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Margaret Atwood's Attention to Detail: Postcard From Paris

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Online Only, posted 2.01.02

"I am annoyed when I'm reading through the 16th century and come across underwear that did not exist," said Margaret Atwood, who explained to a standing-room-only crowd at the Village Voice bookstore in Paris why she's a stickler for historical accuracy in her work. "The details are always changing for any given year. You don't dare get it wrong or you'll get letters from readers." Atwood then told of an irate reader who accused her of "making butter wrong" in her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin, which is set in the 1940s.

In Paris to celebrate the French publication of The Blind Assassin, Atwood appeared at the Village Voice on January 27 to answer questions, deliver a short reading, and sign books. To ensure a place in the small shop, many of the listeners—most of them female—waited patiently in their seats an hour or more before Atwood's arrival. The author did not disappoint her fans: Her trademark wit and deadpan demeanor were on full display.

Her calm, methodical voice barely rising above normal speaking volume, Atwood nevertheless kept her audience captivated with insights into pre-war pulp magazine reading habits, the use of her books in the classroom, the melting of the Canadian tundra, and her own working method.

"I do not plan plots on note cards or do character sketches, but sometimes I draw pictures of their clothing," Atwood said. "Writing to a plan would be painting by numbers. Things appear as I go along. When you are writing, you like surprises. Things happen to people you did not expect."

When asked how her work has been received around the world, Atwood described the popular and critical reaction to her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale. "When it was published in the U.K. they said, 'Jolly good story.' Canada said, 'It couldn't happen here.' In the U.S. they said, 'How long have we got?' and I heard about graffiti on the sea wall in Venice Beach that said, 'The Handmaid's Tale is here.' German readers said it was a parallel to their own history. An Iranian reader said, 'This is my life.'"

As for France, she quipped, "The novel was placed on the reading list for all CJEPs [colleges], which was an honor since I'm not dead yet."

A final question was asked by a member of the audience: Are you working on a new novel, and are you willing to tell anything about it? Atwood delivered a terse yet good-humored response. "Yes...and no."

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