It’s been two weeks since I was (intentionally) sequestered on Pelee Island at the Pelee Island Book House. I can say that I have, amazingly, maintained some of the momentum I gained working on my newest novel. I’ve also been asked, more than once, what it was like to do workshops – and be critiqued by – Margaret Atwood.
What can I tell you?
The mood at the retreat was one of anxious anticipation. Some people went a little beyond “anxious anticipation” in to “freaking out a little bit.” Though no one expected Ms. Atwood to come through the door guns a-blazing, it was still remarkably nerve-wracking to know the nation’s most famous author – whose biggest book was recently back on the bestseller list because of a television adaptation, even – was reading your work, thinking about your work, and critiquing your work.
It was pouring rain when she arrived, and could barely be heard above the rain on the roof of the sunroom – but once we’d all relocated to the big kitchen table, we began to relax. We spent two days at that table with Margaret (which is what we called her – no one was cocky enough to go for “Peggy”), days in which we discussed one another’s work, asked questions, and even shared lunch alongside her long-time partner Graeme Gibson, who dropped in both days.
The title of the workshop was “The First Five,” and we were supposed to submit the first five pages of a novel. That wasn’t the case for everyone, but it was close enough for jazz. Margaret’s critiques ran from line edits to deep discussions about major changes needed in the work. She liked mine, which was encouraging, though she did confirm something that I knew would be a major concern down the road.
So, what was she like? Was she going to be acerbic, or snarky? We know she doesn’t suffer fools. Well, luckily for us, none of us were terrible fools – she was extremely kind. Not like over-the-top sweet, she’s too wry for that…and she was quick to call you out if you needed calling out. Still, she was kind and fair and generous with her answers, criticisms and time. She told a lot of stories and was very funny. She seemed more relaxed on the second day, since we were no longer strangers. She honestly seemed to enjoy herself.
She would find items in your work to expand upon – whether it was Sumerian myth or Victorian dress or the history of zombies. Her sharpness was extraordinary and her depth of knowledge almost unbelievable. “How do I know all this?” she joked/mused at one point. “I’m old!” She answered questions about our work, and questions about herself as well (barring the ones she doesn’t answer, ever, such as “Are you working on something right now?”). And did I mention funny? Can’t stress that enough. She had a delightful way of cracking a joke, surveying the table, noting that we were all laughing, and then joining in the laughter.
As far as meeting literary geniuses go, the experience was as good as you can hope for.
On this week’s radio program I got the distinct pleasure of talking with long-time acquaintance Paul Benedetti. He was one of the younger gents in the newsroom when I first started my column at the Hamilton Spectator in 1992. I recall him being kind, encouraging, and a heck of a natty dresser. I enjoyed catching up with him and talking about his collection of columns, You Can Have A Dog When I’m Dead. Hope you enjoy our conversation.