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6th April 2023

Margaret Atwood at the Liverpool Philharmonic: Witty and wonderful

Margaret Atwood promotes her new short story collection Old Babes in the Wood and gives an insight into her writing process, her feelings about the Handmaid’s Tale television show and more.
Margaret Atwood at the Liverpool Philharmonic: Witty and wonderful
Photo: Alice McQuail @ The Mancunion

It’s St Patrick’s Day in Liverpool. The streets are heaving with partygoers who have been drunk since midday. I, on the other hand, am sat waiting for an evening with Margaret Atwood.

Double Booker Prize winner, Margaret Atwood, ventured to Liverpool to promote her new short story collection Old Babes in the Wood. She uses the short form to show fragments of lives and a miscellaneous collection of characters. The stories focus on ageing and loss with a touch of science fiction. Despite there being a changing cast, there are some reoccurring characters for example Tig and Nell, an old married couple who appear in most of the stories. They also appear in one of her previous short story collections called Moral Disorder (2006). They are based on Atwood’s own relationship with her late husband Graeme Gibson who died in 2019.

The event took place at the grand Philharmonic Hall which was a vastly different atmosphere from the frenzy happening outside. Upon entering the building, a civilised calm prevailed and with the glamorous architecture, it was the perfect setting for seeing the great Margaret Atwood.

The auditorium at the Philharmonic can seat over 1,700 people and it was entirely filled. I took my seat right at the back of the auditorium but luckily, I still had a clear view of the stage. Looking around the hall, the age range was remarkably varied with people who had clearly been fans for decades and teenagers who had probably studied The Handmaid’s Tale at school. All just as excited for the talk to begin.

As the lights dimmed, we were introduced to the host of the evening, Kirsty Wark, a Scottish radio presenter. Atwood was then greeted with rapturous applause from the audience prompting Wark to say “They seem to like you,” to a bashful Atwood. The audience also included those streaming from all over the UK, Australia, Switzerland, Spain, and America.

The first part of the evening was led by Wark, questioning Atwood about Old Babes in the Wood. Atwood’s Canadian accent rang through the hall and, even at the age of 83, had all the vigorous wit that she displays in her writing.

They began talking about the story ‘Freeforall’ which shows a future where a sexually transmitted disease has swept the country. In order to survive, arranged marriages are made between those who are uncontaminated.

Atwood admitted that she had been thinking about ‘Freeforall’ since the eighties after she completed The Handmaid’s Tale. She described it as a reversal of the patriarchy that appears in The Handmaid’s Tale and is instead about a matriarchy. It is told from the perspective of one of the matriarchs in charge and echoes Aunt Lydia’s narrative from The Testaments.

They then went on to talk about ‘My Evil Mother’, a short story about a mother who doesn’t like her fifteen-year-old daughter’s new boyfriend. She tells her daughter that if she dumps him he won’t die at the hands of the universe. It is a satirically ominous story that shows the influence of mothers and witchcraft. Atwood spoke about this story fondly and Wark admitted to similar circumstances with her own mother. However, Atwood claimed that the ‘evil mother’ was not based on her own.

Actor Maxine Peake  came onstage to perform a moving reading of ‘Widows’ and she gushingly said, “What an honour!” Told in letter form, ‘Widows’ is from the perspective of Nell after Tig has died, and she ponders the reality of being a widow. It is a deeply personal and melancholic story that given the recent death of Atwood’s husband, reflects her feelings about being a widow.

After a short break, the second part of the event was a Q&A with the audience. A QR code was displayed on a screen inviting anyone to ask a question. The questions ranged from ‘What is your opinion on the afterlife?’ to ‘What is your favourite ice cream flavour?’ Atwood responded to each one with careful consideration. For those wondering, her favourite flavour is vanilla and sometimes if she’s feeling adventurous, cookies and cream.

There were several questions about The Handmaid’s Tale from its conception to its legacy in film and television. Atwood revealed that the initial idea for the novel came from an image of the bodies hanging which takes place part way through the novel. She said that her writing process often originated from a simple image or character that she then pursued. She also admitted that she only started writing because there was nothing else to do.

When asked why she chose to have an ambiguous ending in The Handmaid’s Tale and to not reveal Offred’s fate, she replied: “I love history books and people are always disappearing in history books.”

She also touched on the popular television show created by Bruce Miller which has instigated a newfound fanbase for Atwood. She responded that she was relieved that it had such a good production team because there had been a previous pilot created where the handmaids were topless – a horrifying prospect.

Throughout the evening Atwood demonstrated her breadth of knowledge through her awareness of current political events and also a particular knowledge about Scottish geography that even Wark was amazed at. She also showed how well-read she was by casually mentioning Jane Austen, T.S Eliot, George Orwell, and Henry James.

She showed her capacity for entertaining and an impeccable sense of humour. She answered every question passionately, even saying jokingly “Please let me finish” when interrupted by Wark.

With 17 published novels, 17 poetry collections and more, she is without a doubt one of the most prominent authors today. Her talent for creating both whimsical and powerful stories has resonated with many. Hearing her talk has done nothing but increase my admiration for her and her writing.

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