Gibson’s time was running out. He had been diagnosed with dementia and wanted to go to Australia with Atwood to retrace childhood journeys, including visiting relatives in Brisbane. His mother was Australian, his father Canadian, and Gibson had returned throughout his life to see friends and family.
About seven months after their trip, in September, Gibson died in hospital in London where Atwood was promoting The Testaments, her highly-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale and one of the biggest fiction releases in recent memory. Atwood won her second Booker Prize and publication day saw an interview with her broadcast to packed cinemas around the world, as fans donned the now-iconic red cloaks and white bonnets of handmaids.
“I was very sorry too, but we knew it was coming and that was why we were very happy that we got to Australia in February. He really wanted to do that and see the Australian relatives, which we did in Brisbane. We had a lovely family get-together,” Atwood says.
“He had always wanted to do it, and he had wanted to go back to Scotland and we made that as well, so we were checking things off the list because we both knew this was not going to be a long time.”
A year on from their final trip to Australia together, Atwood will return for conversation events in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart and Perth starting in February – by far her largest tour here to date.Continuing to work has offered Atwood a release from grief.
“I think it is much better to be out with people otherwise I would not be doing it,” she says.
Atwood is a prolific writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction and she has long been commercially and critically successful. But the Hulu television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss in the lead role of Offred, catapulted Atwood to a rare stratosphere of author fame. The story of Gilead, a repressive regime where women are kept in subjugation, has become a cultural touchstone in the MeToo era.
Of the hype around follow-up The Testaments, which quickly topped the bestselling charts in all English-language territories, Atwood says, “You never expect that. It’s best not to have expectations about anything because they may not be realised. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised than sadly disappointed.”
In what has proven a year of grief and great success, Atwood also celebrated her 80th birthday in November. Does she ever get tired?
“What is this rest of which you speak, earthling?” Atwood says. “I don’t do resting. Some people call it sleeping, but I suppose what you mean by resting is a sort of hanging around, not doing anything.”
The intensity of the spotlight doesn’t bother her. She jokes that even before her fame as a writer, she enjoyed being centre stage as a tap dancer when she was a child. And she might yet see if there is a “tap dancing for old people” class – something to do when she’s not writing her next novel, about which she remains tight-lipped. Atwood laughs when I suggest she’s not old, and offers some words of wisdom.
“It starts going fast when you get to 70. I expect you’re still all atwitter with expectation of what may happen next and that’s a fun place to be, but it’s also a scary place to be.
“Enjoy the moment. As for those moments of heartache, you’ll be replaying them as comedy in 20 years, trust me, it will happen. And then 50 years from then, you won’t be able to remember those people’s names, so go with the flow, don’t worry.”
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald