by Isabella David McCaffrey
If I relate the improbable story about the time a homicide detective demanded that I demand Margaret Atwood’s autograph using only the dry facts, the entire story sounds improbable. I find myself forced by the oddity of the occurrence to go into detail. Details or no, it happened.
So, there I was, fresh out of college and living in Greenwich Village. I can no longer recall certain aspects of the incident, but other pieces remain crystal clear. I can’t remember, for example, if I read Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing because I knew she’d be appearing at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, or if she was appearing in order to promote that very book. Using online research, the dates line up to the latter, although the book itself is no longer in my possession.
I can remember reading her wily, sagacious prose in a state of awe, and the wit of specific phrases like, “Wanting to meet a writer because you like their writing, is like wanting to meet a goose because you like paté.”
I don’t even have to look that up; I know it’s there.
I can also recall paragraphs complaining at length in an over-personal, slightly whiny way about all the people who want to meet her and the resulting carpal tunnel syndrome upon engaging with, I guess, heaps of adoring autograph-seekers. Poor Margie.
J.D. Salinger famously wrote that there are certain writers – he cited Isak Dinesen – who you just know you could be friends with. I think this rings false. Isak Dinesen was a mightily pernickety grand dame; just read Thorkild Bjornvig’s tell-all description of their psychotic friendship in The Pact. That book alone will make you swear off geese for life. Maybe all great writers are cranky by temperament either through déformation professionelle or self-selecting choice of profession. Regardless, Atwood’s essays had their intended effect. I did not feel buddy-buddy toward her. Awed, yes. Scared to death? That, too.
I also remember formulating these very opinions before being forced to encounter this great, albeit cranky, writer by Gary’s girlfriend. (I think his name was Gary.)
What I can specifically remember about Gary is that he was a writer for The Economist or The Financial Times but didn’t look or act like what I thought a writer for a highly-respected, conservative journal should look or act like. Gary had a long, gray ponytail and carried a bike everywhere as if this excused the biker shorts he perennially wore. It didn’t. There are very few people for whom anything excuses the donning of biker shorts, except maybe professional bikers, and Gary wasn’t.
We lived in the same building on Bleecker Street, back when writers could make a living writing for just one publication. Financial Times or not, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case any longer, or that writers can even still afford to live in large one-bedroom/studio apartments in an area of town now overrun by lawyers and bankers who grew up on Sex and the City and relive their childhood fantasies in a now rapidly vanishing landscape of authentic city, obscured by American Apparel and Starbucks signs. And like it.
I also can’t say for certain if Gary’s apartment was a studio like me and my first boyfriend’s, located two floors down, or a one-bedroom. I didn’t do a lot of exploring the few times I stood awkwardly in his African-mask-decorated foyer, waiting for Gary to turn his computer off so we could embark upon innocent, albeit pantsless (well, him, anyway) jaunts. I didn’t explore said space, because not only was Gary at least twenty years my senior, but I mentioned his girlfriend was a homicide detective, right?
Her name is lost in mists of horror-shrouded memory, but I do remember she was short of hair and stature, round-faced and kind. Nevertheless, she was also a no-shit-taking homicide detective with the NYPD, and possessed of a surprising literary bent. Surprising to me, anyway; I was still operating on an undergrad’s classification of human nature—geeks vs. freaks and so on. (I was a freak. My boyfriend a jock.) That was my simplistic system of phylum and class. In my world back then, Gary’s girlfriend fell somewhere in the same kingdom as the terrifying predators she pursued.
Let’s call her Amy, because she needs a name. So, Amy, when not nabbing real- live murderers, used her free time to collect first editions, which she never read. She belonged to her own subset of collectors actually, and had assumed, wrongly, I knew the reason she never read the books she collected.
“Can’t risk breaking the spines,” she explained.
I pretended that made sense, but it didn’t. How could you purchase but not read a book? I’d met people from the tribe who won’t mark a book, who tenderly finish nightly reads by laying a bookmark on the page like a finger laid on a lover’s cheek, but if those people were my opposites, then Amy and I were from other planets. I, a mad marginalia-ist, was as far from fastidious as could be. Amy even gave me one of her books, although I can’t remember why. Was it the sullied, pre-read twin of a collected book? That’s what she’d do: buy two copies of the same book and read the less valuable one, leaving the other in pristine, untouched condition. The book was unforgettable, too: My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozecki.
When Amy explained the gift was a gruesomely exact tell-all by a writer who infiltrated well-guarded slaughterhouses to reveal abuses. This was well before widespread awareness of factory farming conditions. Amy, like Ruth, was clearly a woman ahead of her time, but she also had a stomach of iron and recounted details from the book with chilling relish. There wasn’t a chance in hell I’d read that book. (I’d read it now, though.)
Another time, we were supposed to have a real grownup dinner party, but Amy cancelled last minute with an excellent excuse: she had to take an extra shift in the city morgue. I could almost taste the formaldehyde on my tongue.
Now, I’d give anything to be friends with Amy—she was smart, funny, politically engaged, and no doubt had a cache of amazing stories that would put the contents of my Margaret Atwood-laden bookshelves to shame. Back then, in my still round-cheeked, glassy-eyed state of innocence, she petrified me. If Atwood’s acerbic tongue could lash my sensitive snowflake soul through the mere medium of a page, this woman with her frank depiction of dead, mutilated bodies, animal or otherwise, reduced me to quivering jelly.
Anyway, one afternoon when Gary, who knew of my love for all things Margaret Atwood, asked to meet up and walk over to the B&N together for her reading, I said yes. If I’d known Detective Amy was coming, too, I might have said no. She met us there, popping up a few folding chair rows back, gripping a large, plastic shopping bag. I had to repress a little scream when I saw her round, grinning face; she’d had to go back to her apartment to pick up all her Margaret Atwood first editions, she chirped.
The event coordinators, who had evidently read Negotiating with the Dead and were attempting to deter this exact behavior, had posted a rule: only two books per customer following Ms. Atwood’s reading. Amy, a hard-nosed NYC detective, was not going to let a little thing like polite rules of society deter her. Her plan, which Gary muttered to me in an aside, was to have me and Gary take turns standing in line, bearing two books each.
Was I going to say no? Are you kidding me?
I did as I was bid. After the reading, when I approached the formidable Ms. Atwood, she was smaller, slighter than I expected but no less prickly. She didn’t look unkind, so much as perennially inflamed. I wanted to tell her how much yoga had helped my own dyspepsia, but I didn’t think she’d welcome my chatter. I could almost see her writing sarcastic things in her head about this event like there was a cartoon bubble over her graying curls. I adored her, though, goose or not; I couldn’t slip past without saying something.
Maybe I ought to have said the exact truth. Maybe Margaret Atwood would have loved it. However, again, I was very young, very earnest and just as shy and sweet as the prototypical milkmaid I still resembled. I had a stutter not a delivery. What I said oh so originally instead was that I loved her books, particularly The Handmaid’s Tale, and I was always searching for more dystopian stories but couldn’t find them. I don’t know why I thought treating a great writer like my local librarian would endear me to her, but then again “thinking” is perhaps not the right verb to apply to this anecdote, as I had pretty much turned into the goose paté between the formidable crucible of Detective Amy and Atwood.
Another aside: dystopia, now a wildly popular genre, was still a rarity back then. I’d read everything from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman to Nevil Shute’s heartbreaking On the Beach. The Internet was still a sparsely populated planet, and searching it was no help. I kept lists, read actual books of literary criticism, applied my own dogged detective skills to the task. Nevertheless, I’d exhausted the then available list, little imagining how in a few years dystopia would catch on until the list was inexhaustible if not necessarily of the same quality.
“Well, there’s Zamyatin’s We,” Atwood suggested almost patiently, opening Amy’s book to the title page. I leaned over her a little too far and she glanced up at me, startled as a pained expression overtook my face. DIDN’T SHE KNOW NOT TO OPEN THE BOOK TOO FAR? IT COULD LOSE ITS VALUE IF THE SPINE CRACKED!
I danced on my feet, holding my breath; I couldn’t exactly lecture Margaret Atwood about the etiquette of signing her own books, though, so instead I replied, as if we were two pals having a convo, “Oh yeah, I’ve read that one. Can you think of another—?”
Margaret Atwood gave me the ol’ fisheye then, and if she looked perennially grumpy before it was nothing compared to the look she now fixed on me. I could just imagine how I must’ve appeared in my slogan-splashed blue t-shirt and jeans. To her, I was one of those anonymous, annoying young people from the beginning of Blind Assassin.
She didn’t exactly mean to be unkind, but I could see I was giving her carpal tunnel of the brain, my inane questions taking up far too much of her precious time. I thanked her then and grabbed my two signed books before she could further inflict damage on their fragile vertebra, which I imagined might be matched to mine. When I returned to my seat, though, the torture wasn’t through.
Amy proffered two more books, an indecipherable Cheshire cat smile on her face.
That time I didn’t have to, couldn’t say anything at all. Margaret Atwood’s tired, world-weary look said everything for me. I kind of grimaced at her, not apologetically even, but in a totally mysterious “you have no idea” way that must have confirmed her belief I was a lunatic.
I can imagine now the total kick Margaret Atwood’s warped wit would have gotten out of the actual situation if she’d known the details. The whole thing was literally like something out of a Margaret Atwood book, gruesome sexual undertones, which I was then ignorant of, and everything. As a grown woman, I know now there was no way Detective Amy was cool with her middle-aged boyfriend’s fêting a young girl, and my life, or his, depending on how progressive she really was, actually, probably was in some danger.
Still, I comfort myself with one happy outcome to the sorry incident: soon after the book-signing, Atwood published Oryx and Crake, the first of a new dystopian trilogy. She must have already been writing the book for it to have come out subsequent to our little tête-à-tête, but I like to think maybe my innocent enthusiasm had some small part in the whole, ensuing trilogy coming to such beautiful, end of the world fruition.