Margaret Atwood discussion draws hundreds to Nittany Lion Inn

Centre Daily Times

For a former literature student, it was a dream moment.

Thursday afternoon, Mary Moritz had her picture taken with Canadian author Margaret Atwood during a book signing at the Nittany Lion Inn.

“It was a check off the bucket list, I guess,” said Moritz, a Penn State graduate who attended the signing. “I like to read the kind of interesting and obscure work of hers, and hope to get to meet a lot of the authors I read.”

Atwood drew many fans like Moritz to the inn a day after the award-winning author received the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities 2014 Medal for Distinguished Achievement on Wednesday night at the State Theatre.

According to organizers, about 400 people packed the inn’s ballroom for Atwood’s forum discussion before the book signing.

“This forum has been sold out for months,” forum coordinator Lindsey Whissel said.

WPSU host Patty Satalia said it was the most people she’s ever seen in that room.

“I’ve been to a lot of forums and this is one of the more remarkable ones,” she said.

Michael Berube, the IAH director, was in charge of selecting an individual for the distinguished achievement award established in 2006. This year, Berube said he selected Atwood, after consulting other literary figures, because she’s one of a handful of authors highly regarded for work in both fiction and nonfiction.

“(She’s) one of the most accomplished writers,” Berube said.

Atwood’s 45-minute address — often spoken in monotone with her head down but leavened with the occasional dry joke cracked to loud laughs — focused on the role of women in literature, and how readers often judge a book by its cover.

“Covers are the gateway of the book,” she said, but added that they often misrepresent content.

A long tima ago, publishing companies would create book covers that made light of a piece that was actually serious, she said.

“I wonder how many people were drawn into reading (William) Faulkner and (Ernest) Hemingway that way,” she said. “I know I was.”

Atwood’s publisher attempted to do the same thing to her work — something she said she wouldn’t go for.

“They called it a ‘fresh look,’ ” Atwood said.

The first cover presented for the “MaddAddam” trilogy was of a flower with a bumble bee on it.

But the book, she said, is about cannibalism and the evisceration and the erasure of the human race, not about gardening.

After the sixth attempt at a cover, the publisher finally got it right, Atwood said.

On the subject of women in literature, Atwood said it’s her mission to keep her characters consistent.

When examining Wonder Woman as an example, Atwood said the character changed roles from being a heroine who finds her way out of sticky situations, to instead acting more feminine and as a fashion figure.

The Wonder Woman role has changed from writer to writer, and from generation to generation, Atwood said.

Because Atwood’s speech went long, audience members didn’t have a chance to ask questions, but they did get the opportunity to meet the author during the book signing.

Four of Atwood’s books — “Stone Mattress,” “The Blind Assassin,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Alias Grace” — were sold at a table adjacent to where she held the meet-and-greet. She’s come a long way from her first book signing in 1969 in the men’s sock and underwear department of a Canadian retail store that featured her first book “The Edible Woman.”

Amy Allison, an English teacher in the Delta Program, didn’t have a ticket for Thursday’s forum. But she caught Atwood at the State Theatre, along with a few students from Delta’s Wilde Things, a branch of the National English Honor Society.

Everyone enjoyed hearing Atwood, Allison said, calling the author “very sharp” and “very funny.”

“She’s a clever writer,” Allison said. “She’s very careful with her language. She’s actually a craftsperson. She has excellent plot lines but she thinks very carefully about themes and language.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” a 1985 dystopian novel set in a totalitarian Christian theocracy of the future that has overthrown the American government, is a “must read” and one of her favorite books, Allison said.

“Because it’s so well put together,” she said.

Sarah Daniels, a Penn State engineering student from the Philadelphia area, also missed the Thursday talk. But she made a point of coming to the book signing after she recently acquired Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood,” published in 2009.

“It’s not everyday you get to put a face to the name of the person who writes the book,” Daniels said.