“Attention must be paid to such a person.” So said Linda Loman, wife of Willie, in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but it’s applicable in other places too, don’t you think?
I certainly snapped to attention when I became aware that Margaret Atwood is coming to Saint Mary’s College in late October. Such attention was paid to the date when tickets would go on sale to the non-Saint-Mary’s-crowd that it became an item on my agenda. Like a star-crazed groupie, there I was in line before the box office opened—only second in line though. And, it’s not like I haven't seen/heard Margaret before. Actually, it is the very fact that I have seen/heard her before that made me so eager to do so again. Although you might not guess it from some of her writing, the woman is funny. Not in a pratfall way, but in polite, aware, wry-humor way.
It’s unquestioned that she is a fine and diverse writer, but that gift doesn’t always make an engaging speaker. Combine the two traits though and you are certain of a presentation to remember. Seemingly an embracer of technology, years ago I saw her with a PowerPoint presentation – sometimes a sure sign of sleep-inducement – but hers was riveting. She showed pictures from her youth – another possible –boredom-minefield – but with hers, you could barely wait to see more. One of the rewards: photos of her backwoods early childhood. As an aside, she since has expanded her forays into technology by inventing a system for remote writing applications. Back to her backwoods youth though, I heard her on Diane Rehm’s show once refer to a product that I had only heard mentioned once before from my husband, Larry (a Tennessee backwoods youth): Flit, a mosquito and fly killer. The advertising tagline was, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” at which point this product in a pump, can and tube contraption was produced to save the day. In print, the man who became beloved as Dr. Seuss drew them—before he became the beloved Dr. Seuss.
Lying on the bed reading books has long been one of my career goals, and I’ve been lucky enough to, at times, get steady work in that field. During one of those forays around 1990, I was reading Margaret’s Wilderness Tips. Being a reader for story, not always for style, I remember being gob-smacked by what finely crafted writing I was gobbling up. It would be easy to cite examples here, but that would spoil it for you. I’ll just tell you that it’s ten well-crafted, semi-short tales—perfect if you are reading in bed and prone to falling asleep; you might get though one before adjourning. Then, when you awake, you are eager to return.
Nan Talese, no slouch herself, has long been Margaret Atwood’s editor and there seems to be quite a bond there. In a story about Nan in Vanity Fair, Atwood says, “My story about Nan is that she’s whipping the troika through the snow, followed by the wolves, with me clinging onto the back as she troikas from one publisher to another.”
Over their association, books of fiction, books of what Ms. Atwood terms “speculative fiction,” books of poetry, collections of essays, collections of articles, collections of short stories and children’s books (Check out “Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut,” a delightful compendium of words beginning with the letter “P.”). And, an informative book about writing with the intriguing title, “Negotiating with the Dead: a Writer on Writing.”
With that impressive oeuvre, it’s not surprising that big-time fame, not just literary acclaim, has found her. The Handmaid’s Tale, never out of print since publication in 1985, and always taught to her students by my friend, Patsy, has achieved star-status for Ms. Atwood. (In a very American, free-market way, isn’t it a treat to see someone you admire “cash in” even for a second time, on her/his work?) When onstage to collect the Emmy for the recent Hulu production of The Handmaid’s Tale, Ms. Atwood took her purse along—very practical—and that has caused enough comment to engender what has been dubbed “The Handbag’s Tale.”
All of this indeed is something to which attention must be paid—in an admiring, not a creepy way. With the fantasy of having dinner with Margaret Atwood—and maybe Joe and Jill Biden—this is Jeanette Saddler Taylor.
Music: "I'm Reading a Book" by Julian Smith