I met Margaret Atwood last night. She did a reading from her new story collection, Stone Mattress, and an on-stage interview with fellow Canadian author Merilyn Simonds. Atwood was stellar. I’ve got to admit, I had heard she was arrogant in person, but my impression was one of confidence (and rightfully so, considering what a literary giant she has become), humour, and sass. She kept us all laughing with her witty remarks and pointed observations. I loved her!
I sat in the audience wracking my brain for the first Atwood book I ever read. There have been a lot over the years, especially having done a degree in English literature from University of Toronto, where local Atwood is much beloved. I remembered suddenly when I saw it in the hands of a girl behind me in the book-signing line. It was an old yellowed paperback, “Wilderness Tips,” that I found on my mother’s bookshelf when I was about 10 or 11 years old.
In retrospect, I should not have been reading the book at that age, which is likely why my mother confiscated it soon afterward… but not soon enough. Images from those short stories were permanently seared into my mind.
There was the older female camp counselor who seduces a younger boy behind a bush. Also, the woman who has an affair with a married man, only to have an ovarian cyst that gets pickled in formaldehyde on her mantel, nicknamed Furball. The mistress describes her lover’s wife as someone who has probably sex with rubber gloves on, checking it off her list of unpleasant household chores. That description made a big impression on my highly impressionable mind. I have never looked at rubber gloves in the same way again.
It was the first adult book I’d ever read. Needless to say, I learned a lot. Since then, I’ve gotten lost in many of her famous stories. I read The Blind Assassin in the hot mid-summer of 2009, beached like a whale on my bed, waiting for my first child to be born. Alias Grace accompanied us on our honeymoon the following year; I finished it on the plane home from Costa Rica. The Robber Bride I read while living alone in a Toronto apartment, and the main character was so disturbing that it made me highly jumpy for days. For Surfacing, I was newly pregnant and highly nauseous with my second child, commuting back and forth to U of T for my final year, taking a fourth-year Can Lit seminar that I loved. The Handmaid’s Tale I listened to on CD while driving.
To put a face to all those works of literary art was truly special. I want to make more effort to attend readings and workshops, to immerse myself more in that world that I dream of being a part of someday. In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing, which is precisely what Atwood told all of us aspirational writers to do last night.
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