Margaret Atwood

10 Facts About Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, huh? She wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s won some awards. I think she’s Canadian.


If your Atwood knowledge needs a little freshening up, look no further. We’ve got you covered. Here are the ten quirkiest facts about Atwood.


1. Both of her parents were scientists.


Atwood’s mother, Margaret Dorothy, was a dietician and nutritionist in Nova Scotia, and her father, Carl Edmund Atwood, was an entomologist who focused on forests in particular. Growing up, Atwood spent a lot of time in woods of Canada, where her mother would teach her and her siblings. At eight years old Atwood began attending school full-time, but many of her reading and writing habits started before her formal education.


2. She wrote a comic called Angel Catbird about a cat-bird-person


'Angel Catbird'

Image Via Amazon


As a lifelong fan of comic books, Atwood finally wrote one of her own in 2016. Angel Catbird was illustrated by Johnnie Christmas and published by Dark Horse Comics. The story follows a genetic engineer named Strig Feleedus whose genes get mixed with a cat’s and an owl’s after an experiment goes awry. In the style of pulpy comics from back in the day, Atwood’s superhero adventure story sounds like tons of fun.


3. No, she doesn’t hate science fiction.


The divide between genre fans and literary fiction fans is perhaps most clear when looking at Atwood’s relationship with the sci-fi community. She has historically refused to classify The Handmaid’s Tale as a work of science fiction, preferring the label speculative fiction. She once stated sci-fi involves “talking squids in outer space.” Once this was written on her Wikipedia page, sci-fi fans have not been able to let it go. She has since amended her comments, while still maintaining there’s a difference between speculative and science fictions. In an introduction to the 2011 essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Atwood writes that her work is speculative fiction rather than sci-fi “Not because I don’t like Martians . . . they just don’t fall within my skill set.” Let that be the final word. Please.


4. She wrote an opera.


Pauline Johnson

Pauline Johnson / Image Via Wikipedia


Along with her comic book cred, Atwood has experimented in opera writing. Commissioned in 2008 and premiered in 2014, Atwood’s Pauline was composed by Tobin Stokes and she wrote the libretto (story, words, etc.) The story follows the days before Canadian writer and performer Pauline Johnson’s death in 1913. How many writers can you think of who’ve written an opera?


5. She is Honorary President of the Rare Bird Club.


Atwood and her partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, were made Joint Honorary Presidents of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club. It’s not clear what exactly Atwood does for the Rare Bird Club, but BirdLife International is dedicated to the conservation of endangered bird species around the world (as the name would suggest). You can check out this video to learn more and Atwood makes a brief, endearing appearance.



6. She lived in West Berlin during the Cold War.


In her wonderful interview with Emma Watson, Atwood spoke about her time writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984 while living in West Berlin. Answering whether or not her time in West Berlin inspired The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood told Watson:


I had been thinking about it before I’d arrived, and at that time — when I was in West Berlin—I also visited Czechoslovakia and East Germany and Poland. They weren’t revelations, because being as old as I am I knew about life behind the Iron Curtain, but it was very interesting to be right inside, to sense the atmosphere….So it was very interesting to be there, but it wasn’t the primary inspiration.


7. She may or may not be descended from an alleged witch.


According to family lore, Atwood may be descended from a 17th-century Massachusetts woman who’d been accused of witchcraft. Her name was Mary Webster and she was sentenced to death by hanging. However, at the time they weren’t doing drop hangings. They would just hang the person up there and wait until they died. The night went by and, lo and behold, Mary survived. After that, she was called Half-Hanged Mary. Atwood’s not 100% sure this is true, but she can trace the Webster name back to John Webster, who was the fifth governor of Connecticut in the 17th-century. Connecticut’s not far from Massachusetts.


8. She is a student of military history.


The New Yorker’s profile of Atwood notes that she traveled around the world with Gibson and her daughter in 1976. Of particular interest is her stop in Afghanistan, where she stopped “to see the terrain where the British had been defeated.” That’s cool. When I go on vacation it’s usually to a theme park and it’s usually to eat fried things.


9. She doesn’t drive


Atwood’s life in her Toronto mansion seems weirdly ordinary. In lieu of driving, she walks all around her neighborhood, stopping to talk to her Canadian friends about life in town, and donating books upon books upon books to her local library. She’s a real townsperson despite her literary standing. A Man Booker winner who socializes with the little people, wow.


10. Northrop Frye helped get her career started in undergrad


When she was enrolled at the University of Toronto in undergrad, Atwood audited Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye’s course on the Bible and literature. Frye helped Atwood score a fellowship to Harvard, where she eventually worked on a doctoral dissertation titled “The English Metaphysical Romance.” But after two years, Atwood dropped out of Harvard and left her dissertation unfinished. It’s cool, though, because writing The Handmaid’s Tale counts as bigger and better things. Sorry, Harvard!


Feature Image Via Literary Hub