A Conversation with Margaret Atwood and Alanis Morissette


This event had me confused for months. I finally found out that it’s a sort of teaser for next year’s Festival of Ideas at the U of A (which will be headlined by Twitter-infamous Joyce Carol Oates.) For just $50, you could listen to Margaret Atwood and Alanis in conversation about “Life. Love. Art” as per the promotional material. That’s pretty vague, and I had no idea what to expect.

The books editor for the Globe and Mail attempted to moderate the conversation, but he was a little out of his league. I have a problem with vicarious embarrassment and I was starting to squirm as both women pretty blatantly ignored him. Thankfully, Atwood took over handily and dominated the conversation throughout.

Alanis seemed starstruck, Atwood bemused – very true to her reputation as one who gives few, if any, fucks. My favourite bit was when Alanis tried to toss off a cute remark, “and that’s why I started my own record company when I was ten!” and Atwood grilled her: “how did you do that? What did you do first”? Did you put out a record? Then what?” and it was impossible to tell if she was genuinely interested or subtly calling bullshit, but I pretended it was the latter.

Much of the talk concerned the creative process – how it’s different for music versus books, vulnerability, autobiography (or not,) and it was fairly interesting, if a bit predictable. They also addressed their roles as trailblazers for female (song)writers. I’ve always found it strange that Alanis is presented as a trailblazer because when Jagged Little Pill came out I was listening to Hole and Garbage and wearing homemade Riot Grrl t-shirts, and Alanis seemed so sanitized, movie theatre blow jobs notwithstanding. In my experience, people who listened to JLP were the same people that listened to, like, Hootie and the Blowfish.

It’s somewhat tough for me to appreciate Atwood’s trailblazer status too, being just a kid when The Handmaid’s Tale was released, and not crediting it with my awakening as a feminist – just bad timing, I’m sure (I happened to read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf years earlier, and that’s the one that opened my eyes.) Atwood, as I expected, dismissed the designation all together, saying that it was so hard out there for a Canadian writer back in the day that she barely had time to register the difficulties of being female.

Alanis bemoaned the sexualization of female artists (yep, Miley was mentioned) and the over-commercialization of music; and I swear it was a coincidence that I noticed her pristine Louboutins while she was saying something about how it’s not all about the money. I don’t deny her the right to comment as such but it was kind of ironic. I think. Am I using that word right?

Overall, Atwood was deadpan funny, sharp, and just a smidge more self-deprecating that I expected. I could have listened to her talk much longer. I wanted to hear more about Maddaddam and what’s next. Alanis was alright, but speaks in this weird, half hippy, half business-speak lingo that was setting my teeth on edge. She kept using the word “serviceful,” meaning serving your community (or something) – why not just say “serving” or “being of service?” Then she went and misused “begging the question” which is a pet peeve of mine. As far as I’m concerned, most people use that expression to look smart, and 90% of them use it incorrectly. Isn’t THAT ironic?

Ms. Atwood must have stayed two hours after the event to sign books, and she was gamely chatting and taking pictures (I was too scared to ask!) I didn’t think there would be a signing and didn’t bring my own books – major disappointment. I bought a copy of Cat’s Eye and one of the Winspear staff told me she hadn’t seen anyone else with that book for signing, so at least I was original in my failure.

Photo Credit: My sister who stood with me for that hour and a half!

Photo Credit: My sister who stood in line with me for an hour and a half!

Worth it.

Worth it.

I was more blown away by Atwood’s stamina than the event itself, but I’m so grateful that I got to meet a true heroine of CanLit.


  1. tanya

    Thanks so much for telling us about the event. I still think Alanis and Atwood are sort of w weird pairing. But in any context Atwood is great. I think she keeps getting better as she ages! And talk about stamina. I don’t know whether or not she likes doing events, but she does them really well.

  2. Rory

    This whole post killed me – in a pleasant way of course.

    “In my experience, people who listened to JLP were the same people that listened to, like, Hootie and the Blowfish”. Yep, that made me laugh out loud. I love the music references in this post. I still listen to Garbage.

    And “isn’t that ironic?” – perfect.

    Margaret Atwood, along with Judy Blume, is one of the female authors I admire most.

    • lauratfrey

      Thanks, it almost killed me to write it – 2 yr old has decided 11pm is a reasonable bedtime so I had to stay up till 1am to get it done!

      I love Shirley Manson so much. Version 2.0 was the soundtrack of my life for years.

  3. Heather

    This sounds like it was pretty awesome. A friend of mine just got me Atwood’s autograph a couple months ago, and I chose to have her sign Cat’s Eye, too (it’s one of my favorites). Autograph twins! Hahaha!

    • lauratfrey

      No, Alanis was nowhere to be seen after the event!

      Yeah, I was exaggerating… actually I looked up a list of Top 100 songs of 1996 and Hootie just jumped out at me as being the most middle of the road one to mention. And the funniest name.

    • lauratfrey

      And I actually appreciate her music now. It just didn’t speak to my 16 yr old angsty self. My taste was far from impeccable anyway, I also listened to a lot of Korn and Marilyn Manson back then 🙂

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  5. Kristilyn

    I’m still jealous that you attended this! I’m glad you had fun, though. I think it would’ve been really interesting to see. And I would’ve loved an autograph from Margaret Atwood!

    • lauratfrey

      Yes it’s too bad the timing was off for you. You would have enjoyed the conversation about the music biz, I think – I didn’t talk about the audience Q&A, but most of the questions were about music.

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