Margaret Atwood is #Internet

Canadian author stops in at the Rialto Theatre for a discussion of her latest work.

Authors Margaret Atwood and Sheila Heti discuss Margaret’s newest book “MaddAddam.” Photo Brandon Johnston

“I promised I would begin by singing” is the first thing Margaret Atwood said as she stepped onto the Rialto Theatre stage on Dec. 4.

While she did deliver on her musical promise, she also took a more serious look at her own work and society, to the tune of her usual satirical style.

Atwood made a rare stop in Montreal during her book tour to discuss her newest book, MaddAddam.

It’s the last novel of a trilogy ten years in the making, with the first, Oryx and Crake, having been released in 2003, followed by The Year of The Flood in 2009.

Sheila Heti, author and editor at Believer magazine, led the conversation hosted by Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, which coincided with and celebrated the bookstore’s sixth anniversary.

“We saw that she was going to Comic-Con in San Diego and figured if she’s into comics…” Jason Grimmer, the bookstore’s manager and event organizer, told a crowd of over 700 people who had filled up the Rialto Theatre.

He cited the acclaimed Canadian writer as part of his “dream list” of authors to receive, as he welcomed her to the stage.

Margaret Atwood isn’t just into comics; she used to make them “under a pseudonym,” some of which can be found on her website.

“They were memes,” she told the audience of her comics, which mocked political leaders and featured superheroes with names like “Woman Woman.”

Primarily a comic book store, Librairie Drawn & Quarterly stocks a range of artists and authors. Comic book artist Dan Clowes can be seen stocked next to Atwood, Gilbert Hernandez next to Chris Kraus.

“What bookstore worth it’s salt doesn’t have Margaret Atwood’s books on its shelves? She represents what we stand for.” – Jason Grimmer, Drawn and Quarterly manager.

“We praise the tiny, perfect moles,” Atwood went on in an off-tune melody.

Her voice was loud and without hesitation as she sang the “Mole Day Hymn” from The Year of The Flood.

“…for God has found them…” Atwood paused, waiting for the audience to complete her verse.

“Good!” responded the theatre in unison.

“People say to me, ‘keep your day job,’” said Atwood after the hymn, as she peered over her glasses around the room with a smile, before the audience erupted with laughter.

Despite having been publishing work for over 40 years, Atwood is more relevant than ever – regularly coming out with new work published not only in her novels, but also on websites like Byliner.

She is also a dedicated Twitter user with a following of just under half a million.

“I used to have three things on the go and end up doing one. Now, I’ll have five things and get three done,” Atwood told Heti.

On and offline, Atwood knows how to captivate her audience.

The crowd was overwhelmingly made up of people in their 20s; a generation known for its love of irony and wit – neither of which she shied away from during her appearance.

It’s wit that also features heavily in her writing. Atwood’s latest – like her other science fiction novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale from 1985 – takes a satirical crack at humanity.

During her discussion with Heti, she described one of the peoples in her book, the Crakers, as perfect, because of their diet of grass and leaves (“so you don’t need agriculture”) and their lack of sexual jealousy (they engage in group sex).

Sex only happens seasonally, “and there’s clear signalling because, well, the parts turn blue and they do a little dance,” said Atwood, waving her hands and moving her body, imitating the dance performed by the Crakers when mating season comes around.

“The way a male stockbroker presents a box of chocolates,” she added.

“I feel like this book is more about storytelling,” Heti said during the conversation on stage.

In the book, the main characters tell their story from their own point of view, expressing hope that things may get better.

The characters in MaddAddam are survivors of the preceding novels’ events, exploited by large corporations, and living in a compound as a result of humanity having been wiped out by a “waterless flood.”

“It’s only a book,” Atwood told Heti. “So far.”

Atwood’s science fiction writing is speculative, and many of the biological concepts she introduces in her books are derived from ones that exist. She refers to her brother, a biologist, to verify the accuracy.

She called the satire during her time in university the “satire of ideas” – which she also compared to a meme—in contrast to the present’s “reality is satire.”

“Did you see those Amazon drones?” said Atwood, referring to internet retailer giant’s recent testing of unmanned robots for delivering packages.

“Five years ago, you would’ve put that in a book and everyone would have gone ‘ha ha ha.’”