Every year the Perth Writers Festival hosts its own subset of exciting events under the umbrella of the Perth International Arts Festival, and this year is no exception. PWF 2013 brings celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood to the scene, and last night, the packed Perth Concert Hall was treated to an extended conversation with her, facilitated by journalist Jennifer Byrne. The event was filmed by ABC and will be shown on Channel 2 at the end of May.
Atwood gently enters the stage with her handbag still hanging from her shoulder, as if she’d just been spotted walking down the street and pulled inside for an impromptu chat. She is completely unassuming in her simple dark attire, the only giveaway being a bright red scarf slung around her neck on this cool, end-of-summer evening. She sits in her designated club chair, and there she will remain, very meek and still, for the rest of the evening.
Jennifer Byrne kicks off the interview by bringing up Atwood’s “unusual” childhood, which was divided between city life and the Canadian wilderness. Her father was a zoologist and entomologist, and the family unit would go with him into the wild when he carried out his research. She described the various objects and activities that occupied her time as a child, and mourned the lack of pipe cleaners that she would have used to fashion little animals, had her father been a pipe smoker. “Clearly deprived,” quipped Jennifer Byrne, with what was to be the first of many cheeky jabs aimed at the reserved Atwood. But Byrne is no match for Atwood’s quick, dry wit, although she lets this one slide.
Byrne next moves forward into questions about Atwood’s literary upbringing, and what role the classics of dystopian and science fiction had on her literary leanings. Atwood must be secretly weary of this line of questioning, as dystopian science fiction is only one facet of her diverse canon, but she never lets on. Byrne and Atwood then go on to discuss her various awards and achievements, her relationship to the feminist movement, her connection to Australia, her stance on environmental issues and her involvement in an online story sharing project called Happy Zombie Sunrise Home.
Every subject is treated with a classic Atwoodian mix of levity and seriousness, injected with the frequent electric spark of a wry remark. She returns Byrne’s bold jabs with ease, and remains ever humble in her responses. When asked who her “gold standard” authors are, Atwood asks sheepishly, “Can I say Shakespeare?” as if she would disappoint us with this choice.
She then fields a few thoughtful questions from the mostly female audience, and after about an hour and a half of delightful discussion, which would have entertained not just fans alone, she takes a bow and exits gently stage right.
Perth International Arts Festival/Perth Writers Festival 2013
Venue: Perth Concert Hall
Date: Sat 23 Feb 2013
Tickets: $47.50 – $25