Margaret Atwood: In Two Acts

“The Tempest within The Tempest within The Tempest” explained the perfectly poised Margaret Atwood as she stood in the centre of the cathedral, with eyes from all sides on her. She was, of course, speaking of her new novel Hag Seed – a retelling of Shakespeare’s last (solo) play.

Fanfiction at its finest.

With a loyal Canadian at my side, I took the train from Cambridge to Ely to see the great Margaret Atwood (discussing Chuck Palahniuk, The Wasteland, His Dark Materials, Neil Gaiman, and Patrick Melrose as the train rushed through the dark). As we strode the near empty streets I wondered aloud where the cathedral was, and if we’d make it on time.
It’s right in front of us (Addy replied) soon you’ll see it – black against the night, your eyes must be worse than mine.
And suddenly it appeared – the towering spires rising out of the gloom.

Stepping out of the cold night and into the cathedral our chatter suddenly turned to whispers. It’s strange to think that in a world that is constantly moving away from the church, the physical building still somehow demands a holy hush. We collected our copies (book porn at it’s finest!) of Hag Seed, shuffled to our seats and awaited the entrance of the Queen.

And a Queen she was, with her bright red glasses and husky voice. It was Margaret Atwood in two acts. The first was a walk through Hag Seed – she set the stage, presented the players, and read her favourite pages – culminating in a marvelous rap about Willy’s Tempest itself (no blunders to be heard!).

She removed her glasses for the second act, and invited the starstruck audience to ask away. It was her answers to these questions that made me think about what a phenomenal human being she is. She discussed the power writers have when they form a community to promote literacy in the world; how novels are always autobiographical in some way or another – but what is and what isn’t ‘real’ is no one’s business but her own; the app she’s into at the moment (reco) which allows her to create lists of books, one of which is a list featuring fantastic male feminist authors; and told of the hope that can be found at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale – we do not know what happened to the protagonist Offred, she fell out of history, as individuals are known to do, but the era she lived in has come to an end.

On that note, to roaring applause echoing through the arched stone of the cathedral, she took a bow. And although history sees Shakespeare’s The Tempest as his farewell play, I don’t think Atwood’s Hag Seed is goodbye just yet.


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