~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, November 29th 2012

MARGARET ATWOOD“If you like paté, don’t ask to meet the duck”—Margaret Atwood’s characteristically sardonic advice to readers tempted to encounter authors in the flesh was roundly ignored by some 200 of her own admirers last night.

The venue was Canada House on Trafalgar Square; the occasion, Atwood’s inauguration both as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and as a Companion of Literature. Fellows sign into a great roll book using either Byron's pen or Dickens's quill, and earlier in the evening Atwood had tried out both on my reporter's notebook (above). She tried out Byron's pen first ("This is written with Lord Byron's pen with however a modern nib. NIB") but plumped for Dickens's quill as more authentic. Despite some ribaldry she was clearly determined that her signature should be bold and clear—and at least as fine as that of Richard Ford, who had signed in two nights before.

The Companion of Literature is the highest honour in the RSL’s gift, held by just ten writers at any time, and Atwood was entering a den of literary lions prowled, in the past, by Philip Larkin, Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark. She’s no stranger to honours, of course. As the Canadian High Commissioner pointed out, Atwood’s books (over 50, to date) have earned her no less than 97 awards. So it was sobering, once the formalities were over and she was engaged in conversation by the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer, Peter Kemp, to reflect on some of the obstacles she had to overcome before she ever had a word published. 

In a casual drawl, thinly veiling a rascally wit, she talked of her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec (“No radio, no electricity, no running water—no other people, actually”); of the low standing of Canadian literature in her youth (the few novels published by Canadians were shelved alongside titles such as “101 Things To Do With Maple Sugar”); and of her own early struggles to earn a crust by writing “true romance". She knew how to get a hero and heroine on to a sofa together but thereafter, she confessed, words failed her. “All I could ever say was, ‘And then they were one…’.”

There's a sharpness to her. When a woman in the audience asked plaintively about the future for gender relations, Atwood’s response began with something close to a put-down, “Here’s a shocking piece of news for you: not all women are nice”. But there’s generosity too. Speaking about her appetite for new technology—Twitter, Wattpad, Byliner—she revealed an overwhelming desire to "enable literature” among people without regular access to bookshops, or libraries. People, perhaps, like the little girl she once was—growing up in a forest, short on human company, but long on incisive intelligence, subversive humour, and passion for words.

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life, director of the Royal Society of Literature in London and the award-winning author of "George Mackay Brown: The Life"