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Once upon a birthday cake...

Margaret Atwood said she remembers visiting Sudbury 50 or 60 years ago, when it was a different place than it is today. “Once upon a time there were no trees, there were no birds, there were no fish in the lakes,” she said.
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Canadian author Margaret Atwood visited Sudbury recently to take part in Laurentian University’s English Canadian author Margaret Atwood visited Sudbury recently to take part in Laurentian University’s English department’s celebration of her birthday. Photo by Heidi Ulrichsen
Margaret Atwood said she remembers visiting Sudbury 50 or 60 years ago, when it was a different place than it is today.

“Once upon a time there were no trees, there were no birds, there were no fish in the lakes,” she said.

“There was essentially nothing alive, except people. We used to drive through here on our way to Lake Superior in the Sault, because we had friends (in Sudbury).

“The lady of the house said it was essentially impossible to have curtains, because they would just turn black. You couldn’t keep them clean.”

But then the city’s began its re-greening efforts, and now Sudbury is “becoming a unit of rejuvenation,” showing other communities that they can also improve the environment, Atwood said.

The 71-year-old Canadian author was in Sudbury Nov. 17 to attend a yearly event which celebrates her birthday.

Before the event — which included a birthday dinner, performances by local artists and a screening of the film In the Wake of the Flood at Laurentian University — Atwood toured the Vale Inco Living with Lakes Centre, which is currently under construction at the university.

Once completed, the centre will be home to scientists studying ways to speed the recovery process of industrially-damaged ecosystems.

Atwood, who spoke to Northern Life at her hotel before the birthday party event, said her interest in environmentalism came at an early age.

She said her father was a forest entomologist, and set up a forest insect lab in Sault Ste. Marie, where the family lived for a time.

The Ron Mann documentary film, In the Wake of the Flood, focuses on her 2009 book tour in support of the book, The Year of the Flood.

“Ron is just a wonderful guy, and very thoughtful, and rather mysterious, in that I never knew why he was taking pictures of the things he was taking pictures of,” Atwood said.

The Year of the Flood is the sequel to the author’s earlier novel, Oryx and Crake, and paints the picture of an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be after an environmental catastrophe.

Atwood used the book tour to promote environmental causes. When possible, she used environmentally-friendly means of travel, such as trains, to get to her destinations during the tour.

The tour ended in Sudbury, at the 2009 birthday party event, where scenes from the novel were acted out. The film actually has “quite a bit of Sudbury in it,” she said.

“None of us knew how this whole book tour idea (for the film) was going to roll out, anyway,” Atwood said.

“(Mann) didn’t know where he was going to begin and end. We did the last event in Sudbury, and then he realized the shape he was going to make the movie into.”
The Margaret Atwood birthday party event was started in 2004 by Laurentian’s English department.

The first year it was a small event, held in a professor’s home. The event has gradually grown in size and, this year, 170 people attended the dinner portion of the event. Double that number of people attended the film screening.

Atwood first attended the event herself in 2008.

“My reaction to it is it’s sort of like Robert Burns’ birthday, except I’m still alive, and there’s no haggis,” Atwood said.

Shannon Hengen, an English professor at Laurentian, and one of the organizers of the event, said she thinks Atwood is a great Canadian author.

“We know that she really describes our culture very well,” she said. “I’m always interested in the observations of a very intelligent, keen observer. Sometimes we are just kind of numb to these things, but she doesn’t let us be.”

Atwood’s interests go beyond environmentalism. Her 2008 novel, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, was released just as the recession hit. “People started asking me for stock market tips,” Atwood said. “It was so funny. I’d actually been planning that book for three years before that particular event occurred. It was a stroke of stunning good luck for that book, and stunning bad luck for everyone else.”

She said she became interested in writing about debt because she’s a student of the Victorian novel. You might think these novels are about romance, Atwood said, but in reality, they’re actually about money.

“Elizabeth (the Pride and Prejudice character) realizes Mr. Darcy is really a very attractive man,” she said.

“He doesn’t actually come out of the lake in that wet shirt in the book. He does that in the movie, but not the book. She does see his stunning country house about that time.

“He is rich enough to bail out her scampy runaway sister, for which the whole family is deeply grateful. If he had been a poor person, he wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Through books such as The Edible Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood is also known as a feminist author.

When asked if she considers herself a feminist writer, Atwood said she is, if that means women are considered to be human beings, and if it means that they have responsibilities as well as rights. “The early church fathers did have quite a hot dispute as to whether women had souls, like men, or whether they didn’t have souls, basically like cows.”

Atwood said she’s currently working on two books - a non-fiction book about the literary genre of science fiction, as well as the third novel in the Oryx and Crake series.

“Writers don’t actually retire,” she said. “If you came to the point where there wasn’t anything you wanted to write anymore, that would be retirement.”


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