This week I was lucky enough to see Margaret Atwood in Conversation at the Brighton Dome, the same weekly she jointly won the Booker prize with Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.

We sat in our prime seats, dead centre, and only four rows from the front. On the stage a huge projected banner showed images from The Testaments, Atwood’s recently released sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. From the ether an ominous bass drone emanated, which shifted in volume creating a rather unsettling atmosphere. Finally the show began, and the famous author somersaulted onto the stage. That bit might not have happened.

Atwood has the demeanour of a cozy Grandma but the ferocity of a rottweiler. She’ll feed you Rich Tea biscuits before tearing off your leg and she played up to this trope brilliantly by singing twee nursery rhymes in a disturbingly aggressive voice on stage.

They think I’m going to be meaner and scarier than I actually am. I am quite mean and scary. But only if you start first.

I’m a huge fan of Atwood’s novels, but I’m not entirely sure why I wanted to see her live on stage. In her book, On Writers and Writing, Atwood talks about the folly of wanting to meet authors. That they are not the same people who wrote the book, she claims. I’m not one for heroes, but if I had to nominate a living one, Atwood might be it. In fact anyone who can compile 100,000 words into a book and call it a novel is a hero in my book.

Atwood wrote two of my favourite novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, both different aspects of a potential future. When she was asked which we were closer too, Atwood didn’t really give a concise answer, but I from her lecture, I have a feeling that her answer would be as follows:

The Gilead of a Handmaid’s Tale a potential future which always lingers but over which we may have some control. Atwood stressed the point that historically societies tend to collapse quickly and without warning. She gave her experiences in Easter Germany in the 1980s, while writing The Handmaid’s Tale, and visiting adjoining countries such as Poland and Croatia, all closed societies where people were afraid to talk unless they went into a field where there was no possibility of bugs or being overheard. That reminded me of the scene in Orwell’s 1984 where Winston and his lover walk out into the countryside to be away from Big Brother, only to find that even the trees are bugged.

Oryx and Crake on the other hand is a more distant future but one which may be inevitable.

The only man in town

When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, knowing nothing of its heritage or story, I didn’t clock the feminist themes, for me they weren’t the hook of the novel. Interestingly, one of the audience questions on the night was, why were there so few men in the audience? It was true, but again, this wasn’t something I had appreciated would be the case. That night I would estimate with some confidence that easily ninety-five percent of the audience were female, and I’m sure a good portion of the remaining five were only there because they’d been dragged along by their partners.

So the question was, why is the ratio between men and women so off, and what do the men that are there see in The Handmaid’s Tale? Atwood’s answer was that men enjoyed the dystopian future and the world building that they got from her novels, and for me that’s probably true, but makes me feel just a little shallow.

Meeting an author or an idol is a little like seeing a Lamborghini tearing down the street. It’s great watch it go, but ultimately provides little of the experience or understanding of what it’s like to drive a sports car. As Atwood says in her own book, On Writers and Writing, the author you meet can never be the same person as the one who existed in that transient space when they wrote the novel and so there is little to gain from it!

What an ending. You can look at the nice pictures though.

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