Margaret Atwood is lovely, witty, and wise. In her lecture at the Nashville Public Library, Atwood talked a lot about The Handmaid’s Tale, its writing and background. She wrote it in 1984 (the year I was born) while living in West Berlin and Tuskaloosa, Alabama. Seeing the totalitarian state close up in Berlin informed the writing significantly. She said that novel is not about a feminist or anti-feminist dystopia, but a dystopia told from a female perspective. Her point was that men suffer in that regime as well. While writing she was careful that all of the strange and oppressive things that happened in the novel were things that had happened at one point in history. And, she pointed out, if it happened before, it can happen again. She said that writing the book scared her, but she knew she had to keep writing it. To finish that part of her talk, Atwood read a section from The Handmaid’s Tale about the men’s bodies hanging on the wall as warnings to future traitors, saying it was the part of the book she wrote first.
Atwood concluded with a piece from her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, singing a hymn she wrote called “We Praise the Tiny Perfect Moles,” and explaining the unusual environmentalist religion people follow in that novel. One remark she made about religion that was particularly popular with the crowd was that she believes it’s a presumptuous heresy to say that you know what God wants. She would “look askance” at Richard Mourdock, I suppose. However, she does believe that religion and narrative are both hardwired into us as human beings, that we are evolved to depend on these two ways of making meaning. The next question then, is what kind of religion is it? What kind of narrative is it?
I loved a metaphor she used during the Q&A to describe reading. She said that writing on the page is like a musical score. It’s dead until a musician plays it or a reader reads it, and each reading is individual, just as each musician’s version of a particular piece of music will be a little different from the last. Atwood’s 50-some books are like pieces of music playing with millions of variations in the minds of readers all over the world, making a beautiful noise, making us all a little more aware and alive.