On the eve of her 70th birthday, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood set out on an international tour criss-crossing the British Isles and North America to celebrate the publication of her new dystopian novel, The Year of the Flood.
But rather than mount a traditional tour to promote a book’s publication, Atwood conceived and executed something far more ambitious and revelatory – a theatrical version of her novel. Along the way she reinvented what a book tour could be. But Atwood wasn't selling books as much as advocating an idea. Her primary concern was to do what she could to ensure the continued life of the birds of the skies—especially song birds.
Atwood's odyssey is now captured in Ron Mann's new film, In The Wake of the Flood. Rendered as a fly-on-the-wall film verite, In The Wake of the Flood mixes new footage, archival materials and evocative CGI in featuring Atwood on the road and at home as an aging but buoyant literary rock star spreading a message of warning and hope as she staged and participated in the novel production.
This intimate, behind-the-scenes portrait of a literary star who wonders aloud whether or not anyone is really paying attention to the looming danger signs presented by our increasingly threatened ecosystem is as inspiring as it is unsettling. For at 70, Atwood is determined to do something meaningful about something she cares passionately about: raising consciousness through action of the destruction wrought on birdlife by the fossil fuel engine that supports civilization in the third millennium. Margaret Atwood is, of course, one of the most acclaimed literary voices of this generation. The author of more than a dozen novels, numerous collections of poetry, children’s books, and countless essays, Atwood’s triumphs have been lauded on the highest levels throughout the world.
In each community she visited, she joined volunteer performers in a loose-knit, grass roots production drawn from the text of her novel. With its mystical, Blakean overtones, Atwood’s theatrical version of The Year of the Flood acts as a song cycle that seeks to shake the human race into an awareness of the fragility of the natural world and our vital connection to it. To bring her novel into a live setting, Atwood teamed with Los Angeles composer Orville Stoeber to write a new style of devotional music influenced by the related genres of country ballads, gospel, jazz and folk. Each performance included a cast of local readers and singers taking the roles of different characters from the novel. The events were primarily staged in cathedrals, adding a grand visual element to the proceedings and a layer of ceremonial gravitas.
The novel follows a cult of spiritual gardeners who survive an environmental apocalypse known as the "waterless flood." The book is partially constructed around a cycle of 14 hymns scattered throughout the book and sung by its heroes and heroines. Many of the hymns are sung in praise to a specific new-millennial patron saint whose knowledge, experience and wisdom they believe holds a key to spiritual and environmental rebirth – philosopher Henry David Thoreau, environmentalist Rachel Carson, naturalist Euell Gibbons, and handicapped Canadian athlete Terry Fox among them. From Edinburgh and London to New York City, Toronto and Vancouver, In The Wake of The Flood chronicles Atwood's journey, displays a healthy taste of performances, takes a peek at her rugged and adventurous childhood, and features conversations with some of the like-minded fellow travelers she encountered along the way. These include a community gardener, an eccentric bird watcher and, most notably, Bill McKibbon the environmental activist whose work on climate change puts humanity in the crosshairs of possible ecological cataclysm.
Atwood’s conception in bringing a live version of her book to an audience was to go beyond identifying environmental and social ills – concerns such as climate change, pollution, economic inequity and racism. Rather, she sought to inspire her audience into awareness and civic action.
In keeping true to the novel’s environmentally-conscious theme, Atwood left a light carbon footprint behind her as she hop-scotched from city to city. Instead of traveling by air, she put her ideals where her pen were by making the trip by ocean liner and rail. And, as an avowed naturalist who has embraced environmental activism, her commitment to preserving the natural world was underscored by donating proceeds from the The Year of the Flood performances were to Bird Life, a leading ornithological conservation group in which she and her life partner Graeme Gibson are prominent members.
The film culminates in Sudbury, Ontario—a once ecologically toxic city now rejuvenated by sound urban planning—where the author is feted on her birthday. Through it all, Atwood emerges as a sage elder whose rare sensibility is always in the foreground: a life and art coalesced into a unity of medium and message. In The Wake of the Flood combines these artistic and narrative threads in its evocation of Atwood’s achievement and worldview, following her as she shares her life and eco-fable with her audience and us.