Sometimes bad things can lead to wonderful things.
August 27th, 2014, I came home from work and felt terrible. I was lethargic, with a pounding headache, cramps, and the hormonal works. It hurt my eyes to look at a computer screen, or read a book, so I laid down and doodled aimlessly for a couple hours until I felt better. One of the little doodles I made kind of looked like Margaret Atwood. I hadn’t Googled her in awhile, and it didn’t hurt as much to look at a screen anymore, so I popped her name into the trusty search bar and started scrolling through the results.
What did I come across? Only that Margaret was going to be coming out east in a couple months for a conference called “Discourse and Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals” at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick to act as a panelist on the topic of “Science and Art” with Canadian aerospace engineer Natalie Panek (who is a top-notch adventurer and genius to boot).
Seeing Margaret Atwood in person had been on my bucket list for a while, and I knew that I might not be so fortuitous that our paths crossed even remotely closely again (plus, neither of us was getting any younger. Time was working against me!). I decided to commit and bought a ticket to the conference.
I messaged my literary (award-winning, just saying) friend Shannon about it, and it turns out that she had been discussing the conference the night before over wine and cheese, but was unable to go as she didn’t have a ride. Now we both had someone to go with and I had a van to get us there. Kismet. Headache to roadtrip. Something awful turns into something great.
We packed our bags and drove from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Sackville, New Brunswick during a rainy grey weekend in mid-October.
Farmhouse? More like charmhouse.
We ended up being exceedingly fortunate in our lodgings, courtesy of my travel companion’s friends who were in the city and thus not using their farm house in Dorchester (a 10 minute drive from Mt. Allison).
This is the farmhouse kitchen where we spent our evenings drinking wine and talking writerly thoughts through the deep hours of the night.
That’s the romantic version.
We spent the second evening of the conference getting drunk and daring each other to tweet @MargaretAtwood to invite her over for some blueberry scones we’d picked up at the Masstown Market the day before on our drive in.
As it turns out, we’re both cowards when it comes to approaching literary giants with the offer of biscuits. Maybe next time. Margaret?
Peggy’s official panel wasn’t until day three of the conference, but she made an appearance at dinner on the second day. I was leaving the dining hall to go to the ATM downstairs to get some cash for the bar when she entered the building all nonchalant with her husband Graeme Gibson. I realized she was in front of me when I was about ten paces away, and I almost threw up when I looked up and saw her. My heart skipped a few beats (I have anxiety-induced arrhythmia, truth!).
Logically, she shouldn’t have cut such an intimidating figure, what with her tiny stature and pink sketchers shoes. Despite logic, it felt akin to seeing the Wizard of Oz for the first time.
I feel lucky I got to see her once at close quarters pre-book-signing, as I was able to develop some antibodies overnight to help me cope with the shock of seeing her face to face. I managed to be slightly more pulled together at our next encounter.
The Science and Art panel on day three was a great watch. Natalie and Margaret were very charming co-presenters. They covered all sorts of interesting topics, (including climate change, generational differences, childhood influences, in-orbit satellite repair and purring cats!). What’s even better, it was recorded so you can watch the whole thing here. The quality is alright. Hold tight for the first minute or so until they’ve got their audio sorted out. I promise it gets better.
Here’s a teaser: Margaret Atwood is great at giving high-fives.
After the panel she held an impromptu book-signing. I was prepared.
Despite her well-known fiction writing, my favourite book of hers is currently In Other Worlds: SF and The Human Imagination. I like her fiction voice a lot; I like her non-fiction voice even better.
In our brief interaction, I told her I liked her comics, got up the chutzpah to ask for a photo (Why not? You’ll only regret it if you don’t, I reasoned) and thanked her for her time and talk. What more can you do, really?
While I passed someone my iPhone to grab the photo with, Margaret doodled this in the front of my book.
On Writers and Writing is another great read of hers.
Although my personal highlight was obviously seeing and hearing said famous author, there were other good points to the weekend: The Walrus Talks opener on Friday night on ‘The Art of Conversation’ got my brain going and featured some other really cool people, such as journalist Sally Armstrong who talked about her time interviewing women in Afghanistan, and novelist Lisa Moore who talked about family narratives.
I didn’t go to any of the student academic papers, preferring to sleep in or explore the townships. You can see where my priorities lie.
The majority of the crowd were academics and students. They spent a long time unpacking the title “public intellectual” and its symbolic consequences. “I don’t consider myself a public intellectual” was the most-heard expression of the weekend. A few of the panels ended up circling the drain regarding how to make academia more accessible to “the Tim Horton’s crowd”
I love literature and cultural analysis, but I’d rather watch Thug Notes than watch someone wax prosaic about the plight of getting the plebs to understand the old, institutional hierarchy of academia. Ask yourselves instead – what can you offer to the masses? What does your privileged position enable you to offer? How are you going to do that? I heard a lot of problems, but not a lot of brainstorming for solutions.
Our weekend was brought to a spectacular close by checking out Mel’s Tea Room (perfect abode for me), a classic landmark of the town of Sackville. I fuelled myself for the 2.5 hour drive back to Halifax with Onion rings and a chocolate milkshake eaten on a swivel vinyl bar stool.
And that was the weekend. Free accomodations and five hours’ worth of gas to check this box on the bucket list.
Thanks for reading; if there are any Margaret Atwood fans out there, post your favourite book in the comments!