It was super fun!
My professors obviously didn't know my time anxieties when they all told me to get there early because it would be standing room only, as I arrived about 3 hours before the talk and the auditorium doors were still locked. Plus side though, I got a seat RIGHT in the front which was really nice.
The talk was called "We Are What We Tell: Stories as Human," and began with her history of storytelling. Apparently, her first book written at 7, Annie the Ant, had pacing problems (side note: Margaret Atwood is fucking hilarious). Then she ran puppet show birthday parties for 5 bucks a pop in high school and watched her brother use writing to discover he wanted to be a biologist, when he was writing more about the taxonomy of his world than the stories. She then gave her tips for aspiring writers, which were: put naked people in it, put your protagonist in peril, put something fantastical in it, and surprise the reader. Which she demonstrated by telling us a story about getting locked out of her dorm in Oxford wearing nothing but a bedsheet and having to talk to the porter ("a frown on legs") to get him to unlock it, and then a story about Canadians having hearts of ice and turning into bears - or worse, hockey players.
She then talked about the history of storytelling, the age old question of why people as a species write, and all the theories surrounding it (that all seemed pretty plausible). Of course, she didn't give a straightforward answer on why she writes - because who can answer that question really? Also she called it a trick question that writers hate and told us we should all go to our dentists and ask them why they do dentistry to spread the pain. She talked about her brother and father both being biologists and how it affected her storytelling, and then she basically wrapped it up for Q&A.
Which was really interesting in itself! Someone asked her what her writing schedule was like on a long-term, yearly basis and she responded "What you're really asking is what your writing schedule should be, and I can't tell you that." She said she gives herself quotas of pages a day, not hours of work, and that she works in a room with a "Do Not Interrupt" sign on the door, but the door is open and everyone always interrupts, and anyway when she started writing she had to sit around a table with the rest of her family and the one kerosene lantern so she was used to creating her own cone of silence to write in noisy places (she suspected Jane Austen of doing the same thing). Then someone asked her if she felt she had a unique perspective as a Canadian in the market, and she started by saying basically "everyone has a unique perspective" but then spoke about how Canada is different than both England and America in that it's never been an imperialistic power and its location is very different, so the perspective is different; she talked about how if Russia attacked the US during the Cold War, the rockets would explode over Canada as a matter of course. Then someone asked her a question about how she knows what voice to write a book in, and she relates how some books she had to start over partway through because she realized she was in the wrong voice for whatever effect she was going for; for instance, she wanted a narrator to be able to hide things from the reader, so she had to switch from third person omniscient to first person to make that easier.
The last question was the most interesting to me: authorial intent. Someone asked her if her works exist in a vacuum, and if she thinks other people can discover things in her works that she didn't intentionally put there herself. She said that after editors and test readers and translators and publishers, you already learn a lot about things in your novel that you didn't intend, and that readers can find those things too. She said it's very exciting if they're right, and very annoying if they're wrong. Like the man who came up to her at a talk and said "The Handmaid's Tale is autobiographical, right?" She said "....it's set in the future, so no." He replied "That's no excuse."
Then she signed my copy of The Handmaid's Tale and I got a picture with her and I drank some free wine and ate stuffed mushrooms. Life is good.
ETA: Oh I forgot one funny story! She moved to an island in a Great Lake and there were some squirrels in her rafters and her and her life partner were trying to get them out. She had left for some reason and he was trying to get them out by climbing on the roof and hitting it with a chain, when the ladder fell. Too embarrassed to yell "help", he yelled "hellooooo?" for half an hour until someone drove over and restored the ladder. Then they were accepted in their island community after this because no one is accepted into a close-knit community like that until there's a story about them.