Saturday, September 15, 2012

Margaret Atwood

I surprised myself at Margaret Atwood's Q&A when I asked her if she's read "Fifty Shades of Grey." Her response: "I don't have to." She explained that books of this type come around periodically. "This is what we call a "shop and f&ck" book. Men also enjoy them, but have trouble with the first part."

Atwood's work is gloomy, but she's funny.

I ended up with an invitation to the dinner that preceded her reading at Butler, and I buzzed with adrenalin. When Atwood, a petite woman in her mid-seventies, entered the room of students and professors, most of us kept at a polite distance. Literary royalty. At a certain point I took a deep breath, sat down in a space next to her that had just been vacated, and found myself making small talk.

With Margaret Atwood.

I asked her if her busy touring schedule interfered with her writing, and she said, "When I travel I'm away from things in my life that interfere with writing." She takes advantage of time spent on planes and in hotel rooms to write, and makes a point of letting her "people" know she doesn't know how to answer her cellphone. (She must be playing with them. Her books have cautionary tales about the dangers of technology, but she doesn't strike me as someone intimidated by it. In fact, she's an active tweeter.) I told her how surprised I was to find that on the audiobook of "The Year of the Flood," the hymns are performed -- with instrumental accompaniment. She told me her agent's partner, Orville, plays with a band, and when he read the manuscript, he took it upon himself to set her lyrics to music. On the recording he and his band performed these pieces.

After the dinner, Atwood spoke at Clowes Hall, and by the way, if you think people aren't reading anymore, you should have seen the crowd. Atwood spoke on the question of whether or not we can we write the future. Her first point: The future doesn't exist, so it's up for grabs. No one can fact check it! She gave us examples of the wild and disparate ways the future has been imagined, from Hollywood's "Men in Black," which she watched on the plane, to Potatomancy, a practice which uses spuds as divining objects. Atwood deadpanned that there could be cults founded by Frito-Lay.

Atwood spoke about how we humans are hard-wired for storytelling, and that language is structured to delineate time.

Both at her talk and at her Q&A, Atwood spoke about her environmental concerns. These issues are engine that drives Atwood's MaddAdam Trilogy. ("Oryx and Crake" and "The Year of the Flood" are the first two installments.) No surprise, Atwood's done her homework. Twice she mentioned that during the Vietnam War we could have easily decimated our planet. The U.S. shipped vast quantities of Agent Orange across the ocean, and if any of those ships had spilled, the blue-green algae, which produce a large percent of our oxygen, would have been destroyed.

But despite these Cassandra-like stories, Atwood's managed to hold on to her sense of humor. And unlike many of the writers who came to Butler last semester, she didn't keep her fans at arm's length-- she was accessible and forthcoming. When she obliged and posed with us for pictures, she exuded a quality I can best describe as regal. She glowed.

Atwood's work is rife with doomsday warnings, but in her lecture she also spoke of hope. She said her wish for us to have hope, and when someone asked her what she wishes we hope for, she answered, "More hope."

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Orxy and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Some people have a hard time saying no to chocolate chip cookies. Me? I'll eat those cookies every time, but my willpower really pales when faced with having to choose from the list of Butler's creative writing courses. So much great learning! So little time! This fall, the nonfiction workshop taught by a visiting prof from DePauw was a no-brainer, but there were two other courses, just as delicious. I just couldn't say no. In the spirit of compromise, instead of registering for those two additional courses, I decided to audit. Still, I'm not in this game for the grade. I'm in it to learn, so I've got to put in the work. The semester's still green, and I'm running fast, trying to settle in, and figure out the classes' rhythms.

This morning I sat down to read stories assigned to me by the editors at Booth, the literary magazine at Butler. Reading takes time, especially for a slowpoke like me. (Undiagnosed learning disability? I often wonder.) As I tucked into the first story I thought about all the other reading I needed to do and the muscles in my scalp tightened. Reading for Booth is yet another great way to learn, but it takes so much time. I must admit I haven't had the sunniest attitude about my Booth-reading responsibilities as of late. But get this: If you were to have walked by my spot in the coffee shop when I was halfway through, you'd have seen me grinning. The stories were that good. (And even when a story wasn't Booth-worthy, I knew I'd learned from it. Reading carefully, trying to discern what works and what doesn't, will do that.) Stories can be magical. They can transform, surprise, and teach a whole new way to be in the world, and that's no small thing.

I read Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" for one of the courses I'm auditing. To tell you the truth, I doubt I would have ever picked up Atwood if it wasn't required reading. I like fiction. Sometimes. But most of the time I put more stock in nonfiction. Most of the time, my take is that real life -- so compelling, confusing and confounding -- renders fiction unnecessary. When I picked up "Oryx and Crake," it wasn't long before I was quickly sucked into the story. I'd forgotten the power fiction has to surprise and captivate.

Atwood calls her work "speculative fiction," (as opposed to science fiction), in that she doesn't employ fantastical story elements. No space ships teeming with Martians. Atwood's tales are about the dystopian, future worlds that could come about when a society is overly-stressed. In "Oryx and Crake," Jimmy survives an apocalypse, the earth battered and depleted, his only company a bunch of genetically modified humanoid creatures -- Crakers. The Crakers look to Jimmy as a god, and as Atwood shows us the these strange Crakers, she deftly shifts back and forth, using flashback to tell us how humankind, and Jimmy, came to this perilous and desperate point.

Atwood tells a great story, but there's more. Her stories carry weight. (Psychic weight, if you will, a term I just learned at a Booth meeting.) Atwood's got something to say that's deeper than the storyline. It always fascinates me to discover what captures an author's imagination. Atwood is fascinated at how delicate civilization is, how fast society can disintegrate, and how little it would take for us to give up our freedoms.

There is so much to learn. How lucky are we that Atwood, a Big Question kind of author, will be speaking tomorrow here at Butler. Scan the crowd and look for me -- I'll be the one scribbling notes, listening closely, doing my best to learn, a big grin on my face.