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Novel Ideas

Sarah Ryan | September 25, 2017 | Feature Features National

As Margaret Atwood's novels take the small screen by storm, the celebrated author comes to Chicago to be honored at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner.
Prolific author Margaret Atwood

THOUGH UNDOUBTEDLY BEST known for her more than 15 novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood has always been a master of many mediums. She’s a prolific poet, has written both nonfiction and short fiction, and last year released a graphic novel. So it is no surprise that her work has adapted so successfully of late to one of the most popular new storytelling methods: the streaming series. With the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss, garnering 13 Emmy nominations and eight wins, and the series Alias Grace hitting Netflix in November, Atwood’s work has found another way to shine.

“Streaming has been good news for novelists!” Atwood says. “A 90-minute film made of a long and complex novel inevitably has to leave things out and squish other things together. But a multiple-episode version allows a deeper exploration of the work and, incidentally, is more like the evolution of the novel form itself, which often uses multiple-episode platforms—several volumes, or ‘numbers’ like the early work of Charles Dickens, or serialization in newspapers and magazines, like War and Peace.”

Indeed, skilled in-depth storytelling is part of what made the unsettling show an instant hit (season two returns in 2018). “Beyond that, it resonates with the times we live in,” Atwood says, noting that while the totalitarian government takeover in the novel may have felt a bit more farfetched when the book was released in 1985, it unfortunately feels more plausible in today’s fraught political climate. And while audiences have marveled over the apparent prescience of Atwood’s writing, the author credits this foresight simply to the type of writing that is in her wheelhouse. “I will read endless books about other worlds and dragons and Triffids and Martians being shot to earth in canisters—I grew up on Wells and Bradbury and even The Lord of the Rings—but I am no good at writing about things that do not have counterparts in the ‘real’ world,” she says. “I look at reality through the lens of a future. I say ‘a’ future because there is not one inevitable future. There are many possible futures. And no one can really write with total certainty about ‘the’ future. Books about the future are really about now—about where we appear to be heading.”

All that and more will likely be discussed at the upcoming Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner, benefiting the Chicago Public Library Foundation, where Atwood will share the stage with fellow honoree Dave Eggers and NPR’s Scott Simon. “Of course we will discuss the state of everything,” Atwood says. “But it’s worthwhile when discussing one’s wish to preserve the human race to remember why it is that such a thing is worth doing. Wouldn’t the earth be fine with just ants and fish? And humor and the creation of wonderful works of art are two of the reasons. Fish don’t make jokes or symphonies. Worse luck.” Oct. 11, 6pm, individual tickets $1,000, UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt Road


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