LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: APRIL 20, 2013: Margaret Atwood (right) in conversation… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
"Hello, Twitter pals," Margaret Atwood called out to followers in the packed crowd at her conversation with Bookworm's Michael Silverblatt at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Saturday morning.
The Canadian author has a large Twitter audience, particularly in Toronto, where her followers recently wore Margaret Atwood masks to protest a proposed public library closure. (They were responding to councilor Doug Ford's remark that he wouldn't recognize her if he saw her and that she should keep her opinions about libraries to herself.)
"Think about how horrible it would due to have a roomful of Margaret Atwoods all staring at you balefully," she joked about the successful action. In fact, she is tiny and unexpectedly pretty in life, wearing a pink top beneath her trademark puff of curly silvery-blue hair.
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Far from the stereotype of an old-school author who laments what technology has done to publishing, the 73-year-old Atwood is on the cutting edge of the transition. She does have a traditional-format novel coming out in September ("MaddAddam," the third part of the trilogy that began with "Oryx and Crake"), but she also writes serial fiction for the website Byliner.
"She's bringing back the form that Dickens made so popular," said Silverblatt, observing that "tweeting and the Web are not so much a matter of innovation but a matter of storytelling." He made the case that Atwood, who recently received the fourth L.A. Times Innovator's Award for "her efforts in pushing narrative form," is at heart a traditional storyteller -- a tendency she attributes to a puppet-show business she started in high school.
"We did the classics, Red Riding Hood. Cannibalism and suspense. And that's story."
"Would you read a book in which nothing is happening and everybody is very nice?" she said, channeling early detractors who objected to her "bloodthirsty" imagination.
Atwood admits there is "a certain amount of doom and gloom" in the current discourse about the state of fiction, but she's not worried. "There will always be authors, because there will always be storytellers, because we are narrative beings," she said. "When people say nobody is reading anymore, I say, 'You don't know where they're reading.' "
She listed the websites Wattpad; Book Riot; the Rumpus; and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and pointed out that cellphones are widely available in developing countries where there may not even be land lines.
"That's been a great driver to literacy. But," she conceded, "If you are looking for it in traditional places, you might not find it."
The only thing she thinks the Web can't replicate "is the serendipity" of discovering things in bookstores. "I read a lot about demonology and witchcraft just because they were near the Canadian literature in the library," she recalled. "Ask me anything."