I’ve achieved literary immortality. Sadly, it had nothing to do with the four books I’ve written or any of my countless newspaper, magazine and blog columns. It was made possible by the woman sitting across from me, sipping an organic soy latte with honey. Margaret Atwood. Or Peggy Atwood. I’m not sure which one I like more. Margaret Atwood is why I wanted to write. I’ve read and reread all her books. I send Peggy emails about boy troubles. “My goodness, why don’t you just send him an email and be done with it?” she’ll write back. Or I’ll tell Peggy I was stung by a bee while pumping gas. Peggy responds with, “Oh dear. Public gas station? It may not have been a bee. Maybe a wasp? There are many kinds. May not have been a honeybee, if bee. Did you keep its tiny corpse?” Peggy will read my palm and always signs her emails with “Xm.” Not exactly the way people might imagine the woman described by many as “among the most brilliant writers of English.”
Two years ago, I bid $7,000 at a charity auction to have my name in Atwood’s next book. (I promised I wouldn’t buy shoes for two years.) Now, the book is out. Called The Year of The Flood, it is by far my favourite of all Atwood’s novels. When I send Atwood an email telling her I’m loving it, she writes back, “Well that’s very nice to hear . . . could NOT be because you’re in it!” All Atwood had told me before I got the book to read was that I “don’t die,” which is “always a good thing.”
When the book arrives, I quickly skim, looking for my name. I find it on page 30. Rebecca Eckler is working for a cruel, malicious manager at a chain called SecretBurgers (“the secret of SecretBurgers was that no one knew what sort of animal protein was actually in them,” Atwood writes). One of my character’s first quotes is, “Praise the Lord and spit. I’m too black and ugly for him . . .” There you have it. Rebecca Eckler is no longer skinny, neurotic and Jewish. Two pages later I read the line, “Worse, Rebecca had gone away, no one knew exactly where. Off with some religious group, said the street rumour.”
Well, I thought, that was the quickest $7,000 I had ever spent. Two pages’ worth. Was this what Atwood meant by me not dying? I just disappear? But when I meet Atwood for coffee, she seems to have a lot to say about the character named after me. (Always read the book before you interview an author!) Five days after meeting Atwood, I actually read the book and see that my name is peppered throughout the almost 400 pages.
I feel something like a shock of electricity every time I see it. There’s my name! (I’ve made turnip pie?) There’s my name! (I helped kill someone?) There’s my name! (Did I really just say, “Once he’s stuck his pole in some hole, he thinks it’s his?”)
I’m not the first character name Atwood has auctioned off for charity. Amanda Payne, in Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, is named after someone who won a charity auction in London. Amanda also makes an appearance in this book. (Two books for one bid? Lucky her!) Unlike me, the real-life Amanda Payne has never gotten in touch with Atwood.
So how did the famous author find out she’d have to use the name Rebecca Eckler in her book? She received an email, after the auction, telling her that I won. I ask what her reaction was. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha,” she says. She describes my character: “Rebecca gives good quotes. She doesn’t tell too much. She’s discreet. Unlike you, she doesn’t tell people everything.” (I tell her that I really don’t tell people even half of everything.)
I shouldn’t be surprised to learn the character names in Atwood books “are not just accidents.” She has books of names, and depending on when the book takes place, studies books with the names of flowers and plants, jewels, and saints for inspiration. Luckily, for Atwood, Rebecca is a Biblical name, and fitting for this book. Eckler? Well, I felt bad about that. “It’s a fine name,” she says.
I ask Atwood about her first name. Growing up, she was Peggy. It was her father who wanted to name her after her mother, Margaret. “He was romantic. He adored my mother,” she says. Later, she says she tried to go by M. E. Atwood (her middle name is Eleanor) to be taken seriously as a writer. “But then Margaret thought it was too pretentious,” she laughs.
Few people, aside from me, I think, will care that my name is in an Atwood novel. Except for those who may hope to one day bid on a character themselves. “I think this may be the last time I do it,” Atwood says.