If you’ve been reading this column for a while now, you’ll know that I attended Leaside High School for the requisite five years from 1973-1978. But not all of you may know that a much more celebrated writer than I will ever be also attended Leaside, though some years earlier. Yes, Margaret Atwood, one of the world’s more renowned writers, walked the halls of Leaside High before me.
The first time I encountered Atwood’s writing was, I believe, in Grade 9 English class when we were assigned an early novel of hers called Surfacing. I think I’d quite enjoy the novel today, but I confess, back then my appreciation for literature was somewhat stunted, if I had any at all. I read Surfacing, but it left me confused and confounded. You might say I felt like an unworthy reader. Over the all too many intervening years, I’ve come to respect, even revere, Atwood’s novels. But back in 1973, I just wasn’t ready for Surfacing. I was much more into The Hardy Boys. Luckily, I eventually caught up.
In the years following my first novel back in 2008, I’ve had the glorious good fortune to meet Margaret Atwood often, whether at the Writers Trust Gala, various literary festivals, or events she’s had a hand in organizing. The first time I met her, we were at a formal dinner, and I turned around after checking my coat and there she was standing in front of me. Caught completely by surprise, when I introduced myself, my voice sounded like someone else’s. I was petrified. Had I seen her approaching from a distance, I would have had time to hyperventilate before encountering her. If seeing her weren’t shock enough, she kindly reported to me that at an event the previous week, a group of readers had recommended my first, and back then, only novel, The Best Laid Plans. She said she’d picked up the novel and would read it. I think I was able to muster a monosyllabic response as my knees turned weak and wobbly. Some weeks later, I was scrolling through Twitter when I came upon a very supportive tweet from Margaret Atwood recommending my debut novel to her gigantic community of followers. I nearly passed out.
Thus began at least an acquaintanceship, if not a friendship, that continues to this day. I don’t see her often as she travels in a somewhat more rarefied literary stratum than I. But it’s always lovely when we do connect. In 2015, I was one of a few floating writers in residence of sorts on a two-week Adventure Canada cruise up the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Margaret Atwood was also on the cruise. She approached me shortly after she boarded – which was a thrill in itself – and I’ll never forget our exchange.
“You know I’m going to come to one of your sessions and heckle you mercilessly,” the two-time Booker Prize winner said.
“Oh, um, well that would be great,” I fumbled.
“No, it won’t,” she replied. “It’ll be great for me, but not for you.”
She has a wicked sense of humour and was just winding me up. She did attend my session and was unfailingly kind and encouraging.
Then, in the spring of 2016, an email arrived from none other than Margaret Atwood. She and her late partner, Graeme Gibson, were instrumental in founding and supporting the Pelee Island Bird Observatory (PIBO). The annual PIBO fundraising dinner in Windsor was coming up and the speaker Margaret had secured had just cancelled. I suspect there were others on her backup list before I got the call, but before she’d even completed her invitation, I simply said, “I’ll be there.” It was a memorable night. We had dinner together, she introduced me, and after my talk, we signed books together. Just two Leaside High School graduates hanging out and signing books. I’ll never forget it.