Interviewing Margaret Atwood at Hay Festival

Viv Groskop at Hay Festival with Margaret Atwood

I’m writing this from the Hay Festival in sunny Wales where I just came off stage from interviewing Margaret Atwood. As always I learn something about “owning the room” every time I do anything in front of an audience and this time I had a reminder to “embrace the tangents.” Someone like Margaret Atwood has been interviewed thousands of times in their lifetime. You cannot ask them anything they haven’t been asked before. But you have to bear in mind that people in the audience may be hearing from this person for the first time so they want know exactly who they are and where they are coming from, in all senses. 

Atwood often begins unusual and seemingly unrelated stories that go off on a tangent but always land somewhere interesting and illuminating by the time… The trick is to let her go there and not interrupt. You can’t do this with every interviewee — and you have to listen very hard to keep the person on track — but when someone is extremely wise and fascinating, it really pays to trust them and trust the audience to go with them. This time round one story ended up in her recounting a marriage proposal over a restaurant intercom from a Greek chef in a restaurant where she was working as a waitress when she was a young, much-rejected writer. She turned him down, realised that she was too tired from the waitressing job to be able to get any writing done in her “spare time”, quit the place and devoted herself to the graduate studies that would allow her the writing time she needed. And the rest is history. I felt a bit sorry for the chef. Until she said, “As soon as I said no, he said, ‘Well, you won’t find anyone else to marry you, you’re too plain.’” What a scumbag! He barely deserves to be in Margaret Atwood’s tangent.

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