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Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood on tyranny, survival and protest tactics

Margaret Atwood. Illustration/Weef

Margaret Atwood says the time is right to revisit the dystopian world of her most popular novel – and not just because the red cape of the handmaid has become a powerful protest symbol for women’s rights.

Thirty-four years after the publication of the dystopian feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale, the celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood launched its much-anticipated sequel on September 10 in London. Hundreds of eager fans queued outside Waterstones bookshop in Piccadilly for the midnight unveiling of The Testaments.

Before its publication, in an unusual development, the book had already been shortlisted for the Booker Prize – each of the judges had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and then received a hand-delivered watermarked copy of the book. There had also been an accidental leak by Amazon that led to 800 copies being sent out a week early. And there were concerted attempts to hack into the computers of the few people who had copies of the manuscript, apparently for bait for phishing with malware. So the publicity had been building nicely to a feverish climax.

Now, as the moment of arrival nears, a troupe of women are dressed up as Handmaids and Pearl Girls (a kind of missionary introduced in the new book), as such well-known novelists as Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman and Elif Shafak join the dramatic countdown. All have come to hear the 79-year-old Atwood give the very first reading of this most keenly awaited book.

The hullabaloo has been compared to the Harry Potter releases of years gone by, although, in its careful orchestration of news and glorifying focus on the author, it was more reminiscent of the publication of Madonna’s 1992 pictorial book Sex. Instead of thrusting poses, fishnets and open-cup bras, the imagery has shifted to floor-length dresses, and at its centre is not a narcissistic pop star but a discreet septuagenarian woman of letters.

The following morning, Atwood, looking surprisingly fresh, shows up at the British Library to address the world’s press in what is grandly billed as her first public discussion of the book “anywhere in the world”.

Return to Gilead: Margaret Atwood at the launch of The Testaments. Photo/Reuters

Dressed in a turquoise silk shirt, black slacks and silver pumps, Atwood is these days a rather diminutive figure, almost hidden by a phalanx of publishing assistants who protect her, like so many Gilead Aunts, as she makes her way on stage. But even half-concealed she’s instantly recognisable by her trademark mop of silver curls.

A battery of TV cameras and photographers greet her as she walks out. Later, in the evening, she will be the subject of a live event at the National Theatre – where a giant image of a handmaid is projected on to its forbidding walls – which will be simultaneously screened in 1300 cinemas worldwide. And you can’t help but wonder, as someone indeed asks her, what she makes of all the attention. “Well,” she says, in her mordant, seen-it-all tone, a beguiling mixture of self-possession and playful irony, “London loves a happening.”

That’s certainly true. But what of her own experience of the hyperbole and spectacle? After all, she is introduced to the audience as a “literary rock star”. That’s a label that perhaps Karl Ove Knausgård can wear, looking as he does like the drummer for Metallica, but it doesn’t fit quite so comfortably on a genteel woman pushing 80.

“Well, considering the lives that rock stars lead,” she says, her delivery as dry as a bone, “I haven’t died of an opiate overdose. Not yet. There’s still time.”

As the laughter dies down, she makes the point that such media attention would be ruinous for a 35-year-old author because, as she puts it, “Where do you go from there?” In her case, she says, “We kind of know the answer. We know the plot.”

Elisabeth Moss as June Osborne/Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale TV series.
If Atwood’s story is approaching its final chapters, her career as a writer has been long and highly distinguished. She started out as a poet in the early 1960s, and published her first novel 50 years ago. The Edible Woman was a bravura satire on the consumer society. Atwood described the book as “protofeminist”, because although it came out in 1969, it was written five years earlier, before feminism had gathered momentum.

In truth, she has steadfastly resisted categorisation, publishing some 60 books – fiction, poetry, short stories, criticism and children’s and comic books – across a number of literary genres. Although a writer of global renown, she is deeply rooted in Canada, which she describes as “the place you can escape to when things go pear-shaped in the United States”.

She lives in Toronto with her long-term partner, the novelist Graeme Gibson. Located just across the border from the US, the city affords her the ideal position from which to view American sociopolitical movements while retaining a critical distance. And while she can be mocking of Canada’s provincialism, she is at the same time a staunch supporter of Canadian arts.

What first brought her to public attention in Canada was, in fact, her critical work Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. It proposed that the animating idea of Canadian fiction is the country’s great natural challenges – the vast wastes, the suffocating snow – that protagonists must survive.

But if this Canadian preoccupation with survival informs her own writing, she’s happy to commit it to the page in almost any location. An experienced traveller, she has ventured to all corners of the globe and she’s not precious about the conditions for creativity. She wrote part of The Testaments while travelling across Canada on a train.

“I have always tended to write short chapters,” she says, “and that is to do with the fact that I do not have a cork-lined room like Proust, and I don’t have people bringing me my breakfast on a tray every day like characters in Henry James’ fiction. I get interrupted a lot. How can I put this? There’s lots to see and do every day.”

George Orwell. Photo/Getty Images

Among a gallery of awards, she has been shortlisted six times for the Booker Prize, winning it in 2000 for the Blind Assassin. Although The Handmaid’s Tale lost out in that prize in 1986 to Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils (definitely not a feminist work), it remains her most famous book and by some way her most successful.

Relating the story of Offred, a sex slave in an authoritarian America (renamed Gilead) of the near future, the novel was an icily credible account of a woman taken prisoner by a theocratic state and her body placed in the service of a sinister patriarchy.

Partly a cautionary allegory about the female struggle for reproductive rights, the book also owed a debt to literary and real-world dystopias. It’s no coincidence that it was written in 1984, the year that gave its name to her hero George Orwell’s most celebrated work. Nor is it an inconsequential detail that she began writing it in West Berlin, from where she travelled to East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland – all countries that were then ruled by communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain.

She first read Nineteen Eighty-Four when she was 12, and would go on to read it “again and again”. But as influential as Orwell was on Atwood, she wanted to explore a different perspective to the male one shared by his and nearly all other dystopias.

“When women have appeared in them,” she once wrote, “they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who’ve defied the sex rules of the regime. I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia [the main woman in Nineteen Eighty-Four], as it were.”

The attempt couldn’t have gone much better. The Handmaid’s Tale quickly became a bestseller, then a set text for schools around the world, and finally was given another massive sales bump by the 2017 US television adaptation, not to mention a shocking infusion of relevance by the election of Donald Trump the previous year.

Donald Trump. Photo/Reuters

At the Waterstones press conference, Atwood fields several questions about how her writing of The Testaments was affected by the TV show and the Trump presidency. She says she had close involvement with the TV series, reading the scripts and advising its creator, Bruce Miller, but no creative power, other than a veto on killing off characters. One of those whose life she insisted on was Baby Nicole – the daughter of Offred and, we assumed, her designated master, Commander Waterford. The significance of that plea will become apparent to readers of the new book.

Over the years, she says, she had from time to time considered revisiting Gilead – not least because she was asked to do so almost every time she met her readers. Initially, she could see no point because the Western world in the late 80s and 90s seemed to be moving away from patriarchal power and towards a more consumerist sense of personal liberty. Or, as she puts it, with deliberate flippancy: “The Wall comes down and everyone goes shopping. The end of history, game over, no more bad things.”

Then, following the optimism of the 90s, 9/11 took place and, she says, “I started thinking about it again”, because “we became much more fearful, inward looking”. Her thinking got more serious following the financial crisis of 2008, and grew urgent when Trump started campaigning for the Republican candidacy in 2015.

In February 2017, she sent her publishers a two-paragraph summary of the book she intended to write. She says they were probably “terrified”, although I imagine they were more likely rubbing their hands with glee.

A sequel of sorts, The Testaments is not a continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood had always known that she could not recreate “the narrative voice of Offred”. The new book has three narrators, one of whom is Aunt Lydia, the stern prison-guard-like instructor of the handmaids from the original.

She says that Miller was thrilled, on reading The Testaments, to be given more source material or, as she puts it, “extra whiteboard space”, referring to the plotting board of the TV writers’ room.

Madeline Brewer as Janine Lindo/Ofwarren and Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia.

One of the questions Atwood says she wanted to address in the new book is how functionaries justify themselves in authoritarian regimes. Being born in the fateful year of 1939, she says, meant that from childhood she was curious about the internal mechanics of tyranny. She has read many diaries of dictators’ subordinates, including that of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s head of propaganda – “very cheery at the beginning”. And, recently, she immersed herself in the history of Thomas Cromwell, the Machiavellian figure in Henry VIII’s court who is also the subject of a trilogy of novels by Hilary Mantel.

Such people form the first generation of revolutionaries, the ones whose hands are most indelibly stained with blood. But Atwood also wanted to explore the role of succeeding generations in The Testaments, for whom a repressive state is the norm. It’s these people, she says, who hold the secret of how tyrannies come to collapse.

“Life is very different for a third generation in such a structure than it is for the founding generation,” she explains. “The first generation has had to do all the blood bath-ery. ‘We did this for you! Why aren’t you grateful?’”

When she travelled around Eastern Europe in 1984, she found that “East Germany was the most locked down”. To any casual observer, it was the least likely nation of the Soviet Bloc to fall. “But it was the place where the Wall crumbled and people came streaming through.”

In other words, how things look on the outside is not an accurate reflection of the forces working away within people. To this extent, The Testaments has been seen by some critics as a more optimistic book than its predecessor. Atwood rejects the comparison.

The Handmaid’s Tale is optimistic,” she says, “Why is that? Because I didn’t kill off the main character, No 1. And also, we have the symposium at the end that makes it clear that Gilead didn’t last. There are lots of reasons not to be optimistic [currently], but about these kinds of regimes there are frequently reasons to be optimistic because, in fact, they tend not to last.”

A red-caped protester outside the Alabama State Capitol. Photo/Getty Images
She’s proud of how the book and its iconography have been adopted in recent years by protesters in many different parts of the world. The trend started two years ago when women dressed in handmaids’ red capes sat in the Texas Senate gallery to protest against a bill restricting abortion access. (It was in the same state a decade ago that high schools in San Antonia banned The Handmaid’s Tale for being anti-Christian and too explicit about sex. Atwood wrote the school district an open letter, noting that the Bible had much more to say about sex than her book.)

“It’s brilliant as a protest tactic because you’re not making a disturbance,” says Atwood approvingly. “You’re not saying anything. You’re sitting very silently and modestly and you can’t be kicked out for dressing inappropriately because you’re all covered up – no frightful bare shoulders.”

The tactic, she notes, has been employed as far afield as Argentina, Croatia and Ireland. But it’s only happening, she adds, because countries are “putting people in charge of women’s bodies who are not those women”.

She describes this as a form of conscription, in which the state lays claim to the ownership of women’s bodies. The only parallel in the male population is the draft in wartime, she says, when the state owns the bodies of the young men sent to fight.

“But when they do that,” Atwood says, “they pay for your clothing, lodging, food, medical expenses and they give you a salary. So, I say unto them, if you want to conscript women’s bodies in this way you should pay for it. As it is, you’re forcing women to deliver babies. It’s enforced childbirth and you’re not paying for any of it. I think that’s very cheap. Cheap labour – and that’s a pun.”

It’s a characteristically Atwoodian observation – showing us something familiar from another angle, thereby revealing its glaring flaw. It’s what she is able to do so convincingly in her fiction, by creating worlds similar to our own, but with a particular tendency taken to its logical extreme.

Moss and Margaret Atwood. Photo/Getty Images
If her work is influenced by reality, then reality has more than repaid the compliment. She has said that Trump’s ascent to the presidency was too implausible for a novel, but there is a sense that some of the misogynistic and xenophobic attitudes he’s empowered are straight out of the Canadian’s notebooks. All the talk of the Mexican wall and the scenes of caged child asylum seekers separated from their parents could have come direct from Gilead.

As one placard at the Women’s March on Washington, the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, memorably put it: “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.”

It is Atwood’s imaginative prescience and intellectual presence of mind that a vast army of readers have come to value, almost like a bulwark against political and cultural despoliation. For that reason, but not only for that reason, there are already appeals for yet another return to Gilead.

Her fans might be encouraged by the fact that she is noncommittal on this issue, which is a big step forward from her previous definitive declarations that there would be no sequels.

“Never say never to anything, because I have said ‘never’ and I’ve been wrong,” she says. “And I’ve also said I’m writing this and then I didn’t. So, I think it’s best not to tell anybody what you’re doing.”

For the moment, Atwood appears to be relishing her time in the spotlight. But when all the promotional noise has died down, she’ll return quietly to her desk or train compartment, working in the early morning or at night, and begin the process she knows so well. What will emerge from it we’ll just have to wait and see. For the Gilead-obsessives, who waited for more than three decades, that really shouldn’t be too hard to do.

THE TESTAMENTS, by Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus, $48.00); MARGARET ATWOOD: LIVE IN CINEMAS, from September 28.

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.