The Mercantile Library’s 31st-annual Niehoff Lecture takes place Nov. 3 for a sold-out crowd at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, featuring famed author Margaret Atwood in conversation with native Cincinnatian and fellow author Curtis Sittenfeld.
“This year, Niehoff Lecture XXXI, is far and away the biggest one we’ve ever had,” says Cedric Rose, collector and librarian with The Mercantile.
Past Niehoff lecturers have included controversial figures like Salman Rushdie, comedian (and Dayton native) Jonathan Winters, famous chef Julia Child and 2017’s guest, best-selling author Zadie Smith.
One thing all lecturers have in common?
“There has to be some sort of gravitas to their career,” says Amy Hunter, literary programs and marketing manager for the 183-year-old subscription library. Rose calls it the “Niehoffian” quality, which essentially boils down to a substantive, well-known breadth of work.
An events committee comprised of volunteers, board members, the library’s executive director John Faherty and Hunter pull together a list of “dream speakers,” and go from there with the vetting and selection process.
“It just has to sort of ring true to the committee, and then also we run it by the Niehoff family,” Hunter says.
With Atwood, “It was one of those things that someone suggested and everyone went, ‘Yes. Can we get her?’ and we contacted the agency and she was available and we were just thrilled to bits that she would join us,” she continues.
Atwood has written more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays, the most famous of which is likely The Handmaid’s Tale. A cautionary tale about a dystopian future published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale became a popular culture phenomenon with the release of the Hulu original series of the same name in 2017.
In the tenuous political climate of the Trump presidency, the television show and the book that started it all have become a byword of sorts, with many looking at the ominous world of forced pregnancy and violently rigid adherence to a militant sect of Christianity as a foreshadowing of the future. Women clad in the Handmaid’s traditional red gowns and white bonnets have even appeared in protest on Capitol Hill.
For her Niehoff appearance, Atwood opted for a conversation rather than a straight lecture. Last year’s lecturer, British author Smith, requested the format change. Smith was interviewed by Jim Schiff, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati. Sittenfeld (her younger brother P.G. Sittenfeld is a Cincinnati City Council member) is on board this year.
Sittenfeld is the author of five books — 2016’s Eligible is set in Cincinnati — including this year’s short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It. She has conducted a number of interviews with other literary and celebrity figures (notably, former vice president Joe Biden, author Judy Blume and actor Jon Hamm).
“I think really that the event is about what the audience wants to know more than what I personally want to know, although there is overlap,” Sittenfeld says. “I think that people usually like to have a mix of sort of autobiographical information, and a conversation about specific books and life anecdotes.”
Discussing The Handmaid’s Tale is an inevitability, but foreseeing the current cultural climate that has made it a discussion for topic, as Atwood did, was not, necessarily.
“Obviously, she was so prescient in anticipating the cultural moment that we live in now, and I think it’s really interesting,” Sittenfeld says. “I feel like she anticipated a lot of what we’re facing now in terms of both climate and gender and it seems like that’s really interesting to talk about. It’s kind of an amazing thing that she wrote this novel decades ago and people are literally dressing up as characters from the novel as a form of political protest all this time later.”
The conversation will take place on a stage at the Hyatt Regency’s ballroom. There’s a cocktail hour full of socializing, plus dinner and the conversation itself.
Established in 1986 by Buck and Patti Niehoff, the lecture is The Mercantile’s only annual fundraiser. Hunter calls it the “pinnacle” of the library’s season, one that includes a number of other signature events, from Q&As with up-and-coming authors to other lecture series (last year’s 2035 Lecture Series brought in guests like Chuck Klosterman) and more.
Margaret Atwood’s sold-out Niehoff Lecture, in conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld, takes place at the Hyatt Regency downtown 7-10 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 3). More info: mercantilelibrary.com.