The Walrus|December 2019
But in September, The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was released, and she became something else entirely: a worldwide cultural phenomenon. The novel, set in a not-so-distant United States where fundamentalist fascists have gained power and stripped away women’s rights, sold more than 300,000 copies across the US, the UK, and Canada within the first two weeks alone. Atwood appeared on cover after cover leading up to the launch — Time, The Sunday Times Style — and her release-day interview, onstage at London’s National Theatre, was broadcast to 1,000 cinemas around the world. Before The Testaments hit stores, it had already been nominated for both the Giller and Booker prizes (it made the longlist for the former and would go on to win the latter), and a television show — building on the wildly popular series The Handmaid’s Tale — had been announced.
It’s remarkable that Atwood, who turned eighty in November, has reached this crest after spending six decades writing into an ever shifting cultural landscape. When she was starting out, writers, for the most part, didn’t get published in Canada. Canadian literature as a concept didn’t even exist. To understand how Atwood grew into the literary celebrity she is today, we reached out to some of the writers, publishers, and friends who know her, and her words, best.
Charles Pachter: They called her “Peggy Nature,” and she looked like a young Jane Goodall. She had a little kerchief and was wearing rubber boots and sensible jungle wear. We were working at Camp White Pine. I was sixteen; she was eighteen going on nineteen. She had what was called a nature hut, full of toads and newts and snakes. The kids were sitting, squirming, at her feet, and she sort of motioned me over and said, “I want you to stroke a toad to prove to the kids that you won’t get warts.” We were friends from that day on.
Adrienne Clarkson: It was 1958, a Sunday afternoon. I remember it very clearly because I often spent Sunday afternoons in the library of St. Hilda’s College, where I was in residence, at the University of Toronto. A group of us were gathered there for the first time. We all seemed to have been wearing black turtlenecks, unduly influenced by Jack Kerouac. That was when I first met Margaret Atwood.
Rosemary Sullivan: At Victoria College, she became a friend of Northrop Frye and the wonderful poet Jay Macpherson. She started reading Grimms’ fairy tales in the bush when she was six, and then, later, she was reading mythology. You can see the slow accumulation of this intelligence.
Adrienne Clarkson: I think she was already publishing in all kinds of little magazines — everybody got published in little magazines then. What I remember from that first day is that she read a poem. I don’t remember what poem it was, but she read it in her inimitable voice. It was a true poem.
Charles Pachter: We were constantly writing to each other. So many letters — over 300. These were the days of those little Olivetti typewriters. She was interested in me as an artist, and whatever misgivings I had, whatever was on my mind, I would write to her because she always had an answer. I remember when a high-school teacher gave me a D-minus in art, and she said, “Never mind, someday you’ll be writing God’s murals in the sky and she’ll be roasting in hell.”
Adrienne Clarkson: None of us, at that time, aspired to the heady heights of being world-famous writers. We thought that if we just got our writing down and somebody could publish it, that would be enough.
In those early days, Atwood set her mind to poetry. In 1961, while still a student, she published her first collection, Double Persephone. Only 220 copies were made. Three years later, she released The Circle Game. The volume began as a collaboration with Charles Pachter, who created fifteen handmade books as part of a university assignment. When it received a wider release, in 1966, it won her the Governor General’s Literary Award. Atwood was twenty-seven at the time, making her the youngest winner in the prize’s history.
Eleanor Wachtel: I was an undergraduate at McGill University and a book review editor at the McGill Daily when The Circle Game arrived. This was in the late sixties, and Atwood was one of the first Canadian poets — one of the first living poets — I had occasion to encounter. I remember the first poem in the book, “This Is a Photograph of Me.” It’s an evocative image of the poet or an alter ego disappearing into the landscape, drowned in a lake, but has this line at the end: “but if you look long enough, / eventually / you will be able to see me.” I just fell in love with the book and with her. To my surprise, Atwood was teaching at the other English university in Montreal, now known as Concordia, and so I called her up and we met at a small Greek restaurant on Parc Avenue. She was the very first interview I ever did. We drank cups of tea, she talked about writing poetry. And then she became famous.
Adrienne Clarkson: I always love it when she puts out a volume of poems. It’s as if something just happened.
Charles Pachter: I truly believe that her poetry will be her most enduring legacy. I’ve read through her more dystopian novels, but I don’t remember them the way I remember the poetry. When she sent me the manuscript for The Journals of Susanna Moodie, I was so floored by its beauty. She’d read the original Susanna Moodie book, Roughing It in the Bush, which is a quite florid, very Jane Austen–like account of a nineteenth-century British settler in Upper Canada, and she condensed each chapter into a poem. For example, her describing the cholera epidemic:
After we had crossed the long illness that was the ocean, we sailed up-river
On the first island the immigrants threw off their clothes and danced like sandflies
We left behind one by one the cities rotting with cholera, one by one our civilized distinctions
and entered a large darkness.
Eleanor Wachtel: Some people argue that they like her poetry more than her fiction, but you don’t have to choose. You can have it all.
Between finishing graduate school at Harvard and teaching in Montreal and Vancouver, Atwood worked on her first novel. The Edible Woman, released in 1969, tells the story of Marian, a young woman, newly engaged, who gradually loses her ability to eat. The book satirizes the consumerism and stifling gender roles of the sixties, anticipating the feminist movement that grew in the following decade. This kind of cultural foresight would continue throughout Atwood’s work. Three years later, she published Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. It was one of the first attempts to categorize the country’s nascent literary scene, and it set Canadian writing apart from that of the rest of the world. Survival soon became a staple in English-literature courses across the country.
Sarah Mac Lachlan: One pivotal moment in the history of House of Anansi, and in her development as a writer, was when Dennis Lee, the press’s cofounder, spoke with her about writing Survival. There had never been a book of literary criticism about Canadian writers, and for whatever insane reason, he thought it would be a big seller.
Donna Bailey Nurse: Of course, we all take it for granted now, but for a long time, there was no such thing as “ Canadian literature.” With Survival, she begins to think about the themes that preoccupy Canadian writers: feeling alien in a wild landscape, feeling powerless. She riffs on that to think about how they feel powerless next door to the US and how they feel powerless as a colonial country.
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