A few years ago, Margaret Atwood delighted the Toronto Council of Teachers of English with a story from her own school days at Leaside High. Dedicating her lunch-time presentation to her high-school English teacher, Miss Bessie Billings, Atwood explained that it was Billings who "gave me some of my first encouragement as a writer. She read one of my first poems and said: 'I can't understand this at all, dear, so it must be good!'" During the 41/2 decades since Miss Billings' mixed blessing, Margaret Atwood's fan base has grown exponentially.
What is it that attracts an ever-widening audience to Atwood's work? With apologies to Billings, it is the clarity and precision of Atwood's storytelling skills, not the lack thereof, that appeal to readers around the globe. As Atwood's United States editor, Nan Talese, once explained, what attracts her - and several million like her - to Atwood's writing is "her razor-sharp mind, her sense of humour, her ability to cut straight through to the truth and to reveal it in story."
Born in Ottawa on November 18, 1939, Atwood spent her formative years in Toronto, graduating from the University of Toronto's Victoria College in 1961. She then moved to Boston to attend graduate school at Harvard, where she earned her master's in 1963. Atwood's professional career began the following year as an English instructor at the University of British Columbia, an experience that cured her of any interest in a full-time teaching career.
That same year, Atwood experienced her first brush with literary fame when her second collection of poetry, The Circle Game, gained widespread critical acclaim.
Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, appeared in 1969 and was immediately embraced by followers and supporters of the burgeoning feminist movement. Her brilliant second novel, Surfacing, followed in 1972, and has remained a staple of Canadian literature courses ever since.
Throughout the following decade, Atwood delivered six additional volumes of poetry, three short-story collections, and three more novels - Lady Oracle, Life Before Man, and Bodily Harm. All were national bestsellers.
Then, in 1985, came The Handmaid's Tale, the dazzling, futuristic story of a negative utopia that elevated Atwood from national treasure to international sensation. Each of her subsequent books, including the novels Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace, have earned international acclaim and expanded her worldwide popularity.
She has so far published more than 40 books, including four titles for children - the most recent of which is 1995's delightful Princess Prunella And The Purple Peanut.
Since the early 1970s, Atwood has shared her life with fellow writer Graeme Gibson. (When asked what it was like to live with another writer, she quipped: "Better than a dentist. At least another writer knows why you are being so strange. And you can take long vacations.") Together they have three children.
In addition to her induction as the first novelist and poet on Canada's Walk of Fame, Atwood has the unique distinction of being the only living Canadian author for whom a very large and active academic fan club exists. Established in 1984, the Margaret Atwood Society meets each December at the Modern Language Association conference and publishes a semi-annual newsletter devoted exclusively to discussion of Atwood's works, activities, and her tireless battle against literary censorship.
At age 61, Margaret Atwood remains that rarest of artists - a writer who straddles the two usually distinct worlds of critical and popular success. She can hold her own on bestsellers lists alongside the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham; and is just as comfortable among the world's literary elite, as evidenced by her recent receipt of the prestigious Booker Prize for her latest novel, The Blind Assassin.
Unquestionably one of the finest - if not the finest - novelists, poets, and storytellers this country has produced, Atwood is typically Canadian in her modesty. When asked in 1995 to explain how she resists the temptation to become a literary snob, Atwood replied: "I think we could probably rephrase the question: 'How do you maintain a sense of proportion?' or 'How do you keep values straight?' In that case, I can say that it certainly helps to be Canadian; we don't put up with people who get too high and mighty. Start flinging it about and we get out our pins! I think it's always a mistake to believe your own billboards."