9 Things You Might Not Know About Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Sabrina Lantos/Netflix
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Just like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood is more ubiquitous than ever in the twilight of her career. Her classic feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale saw a wildly popular television adaptation earlier this year, and her 1996 novel Alias Grace has just hit Netflix as a miniseries.

Atwood is known for her speculative fiction that imagines thought-provoking what-ifs about the near future, but Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction. Here are nine things to know before you start your binge-watch.

1. IT'S ONE OF THREE ATWOOD ADAPTATIONS HITTING THE SMALL SCREEN THIS YEAR.

Atwood's classic 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale of course already came out on Hulu and garnered several Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series. But Alias Grace follows another Atwood adaptation of a children's book she wrote in 2011 called Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop's Wunderground Washery, which aired in Canada this spring as Wandering Wenda. (It will air in the United States in December.)

2. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY. 

Alias Grace tells the story of a young Irish servant named Grace Marks, who kills her employer and his mistress in 1843 Canada with the help of a male servant. The male servant hangs for the crime; Grace is institutionalized for years and becomes an object of societal curiosity as a young and beautiful "murderess." The story follows a young psychologist as he talks to Grace years after the crime, trying to determine her level of culpability. It frequently jumps into the past, following Grace's life leading up to the murders. Although Atwood invented the psychologist character, Grace and her murder victims were very real.

3. NOBODY KNOWS HOW THE STORY ENDS.


Anchor

Although Grace Marks really existed, nobody knows the rest of her story. Following the crime, she was sentenced to death in 1843. It was then commuted to life, and eventually she was pardoned in 1873. After that, she disappeared from history. Nobody knows how she spent the rest of her life, which gave Atwood free rein to imagine her ending.

4. EVEN IN THE 1800S, PEOPLE WERE DRAWN TO THE STORY'S SEX AND VIOLENCE.

The stereotype of the 1800s is of a buttoned-up era in which a lady showing her ankle was considered racy. But society had the same interest in sex and violence as it does today. “The details were sensational," Atwood wrote in the novel’s afterword. "Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and also extremely young; Kinnear's housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was Thomas Kinnear's mistress; at her autopsy she was found to be pregnant. Grace and her fellow servant James McDermott had run away to the United States together and were assumed by the press to be lovers. The combination of sex, violence and the deplorable insubordination of the lower classes was most attractive to the journalists of the day.''

5. MARGARET ATWOOD GOT THE IDEA FOR THE BOOK WHEN SHE WAS STILL IN COLLEGE. 

Although Margaret Atwood was 57 years old when Alias Grace was published, she had been thinking about the idea for many years. She first came across Grace Marks's story in Susanna Moodie's 1853 book Life in the Clearingswhich she read while studying at Harvard, where she got her master’s degree and pursued a doctorate for two years.

6. ATWOOD’S GOAL WAS TO FOCUS ON HOW SOCIETY VIEWS MALE VERSUS FEMALE MURDERERS.

Photo of Margaret Atwood
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

As with all of Atwood’s work, Alias Grace is sharply focused on gender politics. In this case, Atwood wanted to explore the differences in how society views male murderers versus female murderers. Throughout the story, Grace is alternately an object of pity, desire, fascination, fear, revulsion, and mystery. While promoting the series at the Toronto International Film Festival, Atwood explained that she wouldn’t have been interested in Grace if the truth about the murder was absolute.

“There were so many different, contradictory stories about Grace Marks; nobody actually ever knew whether she had killed anybody or not,” Atwood said. “There were four people in the house. Two of them were murdered, the third one was hanged, and she was the one left. And she never told. If I had known the truth, I probably wouldn’t have written a book … The interesting thing is the way everybody projects their ideas onto Grace.”

7. ATWOOD FIRST EXPLORED THE STORY IN A PLAY THAT CAME OUT 22 YEARS BEFORE THE BOOK.

Atwood’s play The Servant Girl also tells a version of Grace Marks’s story. It was filmed for CBC-TV and aired in 1974, more than 20 years before Alias Grace was published.

8. THE NEWSPAPER EXCERPTS IN THE BOOK ARE REAL.

Atwood wanted to stick to the truth as much as possible even in a story with spotty facts. "If you're dealing with things that actually are known, you can't arbitrarily change that to suit yourself," she said. Because of this approach, she didn’t have to invent the newspaper quotes and excerpts that appear in the book; they come from real sources.

9. ATWOOD WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY A MORE RECENT FEMALE MURDERER WHO IS STILL ALIVE.

Between 1990 and 1992, Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo raped and murdered at least three young women—including Karla's sister, Tammy. Though both were convicted of the crimes, Karla struck a plea bargain and was only charged with manslaughter; she was released from prison in 2005. Atwood has mentioned Homolka when talking about Alias Grace.

"In murders in which there are a man and a woman involved, public opinion usually goes in the following fashion: everybody is agreed on the man but opinion is usually split about the woman," Atwood explained in an interview with CBC. "One side: 'She instigated it all. She's the female demon.' The other side: 'She is an innocent victim coerced by force, circumstance and fear.' That's how it split on Karla and it was certainly how it split on Grace."

8 Tips For Overcoming 'Reader's Block'

iStock.com/deyangeorgiev
iStock.com/deyangeorgiev

We’ve all been there. Your eyes glaze over, and you can’t get past the first paragraph on the page. Or perhaps you can’t will yourself to pick up a book in the first place. “Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable, but it might require a little creativity and effort on your part. Read on to hear tips from longtime readers who have been through it—and managed to come out on the other side of a good book.

1. START EASY.

If your reading skills are a little rusty, it’s probably best not to start with War and Peace—or any of the classics, for that matter. Sometimes people fall into the trap of being overly ambitious and choosing one of the literary “greats” without stopping to question whether they actually want to read it. “This is the problem with readers: we aim too high,” Stuart Jeffries wrote in The Guardian. “Ultimately, reader's block is caused by the great is-ought dilemma. You know you should, but you probably won't.” Instead of setting yourself up for failure, start off with something short and easy to digest. Once you get back into the swing of things, you can graduate to more challenging books.

2. TRY A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES ...

Compared to a 300-page novel, short stories won’t seem like such an insurmountable task. Ginni Chen, Barnes and Noble’s “Literary Lady,” suggests trying a collection of stories written by different authors. That way, you’ll have the chance to figure out which styles and subjects you enjoy most. In an advice column addressed to someone with reader’s block, Chen recommended the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. And if you want to start really small, there’s an app called Serial Box that will send you 150-character stories as push notifications.

3. … OR A DIFFERENT GENRE.

Sometimes, it helps to change up your routine and read something outside of your comfort zone or usual go-to. It worked for Bustle writer Charlotte Ahlin, who wrote, “I once read about four Vonneguts in a row and then spent a week feeling crushing despair over the human condition. Your mind needs a varied diet of books to stay sharp.” In a blog for the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville, North Carolina, book lover Michele Coleman offered similar testimony. “For me during my last slump or block, I found browsing the non-fiction eased my mind,” she wrote. Do you enjoy mystery? She suggests switching it up and reading a humorous book. Is romance your thing? Give historical fiction a shot instead.

4. READ PAGE 69 BEFORE COMMITTING TO A BOOK.

This unusual tip comes from John Sutherland, an English professor and the author of How to Read a Novel. As Jeffries of The Guardian puts it, “Once you have read page 69, you will have an idea of whether the book is up your street. (Why he didn't say page 56 is anybody's guess.)” If that snippet doesn’t appeal to you, put it back on the shelf. Otherwise you might get stuck reading something that isn’t suited to your tastes, which can make your reader’s block even worse.

5. DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO FINISH A BOOK IF YOU’RE NOT ENJOYING IT.

Reading is supposed to be enjoyable—not a chore. If you find yourself filled with dread any time you pick up the book you’re currently reading, you may want to rethink your choice of material. If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, just use this quote from philosopher Francis Bacon as an excuse: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Interestingly, Goodreads compiles a list of the most popular abandoned books based on its user data, so you’ll be in good company if Infinite Jest goes infinitely unfinished.

6. LISTEN TO AN AUDIOBOOK.

Many traditionalists are of the opinion that audiobooks don’t really count as “reading,” but some researchers would disagree. One 2016 study found no difference in reading comprehension between those who had listened to an audiobook and those who had used an e-reader. It may seem counterintuitive, but audiobooks can also help beat reader's block, according to Jonathan Douglas, director of the UK's National Literacy Trust. This is because they can help reignite your passion for learning and consuming stories at a time when you’re having difficulty reading. Try listening to the audiobook while you drive to work, clean your house, or work out. You’ll feel extra accomplished for having done two productive things at once, and it may provide the momentum you need to get back into reading.

7. DISCONNECT FROM TECHNOLOGY.

In an article for Arré, writer Karan Mujoo said he’s been an avid reader since childhood. Yet he still occasionally struggles with reader’s block, and finds himself abandoning book after book when they fail to capture his interest. In his case, the availability of quick entertainment via streaming platforms like Netflix is simply too difficult to resist. “Unlike books, which require imagination and effort on the part of the reader, these shows serve you everything on a platter,” he writes. “Why then, should we expend our energies in reading, imagining, and creating a world when it has already been done for us?” Faced with a similar predicament, writer Hugh McGuire explained that his inability to focus on books was due to a “digital dopamine addiction” that stemmed from his consumption of television and online articles. With a few adjustments, though, he was able to get back into a regular reading habit. He suggests removing smartphones and computers from your bedroom, refraining from watching TV after dinner, and reading a book each night before bed. “I am reading books now more than I have in years,” he writes.

8. REREAD AN OLD FAVORITE.

When all else fails, “Literary Lady” Chen recommends paying a visit to an old friend. Your favorite books are memorable for a reason, and sometimes rereading a beloved book for the third time is all it takes to lift the reader’s block curse. You may also want to investigate options that are similar to your favorite authors and books. Book Browse is a good resource for finding “read-alikes” that might suit your tastes, and Literature Map will give you a visual overview of authors you may enjoy.

Dutton's New Young Adult Books Are the Size of a Smartphone—and They're Horizontal

Sometimes, the desire to read takes a backseat to how cumbersome it can be to carry a hardback book around all day, but a new line of pocket-sized volumes will ensure that’s never a problem. Dutton Books for Young Readers, a Penguin Random House imprint, has released a new line of books that are only a fraction of the size of the traditional hardback, as The New York Times reports.

The new design takes inspiration from the popular Dutch books known as dwarsliggers. In contrast to nearly every other book on the market, the text of these minute volumes is oriented horizontally, creating a flipbook effect. (The term comes from the Dutch words dwars—meaning crossways—and liggen—to lie.) The Dutton books are about the size of a smartphone, with extra-thin pages that make each volume only as thick as your finger. In other words, you'll only need one hand to read them.

A copy of the Penguin Mini version of 'Paper Towns' resting on two open copies of the book
Penguin Random House

The Penguin Minis are made by a Dutch printer, Royal Jongbloed, which is currently the only company in the world that makes books in this specific format. It uses ultra-thin paper sourced from just one Finnish mill.

The first books released in the new format are young adult novels by none other than Mental Floss friend John Green, host of our YouTube series Scatterbrained. You can buy the tiny versions of The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska at major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores for $12 each. (There's also a boxed set of all four books on Amazon for $27.)

A boxed set of John Green novels released as Penguin Minis
Penguin Random House

Dutton is printing 500,000 copies for the first run, and if the compact novels prove popular over the holidays, there will be more volumes on their way in the future.

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER