The legendary Margaret Atwood’s highly-anticipated conversation with Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern on Thursday morning provided a fitting final keynote at WI14, following as it did Reshma Saujani’s Wednesday morning exhortation to booksellers to be brave and Hanif Abdurraqib’s Wednesday afternoon presentation, asking booksellers to move in closer to him.
Possessed with a dry, morbid sense of humor that immediately endeared her to her audience, Atwood joked, “We all know why you’re here: you’re here because you’re saying to yourselves, ‘she’s going to die.’ This might be my last chance.”
It was a wide-ranging discussion that began with the two novelists talking shop about the writing process and the politics of defying literary conventions in their writing. “Some people feel that genre should be watertight compartments, with them in charge of what’s allowed in,” Atwood said. The conversation also included humorous anecdotes about their experiences while promoting their novels– including Atwood’s memories of her first public signing, in a department store, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada for her 1969 novel, The Edible Woman. “There were no lines,” she joked, in response to Morgenstern’s account of her first signing, at BEA in 2012, where she faced lines that “snaked everywhere.”
Inevitably, the conversation turned to Atwood’s next novel The Testaments, a sequel to her 1985 bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale. She said that The Testaments, which follows three narrators and is set 16 years after the conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale, will be released on September 10, even though there’s nothing yet, but the cover, and she is still writing it. Explaining that the story is “radically different” from The Handmaid’s Tale, she said she could not divulge any more or her publisher would be “very cross” with her.
Not only did Atwood receive a standing ovation from booksellers, but she drew a second round of applause when she curtsied to them before stepping down from the stage.
“It was an amazing conversation,” Bob Sommer of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., said. “I went into it as a groupie and came out as even more of one.” Throughout the day, booksellers at the breakfast with whom PW spoke raved about Atwood.
As impressed as booksellers were with Atwood, Morgenstern held her own during the conversation between the two. During the Thursday evening cocktail author reception, when 92 authors were signing either finished copies or galleys, the massive line of booksellers wanting advance copies of Morgenstern’s second novel, The Starless Sea (Doubleday, Nov.), demonstrated that her book was the most sought after title of the evening. Doubleday printed 250 galleys specially for WI14 booksellers.
“This is my book of the show,” said Emily Hall, the owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., as she waited in line to snag a signed copy. “I’ve been wanting this novel ever since I read Night Circus. I ran for it the minute the doors to the ballroom opened.”
As Thursday evening’s reception wound down, ABA CEO Oren Teicher stood in the center of the crowded ballroom with senior ABA strategy officer Dan Cullen and reflected upon the event. “We’ve been hearing very good feedback about WI14,” he said. “Many of the comments [were] about the energy and passion manifested here. For some years now we’ve talked about a new generation of booksellers joining our ranks. Here in Albuquerque I think we’ve seen how true that is. We’re going to take all of this energy and put it directly into our planning for WI15.”
Next year, Winter Institute will move east. WI15 is set to take place in Baltimore, Md., January 21-24, 2020.