Canada’s literary rock star pays a visit to Montreal

Dark green lights illuminate the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of people cheer and applaud. 

“I’m sorry, this microphone must be broken,” a man in front of the audience exclaims. “I said we have Margaret Atwood here tonight!” The applause in response is deafening.

On Nov. 12, critically acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Margaret Atwood presented her latest novel at the St. James United Church. Organized by Librairie Paragraphe as part of its “Words After Dark” series, the event drew hundreds of people to one of Montreal’s biggest literary events of the year. The evening was a stop on Atwood’s book tour for The Testaments, the sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood sat in front of the altar, an ironic setting given the novel’s critique of  institutionalized religion. Yet, it was simultaneously fitting: The eager audience was hanging on every word of the literary sermon that Atwood delivered. The green lighting, chosen to match the front cover of Atwood’s new novel, was discernible, but soft enough that one could make out the bright red spectacles that she wore on a chain around her neck.

A self-described Atwood fan, radio journalist and host Ann Lagacé Dowson interviewed Atwood throughout the evening, beginning by inquiring about the decades in between publishing The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel. Atwood decided to return to the story by the recent rise in conservative and extremist politics.

“We’re in a pushback,” Atwood said. “I got to a point where I couldn’t keep my hands off [of] it. In 2016, just before the election, it was crying to be written.” 

Dowson began to point out the similarities between Atwood’s dystopian novels and the current political events around the world, before Atwood clarified the inspiration behind her novels. 

“Everything I wrote about actually happened sometime throughout history,” Atwood said. “I did that because otherwise people would say I made it all up. I didn’t.” 

In literary studies, Atwood is noted for having coined the term ‘speculative fiction’, a genre describing possible consequences of the horrific realities that society creates.

The conversation then shifted to a discussion on climate change and social justice. A long-time environmental advocate, Atwood noted connections between societal unrest and the environmental deterioration. She shared her personal experiences as an activist, and joked about social expectations of activist celebrities. 

“People are saying ‘If Jane Fonda can get arrested, why can’t you?’ to me,” Atwood chuckled, referencing the actress’s weekly protests and subsequent weekly arrests. 

Although the event was advertised as promoting The Testaments, the point of fascination and delight throughout the evening was not Margaret Atwood’s novel, but her demeanour. Throughout her conversation with Dowson, Atwood maintained a relaxed but formidable air of blunt and charming sarcasm. She did not allow Dowson to get away with any stray, misquoted line or not-entirely-correct fact. When Dowson referred to a speech that the writer gave to West Point cadets years ago, Atwood did not hesitate to show some playful attitude. 

“I had said that to more than just cadets, you know. They sat up straighter, too,” Atwood retorted. 

Each time that Atwood made a curt remark, the audience chattered amongst themselves, adoring the literary icon’s authenticity. At times, Dowson was left searching for words, unprepared for and surprised at Atwood’s unapologetic attitude. By the end of the evening, however, both Dowson and Atwood developed a bond in their occasionally off-rhythm conversation, smiling and holding hands as the audience cheered for them.

Librairie Paragraphe’s Words After Dark event left its audience satisfied, and with a new level of understanding of the world-famous writer. The Testaments’ author is not just a brilliant thinker and influential literary figure; Margaret Atwood is a contemporary icon and a celebrity, and she knows it.

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