poetry, 16 novels, 10 non-fiction books, eight collections of short fiction, eight children's books, one graphic novel and other titles.
Her recent book The Testaments won the Man Booker Prize and has become one of the best-selling Canadian books in history.
The hit TV adaptation of her novel The Handmaid's Tale has also been renewed for a fourth season.
To mark her 80th birthday, q host Tom Power sat down for a feature interview with Atwood, and talked about everything from her childhood backwoods adventures to the very moment she decided to become a writer — and her ancestor named Half-Hanged Mary.
You can watch the interview above. Here are 13 things we learned along the way.
She was given a rare honour by Queen Elizabeth
Last month, Margaret Atwood was given a rare honour by Queen Elizabeth: she was named a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for her services to literature, and she met the queen — a figure who ascended to the throne when Atwood was in her early teens.
"We go back further than that, because I remember her during the war as a teenaged person," says Atwood. "She and her family and Princess Margaret did not go to another country. They stuck it out. And I think she was a truck driver at that point. She is 93 years of history, right there in front of you. And only a baker's dozen years older than me."
She has an ancestor named Half-Hanged Mary
Atwood has an ancestor from Massachusetts who, well before the Salem witch trials began, was accused of witchcraft, taken to Boston and put on trial. She was acquitted, but evidently the locals didn't accept the verdict.
"So they strung her up anyway," says Atwood. "It was before they had invented the drop, which breaks your neck. So they just kind of hauled her up like a flag and left her up there all night, came in the morning to cut down the corpse, and she was still alive. So if they thought she had supernatural powers before this event, they must really have thought it afterwards. And that's what we know about her."
So what exactly was Half-Hanged Mary accused of doing? "She was accused of making an old man extremely valitudinarious — older than he ought to have been," says Atwood. "Frankly, it sounds as if he was having some hallucinations — and since one of them was of her, it was kind of fatal. It was very bad to have someone have a hallucination about you."
Her parents had deep East Coast roots
Both Atwood's mother and father were from Nova Scotia, and the bestselling author remembers traveling east for regular visits after the Second World War ended. Her father was from a remote spot named Upper Clyde, which Atwood describes as "a bump on the map."
"That's where he was born in 1906. He used to play fiddle for the Saturday night dances as a teenager," she says. So did he play fiddle with Atwood when she was little?
"No, he gave it up completely. My uncle played the banjo. He played the fiddle. My uncle kept it up. My dad became too educated," she explains. "I think what happened to him was he went to a symphony orchestra and that was the end of him."
As a child she spent a lot of time in the woods with no electricity
Atwood's father was an entomologist, and as a child, Atwood spent a lot of time in remote locales with no electricity. "It allows me to write a novel like Alias Grace without a lot of research," she quips, "because I saw it in action."
So what does she most remember from those early days? "Your feet got very cold because you would outgrow your shoes. And then you wouldn't have any," she says, before explaining one of her primary chores.
"A lot of carrying in the wood. Because of course, any heating and cooking is going to come from wood. So kids were enlisted quite early to do chores and that was nothing new, because my parents had both done the same."
Those backwoods experiences may have turned her into a writer
Atwood points out that there is no duplicate Margaret Atwood who was brought up a different way, so she can't say for sure whether those backwoods experiences inspired her to become a writer, but she says they likely played a part.
"Reading, writing and drawing, a lot of that went on because there weren't any other... I didn't have an iPad, Tom. There weren't any," she jokes. "And of course since it was in the woods there was no cinema, no movies, no radio."
Her first novel, Annie The Ant, was problematic
Atwood wrote her debut novel, Annie The Ant, when she was seven years old — and despite the fact that she was well-versed in the habits of ants, and the novel even came with graphics, she says it was a poor example of a narrative arc.
"We did have an illustrated Annie the Ant. We have a picture of Annie herself once she got legs," says Atwood. "The problem with the plot is three quarters of it she does nothing, because she's an egg. Then she's a larva. Then she's a pupa. And until that's over with, nothing happens Tom. There are no murders, nothing, no combat."
She remembers the very moment she decided to be a writer
Most authors know what inspired them to be writers, but Atwood can remember the exact moment when her decision was made.
Women at that time had to choose between five options: nurse, secretary, schoolteacher, airline stewardess (as they were called at the time) and home economist.
But one day, Atwood was walking across a football field when, as she once wrote, "a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on top of my head."
"I was wearing my pink princess line dress that I had sewed myself in Home Ec," says Atwood. "And at that very moment I thought, goodbye pink dress, it's going to be black from now on."
Northrop Frye stopped her from "dying young and poor in a Paris garret"
Atwood says that, once she decided to be a writer, she planned to run away to Paris, smoke Gitanes (which wasn't possible because they made her cough), drink absinthe and "write my deathless masterpieces in the evenings, wait tables during the day, and get TB and cough to death by the age of 30, as one did."
Explains Atwood dryly, "It was sort of the John Keats crossed with Katherine Mansfield type of thing."
But then influential Canadian author and literary critic Northrop Frye offered Atwood a Woodrow Wilson scholarship to go to graduate school.
"I said, 'No, I think I'm going to go to Paris.' And he said, 'I think you would get more writing done if you went to graduate school.' And you know, he was right."
She has a copy of an extremely rare book by Marshall McLuhan
Over the years Atwood has rubbed elbows with nearly every major literary figure in Canada, among them groundbreaking media theorist Marshall McLuhan. His first book, she explains, was The Mechanical Bride, in which he analyzed advertisements from the late 1940s from a Joycean perspective.
"So he has these very funny analyses of the ads, which were in those days much more literary and a lot more Freudian than they are even now. Some of the people whose ads he had taken, such as Procter and Gamble, took exception to this and he hadn't obtained the copyright, so the book had to be pulled," she remembers.
"But we all knew that he had stacks of it in his cellar. So you would go to Marshall McLuhan's house and you got a black market copy of The Mechanical Bride out the back window," she says. "And I've got one."
You know, there's no point in not being hopeful. I don't necessarily think that they're looking up, but I don't think they're inevitably looking down.- Margaret Atwood
When she won her first Governor General's award, she cried and cried — but not tears of joy
Atwood was just 27 years old when she won her first Governor General's Award, and she confesses that her main problem at that moment was finding something to wear. "I didn't have any of those kinds of clothes," she says. So she borrowed a dress from one of her roommates; she also bought her first set of contact lenses.
"But they were the hard kind. So if you got a speck in your eye, it was very painful. And I had just started learning to wear them. I was only supposed to be wearing them a half an hour at a time," she remembers. Atwood got stuck in the ceremony, which went long, and didn't know how to take the contacts out without a mirror.
"So I end up at this dinner and by this time, I'm weeping. And the nice gentlemen on either side of me thought that I was overcome by emotions," she remembers with a laugh. "And they start drying my tears and patting me and telling me it will be all right."
People who read her books in school are surprised to find she is alive
When asked how she feels about her books being required reading in some schools, Atwood says one of the main results is that the students are always surprised when they find out she's still alive.
But some of those students' early experiences with her works have turned into careers.
"The showrunner of The Handmaid's Tale, his name is Bruce Miller, got the book assigned in high school, where he read it," says Atwood. "And at that time when he was an adolescent, he thought to himself, 'This is what I'm going to do when I grow up. I'm going to make this into a TV show.' And he did."
Atwood also says that a 17-year-old Sarah Polley contacted her wanting the rights to Alias Grace to adapt the novel for the screen — which she did in 2017.
In a quest for bacon, she and her late partner Graeme Gibson once terrified an elderly couple
Earlier this year, Atwood's longtime partner Graeme Gibson died. The author, poet, and Writers' Trust of Canada founder was 85.
In their conversation, Power asks if she could share a memory of Gibson, and she recounts the pair's first canoe trip along Lake Temagami.
"We were in a pretty unfrequented part of it and we had used up all our bacon. And we found this great big stash of puff balls, but we didn't have anything to cook them in, so we paddle around until we found a lone cabin," remembers Atwood.
"It had a flag flying, so there were people home. So covered with soot and with our hunting knives in full view, we went up to the door and knocked and we said, 'Would you happen to have a couple of pieces of bacon?' And I think we completely terrorized the elderly people living there. 'Oh yeah, just a minute, just a minute. Take the whole pound.'"
Her novels can be bleak, but Atwood is hopeful
Atwood is known for her dystopian novels — many of which are based on real historical events — but she remains hopeful.
"You know, there's no point in not being hopeful," she says. "I don't necessarily think that they're looking up, but I don't think they're inevitably looking down."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview with Margaret Atwood produced by Chris Trowbridge.
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