Okay, so I'll just start by admitting that I'm a rabid fan and apologize in advance for my slavering and blathering...
From the start, when the divine Ms. Atwood came on stage, it was clear that she would be sharp and charming and self-deprecating. She talked about how Buffalo, when she was growing up in Toronto, was called "Sin City" because you could see girly shows and drink alcohol at a younger age than you could in Canada (it's the other way around now). She joked about the Canadian slogan for the Olympics: "Own the Podium." Said it wasn't very Canadian at all. More Canadian would have been, "A little podium would be nice" or "I wouldn't say no to a bit of podium, eh?" She said she was reminded of the old joke, "What does a Canadian woman say when asked if she would like some sex?" Answer: "Only if you're having some yourself."
Her format for the lecture was to tell us the most frequently asked questions she has gotten from audiences over the years and then answer them. Here are a few:
1) Is your hair naturally like that (very curly!) or do you have it done that way?
She said a lot of things in response to that, but the most memorable was, "If I were having it done, do you honestly think I would have them do this?"
2) Why have you denied that The Handmaid's Tale and your other futurist stories are Science Fiction? And are you disparaging Science Fiction when you say this? Oh, and by the way, did you like the movie Avatar?
Yes, she liked Avatar. And she said that she refers to those futurist works of hers as "Speculative Fiction" because they involve humans, they happen in this world (on earth), and they involve technology that we are currently working to perfect or that is possible in the future, given what we know today. Most sci-fi takes place on alternate worlds with creatures very different from ourselves. She said if forced, she could put everything under a Sci-Fi umbrella with three main ribs: Fantasy, the type of writing that often involves dragons and unicorns and swords; Science Fiction that might involve frog-men from Mars, or giant blue-ish hued people with very strange tails; and Speculative Fiction that often involves a future-world that is within our grasp and imagination.
(This was all very useful to me, as the near-future dystopia that I'm writing would fit the Speculative Fiction label. I plan to use that in my future query letter.)
3) Do you like men? And the related, do men like you?
She said yes, she likes men, and as for the other question, why not ask the men? Although she knows that some of the younger ones claim to like her, just so they can get into the good graces of the young women they are interested in.
4) Are you a pessimist?
I loved her answer here. She said that no writer could ever accurately be termed a pessimist. The very act of writing is a supreme example of being hopeful. The road is so long and the horizon so far away when you first begin (you must write and revise the book, then find an agent, then find a publisher, then hope that it sells, then hope that readers and reviewers will like it...). Every writer is full of hope.
And she went on to more specifics of her hopefulness, but that first answer was the bomb.
And there were more, but I'll move on to some of the other bits that interested me.
She said never let anyone tell you that the arts are unnecessary. They are as important to human growth as breathing. To illustrate that point, she asked us to think about the creative things that kids do on their own before they ever start to attend school: they acquire language, dance, sing, draw, and color. (Brilliant.)
When asked who she reads, she said some of her favorites are Alice Munro and Hilary Mantel, and she recently read two forthcoming books by Yann Martel and E. O. Wilson in galley form. She liked them both.
When asked which one of her characters she was most like, she said Zenia, the compulsive liar (storyteller) from The Robber Bride.
When asked about the future of paper books vs. e-readers, she said that e-readers are lovely for some things, travel for instance, and aging eyes since you can enlarge the print and brighten the background, but that she doesn't believe that books will ever go away completely because the inherent storage risks are too great. Relying on a power source, surviving being dropped...in such ways books will always be superior. To illustrate this point she said, "Let me ask you this. Would you keep the only copy of your will on a computer?"
And lastly, when asked for a tip on sparking inspiration, she said, "I have the perfect way to inspire you to write. I promise it will work every time. It's foolproof. Are you listening? All right. First, put your right hand (or whichever hand you write with) onto your desk, on a piece of paper. Next, lift your left hand into the air. And now, hold your arm up in the air until you are inspired to write. Trust me, it works every time."