Things I didn’t say to Margaret Atwood

I’m in a queue. It’s a long queue, but a relaxed one. I’ve bumped into some old school friends, and we’re catching up. A kindly lady is handing out cake from Betty’s. I can’t really concentrate on any of this, though, because Margaret Atwood is at the front of said queue.

I never thought I would get a chance to meet this amazing woman, given that she lives 3400 miles away and seems a bit too busy to pop round for a cup of tea. But miraculously, she squeezes Ilkley Literature Festival into her timetable; miraculously, we get two of the gold dust tickets; miraculously, I don’t have to work.

As I get closer to the front of the queue, I find my hands shaking and my mouth becoming dry. Silly, really, because she’s just a person. Just a dazzlingly intelligent, slyly witty, fearlessly whole person.

In just a few sentences, how could I ever get across the impact that she has had on me?

How could I explain how I felt as a rather sheltered 17 year old catapulted into the vivid, seedy, unfamiliar world of Oryx and Crake?

How to help her see the 8 year old who read a children’s version of the Odyssey again and again, and wondered about careful, clever Penelope? And then the 19 year old discovering The Penelopiad in Borders on a drizzly Saturday, and feeling like it was written just for her?

The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I felt broken. The first time I read Alias Grace, I read it right through the night and into a grey dawn. The first time I read Cat’s Eye, I started to untangle a decade’s worth of feelings about my teenage self. Could Margaret Atwood understand that? Was Margaret Atwood too close to Margaret Atwood’s work and too far from me to understand how intimately, how perfectly, how individually I related to her writing?

As a nervously feminist young woman, Atwood’s writing would alternatively nudge me down my path and call me, fiercely, from my hiding places. It pushed me and pulled me and nurtured me and challenged me.

And now here she is, not looking at me but at my well thumbed books, looking quite harried, actually, with a glint in her eye, and all the words are dying in my throat. We pose for a picture and she looks archly down the lens while I sport an expression my mum will later describe as the same one I used to wear when I realised Santa had been.

Too soon, it’s all over. All I’ve said is a hurried ‘thank you’. She has signed my books with the same message she wrote in everyone else’s books, and she has let me stand next to her despite the evident obsession in my eyes, and she still doesn’t know that she shaped the person I am today.

But, to my immense surprise, that feels okay. It was enough. It was wonderful. I’m happy.

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Filed under Books

30 responses to “Things I didn’t say to Margaret Atwood

  1. Lovely! I can feel your excitement here. Thank you isn’t very original but prob the right thing to say.

  2. Haha! This is exactly how I fear I would act if I ever get the chance to meet my favorite author, Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket. Though hopefully, it’d be enough for me too. : )

  3. What an exciting experience, Isobel. There Is something magical about being in the presence of giants-in-heart-and-prose. You may not have made an impression on her, as I likely didn’t when I met my novelist crush, but the fact that they have left an impression on us is Sacred. We know that. We do.

    Lovely writing,

  4. Wow. Weirdness! I had pretty much the same reaction in August, I think I even got the same autograph, but different book. I’m glad we both got the chance to meet her!

  5. Don’t berate yourself or lessen the experience! She has had a much bigger effect on you up to this point than you have had on her–and that’s not a bad thing. The perspective from the other side: often they don’t know what to say to you, but they’re VERY glad you’re supportive of their work. 🙂

  6. Thanks for blogging about Margaret Atwood. Did you know that Atwood has won more than 55 awards in Canada and internationally! That is wonderful!

  7. I just discovered your blog, happily landing on your Margaret Atwood post. I’m never at a loss for words, but I imagine I would be speechless in front of her. I like your description of how you felt after reading Handmaid’s Tale–I can identify with feeling broken after reading it too. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Congrats on the FP! Atwood is one of my inspirations, too. She is a remarkable writer, for sure. I saw her do a dramatic narration of her latest book, with others playing parts in the play and a full chorus as well. Amazing. Afterwards when I saw that the line was clearly several hours long and they told us we would not be allowed to take pictures with her or speak with her, signings only, I decided not to stand in the line. Sounds as if you had a much better experience. Fun!

  9. yes it happens when you have so much to say but have so less time, whole time goes thinking how best we can utilize this and most of the time it just 3 -4 words like “Thank you” “I love you ” etc. but i think if you say even these words it’s more than enough for us and for them also.
    enjoy book 🙂

  10. I was at an author book signing recently and mumbled something indistinct to him!… definitely know how you feel! Margaret Atwood is an incredible story teller! Go you! 🙂

  11. I met Margaret Atwood years ago when I was a high school student and somehow, by some twist of fate, she agreed to let me and a friend interview her for our school newspaper. She was charming and delightful and put us both (very nervous) at ease, asking us more questions about ourselves than we did her! It’s only now as an adult and a writer I realise what a profound and wonderful experience it was – she really is an extraordinary person. Oh, and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! xx

  12. Very nicely written. Thanks for capturing this and sharing it. Who’d have thought Margaret Atwood would be in Ilkley?

  13. Congratulations on meeting her and not fainting. And on being freshly pressed

  14. puddlesofinkk

    Loved reading this! I would have been the same in your position 🙂

  15. I’m also a huge fan of Margaret Atwood! I listened to an interview NPR had with her about a week ago and she has this amazing way of stating very obvious things that people often overlook in the most casual of manners:

    “When you write a work of fiction, people ask you if the characters are based on real-life people, but when you write an autobiography, people suspect you of lying.”

    You have a great writing style! I really enjoyed this post.

  16. Sarah H

    Your post reminded me of when me and my friend went to see her speak in Bilbao! She looked really tired so we just hung back and basked in her presence. 🙂

  17. Can totally relate to your reaction to ‘Cat’s Eye’!

  18. Pingback: National Writing Day | DeReamer

  19. I share your feelings. I give Cat’s Eye to young women as gifts and read Alias Grace twice. I find her readings captivating. There is something about Margaret!

  20. Reblogged this on Mrs. Gately's AP Literature and Composition and commented:
    What would you say to her, if given the chance?

  21. I’ve LOVED Margaret Atwood since I was a teenager too. She’s one of the authors whose books I could not give away. Lovely blog too.

  22. I met her once, a long time ago. It was for the release of Oryx and Crake. She read and answered questions (including mine!). She signed books. Amazingly, I found out I was sitting next to her first cousin, who drove me home after (!). She signed books for her aunt (the cousin’s mom) and it was like “Sorry I couldn’t pop ’round for dinner. I will next time. Love, Peggy” I loved that! Meeting Margaret Atwood that evening changed my life. She taught me that things only happen if we push hard enough. That we need to fit things into the spaces. Life doesn’t stop around us and GIVE us time – we have to MAKE time. And – yes! -Cat’s Eye remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. I loved Alias Grace as well. ANd Oryx and Crake still makes me shake my head, she is so prophetic and witty! I can understand feeling gobsmacked by her. She’s a powerful little package.

  23. J R

    How interesting. When I was 18, our first year English class was assigned “Surfacing.” Margaret was coming to speak at our college. We all read it, crinkled our brows, and tilted our heads when she talked. She was wild with wit and tired with travel. She humored our questions, but it was clear she was still as evolving into her writer’s identity as much as we were evolving into literary students. Years later, I read “Handmaid’s Tale” and thought my how much we had changed — her or me? Now, I enjoy following her on Twitter. So interesting to read the effect she has had.

  24. I think it was Nevil Shute who said something along the lines of, “To want to meet the author because you like his book is to want to meet the goose because you liked his liver.” I have also been very deeply impacted by authors (or at least, by their books), and would love a chance to sit with them to discuss their works.

    Interestingly, I have a friend who had precisely that opportunity. The author agreed to do a reading at her home. She left the encounter disappointed, after discovering that the writer was self-centered and not very likable. Unfortunately, it ruined the books for her that she’d enjoyed.

    I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is the case with Margaret Atwood. Perhaps it says more to what we, as readers, are able to do in our minds to build up the writers of the books we love so much.

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