If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ontario, Canada. She was the second of three children, with a brother two years older and a sister twelve years younger. Her father was an entomologist, and the family traveled back and forth to the wood of Northern Ontario. She was a voracious reader but did not attend school full-time until she was twelve years old. She began writing plays at poems at six and decided to be a writer when she was sixteen.

Atwood studied English, with minors in French and philosophy, at Victoria College at the University of Toronto and went on to get a master’s degree at Radcliff College. After college, she was a lecturer in English at Canadian Universities while pursuing her writing. 

In 1961 Atwood self-published a pamphlet of poetry, Double Persophone, making 220 copies she handset and designed herself. In 1963 she submitted both her first book of poetry and a novel. The novel was rejected, and the book of poetry got accepted – then rejected. In 1964 The Circle Game, her first book of poetry, was finally published by Contact Press and won the Governor General’s Award. She followed with three other small press collections of poetry, then published her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969. 

She married American writer Jim Polk in 1968, and they divorced in 1973. After this, she had a relationship with writer Graeme Gibson that lasted until his death in 2019. They had one daughter, born in 1976. 

Throughout the seventies, Atwood published six more collections of poetry, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), You Are Happy (1974), Selected Poems 1965–1975 (1976), and Two-Headed Poems (1978), and three novels Surfacing (1972); Lady Oracle (1976); and Life Before Man (1979).

Her success continued to grow into the 1980s, although her now best-known work, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was not well received by everyone. The New York Times, bastion of all things literary, gave it a bad review, Mary McCarthy ending with “It seems harsh to say again of a poet’s novel – so hard to put down, in part so striking – that it lacks imagination, but that, I fear, is the problem.” However, others felt that it should be celebrated with other dystopian novels such as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was nominated for a Booker Prize and Nebula Award in 1986, among other awards. It also won the first even Arthur C. Clarke Award, although Atwood has argued extensively that The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of Speculative Fiction, not Science Fiction, because it is based on things that have and could actually happen. 

Other notable novels include Cat’s Eye (1988), a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1989, and The Blind Assassin (2000), her tenth book, awarded the Booker Prizer in 2000. 

A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments was published in 2019 and was a co-winner of the Booker Prize. 

Since 1961, Atwood has published 18 books of poetry, 18 novels, 11 books of non-fiction, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, two graphic novels, and several small press editions of both poetry and fiction. 

Lesson from Atwood

Atwood has been writing steadily from her early-twenties on, not afraid to cross between poetry, fiction, non-fiction, writing popular books for large publishers and experimental prose for small presses.

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