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Margaret Atwood Discusses Her New Book ‘Old Babes in the Wood’ at Harvard Sanders Theatre Event

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Two-time Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood spoke to a packed crowd of fans in Sanders Theatre about her newly published short story collection “Old Babes in the Wood” Thursday.

Atwood joined Scott Tong, journalist and co-host of “Here & Now” on WBUR Boston, to discuss how “Old Babes in the Wood” reflects Atwood’s life experiences. The event was co-sponsored by Harvard Book Store and the Mahindra Humanities Center, as part of the latter’s “Writers Speak” Series.

An alumna of Harvard University, Atwood was awarded the Radcliffe Medal in 2003 for her work in feminist literature, including her 1985 classic novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The novel won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award in 1985 and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, in addition to being nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize. It was later adapted into the 2017 Hulu series of the same name.

Atwood began the interview by joking about Harvard’s reception of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” given that her dystopian setting of Gilead was based on Cambridge.

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“Harvard was not amused when this book was first published,” Atwood said. “They did not think it was fun to have bodies hanging on the Harvard wall.”

“They took a dim view, but they have come around since,” she added. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have let me in.”

The conversation progressed to a discussion of Atwood’s new work, “Old Babes in the Wood.” Atwood used the collection of short stories as a social commentary on the Covid-19 pandemic, similar to how “The Handmaid’s Tale” commented on women’s autonomy.

During the event, Atwood said the stories in “Old Babes in the Wood” were largely influenced by pandemic-era life and politics, which Atwood related to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Black Death-inspired stories in “The Decameron.”

Inspired by both world events and events in her life, Atwood said she chose to dedicate the book to her late husband, Graeme Gibson. During the event, she remarked on how the relationship between characters Tig and Nel in “Old Babes in the Wood” was inspired by her marriage with Gibson.

During the event’s question-and-answer session, audience members asked about banned books and Atwood’s status as a frequently banned author — referencing an infamous meme in which the author uses a flamethrower on a fireproof copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“It’s been a repeated pattern,” Atwood said of book-banning, adding that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is among the most commonly banned books in the United States.

She said she “fondly hoped” those who have banned the book misunderstood it and were not “actually wishing to install an authoritarian state.”

Atwood showcased her sense of humor throughout the event, drawing laughter from the audience through witty responses to questions about her favorite method of procrastination and her age.

Kristen L. Palma, an attendee of the event, said she was excited to see the widely acclaimed author in person.

“I have been a fan of hers for as long as I can remember, at least since I was in college,” Palma said. “She is just one of the most creative and smart, inspiring writers.”

—Staff writer Christina A. Strachn can be reached at christina.strachn@thecrimson.com.

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