Margaret Atwood: Reinventing The Book Tour – Again

This article originally appeared in today’s Toronto Star

LONDON&Book tours are exhausting & something few Canadians know better than Margaret Atwood. Three years ago, tired of travelling all day and eating out of mini-bars, she unveiled her solution to an age-old problem: a remote signature machine called the LongPen. This autumn, Atwood is revolutionizing the book tour yet again.

Year-Of-The-Flood-Margaret Atwood-Credit: Marcia AdairOn paper, it’s an inspired idea: In place of the standard reading and autograph session, Atwood has created an hour-long masque, which employs locally sourced actors, musicians and directors to reduce the tour’s carbon footprint. The tour also acts as a fundraiser for various environmental charities.

In practice, it was a rather different story. Using local people meant that Atwood had to relinquish aesthetic control. Last night in London, at St. James’s Anglican Church in Piccadilly, the aesthetic was a small-town Baptist church nativity play, circa 1974. Choir robes were replaced with gold lamé headbands, and the earnest, guitar-strumming song leader, who swapped traditional hymns for country-music-inspired choruses, completed the portrait.

Hymns are an important part of Atwood’s new novel, The Year of the Flood, and there are 14 of them scattered throughout the book. U.S. composer Orville Stoeber, the partner of Atwood’s agent, set the text to music for the tour. “I wrote the first song in a day,” Stoeber says. “It was really just such a natural thing for me. She wanted some 19th-century Canadian hymns … but I come from that joyful Baptist sort of place. There was something bringing these tunes to me.”

Atwood’s instincts were right. Sticking with 19th-century shapes and harmony would have served the texts, based as they are on eco-imagery and devotion to vegetation, much better. Many of our favourite Victorian hymns have ridiculous words, but we love them anyway because of the music.

Most disappointing, however, were the readings. Taken straight out of the book without any discernable alteration, the text was a bizarre mixture of first- and third-person narrative, with some actors acting just one part and others playing multiple minor characters. If you hadn’t read the book before arriving & and that would be everyone who attended, since it isn’t released in the U.K. until Monday & it was rather difficult to keep track of what was happening. Once again, it was a great idea that fell down on execution.

Creating a proper script for a book tour is impractical, but a few judicious rewrites would have saved us from 30 minutes of awkward “he said’s” and perplexing “shouted Adam’s.” The strongest parts were the narrator’s excerpts. For the most part they were sensibly in the first person and provided real insight into her character and the circumstance in which she found herself.

The major drawback to this style of tour is that it adds even more to an already Olympian task. In what could be the understatement of the century, Atwood says it’s “more event-packed, and the time is very full.”

Despite the dramatic hodgepodge and happy-clappy music, this touring road show really is an excellent idea.

Just as composers are often not the best interpreters of their own work, authors are not always good at reading aloud. Having a third party interpret the text gives it a whole new dimension and spares the audience a dull reading.

Of course, not all books are suited to this format. According to Atwood, “It’s a unique sort of thing, so if you’re wondering if I’ll do this for each of my other books, the answer is no.”

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