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Happy Birthday to the Marvelous Margaret Atwood

A Most Versatile Author

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • November 18, 2020

She Writes All The Things

A word after a word after a word is power.

Happy birthday to Canadian-born author Margaret Atwood! At age sixteen, she decided she wanted to be a writer and has said that her parents were likely horrified by this announcement. Along with worrying about her ability to make a living, they may also have been a little surprised by her artistic pursuits. Her father was an entomologist and her mother, a nutritionist and Atwood, herself, demonstrated a strong aptitude for science in school.

It's easy to imagine that this background may have led to the author's massive success with dystopian bestsellers like The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. But speculative fiction actually reflects a very small sample of the author's eclectic bibliography. During her six-decade career, she has published eighteen books of poetry, seventeen novels, ten books of nonfiction, eight collections of short fiction, eight children's books, three graphic novels, and more. Her newest book, a poetry collection called Dearly, just came out last week.

A Free-Range Childhood

At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown.

Until Atwood was eleven she spent half of each year in the northern Ontario wilderness, where her father conducted field research. During this time, Atwood and her brother were left largely to entertain themselves, filling much of their time with books, imaginative games, and other creative outlets. A voracious reader, some of her favorites included Edgar Allen Poe's Complete Tales and Poems, The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, Wuthering Heights, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Cutting her teeth on these classics prepared her well for a life of writing and likely inspired her imaginative retellings of stories like Shakespeare's The Tempest (her alternate version is titled Hag-Seed) and The Odyssey (her female-centric revision is The Penelopiad).

Words are Her Drug

Other people are addicted to coffee, cigarettes, booze, dope—I'm addicted to words.

For the most part, Atwood has alternated between writing prose and poetry throughout her career. Her style in both has been described as concise, vivid, and witty. Her work encompasses a variety of themes including gender and identity, religion and myth, the power of language and nature, and the dynamics of power. Her story collections, such as Dancing Girls and Bluebeard's Egg provide insight into her remarkable range as an author.

Atwood's books have been translated into several foreign languages. A number of her works have been adapted for stage and screen. She has received many distinguished awards, including the Booker Prize, Governor General's Award, and the National Book Critics.

Harvard and History

. . . the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn.

While in college at the University of Toronto, Atwood experienced some early success with her poetry being accepted and published in literary magazines. She recalls that "nothing has since matched the thrill of opening the [first] acceptance letter." After finishing her BA, she went on to Harvard for graduate school, studying both literature and history. She developed an interest in Puritan history and the literature of the American Revolution. This knowledge and interest in history shows up in several of her novels, like Alias Grace, a fictionalized account of a notorious murder case dating back to 19th-century Canada.

She's Not Not a Feminist

Better never means better for everyone...It always means worse, for some.

Atwood has sometimes taken issue with being labeled a feminist, though many of her books deal with the mistreatment of women by men and society. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, is about a woman whose engagement causes her to lose her identity and develop an eating disorder. Atwood has said that she doesn't want to "become a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs," adding, "Is The Handmaid's Tale a 'feminist' novel? If you mean a novel in which women are human beings—with all the variety of character and behavior that implies—and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

Coming Full Circle

I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary.

Atwood has spoken out as an environmental activist, shaped by her formative experiences in the Canadian wilderness. The destruction of the environment has also had a strong presence in some of her fiction, like the MaddAddam trilogy, in which humanity nearly destroys the world until nature takes over. The series draws on Atwood's deep-rooted interests in science, exploring themes around scientific ethics, genetic experimentation, and environmental collapse.

Reflecting back on her parents' early response to her career plan, Atwood has said, "Well, they always kind of shook their heads and said 'oh, you should have gone on in botany.'" Of course, considering Atwood's tremendous success as a writer, we're guessing they eventually came around.

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