The publication of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments was an international literary juggernaut, but it was also a time that marked the passing of her husband, Graeme Gibson, himself a literary legend. In an oral history, Marsha Lederman tells the story of a year of magic and loss
To open the front cover of The Testaments is to be presented with a story that almost overshadows the novel itself. This epic is a two-page spread that begins "Also by Margaret Atwood." The astonishingly long list summarizes a life of unrelenting literary accomplishment.
And then came 2019. This year, Atwood has been blessed with more fruit than she could have ever imagined. She was a juggernaut, her influence extending far beyond both the literary world and Canada. Atwood and her ideas became an essential and influential part of the global culture.
She published one of the most anticipated novels in history, launching her on a tour worthy of a rock star. She graced the cover of Britain's Sunday Times Style Magazine. She appeared on U.S. television with the likes of Seth Meyers and the gang from The View. There was a new documentary. And The Testaments did not disappoint, delighting critics, readers and prize juries alike.
There was more: Season 3 of The Handmaid's Tale TV adaptation, two new graphic novels, a slew of honours. Her Handmaid has become an instantly recognizable meme and powerful symbol of protest. She has used her considerable platform to promote causes important to her.
As one of her friends described it to The Globe and Mail, 2019 has been “Peak Margaret.”
But she was also hit with an earth-shattering loss – the death of long-time partner Graeme Gibson, who had been living with dementia.
Together for almost 50 years, Gibson and Atwood were a real love match. They had a daughter, Jess, as well as Gibson’s two sons from a previous marriage. They shared a deep love for the environment – especially birds.
After Gibson died at age 85, Atwood – Peggy to Gibson and her friends – kept going. She did not want to disappoint readers.
Here, we chart her extraordinary year, the year she turned 80, with its unimagined highs and devastating lows, by speaking with people around her and with Atwood herself.
Spoiler alert This article contains plot details for The Testaments and Season 3 of The Handmaid's Tale.
My 2019 really kind of began in 2018. I’m finishing the book. I knew I had to get it in before Christmas so [editors] could have a go at it and I could get some notes early enough. So I did.
Martha Kanya-Forstner, editor-in-chief, McClelland & Stewart and Doubleday Canada, and VP, Penguin Random House Canada
In November, we started to see her progress reports, which are these amazing colour-coded charts that she does about characters and the development of their stories. Those started coming with the sense that the manuscript wouldn’t be far behind. They were both proof of progress, as if any proof was required, but also just these enticements, these little hints of what was to come.
Susan Swan, author and friend
I really don’t know how she did it – what with her travel and Graeme’s situation. Because she took him with her and was his caregiver, his minder. She chose to include him in everything rather than to leave him at home with a caretaker. And I think that was a brave choice. He didn’t want to be left behind. But I don’t know how she found time to write. I really don’t.
Atwood delivers the manuscript on Dec. 18. Editors in Canada, the United States and Britain work feverishly on it.
Just through a fluke, I had basically six editors. I said I can’t deal with six editors – there has to be a central person. That person was Becky Hardie of Chatto & Windus. She’s very steady. She compiled. She did not freak out. I said, “Becky, I only want ones where they’ve all agreed. I don’t want to have to choose between this person’s firm opinion and this person’s firm opinion, so you deal with it.” When it was all over, I said, “Becky, I think this must have been kind of strenuous for you.” She said it was a very interesting exercise.
Becky Hardie, deputy publishing director, Chatto & Windus
It was a wonderful editorial experience, a once-in-a-lifetime team effort. But it certainly had its moments. The stakes were high, the timing was tight and sometimes there were people talking at once from all different corners of the world.
I got the first set of notes in January because I was going to take Graeme to Australia on a ship, reliving his childhood voyages to Australia. I did a lot of rewrites on the ship, where indeed I had the time to do that because Graeme always had a nap in the afternoon and he would go to bed fairly early. I could write at that time.
By the time we got to the second draft, I could see what she had done. How she’d used small queries and questions to expand, leap ahead. That difference between Draft 1 and Draft 2 was not something I’d ever seen before – the distance that she travelled. And then, from there, it was just an extraordinary ride.
Heather Sangster, copy editor, Strong Finish Editorial Design
At both the copy-edit and proofing stage, I would meet with Martha to pick up the hard copies and review the sets of queries from all the editorial stakeholders: Here's what we think is really important, here are continuity questions with The Handmaid's Tale, here are continuity questions with the TV series.
So assiduous were the publishers that they had some hapless young person watch the entire series, read the book, read the second book and make notes. This matches up with this, this is this, that’s that.
And then I would sit down with Margaret over the course of a day or two for a marathon review of the copy edit and then later the proof. I wouldn’t talk to her about absolutely every comma, but anything that was marked up on my page, we would discuss.
There’s a scene where Daisy/Jade is being trained in martial arts and she learns how to make the heartstopper punch. A few times, Margaret and I went over how to make a proper fist to punch and how to describe wrapping the thumb across the knuckles. We looked at videos and we acted it out, making fists and working out the phrasing so readers would be able to visualize it.
Louise Dennys, executive publisher and executive vice-president, Penguin Random House Canada
She was having a challenging year personally, but I watched her rally her consummate skills in the service of the novel and her readers. I’ve never seen her so acute, disciplined and rigorous – she worked through the nights and the days, in hotels, on flights. And we worked, in our various corners of the world, alongside her and behind her every hour, too.
There was no moving the date. We were publishing when we were publishing because the machine was already in motion. Sometimes the editing can determine the schedule, but that wasn’t the case here. But we had the most hard-working author in the world and a team of very hard-working editors.
At least twice, Louise and I did full 24 hours, all-nighters, just to stay to those deadlines.
Complicating matters even further is the high level of secrecy around the project.
I’ve worked on embargoed projects before, but this certainly was the most cone-of-silence, cloak-and-dagger job that I’ve done, where certain things couldn’t even be transmitted in e-mail. You’d upload to a dedicated site, but then you’d follow up with a phone call and a verbal password. We didn’t even use her name.
Karolina Sutton, Atwood’s literary agent
It existed on the system as The Casements by Victoria Locket. The security around it was so tight because of the hacking attempts. We had to come up with a system that didn't involve e-mail. It was a little bit like spy work in the Cold War. We had our own secret system with many passwords and rules of engagement.
In the spring, the tiny circle of people who are able to read the manuscript expands slightly to include key people on the project.
Ashley Dunn, Atwood’s publicist and associate director of publicity for Penguin Random House Canada
Even getting it home was really nerve-racking. Then I read it all night. It was so compelling, right from Page 1. It was such a thrill to be taken into that world 15 years later.
Jared Bland, publisher, McClelland & Stewart, and vice-president, Penguin Random House Canada
The bar couldn’t possibly be higher for this book, and my first sense on reading it was that it just vaults effortlessly over that bar. It was so good that I knew people would love it the minute I read it – even people who were expecting not to enjoy it.
They started coming to me and Louise just over the moon about what they had just read. And to me, there really was that sense that after all that work in the dark hours in the winter, Margaret had pulled it off.
In the midst of this, Atwood is still doing public appearances and lending her support to causes she believes in. She is also Gibson’s caregiver and constant companion.
Barbara Gowdy, author of The White Bone, Atwood's selection for the inaugural Globe and Mail Book Club, where she and Gowdy appear at an event for Globe subscribers
When she interviewed me in May, Graeme’s dementia was getting really bad. She didn’t want to leave him alone. Right up until the interview, she was on the phone trying to get people to come over to her house, trying to get hold of her sister to just keep him company. That was the top of mind for her. And yet, then she was able to come out, interview me and laugh and have a good time.
Atwood sits down for a Twitter Live chat with chief executive Jack Dorsey in Toronto as part of his @TweepTour.
Jack Dorsey, CEO, Twitter
I was nervous. She’s someone I’ve looked up to for quite some time and respect and appreciate. She’s a hero in many ways to me. She just always makes it easy. She’s extremely sharp and witty and critical and funny, so any question – no matter how monotone or boring I would ask it – she would come back with something amazing.
At a news conference in July, Ottawa announces funding to support victims of workplace harassment, a joint project that includes the organizations AfterMeToo and Rosa.
Mia Kirshner, founder of Rosa and co-founder of AfterMeToo
I asked Margaret if she would come, and she showed up. She showed up to a very modest event about this fund. She came in by herself and she sat in the front row. She has been the most consistent, the most involved and unwavering supporter of AfterMeToo. It's remarkable because I imagine when we met her she was writing The Testaments and she's a very busy woman.
Beginning in June, Season 3 of the award-winning TV series based on Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale airs. Rita, played by Canadian actor Amanda Brugel, has a key role in the season finale.
They’re pretty tight-lipped about the scripts and the content and where it’s going, even from episode to episode. I remember the great escape and finding out about my participation in it about three days before we went to camera. I was gobsmacked at the idea that I was leaving Gilead for good.
In September, Season 2 of the Ontario-shot series wins three more Emmy Awards (in addition to its previous 11), including outstanding production design.
Elisabeth Williams, production designer
It’s a great honour to win an Emmy – obviously I’m very proud of it. But I remain humble in knowing that the fundamental look is in Margaret Atwood’s book and what we’ve done is bring it to the screen. We’re all in a way just a part of this continuum basically that originated in her mind. We do research of course and we build these concept boards, but really, truly it originates in the pages of her book. She is definitely the mastermind behind all of it.
The strictly embargoed, internationally co-ordinated launch of The Testaments is set for Sept. 10. But a week earlier, Amazon accidentally ships copies to some customers who had pre-ordered the book.
It was a crisis moment for sure, but I also think that perhaps it didn’t end up being as catastrophic as people feared it would be. There was an enormous amount of understandable frustration among independent retailers in particular, and I have great sympathy for them. But these were pre-orders, already purchased, and the situation did bring news of the book to a much wider audience – it became a business story, really, and reached into a whole new segment of the population. The amazing thing was the people who received those early shipments from Amazon respected the embargo in this weird way. It wasn’t as if people went in and photographed a bunch of things and posted plot summaries.
They did take pictures of themselves holding the book. But they didn’t do any spoilers – they didn’t post the text. They were exemplary.
On the official launch date, the book receives the Harry Potter treatment, with midnight openings at bookshops – and much more.
Even before we published, there were political cartoons in our newspapers with the iconic jacket of The Testaments, because very handily our Parliament was prorogued on the day it was published. So it was a really powerful political moment here, and she just landed in the middle of it as a symbol and an icon of resistance and change and hope. Then we had an opening at our biggest bookshop here [in London], where people were queuing around the block.
Bea Carvalho, fiction buyer, Waterstones
We had 400 customers attend. We limited it so everybody could see Margaret speaking. Everyone had a wristband, which dictated which reading they would attend, with one on the third floor at 11:30 and one at quarter to 12 on the ground floor. We had panels of authors discussing her influence, as well as soapbox speakers, activists, influencers and leaders doing events on different floors, all leading up to Margaret's readings. To see all these customers hearing the words from The Testaments for the first time was incredibly special.
The day we published, we had a big international press conference, and a review came out in The Guardian by the writer Anne Enright and it was the most extraordinary review. It had been a very intense period, and we were sort of at a little pause moment. And I just sat down and cried in the lobby of this press conference. People were not only reviewing it as a book. They were reviewing the whole Handmaid phenomenon, the impact that the two books and Margaret were having on the way that we see our world, particularly in these very troubled times.
Peter Florence, chair, Booker Prize jury
There’s an old line between popular and literary which Atwood just ignores completely. She is simultaneously one of the bestselling writers of the year and has written one of the greatest books. That is a very rare coming together – unprecedented really. Writing a sequel to one of the most famous books of all time and landing it is an extraordinary achievement.
The launch of The Testaments happened in London on the 10th of September at the National Theatre and it was live-streamed to [about 1,300] cinemas around the world. One of the readers on the night was Ann Dowd [who plays Aunt Lydia in the TV series] reading the opening section from The Testaments, and that was a really electrifying experience.
She came out on stage, she was Ann Dowd. And then she did this thing, this acting thing, and suddenly she was Aunt Lydia. It’s very creepy. She’s such a nice person. She suddenly turns into this other person.
The book cover was projected onto the National Theatre so if you walked along the Thames, the National Theatre was the cover of The Testaments. I've never seen anything like it. Margaret Atwood lit up the skyline.
It was honestly as if the whole of London had been turned Testaments green. It was a very stark visual sign that the book had taken over in a way that was not normal for a book.
The Testaments is an immediate bestseller and sells more print copies in the first week than any other Canadian book since BookNet Canada began tracking sales data in 2005.
You know how you have your high expectations that you’re willing to say to a colleague, and then you have your private expectations that are even crazier than that? It exceeded even that. The first week was just shy of 50,000 copies all formats.
After the launch, Gibson has a stroke and dies days later, on Sept. 18, in hospital in London.
Watching Graeme actually being here for the launch and seeing the hoopla and seeing it penetrating in that way and being so impressed and so amazed and so proud was wonderful. And I’m glad that we all saw that – and that she saw that, too.
There was a kind of almost cosmic timing to it because Graeme went on a high after the launch of the book. It was tragic and extremely sad, but as Margaret said in her [public statement], it’s as if he had planned it that way. He had a stroke a couple of days after the book’s publication. How do you go from that height, from having this unprecedented global launch, to the loss of your partner of nearly 50 years? And that happened within days.
We knew it was coming. We didn’t know exactly when, but we were fairly sure how. It was expected, it was prepared for, and if I could say that somebody arranged their own transition, you could almost say that about Graeme. Because he had a very clear idea of how he wanted it to happen and when he wanted it to happen and he was certainly within his target range. So, insofar as you could say this was a lucky event for him, it was. It was fairly brutal for the rest of us, but we were not unprepared.
There was certainly a moment where it was like whatever Margaret wants to do, we’ll do. If she had come to us and said I don’t really want to go on tour right now, we would have cancelled the whole thing and rescheduled it. But she didn’t want to cancel. She didn’t want to disappoint people.
I’m better in public. I don’t want time to myself. It’s why people sit shiva, it’s why they have wakes, it’s why the neighbours bring casseroles. So it was the equivalent of shiva, wakes and casseroles to go on the book tour, because I was with people pretty much all the time. And keeping busy.
Atwood embarks on a 15-city tour of North America.
Omar El Akkad, author, does the onstage interview in Portland on Sept. 25, a week after Gibson’s death
I got to see her about half an hour beforehand in the green room, that was the first time we met, and she said it’s okay, you can be funny. I think she was cognizant of how big an event in my life this was relative to it being a Wednesday for her.
She had spoken previous times about those old pulp paperbacks with the really sort of raunchy covers. So I went and found her one of those, this 1947 pulp western that is pretty well unreadable, and I thought, “Ha ha, whatever, it’s a dumb gift.” But then she sat down and gave us a dramatic reading of the first, like, two pages of this thing, to the delight of everybody in the green room.
People recognize her everywhere we go. Teenagers were stopping her. Men and women. They want to shake her hand, they want to tell her how much they love her book. Mums would bring over their children. She never says no to a photograph, never says no to signing a book. Even if we’re running to catch a plane or we’re up at 6 a.m.
Atwood, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, returns to London, where Gibson died less than a month earlier, to attend the ceremony.
She has a strong sense of duty. It wasn’t the perfect timing for Margaret to be at an awards ceremony. She was grieving and it was very clear on the night. But she would never have let the other writers down. She had absolutely zero expectation of winning.
It’s very unusual to be relaxed at that dinner, because it’s very tense. And we were very, very relaxed. Margaret read my palm. And Jess. I had them on either side of me, pulling my hand in different directions, and we were going around the table deciding which animal each of us would be. And really not anxious or worried or, dare I say it, hopeful at all. In fact, I think that Margaret rather hoped she wouldn’t win as the press is pretty gruelling for the winner and it was such an exhausting time for her.
Then the chair of the judges, Peter Florence, when he was talking about the decision-making process, he used the word cattle prod, and my ears really pricked up immediately. I thought that’s got to be a Freudian slip – he’s got Aunt Lydia on the mind. Then when he said there were two winners, it becomes more possible.
We had two books, both of which we desperately wanted to be the winner of the Booker Prize. My abiding memory of it is of the extraordinary grace of both those two extraordinary women who embraced the idea of sharing the prize. Margaret Atwood is arguably – it’s almost inarguably – the most widely read literary author in the English language. And Margaret was so incredibly generous and gracious and supportive of Bernardine [Evaristo], who is a lesser-known writer but whose work is phenomenal.
She heard her name and then Bernardine’s name, and then she lit up. She ran over to [Evaristo] and held up their arms together. I was in tears because it was a sort of iconic moment.
Atwood donates her share of the prize to Indspire, where earlier in 2019 she established the Chief Harry St. Denis Awards to fund scholarships for Indigenous environmental-science students.
Roberta Jamieson, president and CEO, Indspire
It is significant, it is meaningful and we are really thrilled to see people of the stature of Margaret Atwood stand up and proudly invest in Indigenous education and our young people. She is a dynamic ambassador. The fact that she would lend her credibility to this to amplify the work that we do is fantastic.
In October, Atwood is made a Companion of Honour by the Queen for her services to literature. The medal is presented at Windsor Castle.
It’s a very smooth operation. In the rehearsal we were told: You advance, you do your little bow or curtsy, she’ll ask you two questions, you’ll answer them, she’ll pin the thing on you, then she’ll hold out her hand, you will shake it, you will do your little curtsy again.
The questions? (In Queen-like British accent) “You’ve won the Booker.” (Atwood drops the accent) “Yes, I co-shared it.” (QLBA) "You have a television show of your book.” But of course, they tell her ahead of time what the questions should be because she could not possibly remember two questions for everybody getting it on that day. There were about 60 of them in different categories.
I accompanied her to the ceremony. All the people who were receiving honours at the same time and the accompanying guests all wanted to shake [Margaret’s] hand afterward, and the whole conversation turned into a conversation about Aunt Lydia. It was amazing. There we were in Windsor Castle, and the room was abuzz with Aunt Lydia. And it felt like she was a kind of an alternative queen in the room. There was the Queen, obviously. And there was the Queen of CanLit.
In November, Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont’s documentary about Atwood, A Word after a Word after a Word Is Power, premieres.
She knew that Graeme had dementia and no one really knew how long he had, so she was particularly keen on us making a film about him as much as it was about her. And for me, the film is very much a love story, so we were honoured that we were able to spend and document really the last year of Graeme’s life and witness their love for each other, their tenderness and support for each other.
On Nov. 18, Atwood turns 80. Her milestone birthday coincides with the Scotiabank Giller Gala, a prize for which she has been longlisted (but not shortlisted).
Every year, we do this thing in Jane Urquhart’s hotel room where we hire a makeup person to put makeup on our very well-worn faces. And we included Peggy this year, and I got a birthday cake that said, “Peggy, you make us ‘proud’ Yay 80.” It was sort of like a party in a girls’ dorm.
Jane Urquhart, author and friend
We basically talked about birthdays and about the fact that not one of us was under 70 in that room, and time passing, all of that. And of course, we made reference to Graeme, but we did it in a happy way. There was a toast and the singing of Happy Birthday and then we all glided glamorously downstairs.
Ian Williams wins the Giller, and thanks Atwood from the stage.
Ian Williams, author
I got up there, I looked out and I saw her, and it was just surreal. I felt like she should be standing up here instead of me. To have the attention of Atwood for a brief moment, what do you say apart from you have no idea how important you’ve been to me?
On Nov. 24, a celebration of life for Graeme Gibson is held. He is remembered as a “wise, ethical and committed” man who lived “originally and eccentrically,” doing great things for the Canadian writing community.
I was deeply moved when Margaret, Jess and Matthew [Gibson] asked me to speak about him as a writer and writers’ advocate – and shaken by the responsibility to “get it right” for a loved friend and a great man. I think you saw Margaret link arms with me afterwards and do a little jig. I hope that meant “Okay, you did it!“ I hope so.
David Young, playwright and friend who performs the welcome and introduction at the celebration of life
She loved [the event]. She thought that it was balanced and real. Going into a thing like that, of course, what you dread if you’re Margaret is a whole bunch of 500 sobbing people who want to hug you at the end of it. But I think it had a lift to it.
We gave him a fantastic sendoff, which he would have enjoyed very much.
Atwood has received many other awards this year, including the Royal Society of Canada’s Lorne Pierce Medal in Toronto and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Glamour Women of the Year gala at Lincoln Center in New York.
Mattie Kahn, culture director, Glamour
She said in her speech that she had decided to wear her first pair of eyelashes for the occasion in Glamour’s honour. So we all felt like we have to be worthy of Margaret Atwood’s deciding to put on false eyelashes just for us.
On Dec. 10 in New York, she attends a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Margaret Atwood Room at the Canadian consulate and later receives the Center for Fiction’s inaugural On Screen Award.
Noreen Tomassi, executive director at the Center for Fiction
We wanted to pick a writer who has a very broad range, a very significant social impact and who is also a brilliant writer. We couldn’t have picked anyone better.
The next night, the New York Public Library holds an 80th-birthday event for Atwood with readings by Dowd, among others.
Aidan Flax-Clark, associate director of public programs, NYPL
One thing which started as a real bummer and turned into something really special was that Claire Danes was supposed to do a reading of some of Margaret’s poetry and also a children’s book she wrote. It turned out that Claire Danes got the flu and was so disappointed that she couldn’t come. It was 3 or 4:00 and we were scrambling to figure out who might do it. And Margaret agreed to do it. So she came up and gave a reading of some of her poetry and this really awesome children’s book called Up in the Tree. It was really special. And funny. I guess someone forgot to take out “by Margaret Atwood” from the script, so she came up and said, “Up in the Tree, by Margaret Atwood." The feeling in the room was so overwhelmingly full of love for this amazing woman and it seemed like she really felt it and took it in. It was quite a way to close out our year.
This year will continue. Her long-awaited next book of poems will be out soon. I’m reading it now. It’s wonderful – so very, very good.
I think her accomplishment is the depth and intensity of her cultural contribution, her foresight and her ability to read the moment and to see ahead. She has proven herself as a writer and a cultural figure over decades. This year it all collided into a phenomenon that’s taken the world by storm. She has not changed, but readers have rediscovered her work and seen it in a new political context.
Annus horribilis mirabilis. You couldn’t write it. But you know what people are secretly thinking? (She drops her voice to a whisper.) We better do it now before she croaks.