You know a writer is an indisputable legend when it is not a matter of trying to fill a 1,350 seated theatre, but rather finding a way to manage the disappointment of many who could not get a ticket. And it was not even her first time to visit Edinburgh, for Atwood has done similar events on other occasions. Yet, a sell-out event was still considered inevitable.
People flocked, quite literally, to see this literary juggernaut talk in conversation with Stuart Kelly at the King’s Theatre on October 10, as they came together to discuss her latest novel, Hagseed: The Tempest Retold. And it can be said without reservation that it was every bit as glorious as you could hope.
For those of you who are not aware, Atwood is the woman who brought you The Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Goes Last, The Blind Assassin and many, many more. In fact, these are just three of 15 novels, eight shorter stories, 15 sets of poetry, 10 non-fiction texts and seven children’s books that she has added to the library of modern literature. She is a contemporary writer who has made her way effortlessly onto many academic syllabuses, her exemplary work being the source of both inspiration and analytic thought for budding writers and literature students. She is a writing machine: her fluency and readability making her one of the most respected writers of her generation.
Like many of her books and projects, Hagseed is significant on many levels. Not least because it is part of a much larger series commissioned by the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. For this novel, Atwood was joined by the likes of Howard Jacobson and Jo Nesbo to reimagine the works of William Shakespeare. This is a wonderful project and a hugely important one: endeavouring writers to mark themselves as game-changers within history by adapting the works of a great master who came before them. Atwood is certainly worthy of this attribution, and the task such a project sets.
Of course, this is not the first time she has been asked to contribute to an important literary scheme. Katie Paterson’s ‘Future Library’, in which 100 trees growing in Norway will become 100 novels written by 100 authors stored in vaults for readers not yet born, is a perfect example of another ambitious mission. Atwood was at the top of their list, the first author signed up, such is her reputation; her talent so tangible that publishers and artists consider it vital that her works endure beyond her death. Now, our children’s children will still be enjoying Atwood for the first time in 10 decades.
When opened up to the audience for questions, Atwood attempted to explain why it was The Tempest that she chose to reimagine. In a nutshell, she said, it was either The Tempest or nothing at all. She spoke of how the script of one of Shakespeare’s final plays had wonderful ambiguity and layer upon layer of possible interpretation and meaning. Seeing some similarities thematically between The Tempest and Atwood’s novels, particularly the notion of imprisonment that must be fought against, one attendee asked if she was consciously drawn to the Bard’s work. After some pondering, she came to agree with this, although she had not really thought of it like that before, she admitted.
Inevitably, the questioning often moved towards her older works. Atwood was clearly a little sceptical of bringing these novels into the framework of the talk too much. That said, she handled each question with humour and poise, demonstrating the cyclical nature of her writing. In this way she made them far from irrelevant.
There were many occasions, both in response to questions from the audience and in conversation with Kelly, where Atwood alluded, somewhat comically, to her age. Indeed it was hugely refreshing to be confronted with a woman who had achieved so much and contributed immeasurable amounts to her field. She did not appear to fear old age at all but rather appeared ready and welcome to the future: in whatever forms it takes, with her work as the linchpin. She possesses the sort of wisdom only found in experience. And that, in combination with her acerbic wit and fierce intellect, make her hard to match. It was indeed a privilege to witness this event and walk away with a signed copy for the bookshelf.