Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood — Photo by Joe Mahoney

(The following essay was written in 1998. The photo of Margaret Atwood was taken in 2006 during a taping of the Dead Dog Cafe.)

In March, 1995 I was privileged to do a special series of recordings for CBC Radio. Accompanied by a Radio Producer from Rimouski, Quebec, I spent four days recording Margaret Atwood at her home in downtown Toronto.

When first asked to do the assignment I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the idea, having recently returned from a leave of absence from the CBC and not feeling at the top of my game. The fact that the remote involved Margaret Atwood increased my apprehension. Though I had never read her work, I was well aware that she is considered the First Lady of Canadian Literature, and if I was going to fall on my face, I didn’t want her to be a part of it.

The recordings were to consist of Atwood being interviewed in French by one Victor-Levy Beaulieu. Such is my lack of sophistication that I assumed Beaulieu to be a CBC staff announcer out of Rimouski. The Producer, Doris Dumais, had requested a DAT recorder, a cassette recorder, a console, two microphone table stands, and two AKG 414 microphones. I spoke with her by telephone a few days before the remote. She spoke slowly because the production assistant who arranged the call told her I was just learning French. We discussed everything I could think of that might present a problem. She assured me that she did these sorts of remotes often. I asked her why she had selected 414’s for voice recording and she indicated that I could choose other microphones if I preferred, but didn’t sound particularly convincing about it. I knew from experience that Producers like to get exactly what they ask for, so I decided to stick with the 414’s. Doris sounded pleasant and easy to get along with. She had understood my French and I hers, and afterward I felt optimistic about the remote.

A Quebec announcer who was a friend of mine got terribly excited hearing that I would be working with Victor-Levy Beaulieu. Beaulieu, it turned out, was actually a major literary figure in Quebec, on a par, perhaps, with Atwood. My friend informed me that Beaulieu not only wrote books, he wrote for television as well. His most recent project was a revisionist book on Voltaire.

At a quarter to one the first day of the remote I stood on the curb outside Atwood’s home in Toronto’s Annex, my equipment at my feet. A cab pulled up at one o’clock sharp. A woman with short curly red hair and glasses emerged and cheerfully introduced herself as Doris Dumais. Victor-Levy Beaulieu accompanied her. Sporting a broad-brimmed black hat and a frizzy white beard which obscured most of his face, he offered to help me carry my equipment up to the front door. I told him, “C’est mon boulot” — it’s my job. But I was impressed that he had offered.

Margaret Atwood’s friendly young assistant Sarah Cooper answered the door. She made the introductions and Ms. Atwood and I exchanged greetings in French. I put on the best accent of which I was capable, which isn’t that good, sadly, but just the same I fancied that Atwood’s initial impression of me was that I was a francophone. (In retrospect, however, considering both my accent and my last name, this is highly unlikely.)

Sarah led me to the room where we would be recording. I was to sit at the foot of a massive oak table with Doris on my right, Atwood opposite me at the table’s head, and Beaulieu close by on her left. As I set up, I listened to the others talk in the adjacent room. I had been wondering how good Atwood’s French was; I realised quickly that her active vocabulary was quite a bit more extensive than mine.

I called Atwood and Beaulieu in to do some voice tests. When Doris entered and saw my equipment she wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like the look of my console. I hadn’t felt the need to bring a large console because the recording consisted of only two microphones, and so had chosen only a tiny Shure mixer. Evidently Doris had never seen a Shure mixer before; the smallness of it frightened her. It featured rotary pots instead of faders that went up and down. She asked me lots of questions about it, chiefly, why didn’t it have faders that went up and down? The last time she did a remote like this, she informed me, the technician had brought a large console with faders that went up and down. I assured her that it would be fine, and she relented. I know that she was nervous; so was I.
We started recording and I began to regret using the 414 microphones. Atwood sounded just fine, leaning in close and hardly budging an inch from one day to the next; but for the movement of her lips she might have been carved in stone. Beaulieu, on the other hand, changed his position constantly. Often he wound up about as far away from the microphone as it was possible to get without leaving his chair. To compensate I jacked up his level and urged him to get closer to the microphone, and he obliged readily, but it was never long before he got wrapped up in the interview again and began sounding if he were broadcasting from a cave.

Atwood was unfailingly friendly throughout the four days of recording. We spoke to one another only in French and addressed one another using the formal “vous”. At one point she inquired if I found recording interviews such as this one boring. “Pas si c’est quelque chose d’interessant,” – not if it’s something interesting, I told her, grateful to have found the words in French. Everyone chuckled and expressed the hope that this interview was indeed interesting. I assured them that I thought it was.

Each day was interspersed with several coffee breaks. Atwood made coffee for everyone, which we drank in her kitchen. I usually remained quiet as the others spoke in rapid French. Sometimes I stayed with the equipment to fret over the recordings. Once Atwood’s assistant Sarah dug out a copy of Atwood’s “Bare Bones” for me, calling it an “Introductory Volume for Men”. At Sarah’s request Atwood signed it for me, writing on the inside cover, “Good luck, Joe — Margaret Atwood”.

After recording was finished on the second day, Atwood asked me to show our Quebecois guests the way to a bookstore located nearby in the Annex, and to do any necessary translating for them. The owner of the store received us with open arms, having been informed by Atwood that we were coming. Feeling insecure about my French, I felt a bit like a fraud translating. At one point the owner said, “It’s funny; every now and then I understand some of the words that you all say.” Embarrassed, I tried to use more difficult French words after that.

The evening of the third day Atwood took us all out to dinner at Thai Magic on Yonge Street. I was the second to arrive, Atwood being the first. Seeing her seated alone in a booth just beyond the entrance, I thought, I don’t want to go in there and be alone with the First Lady of Canadian Literature. I was afraid she would insist on speaking French and I wouldn’t acquit myself well. Or worse, we would speak English and I wouldn’t acquit myself well. But it was Margaret Atwood, for God’s sake – it wasn’t everyday you were granted a private audience with someone like that. So I went in and she welcomed me with a smile and we spoke to one another in English for the first time. Among other things, I asked her how well she understood Beaulieu’s French, as I had experienced some difficulty with it. She confessed that he had a quirk of, after speaking several phrases of more or less incomprehensible French, summing up his question in one crystal clear phrase. It had saved her more than once.

Adrienne Clarkson joined us. She speaks French quite well, and when Doris Dumais and Victor-Levy Beaulieu showed up, it was Clarkson who dominated the conversation. At the end of the night Atwood insisted on treating. When we parted, everyone went his or her own ways. Atwood returned home alone in the dark. I thought afterward, perhaps I should have offered to accompany her. It might have been chivalrous to do so, but the idea didn’t sit right with me. I felt it might be taken as just wanting to be with this famous person more. I had the impression she preferred to walk home alone anyway.

After we finished recording on the final day it took me a while to gather up my equipment, and I was the last to leave. Atwood saw me off at the door, accompanied by her cat and Sarah Cooper. As I left, she wished me “good luck”.

Doris Dumais took the tapes with her back to Rimouski before I had a chance to listen to them in a proper studio. I thought I might never know exactly how the recordings turned out. Half a year later, however, a colleague heard the show broadcast and assured me the sound quality had been fine. I was relieved. Shortly after that I received an internal mail from Doris. On one of our coffee breaks she had snapped a photo of Margaret Atwood, Sarah Cooper, Victor-Levy Beaulieu and myself. She sent me a copy of the photo and brief note that told me everyone in Rimouski thought I looked like Paul McCartney. I was pleased. Not because everyone in Rimouski thought I looked like one of the Beatles (which I don’t, really) but because I figured Doris wouldn’t have sent me the picture if she hadn’t been satisfied with my work.

Recently I learned that the interviews have been translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott and published by McClelland & Stewart Inc. in a book entitled, like the radio broadcast it is based on, Two Solicitudes. The other day I went out and bought a copy. I’m curious to read it and see what Victor-Levy Beaulieu actually said.

After that I think I’ll finally get around to reading Bare Bones.

September 9, 1998