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.