Perth Writers Festival: A Conversation with Margaret Atwood and China Mieville

Geordie China Margaret

A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Perth Writers Festival event – a Conversation with Margaret Atwood and China Mieville. For those of you who aren’t in the know, Margaret Atwood is a writer of speculative fiction and China Mieville is a self-described weird fiction author.

What first drew me to Margaret Atwood was always the plot – the back cover blurb – that got to me. Her stories always had great hooks – a great idea that made you want to find out more about what this book is about. However, it did take me a fair bit of time to get used to her actual writing. The fleshing out of her characters, the decisions they made and the way they responded to the world they lived in. I also hated that most of her female characters always faced the issue of being preyed on, of being made objectified and used by men. Ironic because Atwood is also a known feminist – her works usually spun a world where women were all too easily preyed on – but then this is an ugly truth of life and something that shouldn’t be swept under the carpet, but instead faced if we are to raise awareness of it and address this problem. Interestingly, Atwood remarked midway through the Conversation on how the popularity of her book The Handmaid’s Tale rose during the last US elections due to controversial comments made by Republican politicians that raised the ire of women everywhere. (Anyone remember Todd Akin suggesting the female body shut down its reproductive organs during ‘legitimate rape’ and Richard Mourdock stating that pregnancy resulting from rape was something God intended? Quelle horreur! )

As for China Mieville, the scope of his imagination is just simply amazing – the man clearly knows more than just one or two things about world-building – and I highly recommend reading his books just for the sake of that. And for the quality of his writing, well, Mieville is reaching for boundaries that not many writers strive for these days and that makes the reading of his books all the more exciting. He’s a writer in whose hands you feel safe to just sit back and let his words simply carry you away.

So you can well imagine my excitement when I heard that not just one, but both writers would be coming to the Perth Writers Festival. And would be in the same room at the same time! And be doing signings! You could actually talk to them! In the flesh!

And they did not disappoint. It was crazy, when they both first appeared on the stage – a combination of Atwood, this deceptively fragile-looking older woman dressed all in black. And Mieville, a young, male writer – not to mention a good-looking one too and one who obviously works out (for those of you who are interested, there is a website dedicated to the China Mieville’s ripped guns and possible ability to beat up just about anyone called Could They Beat Up China Mieville?) – and one who has tattoos all over aforementioned ripped guns. And that’s when you begin to get an inkling that Atwood isn’t just this fragile old lady as she whips out her phone and begins taking pictures of Mieville’s tatts. (Seen here at @MargaretAtwoood) Margaret Atwood’s on Twitter? Yup. And she makes far more use of it than I do.

Atwood taking shots of Mieville's tatts

Atwood taking shots of Mieville’s tatts

I think she also ends up taking shots of the tatts on the technician adjusting the microphone too

I think she also ends up taking shots of the tatts on the technician adjusting the microphone too

The Conversation is chaired by The Australian‘s chief literary critic Geordie Williamson, and it resembles, more than anything, a radio interview of Mieville and Atwood. And it does not disappoint. Atwood is incredibly witty and funny and has the audience in stitches more than half the time and nodding enthusiastically in the other half. Mieville just manages to keep up with her, and offers some interesting insights into writing. When asked about humanity’s love of story-telling, he muses that we as a human race, are simply hard-wired to love narratives, that we can’t help ourselves, that the sharing of stories is something we have to do. Like taking a poo.

Atwood interjects slyly, “Try holding that in.”

What really struck me with interest, though, is to hear both writers offer tips on what to do when hit with writer’s block. Atwood suggests switching to a different kind of writing, for example changing the narrative from first person to third or second, or changing the tense. She also recommends going for a walk or ironing, something repetitive that doesn’t require thought. Mieville agrees with this, commenting that “running is good”. (Now we know how he keeps fit). Atwood counters with, “For those of us who can run, dear.”

And what I really took away from the Conversation was Mieville’s other antidote to writer’s block – 200 words. “I am a really big fan of 200 words,” he said. “Two hundred words is two paragraphs. It is nothing. They will stink. It doesn’t matter. Go away and come back and write another 200 words and they will probably stink, but it doesn’t matter. Most things don’t get written because people are waiting for the perfect word.” So true! As Atwood adds, “Think of it as piano practice. I am keeping my hand in.”

Atwood and Mieville signing books

Atwood and Mieville signing books

The hour flew by quickly and was over before we knew it. And by the end of it, everyone headed out to get their books signed by Atwood and Mieville. I wished badly that I could be one of those who had something really interesting and smart to say to both writers, but honestly when I got in front of them, I was so in awe that my mind went blank. All I could tell them was, “I really enjoy your books.” And drown in Mieville’s eyes when he told me he had put in a quote for me in  the front page. While Atwood glanced at my copy of Mievillle’s Perdido Street Station after signing copies of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood for me, and commented on its size (it was a whooping 867-page ginormous paperback). I gibbered like a schoolgirl, something about how, yeah, it was heavy and totally breaking my shoulder, then stepped back and the line of fans queued for autographs moved on. To be honest, I don’t know how I got out of there – I was floating on euphoria. Then out in the sunshine, I pumped my fist and almost fell over with the weight of my books in my bag. I had met China Mieville and Margaret Atwood!

Atwood signing

Mieville signing

They know my name now! (along with a thousand other fans, probably long forgotten, lol)


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