Monthly Archives: October 2009

London interview

London interview from September on a windblown rooftop, with fellow Twitterer Matt Cowan:

http://www.reuters.com/article/artsNews/idUSTRE59R4I820091028?sp=true.

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New York, Part 2: Whiting Foundation Winners & Speech

WHITING FOUNDATION WINNERS

2009 Whiting Writers’ Awards Recipients:

Jericho Brown for poetry. Jay Hopler for poetry. Adam Johnson for fiction. Rajiv Joseph for plays. Joan Kane for poetry.Michael Meyer for nonfiction. Nami Mun for fiction. Hugh Raffles for nonfiction. Salvatore Scibona for fiction. Vu Tran for fiction.

See links to writers on:

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/awards/margaret_atwood_advises_the_2009_whiting_writers_award_recipients_141620.asp

WHITING FOUNDATION SPEECH: October 29.

Margaret Atwood

It’s a great honour to have been invited to speak to you this evening. The occasion is a happy one – it’s the moment when the Whiting Foundation recognizes and encourages brilliant upcoming writing talent. Congratulations to all! (I’ll put you on my blog.)

My role here is a secondary one. It’s what you might call the Duchess role – what Duchesses would be doing if America hadn’t thoughtlessly done away with them in 1776, thus inaugurating 213 years of Duchess Envy. All my life I’ve fled the idea of being a role model – for heaven’s sakes, don’t live as I’ve lived, I want to tell the young – but I appear to have turned into a sort of role model anyway.

On this occasion it seems that  I’m to act as a kind of symbolic dignitary – writers can’t be actual dignitaries, as they are by nature too undignified – and wield a virtual wand of blessing, like the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, or wave a banner from a casement window as the young troops ride out to do battle. Gird on your word-swords, I must say to them! Buckle up those adjectives! Make sure your plots are tight, your epigrams sharp and pointed, your lyrical intervals lacking in bathos. Be vigilant – there are ambushes everywhere. On one side lurk the critics, getting ready to sneer and denounce, or worse, to praise for the wrong reasons; on the other side your parent figures, who always wanted you to be doctors, and who have furnished themselves with a list of writers such as Checkhov who were writers, yes, but doctors too: why can’t YOU do that? This is not helpful.

And on the third side is a stack of bills – bills for things like the rent – that whisper in their papery voices about the impossibility of making a living doing what you most wish to do. Alas, there is no inevitable connection, positive or negative, between talent and money. A bad book can make piles of money, a good book none. Or else a lot. It does happen. But nothing can be foreseen, because writing is among other things a form of gambling. You can win in one throw. You can lose disastrously. Fortune is a notoriously cruel goddess.

This is the moment for a bracing quote from Tennyson: “Doubt Not, Go Forward – If thou doubt’st, The Beasts will tear thee piecemeal.”  Fare well, I will say  to the anointed ten – the fate of our language is in your hands, and it is a crucial fate – for if these the future guardians of it should falter or disappear, and if even our human language should fail us –should it become a rusty and untrustworthy tool – where will that leave us?

But perhaps I should climb down off the soapbox and give some more practical advice. Forget what used to be called “literature,” I might say. It’s too risky. Too hard to drop-kick it through the gateposts of the Bestseller lists, and the inability to do so – in a winner-take-all environment – can be fatal. Write cookbooks, or books about vampires – you’d do well with either. Or troll through the classics, adding monsters – Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the Body Snatchers, Jane Eyre and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, War and Peace and Heads that Grow Out of your Armpits – the possibilities are endless! Better still – mix and match even more, and do a Vampire Cookbook! On second thought, maybe not – limited menu. But a Miss Manners Guide to Monster Etiquette — now that would sell! With a little ingenuity and no shame, you can do well. Then, under a different name – a very different name – you can dash off a few masterpieces.

Here’s another helpful hint: invent some critics, then have them say some laudatory things about your work. This has been done. A painter friend of mine in Toronto made up an art critic called Don Rouge Humber and quoted him in ads, saying things like “So stunning words fail me” and “An oasis of pure optical pleasure,” “Depilatory fine art with a consistently crispy crunch – delightfully deconstructionist!” My friend thought people would surely realize that Don was pretend, but not so. He sold a number of pieces to folks who turned up, ready for a serious art experience because the esteemed critic Don Rouge Humber thought so highly of his work.

But perhaps I should put on my seriousness hat, and offer some words of cheer, to young writers and to readers and to publishers, as well – to all who inhabit the republic of the written word, as all are essential to the survival of that noble republic. For it cannot have escaped you that we live in trying times. When interviewers start asking you about the state of publishing instead of the state of gender relations, you know we’re in trouble. Is poetry doomed? Is the novel doomed? Is the BOOK doomed? (Not so far as I can see, or not yet.)

Or – a different sort of question — Do the young still read? A question that invokes some long-gone non-existent golden age in which all the young DID read, and nothing but praiseworthy classics. Not in my high school, I might tell them. Reading complex literary works in the century or so in which we’ve had something like universal literacy  — has been a minority taste. But a minority taste well worth acquiring, for it really can be transformative: it can change lives.

But stories — just as stories — are not a minority taste. They’re a universal.  Dennis Dutton, in his book The Art Instinct, proposes that art – and especially narrative art – is an evolved adaptation that human beings developed during their 80,000 – generation-long sojourn in the Pleistocene – a time when the ability to tell your kids about the time Uncle Mort got eaten by a crocodile, right over there, would have given those kids a distinct evolutionary advantage over other kids who could only find out about the crocodile firsthand. The arts are no frill – they’re part of our essential toolkit as human beings. We’ll make music and compose poems and tell stories as long as we’re on the planet. What’s at issue is the kinds of songs we’ll sing and the kinds of stories we’ll tell. And that’s where you’ll come in.

It’s not a profession, this track you’re on. It’s a vocation – a calling. There’s no pension plan, there are no guarantees, and there’s no magic potion. What you’ve chosen to do is brave and risky, but it’s also necessary – increasingly necessary as we move into a future for which no one, right now, has a convincing blueprint. You’ll be taking the ancient, ancient human language and its songs and stories that have been passed down to you, changing as they go; and through inspiration and hard work, you’ll fashion them into new forms that will in turn be moulded by their time, as everything we’ve done is, and has been; and then you’ll pass these forms on in your turn, if we’re lucky. If we are all very lucky.

So that’s the real magic potion: luck.  That’s what I should be saying as I wave my virtual wand: Good luck to all of you. Very good luck!

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New York, Part 1: Symphony Space

New York, Part 1: Here are some rehearsal pictures from the Symphony Space nail-biter. Text can be found at:


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Boston and Cambridge, October 25.

Off to the Toronto Pearson airport at an ungodly hour I can’t even remember, where I ate some gruesome food item and also a naughty Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (for the energy, that’s my excuse). Once in Boston, I staggered off the plane and gobbled a whole pack of Terra chips (for the potassium, that’s my next excuse). Then I was scooped up by long-time escort pal, Lynn Cannici, and after grabbing some organic coffee (for the caffeine, that’s my third excuse, and you only get three a day), and a lunch substitute (no excuses and never mind what I ate, but it was vegetarian), we were off to Arlington to sign 600 books for the Independent Booksellers Association, to be distributed to their stores. Helping out were Random rep Leslie Vasilio, and (http://www.bostonbibliophile.com.) blogger (Marie Cloutier) – whom I “knew” through Twitter – and (http://www.booksonthenightstand.com.) blogger Ann Kingman

Then Ron Mann and his film crew of one – Allie Humenik — picked us up, and we all went to Walden Pond to do some walking and talking about Henry David Thoreau and his thoughts on Nature, self-sufficiency, and civil disobedience. I first visited Walden Pond in the early 60’s – no huge parking lots, re-created Thoreau house, or crowds of people then. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was happy to be getting at least a little of the Fall Foliage Experience… you miss it on these book tours.

After a pit stop at the hotel – Elliot Suite, which has an excellent sushi bar, though I had no time to eat anything at it – we were off to Cambridge, where I spent four years being a graduate student in the 60s. The event, at the venerable First Parish Church — right around the corner from were I used to live — was run by the Harvard Book Store, an old favourite. I began the evening by signing another 200 books for the Harvard Book Store’s First Edition Club, then continued with a solo performance during which I played three of the Gardener Hymns from the CD, and “sang” a fourth. Always a risk, that – there’s a high note I have to reach for, and the Queen of the Night I’m not.

Many a Q&A and personalized book later, I was on my way with Courtney Bowman from the Harvard Lampoon for the thrilling surprise culmination to the evening. I was to be inducted as an Honourary Lampooner – the females are called “Vixens” –joining such notables as Winston Churchill, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, John Irving, David Foster Wallace, and Paris Hilton. The ceremony takes place at the eccentric Lampoon Castle – into which few may enter. (Those few did not include Ron and his camera crew, as it turned out. This is top-secret stuff!) I can’t describe everything that went on in there except to say that no beer was thrown on me, but it was much fun and very interesting – the place is an amazing museum! – and I got to eat a cupcake, swear a solemn oath, and receive a fetching medal, which I will always cherish. It has an Ibis on one side, in honour of the Egyptian Scribe God, Thoth.  On the other side is a Jester on horseback. Which is the evil twin?

Tired but happy, the traveler returned, to pack for a 6.15 departure for New York the next morning.  I’m thinking of getting “6.15” tattooed on me. It’s becoming a constant…

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Flickr Photos from German/Austrian/Swiss Tour, October 14-22

http://www.flickr.com/photos/25552628@N08/sets/72157622645742456/show/

Click to get a photo show, thanks to Carsten Sommerfeldt of Berlin Verlag. He’s the really tall one!  More text soon.

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Los Angeles October 8 and 9

The Pictures: The ineffable Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm at KCRW-FM; rehearsal at Royce Hall; Kathy Kurinsky and some of her decorations; the Powers behind the Scenes: Denise Leader Stoeber, Phoebe Larmore, Kathy Kurinsky, Jennifer Porzio (who works with Phoebe); Celeste Cuilla, “Toby;” Katie McNichol, “Ren;” Mark Bramhall, “Adam One” – and Katie; Mark, me, Celeste; The SONOS singers; Ted Perlman, me, Nelson Bragg; Peggy Blue and Ted; the three Mole-A-Teers; The Sign of the Mole.

Orville, Nelson, Ted, and SONOS will all be in New York at Symphony Space on October 27.

October 8: I tottered off the plane from Seattle and was driven immediately to Michael Silverblatt’s KCRW-FM Bookworm underground enclave at Santa Monica College. After reminiscing about the Santa Monica Earthquake and catching up on changes – Michael’s show is now national, and he’s even been O Magazined – we did the always –pleasurable show. (Http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/…/excerpt-from-the-year-of-the-flood.) Then we did a phone interview with WIRED Magazine, one of my regular reads, (www.wired.com/underwire/tag/margaret-atwood) and then a stop at Mahalo with Marc Jeffrey and Bibliotech (Hint: the library you see in the background isn’t real). For more on Marc and Mahalo, see the Glone and Mail West Coast Tech blog at (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/blogs/atwood-on-tour).

Then, tottering even more, I was deposited at my literary agent Phoebe Larmore’s house in Venice. Phoebe had not only produced the CD of the Gardener Hymns, but had been assembling the bits & pieces for the Los Angeles Event, with the help of Jennifer Porzio, Denise Leader Stoeber—who’s been helping with CD distribution – and Kathy Kurinsky, Orville’s sister, who flew down from Chicago to put together the onstage visuals. The actors were assembled for a read-through: Katie McNichol (Ren) and Mark Bramhall (Adam One), who are two of the voices on the Random Audiobook, and Celeste Cuilla, who with Katie had just been doing Shakespeare at the Old Globe in San Diego. As for Mark, he’d just finished reading a sword-and-sorcery for audio, in which he’d played all the voices – dragons too, and even the ghost of a dragon. Now how do they do that?

Phoebe took one look at my tottery state and filled me full of Vitamin B12, and after the read-through Kathy dished up some nourishing vegetable soup. Then I got deposited at the Orlando Hotel. There was a bus parked outside with the slogan: I HOPE THEY SERVE BEER IN HELL.

What made us all think that this is a hotel frequented by rock bands? Almost everyone I met in the elevator looked that way, even though they weren’t.

The next day was less stressful: lunch with my long-standing ICM agent, Ron Bernstein, elegantly dressed as always in not only vintage, but Vintage vintage (“Darling, there is a difference!”) How did I miss taking a picture of him? Dunno. Too tottery.

Then rehearsals, with singer Peggy Blue – Ted Perlman’s partner – helping with the stage placement and general morale. The Royce Hall lighting and sound techs were brilliant: sound was finely adjusted, and the light changed colours subtly to match the mood onstage.

Then came the show. Celese as Toby was warm, strong, and intense, Katie –looking eerily like Bette Davis – a convincingly half-naif Ren, and Mark a fervent but also eldritch Adam One. The a capella Sonos Singers –three men, three women, all recent UCLA grads, just back from a tour and with a CD of their own, gave it their melodious all, with Orville Stoeber playing and singing too.

The two musicians on the CD – Ted Perlman on base guitar and Nelson Bragg on percussion – added a whole new dimension. They admitted  they hadn’t grasped the concept when Orville first layed the music on them – hadn’t read the book yet. “What’s all this Mole stuff?” they’d asked. “Why are you singing about weeds?” But they’ve got it now, and a secret Mole-A-Teer Society appears to be forming around them. In the last picture, you can see them making The Sign of the Mole.

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DENVER, SAN FRANCISCO, SEATTLE: October 3-7

DENVER, SAN FRANCISCO, SEATTLE: October 3-7

The Pictures: Two details from splendid Brown Palace Hotel, Denver; at the Tattered Cover: Lisa Casper, Charles Stillwagon, escort Lisa Maxson; signing books for North California Indie Booksellers at San Francisco Presidio, with Random rep Lis Willner and Hut Landon of NCIBA; recycling baskets at KPFA; Richard Wolinsky of Cover to Cover; Orville Stoeber Mole Day Hymn practice in Hotel Vitale room; onstage practice at Herbst Theatre, Sydney Goldstein of City Arts and Lectures in background; Gail DiRe, Seattle escort; Rick Simon of Elliott Bay Bookstore at Town Hall; photographer Chase Jarvis taking my pic; Seattle Twitterpal StarrySkyz in self-designed T.

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I’m very behind on this blog, due to the rapidity and intensity of the tour—at present I’m on a train from Munich to Hamburg, the first “free” time I’ve had for a while, though I’ve just been doing an interview with Zurich by phone – but here goes.

We did not do full musical and dramatic events in any of Denver, San Francisco, or Seattle – not enough time and/or no one-the-spot points people willing to take it on — but these days were very busy anyway.

October 3: I staggered out to the Vancouver Airport and made a beeline for the Absolute Spa there, where, for $25, Jenny of the sharp elbows went over my back, by this time a wooden pretzel. Somewhat taller, I hobbled onto the plane for Denver, hobbling off at the other end quite a lot hungrier. Munching on a box of popcorn – the only obviously VeggieVows non-meat thing I could see – I headed for the Denver Palace Hotel, a living museum and Denver Landmark dating from 1892. The lobby is also a restful, palm-befronded oasis where afternoon tea is served to the music of a harpist. There I was rescued by an egg salad sandwich and  – yes! – some Brown’s own-brand organic coffee! Did not see any of the ghosts however.

October 4: Denver’s Tattered Cover is one of the best-known independent bookstores in the western United States, and has long been a favourite of authors. Escort Lisa Maxson is an old pal – she’s been working the Denver beat for years, and helped with the entire event. Instead of a singing group, I had the Gardener CD, from which I played several of the hymns, then did bits of all of the voices. Despite the football game and the Run for the Cure going on at the same time, we had a full house and a fine time.

October 5: Off to the airport, where much to everyone’s surprise the plane got changed and 70 people were bumped off the flight. Luckily I’d checked in early. In SF, escort Martha Cullmore scooped me up from the airport and after a bite and a brisk conversation about the future shape of book publishing we headed out to the Presidio –on a peninsula overlooking the bay, once a military base, now used by various orgs and corps for their offices. There I signed the mythical Mountain O’Books with the aid of Lisa Willner (Random rep) and Hut Landon of the Northern California Independent Booksellers.

Then to the Hotel Vitale (http://www.hotelvitale.com),  a gem right near the harbour market. The Vitale was selected for its greenness; the coffee? “Equator” (http://www.equatorcoffees.com.) Awaiting me was a lovely bouquet of white roses from publisher Nan A. Talese, of Doubleday. Phoebe Larmore and singer/composer Orville Stoeber were already at the Vitale, and we had a quiet dinner, a strategy meeting about the Los Angeles event, and a moonlit stroll by the harbour.

October 6: The day began with old friend Michael Krasny’s live radio show, Forum, at KQED/FM. Unaccountably I didn’t take a picture of him, perhaps because Ron Mann’s docufilm team was filming the whole show, but you can find us on (http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R910061000.)  Then it was off to KPFA/FM to see another old friend, Richard Wolinsky, for Cover to Cover (www.kpfa.org/archive/show/326) and then back to the KQED studios to tape a show with new acquaintance Rick Kleffel for The Agony Column at (http://www. Bookotron.com/agony.)  Martha and I grabbed a lunch bite at the Market, and then Orville and I rehearsed the Mole Day Hymn. (It’s a children’s hymn, so one of the few I can actually sing.)

Sydney Goldstein of City Arts and Lectures picked us up for a sound check at the Herbst, Theatre, and after a quick snack we did the event – a two-hander with Orville singing some of the Hymns, me reading, a Mole Day duet, and a Q&A, followed by another backbreaking booksigning, with Book Passage selling the books.

October 7: Seattle. Escort Gail DiRe – another old friend – collected me at the airport and we headed off to Amazon to do a podcast – with Mari Peterson-Malcolm – and have a meet & greet with other members of the editorial team.. Then I attended a very interesting tea party with female executives of Seattle-area tech companies, hosted by Michelle Goldstein of Ignition Partners. Many were the subjects discussed! [For West Coast BookTech & etc.. see the Globe and Mail blog at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/blogs/atwood-on-tour.

Right after that, I was collected by very old friends Eleanor Bender Hamilton and her husband, anthropologist Gary Hamiltion. I’ve known Eleanor since she edited an important poetry magazine of the 70s, Open Places. We went off to Café Flora –one of the oldest veggie restaurants in Seattle – where we had a delicious collection of plants, gourds, seeds, roots, grains, and nuts. Then we all went to the Town Hall, where Rick Simon of the grand old Elliott Bay Bookstore was waiting, along with a happy Seattle houseful. I kicked off with some peppy Hymns from the CD, and all rolled forward.

At the very end of the evening, back at the Alexis Hotel, I met with Lisa Shannon, a remarkable young woman who had just raised four million dollars for Women for Women (http://womenforwomen.org//help-womencongo.php.) to help Congolese women and children battered by war and rape. We discussed the possibility of a liaison between this organization and BirdLife (http://www.birdlife.org.) as the Congo is also suffering from tree-and-animal poaching and habitat depletion. Yes, Virginia – everything is connected.

The Pictures: Two details from splendid Brown Palace Hotel, Denver; at the Tattered Cover: Lisa Casper, Charles Stillwagon, escort Lisa Maxson; signing books for North California Indie Booksellers at San Francisco Presidio, with Random rep Lis Willner and Hut Landon of NCIBA; recycling baskets at KPFA; Richard Wolinsky of Cover to Cover; Orville Stoeber Mole Day Hymn practice in Hotel Vitale room; onstage practice at Herbst Theatre, Sydney Goldstein of City Arts and Lectures in background; Gail DiRe, Seattle escort; Rick Simon of Elliott Bay Bookstore at Town Hall; photographer Chase Jarvis taking my pic; Seattle Twitterpal StarrySkyz in self-designed T.

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