A prophet for our times: Margaret Atwood triumphs at the Royal Festival Hall

By Michelle Johnson | 01 Apr 2022 | Culture, Art

The author of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ answers celebrity questions as she launches her new book of essays

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Taking to the stage in an exclusive event at the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall on 24 March, Margaret Atwood, the prolific award-winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye tackled audience questions and the secrets of publishing, as well as some of the themes in her new book of essays, Burning Questions

The 82-year-old author was born in Ottawa, Ontario, the Booker Prize-winning Canadaian author has published 18 novels, 18 books of poetry, 11 non-fiction titles, nine collections of short stories, eight children's books, and two graphic novels. Her latest work Burning Questions is a collection of more than 50 essays and musings on the 20th-century so far, with topics ranging from the global financial crisis to modern beauty standards, world politics to favourite foods. 

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“Atwood aims her prodigious intellect and impish humour at our world, and reports back to us on what she finds. The roller-coaster period covered in the collection brought an end to the end of history, a financial crash, the rise of Trump and a pandemic. From debt to tech, the climate crisis to freedom; from when to dispense advice to the young (answer: only when asked) to how to define granola, we have no better questioner of the many and varied mysteries of our human universe,” says Penguin of the book. 

The live event saw Atwood answer questions from such big names as author Neil Gaiman, poet Benjamin Zephaniah, actress Ann Dowd, and Labour MP Diane Abbott. Atwood spoke of her experiences living through tumultuous times – she was born at the break of the Second World War and lived in East Berlin in the 1980s, when she visited then-Soviet states west of the Berlin Wall – as well as the reception of the hit TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. 

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She also spoke of her work in environmental activism and activism for First Nation communities in Canada, joking that although she often felt like a “prophet” through her work, she hoped she would not end up like the mythical Cassandra. 

Many of her anecdotes also explored changing times – including the advent of social media – and how that cannot be ignored in our storytelling. But, always, Atwood came back to the power of storytelling and our lived experiences.

“Everything that happened before we are born is mythology,” she told the audience. “Everything that happened when we are very young is legend. But what we experience in our lifetimes, is history.”

A prophet for our times, indeed. 

Burning Questions by Margaret Atwood is available to buy now (published by Penguin)