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Event Recap: Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood at 92Y

“Fewer than ten, but more than six,” is how many 75th birthday party events Margaret Atwood has had in the last few months.  The event at 92Y was one of the last and featured speeches from The Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern, author and Terrible Minds blogger Chuck Wendig, Magicians Trilogy author Lev Grossman, and surprise guest The Ocean at the End of the Lane author Neil Gaiman.

Margaret Atwood, whose birthday is actually November 18th, is one of the literary staples of the publishing world and will probably remain a literary staple.  Her first book of poetry was published in 1961 and her first novel in 1970.  According to her website, over the course of her career, she has published 14 novels, 8 short fiction books, 8 children’s books, 17 books of poetry, and 10 nonfiction books.  Her newest publication, a collection of short stories titled Stone Mattress, came out in September of this year. 

She is a living legend; “literary royalty” in Chuck Wendig’s words.  She has also embraced new technology like ebooks, Twitter, and Wattpad and even patented the LongPen, which allows authors to sign works remotely, in order to connect with as many readers as possible.

While onstage, Atwood said she felt herself a writer at the young age of 16, when she wrote a poem while walking across the football field.  “I was very ignorant.  I didn’t realize you had to do all these other things,” using the example of not believing she needed an agent until a film contract for her first novel came up.

“She’s my second favorite Canadian,” said Morgenstern, starting the event, admitting that Atwood would be first if her husband weren’t Canadian.  She recounted a time in college when her professor had the class read aloud the beginning passages of Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. “I think I learned almost everything I know about rhythm and prose in those few minutes,” she said, also saying that she has never forgotten the first sentence of the novel, even now, 15 years later.

Wendig came on stage next and described Atwood as a “powerhouse rightly deserving the endless kudos she has received over the years.”  He then read aloud a listicle of ten (mostly) true accomplishments attributed to the guest of honor, including her social media prowess, her zombie knowledge, her patent for the LongPen, and her environmental activism.  “One day we’ll talk about her like we talk about Chuck Norris,” Wendig said.

Grossman was next and read his favorite excerpt from her book The Handmaid’s Tale, which he read 25 years ago and still feels is culturally relevant today.  Grossman then introduced the surprise guest of the night: Neil Gaiman, who led a casual discussion between himself and Atwood about writing and publishing.

Gaiman, who writes in many genres himself, called Atwood “one of [his] role models” for being one of the few other writers he knows to embrace so many writing forms.  When asked why she writes in so many genres, she said, “No one told me not to.”

On today’s  publishing climate, Atwood said she believes some people will continue to be able to make livings off of their writing alone. She thinks of publishing as two tin cans connected by string.  “Tin Can A is the writer, Tin Can B is the reader and everything in between is string.  So, it’s the string that’s changing. The fact that the string is changing, is changing the A’s and B’s to a certain extent, but you’re still involved in getting your thing that you have done across time and space to the unknown.”

The Future Library project is an extension of the string, in her opinion.  The project consists of one author per year for the next 100 years contributing a word, a poem, or any other form of the written word to the library in Norway.  The author will seal their contributions in a box and place it in the library, not to be read by anyone until 2114.  Atwood was chosen by the committee as the first contributor.  To paraphrase Atwood, it’s simply a longer time of everything being unknown.  Writers usually write in Time A and then in Time B someone (hopefully) reads their writing. Extending the time of release doesn’t change that much.

The event ended with Neil Gaiman leading the audience in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”  This attendee left with a certain optimistic feeling about the future of publishing, because in the end, the writer and the reader will find ways to connect whether its an immediate connection or a prolonged one.  Atwood has taught us that the best authors can form this author to reader connection within either time frame.

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