Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

"Sexbots are making great strides”: The Heart Goes Last with Margaret Atwood

Monday night’s post-festival event at Southminster United Church was unsurprisingly a full house. Some attendees might argue the event’s appeal was extensive talk of sexbots (and the vast irony of such talk occurring in a church), but instead, all attention was on one of Canada’s foremost and most beloved authors, the inimitable Margaret Atwood. As host  Alan Neal  emoted more than once in the opening moments of the event, Monday’s event was certainly a welcome to the mind of Margaret Atwood, as sexbot-oriented as it may be.


Much of the evening’s discussion between Neal and Atwood focused on Atwood’s overall writing process, much to the delight of the budding writers in the crowd. More specifically, however, Atwood shared about the process by which her most recent publication,  The Heart Goes Last, transformed from an online serial publication to a regular novel.


One of the questions Alan Neal asked during the course of the evening how Atwood went about finding or developing her characters for The Heart Goes Last. Her response? She doesn’t find characters sitting on a shelf somewhere; they grow out of the story that she tells. Despite what plenty of people may believe about the work of writers, Atwood intimated that her characters emerge during the process of creating a story; those characters don’t pre-exist. Certainly, new developments emerged for the characters of The Heart Goes Last when it transformed into a novel, but Atwood seems to imply that those character transformations were organic.


When asked about her writing process, Atwood shared that, once upon a time, she attempted to write in a calculated, formulaic way: this, Atwood said, was the Post-It note style. Specifically, Atwood shared that she tried this particular writing tactic in 1968 by using a series of filing cards and creating a formula of characters and sections. Colour coding was even involved, which sets my mildly obsessive-compulsive heart aglow, but those notes and codes certainly didn’t please Atwood.

After going through the aforementioned process, Atwood commented that she knew a lot about those characters, but absolutely nothing had happened. In the same vein, she shared advice that she gave to a friend writing a murder mystery: in the most Atwood-way possible, she suggested that this friend move the dead body closer to the front. Ultimately, Atwood shared that the writing process is akin to that of a rat searching for cheese in a maze: sometimes, you just have to throw it all out and start all over again.


One of my favourite moments of the evening (and one of a few times during which I laughed out loud) was Atwood’s recalling the helpful feature of the Microsoft Word of days gone by, wherein a small box would appear, commenting that “you seem to be trying to write a letter; would you like some help?” Atwood was, however, quick to clarify that this she was referring to a little, advice-giving box, and not the googly-eyed paperclip, the latter of which she strongly disliked. (After some quick research, I’ve discovered the aforementioned square and paperclip are more professionally referred to as office assistants. Go figure.)


One of the night’s most interesting pieces of information was that Atwood has attended ComicCon. In short, she was one of a few authors commissioned to compose an anthology in honour of Ray Bradbury. Sadly, before Atwood and her co-authors could present the publication to Bradbury at ComicCon, he passed away. (Atwood has a beautiful, long form piece about Bradbury in The Guardian for those who are interested.) Atwood and her fellow writers opted to show up in Bradbury’s honour at ComicCon anyway. Atwood shared further tales of comic-con, commented about receiving a Hobbit tote bag with which she would not part. Additionally, she shared about a connection with some Iranian filmmakers and her subsequent poster cameo in the recent cult film  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.


If her Twitter relationship with Rob Delaney, her political engagement or her deep love of birds weren’t already enough to convince you, I’m certain that Monday’s event will have attendees tip the scales in Atwood’s favour toward national treasure, peculiar as she may be.