On Margaret Atwood, Flawed Characters, and Connection

This blog post was written by library patron Dana Bell, after the recent Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures visit from Margaret Atwood. Thanks for sharing your impressions, Dana!

At sixteen years old, most of my friends were spending afternoons draped over their beds singing with MTV’s Total Request Live while dreaming about Gavin Rossdale (I hear he is currently free again, although it be weird to drape yourself over a twin bed and dream about him while reading Tiger Beat). I would be lying if I said that that sort of activity hadn’t taken up a small portion of my time as well, but a far larger portion of my time was spent escaping my own personal dystopia by immersing myself in the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood.

This is something for which I have thanked my English teacher, Judith Totty, numerous times. You see, when I selected Ernest Hemingway for my end-of-semester author project, and she nicely but firmly denied my request, I was forced to select Margaret Atwood. She said to me, “Dana, I know you like classics but you need to read Margaret Atwood. I’ve already assigned her to you.” She couldn’t have predicted how life-shifting this author would be in my world.

bookcover (1)Margaret Atwood is a hero. She writes stories about real people. People who have been broken. People who have defined “resilience.” People who have faced pain and hurt and kept moving even though the situation is less than hopeful.

In writing real people, she captures what it means to be human and to have the human experience, because — let’s face it — humans are not “all good” or “all bad,” as she stated in her lecture on October 28, 2015 at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Lecture Hall, after someone in the audience expressed concern over HBO picking up Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy.

The questioner wanted to know how much creative control the author would have and stated that her major concern was that they would potentially make the character Jimmy (the protagonist of the first book in the series, Oryx and Crake) a “good guy” instead of a “bad guy.” Atwood contested that Jimmy was merely human and hadn’t the questioner ever “met someone like him in real life?”

While she shared in the concern of feminist undertones and meaning potentially being stripped from the story (something she admits she has little control over), she disagreed that her characters are definable as good or bad, saying “I have no interest in writing angels.” She even discussed how she’d had a young man read through Jimmy’s character to give her tips on his authenticity, of which the young man could only come up with two: the first being the semantics of how to use profanity, and the second being how to properly smoke a joint. Otherwise, the young man was curious as to how she had pinned him down so well.

One might wonder how Atwood knows us (fans, ordinary people, broken people, etc.) so well. Perhaps it is because she is so in tune with us and our world. She tweets regularly (with nearly a million followers), remains tied to environmental activism and is always aware of the most current political news; in fact, she is often tied to that political news bookcover(check out #hairgate on Twitter in conjunction with the article “Stephen Harper’s Hair Problem”).

And, as she highlighted on October 28, she spends a large portion of time researching. For her current novel The Heart Goes Last, she came back to research she did for Alias Grace (one of my favorite books) that involved the for-profit side of prisons.

Although all of that should give her substantial insight into the human condition, I myself know from studying anthropology that historical research is not nearly enough to hone in on the essential nature of a culture, nor the way we as humans respond to it, and neither is watching the news or discussing politics or ideals with people. Someone who truly wishes to understand people will collect so much more than the passing opinion. They will collect the motive, the connections, the psychology behind all that they do and encounter. They will absorb elements of a culture and turn those elements over in their head and think about the significant roles they play.

I think Margaret Atwood’s skill in character writing comes from her ability to listen and remain open and engaged in her research and in life, and in some ways she succeeds in forcing us to do the same. She is changing the world by placing her readers in the role of anthropologist. Her books are a catalyst for processing a number of feminist and ethical quandaries. By showing us realistic, albeit dismal, situations, we observe humans like ourselves facing actual issues, making logical mistakes and thinking sometimes disturbing thoughts. We are forced to witness and remain open for the entirety of the story (which we don’t often do in real life) and are often left with more questions when the final page is turned, which allows our wonderful brains to mull over the more philosophical questions raised.

I think it is her firm grasp on reality and human nature that draws so many of us in. The lecture on October 28 sold out in about six hours, and there was not a single empty seat in the lecture hall that evening. I told my mother that morning, when expressing that I was on day two of a migraine, that I would have to be in an ambulance to miss seeing and hearing Margaret Atwood speak. No one forces me to think quite as freely and deeply as she does, and it is refreshing.

It was also refreshing to be at an event with literally hundreds of people who feel as much admiration and appreciation for an author as I do. I was no longer the girl sitting on my bed reading, aware of how different I was from my peers. I was surrounded by people who are just like me and just as excited.

As my husband and I made our way to the signing line, I struck up several conversations with other admirers. There is something about talking to another person who reads what you have read that breaks the awkward barriers of being a stranger. We’ve walked to the Paradice Dome together, we’ve witnessed Offred’s longing for human touch, we’ve peeled apples with Grace Marks at midnight on Halloween and lived to tell the tale.

Conversation between nerds of the same fandom is truly a beautiful thing. Some of the people I spoke with stated that this was one of the most epic events that the library has hosted, and I have to agree. While I have been to past events, there is nothing like having a classic author in your city, at one of your most beautiful libraries, making you laugh and think and talk with strangers. It was beyond wonderful to hear Atwood read from her latest book but also to be connected with other people with similar interests I might otherwise have passed on the street without a word.

Collage of photos taken at the Margaret Atwood lecture and signing on 10/28/15, provided by Dana Bell.

Collage of photos taken at the Margaret Atwood lecture and signing on 10/28/15, provided by Dana Bell.

The signing line was fairly quiet, reverent even.  I watched as she quietly signed hundreds of books, interjecting wit here and there as people spoke to her, though many were rendered speechless. When I made it to the front of the line, I am pretty sure I was anything but articulate (I may have even said “Wow” or “Oh my god”), but she smiled and seemed to appreciate my sincere thank you and the small gift and card I sheepishly gave her. In her own open and understanding way, she allowed me to be my weird brand of human (in this moment a total fangirl, complete with loss of speech, something I am not used to). That night, I fell back into who I was at sixteen, draping over my now queen-sized bed and diving into The Heart Goes Last, very happy in the knowledge that this time, I would not be alone.

-Dana Bell

I want to say a very special thank you to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures for hosting this event. Meeting Margaret Atwood has been on my bucket list for a very long time, and it is because of these associations that I had the chance. I also want to thank Classic Lines Bookstore. I lost my copy of The Blind Assassin years and years ago and was so happy you had it for sale at the door.

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One response to “On Margaret Atwood, Flawed Characters, and Connection

  1. Pingback: November 2015 Recap | Eleventh Stack

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