Go to breakfast with Margaret Atwood, and forget she is a novelist. Imagine her to be a scholar of 19th-century English literature, or medieval art, or the emergence of print culture. Imagine her as an environmentalist, a women’s rights activist, a Twitter maven, a world traveler.
Regardless which of these she is or is not — and she is, in some capacity, all of them — Margaret Atwood loves to tell a story.
Meet her at the Athenaeum Hotel at 8 a.m. and she will need coffee. She takes her coffee with cream. Before she has even finished stirring in the cream, she will tell you a story about Chautauqua Institution with the authority of an archivist. As it turns out, during her stay at the Institution, she made an inquiry to the Oliver Archives Center. The subject of her request is Canadian legend Pauline Johnson, a half-Mohawk poet and performer who traveled on a Chautauqua circuit tour in 1907. (There is no conclusive evidence that Johnson ever visited Chautauqua Institution’s grounds, however.)
“I understand [Chautauqua] as partly historical,” Atwood says, “part of the whole movement — which you can read about in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James — of bringing culture to the United States. You might even say it’s the precursor to Disneyland, if you really want to stretch it. Disneyland with a brain.”
She leans toward you, tilts her head and grins, giving you a devilish look that almost says she is withholding another joke. A moment later she is staring across the room, coffee cup resting between her hands, expounding the trajectory of the modern-day book tour as if she were rattling items off a grocery list.
It began with the coffeehouse movement in the ’60s, she says. The ’70s saw the rise of readings in bookstores, which then eventually progressed to literary festivals. Chautauqua, she believes, is a precursor to these contemporary festivals. In 1961, Atwood did her first reading in a coffee shop, where she read her “quite terrible poetry, at that point in time.”
Remember that she is also a poet. Atwood has published more than 15 books of poetry, in addition to her prize-winning novels (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin), and foundational works of criticism (Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature).
Act unfazed when she transitions seamlessly from discussing the genealogy of the book tour to Twitter’s role in the literary world.
“People make a big fuss about these things when they first appear,” she says. “But, again, they don’t do anything that isn’t already on our human smorgasbord. We like to communicate, we like to communicate rapidly under certain circumstances. And before there was Twitter, it was smoke signals and drums, and then there was the age of the telegraph.”
The popularity of the telegraph did not force people to start speaking “telegraphese,” she says. The telegraph, like the tweet, was a form for people to play with; people are tweeting short stories, even entire novels. In her musing, Atwood stumbles upon what could be a possible definition of Twitter: partly a telegram, partly a party.
“At a party, you would not say, ‘Buy my book, it’s right here, I want you to give me $27 for it,’ ” Atwood says. “What should happen on Twitter is gossip, such as” — she nods over her shoulder to a woman sitting at a nearby table — “that girl over there over in the pink outfit has written a great novel. I’ve read it; you should.”
Notice Atwood’s outfit for the first time. She wears a red scarf draped like a shawl, a plain black button-down shirt, black jeans, sandals and pearl earrings. Observe an unusual silver ring on her ring finger as she touches the tabletop, gesturing as she makes the argument that as long as the Internet requires people to read and to talk to one another, it will push literacy, rather than — as many people fear — kill it.
She muses that Twitter is new, but all newness is relative; writing is relatively new, when compared to language. Watching what comes naturally to 4-year-olds, she says, can distinguish the new from the old. Language comes naturally — they soak it up — but writing must be rudimentarily instructed.
“There’s this otherwise meaningless mark on the page, but we’ve all learned what it means,” she says, still gesturing with her fingertips on the tabletop. “If it’s Chinese, it’s a word and an image and a thing. If it’s us, it’s a sound, because we have a phonetic language.”
“But then we put the sounds together, and those black marks all together on the page say — ” she pauses, her fingers reaching the corner of the table. “It might say, ‘I need breakfast.’ ”
Watch as, without another word, she bolts to her feet and hurries over to the buffet table. She returns with a small bowl of dates and cereal, balanced on a plate with a helping of scrambled eggs and a single sausage link. Shaking salt into her open palm, she pinches it between her fingers and sprinkles it measuredly over her eggs.
Recall an early poem of hers, “You Begin,” in which she writes: “The word hand anchors/ your hand to this table,/ your hand is a warm stone/ I hold between two words.”
Listen as she divulges her thoughts on early print culture, how in the beginning, publishers and printers and booksellers were all the same person. Consequently, the booksellers would be the ones on the chopping block for printing and publishing banned books such as, at one time, an English translation of the Bible. The topic of censorship is not something she shies away from in her fiction.
“Our character in The Handmaid’s Tale is not allowed access to printed materials,” she says, “and television is all religious. … You can’t see what’s going on beyond your own immediate experience much at all.”
Picking through her cereal, she says she is sorry she was right about The Handmaid’s Tale, her dystopian novel in which women’s reproductive rights are revoked by the government. Although, she stops to point out that she does not think the outfits — the red habit-like robes the characters must wear in the novel — will become a reality.
“But I didn’t put anything into [The Handmaid’s Tale] that human beings hadn’t done at some time in some place,” she says, returning to her food.
On the topic of women’s rights, Atwood admits that she did not so much struggle to succeed as an author because she is a woman as she did because she is Canadian. She fastidiously cuts her sausage with a fork and knife.
“These things are all generalizations,” she says. “Every person has a number of different hashtags that you can put on them. You could say their age, you could say their nationality, you could say their socioeconomic level, you could say their location, you could say their height, you could say their gender.”
Pick apart the layers of an untouched croissant as she moves to sip her water, which she does as effortlessly as she pulls apart the issue of categorizing women writers.
“You can sort people this way,” she says, “but you don’t have an individual unless you take into account all of those things, plus whatever is specific just to them.”
Leave the hotel and tell her where you are from, and suddenly think of it for the first time as a hashtag. Realize that she somehow makes everything — even Twitter hashtags — seem like revelations.
She departs down the hill toward the lake to the next item on her schedule, a radio interview, another opportunity to shake someone’s hand and tell them stories. Wave goodbye as she disappears out of view.