Margaret Atwood

“A word after a word after a word is power.”

Margaret Atwood, Canadian author and poet, 1939-present

National icon Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including The Handmaid’s Tale, and its sequel, The Testaments. Some of her best known works are Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace and Blind Assassin. A formidable force in Canadian literature, almost all her novels have been shortlisted or have won either the Booker Prize in England or the Giller Prize in Canada. Most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985, has become a popular television series, and has been lauded for its prescient depiction of a totalitarian society, showing how quickly communities can come together or disintegrate when faced with adversity. She is known for tackling contemporary issues like reproductive rights, patriarchy, and imbalances of power. Her work often explores dystopian societies, which she describes not as science fiction, but as “speculative” fiction that could actually happen. As such, her writing could be seen as cautionary tales.

Atwood was born in Ottawa and grew up in Sault Ste. Marie. Her  father was an entomologist, so he spent a lot of time in the Northern Canadian wilderness in researching insects. She enjoyed the “bush time” away from school, and her older brother taught her to read. At the age of six she had started working on her first novel. 

Young “Peggy’s” favourite writer as a teenager was Edgar Allen Poe, known for his dark mysteries. She decided to become a writer while out on a walk, and was educated at the University of Toronto, as well as Radcliffe College and Harvard. She got her start reading her poetry at the Bohemian Embassy coffee shop in Toronto. Her first book of poems, The Circle Game, won the Governor General’s Award while she was still a student.

Atwood has written disparagingly of the confines of marriage in her poetry, however she was wed to writer Jim Polk, whom she met at Harvard, from 1968 to 1973. Her life partner, with whom she had a daughter, was the late novelist Graeme Gibson. They lived on a farm for a brief while before settling in Toronto.

As much as a novelist, Atwood is known as a public figure and social commentator. She is also a talented watercolourist and has designed several of her book covers. Living simply with no entourage of assistants, she is known to donate her literary prize money to environmental causes and the arts. 

A naturalist at heart, her poem “Gardening is not a Rational Act” includes the line  “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”


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