Once I Was Three Feet Away from Margaret Atwood, or How I Learned to Pay (a Little Bit) More Attention to Local Events
By Chelsea Auld
As a young girl, I always had my nose in a book. It’s a familiar story: a shy child finds refuge in the printed page. I’ve heard some people say they grew out of their love of books as they got older, or that they don’t read anymore, but I always find that hard to believe. I have a firm belief that a love of reading is a life-long affair. Though the type of books one reads may change, and the impact of some books increases, the magic of reading a good book remains.
In high school, I discovered the wonderful world of dystopian novels. I wasn’t the biggest fan of 1984, but I absolutely loved Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which launched me into a dystopian reading frenzy. I soared through Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, among others. I almost didn’t read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but a friend forcefully lent it to me, and I’m glad she did. (Thank you, Sarah!)
It was by far (at that time) one of the most intriguing dystopias I had come upon. I found Offred to be a stronger protagonist than I was used to in dystopian literature, and her voice was so realistic and relatable. It didn’t hurt that she was female, in a subgenre largely dominated by male protagonists. I’m sure there were a multitude of reasons why I was suddenly, irrevocably hooked on Margaret Atwood. I was desperate to read more of her dystopian fiction.
I enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, but I loved Oryx and Crake. Oryx and Crake is Atwood’s less famous dystopia, but it was fascinating to me. The future she had imagined was at once so bleak and so vibrant. I also could relate to the protagonist, Snowman (or Jimmy, as he was called before the virus invented by his best friend killed off the human race), because he was awkward in social situations, and so am I.
One of my difficulties growing up was that my step-father was, and still is, the kind of person who likes to see “what’s going on” around town every weekend. He likes trying new things and interacting with people—I’m bad at both activities.
It was much worse in high school, but to this day, I’m still a bit of a recluse. I’m the type of person who is happy to go to a favourite restaurant for an hour or two and then sit home and read the rest of the night (or day—I’m not picky).
This fundamental difference in our personalities resulted in a lot of failed outing attempts on his part and a lot of whining on mine. In my mind, going to any of the events he wanted to go to (e.g. art walks, farmers markets, plays) meant interacting with many people (which I wasn’t so fond of) and losing out on time I thought would be better spent reading. Throughout high school, I resisted his attempts to get me out of the house, with varying degrees of success.
This pattern continued, even as I graduated from high school and entered college. I was living about three hours away from my parents at that point, so I didn’t have to deal with it every weekend, but every time my parents would come to visit me, or I would go to visit them, he’d try again.
“What’s going on this weekend?” he’d ask me. “Anything cool?”
Most of the time I shrugged and said, “I don’t know,” hoping he would drop the subject. Occasionally he did.
There was one time, though, in my sophomore year, when he didn’t. My parents had always stayed at one of the hotels in Saint Augustine when they came to visit me, up until that point. This particular time, however, they found that lodging in Saint Augustine was much more costly than they were used to, and they decided to stay in Jacksonville. I thought it might be fun—we had already done most of the usual activities in Saint Augustine, and it would be like a mini-vacation for me too.
When we got to the hotel, I noticed my step-father had picked up a free copy of the local events paper—one of those little publications people only pay attention to if they want to go out and do things. He must have found it in the hotel lobby. I believe I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. My mother and I got to chatting, the way we typically do when we reunite, and my step-father started looking at the paper.
About half-way through the paper, he stopped and asked us, “Do you want to go see Margaret Atwood tomorrow night?”
I was dumb-struck. I said, “What?”
He showed me the paper. In the middle of the page, there was her smiling face, with her signature knowing grin. She was reading at the University of North Florida Robinson Theatre at 7:00 PM, and tickets were available online.
I sat still for a few moments, taking in the immensity of the coincidence. Margaret Atwood was and still is one of my favorite authors. My parents and I had never stayed in Jacksonville before, and haven’t had the occasion to since. Yet there I was, sitting in the hotel in Jacksonville, and there was Margaret Atwood, grinning up at me from one of those event papers I had never paid any attention to in my life. I had a profound sense in that moment that the universe was chuckling at me, but I didn’t take offence.
Instead, I said, “YES. Absolutely. CAN WE REALLY?”
My step-father laughed. He had been paying enough attention to me over the years to know that I adored her, and he was already on the website, looking at tickets.
I don’t remember much about that weekend, except that glorious evening listening to Margaret Atwood be witty, talk about writing, and read some of her work. It was fantastic, and she was fantastic. She was just as wryly funny when she spoke that night as she is in her books, and she gave amazing writing advice. One of her tips was: if you’re writing from the perspective of a protagonist of the opposite gender, have someone of that gender read your work first! It’s one that has stuck with me, because I often write from the male perspective, and it had never occurred to me before that there are some things men might know about (to do with the male physiology), which women don’t even consider, and vice versa. Included in her reading selection was my favorite passage from Oryx and Crake, a passage where Snowman tries to explain the concept of “toast” to a child-like genetically modified race of humans who have no concept of any human culture (except what they learn from Snowman). It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had, and I was only able to be there because I got really lucky, and because my step-father likes doing things.
At the end, I waited in line to get a book signed and reflected that I really should pay more attention to local events. Being antisocial is okay sometimes, but that night proved to me that occasionally, really cool things happen locally, and I have to break out of my shell every once in a while to enjoy them. My step-father was right! Now I can say, “Once I was three feet away from Margaret Atwood,” and I owe it all to him.