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Margaret Atwood interview: ‘White supremacy is always bubbling away in any country’

Ahead of the release of new book The Testaments, the beloved author tells Alexandra Alter how she navigated writing a follow-up to her dystopian 1985 novel in the wake of its successful TV adaptation

Friday 06 September 2019 13:46 BST
Margaret Atwood, author of 'The Handmaid's Tale' and new sequel 'The Testaments'
Margaret Atwood, author of 'The Handmaid's Tale' and new sequel 'The Testaments'

Margaret Atwood wasn’t sure she had a Handmaid’s Tale sequel in her, even as fans clamoured for one.

“What they were begging for was a continuation in the voice of Offred, which I would not have been able to do,” she said over tea and juice at a cafe near her home. “You can climb the Empire State Building barehanded once. When you try again, you’ll fall off. It was a wildly improbable thing to have done in the first place. That voice was there. She said her thing. There’s nothing you can really add in her voice.”

But a few years ago, Atwood started plotting a way to continue her 1985 dystopian classic about the women of Gilead, a religious autocracy in what was formerly the United States, where fertile women are subjected to ritualised rape and forced to bear children for the upper class citizens.

Between then and now, The Handmaid’s Tale became a pop culture phenomenon, a political rallying cry and a hit television series on Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, the narrator. The English-language edition of the novel has sold more than 8m copies worldwide. Women dressed as handmaids have flooded Congress and state capitols to protest new restrictions on reproductive rights. Expectations for Atwood’s sequel, which this month was named to the Booker Prize shortlist ahead of its release on Tuesday, are stratospheric.

Adding to those pressures is that a Handmaid’s Tale sequel effectively exists already. The TV adaptation, created by Bruce Miller, has extended Offred’s saga beyond the scope of the novel. So Atwood and Miller had to calibrate plot and character developments in the show, so that the series didn’t contradict her sequel, or vice versa.

“Margaret offered me more restrictions, and I gave her more information,” Miller said in an interview. “I had to be careful about where I was going and what I was doing. She controls the world.”

The sequel, titled The Testaments, takes place roughly 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, when Offred is led into a black van. The sequel features two new narrators – a young woman who has been brought up in Gilead and a Canadian teenager who escaped the regime as an infant – and a third who will be familiar to fans of the original novel and show: Aunt Lydia, the terrifying, vindictive architect of Gilead’s system for training women for reproductive servitude. As their intertwined stories unfold, Atwood reveals new facets of how Gilead’s power structure came to be, and how it eventually crumbles. (A TV adaptation of The Testaments is also in the works.)

Atwood, who will turn 80 this year, was in high spirits as she reflected on her work, mortality and the surprising prescience of The Handmaid’s Tale. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When you announced the sequel, you said that you were aiming to answer questions that readers had been asking about Gilead for years. What were some of those questions?

They all begin with “what if.” And one of the what ifs was this: Totalitarian systems don’t last, it is my fervent belief. Some of them have lasted longer than others. When they come apart, what is it that causes them to fall apart? Well, there’s a lot of different scenarios. Crumbling from within, corruption and inter-purging among the elites; attacks from without; generational succession. The first generation generally comes with righteous fervour, the second is focused on administration; and the third generation starts to think, What are we doing?

After the election of President Trump, sales of The Handmaid’s Tale surged and readers noted how timely it felt. Some elements have become even more aligned with current events, with the erosion of reproductive rights, separation of parents from their children at the border and the targeting of minorities by white supremacists. Did you want to write a sequel in part to address some of those new parallels?

No, no. It’s always bubbling away in any country. White supremacists are there and then they come out when conditions are favourable, as they are in the United States right now.

The Testaments picks up 15 years later, but it weaves in plot elements that were introduced in the TV show. Were you consciously trying to build off it?

I was trying to make it so that there weren’t any glaring inconsistencies. They updated the timeline, so we leave a lot of things open.

In the show’s second season, Offred’s baby, Nichole, is smuggled out of the country to Canada. Baby Nichole is central to the plot of your new novel. Did you get the idea for that character from the show and decide to expand on her in the sequel?

No, Nichole was my name. You’ll notice that I’ve left them a lot of blank wall paper to draw on behind the scenes, so it’s up to them how they get people across the border in their part of the plot.

You’ve been very involved in the show, which continues Offred’s story beyond the scope of your first novel. What has that process been like?

I have influence but no power. There’s a big difference. I’m not the person who can ultimately sign off on anything. So, I’m in communication with Bruce, and I say things like, You can’t kill that person.

Does that work?

Well, he didn’t kill her. But he wasn’t going to kill her anyway. She’s too good to kill.

Which character?

Aunt Lydia.

Ann Dowd and Elisabeth Moss as Aunt Lydia and Offred in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Have there been times where the showrunners wanted to take the plot and characters in a direction that you felt violated the rules of the world you built?

There’s a couple of things that are in the book that they didn’t entirely pick up, but you can see why they didn’t – it’s a television show.

In the book they go full white supremacy. I give them an out for the show. They make the cast multiracial in the TV series for a few reasons: Number one, they updated it to now, and number two, Hulu has a diversity clause, and number three, a show in which everybody was white would be very boring to look at.

Have there been plot developments that you’ve disagreed with?

I’ve done some yelling, but it was fairly effective yelling. I think it’s a bit of a problem for people that know about real totalitarianism that some of these characters have survived for as long as they did. Surely they would have been shot by now. Quite a few too many people know what June has been up to.

In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia becomes much more complex and sympathetic, a victim as well as a perpetrator. How did she evolve in your mind over the decades and why did you decide to make her a central character in the sequel?

How do you get to be a high-ranking person within a totalitarian dictatorship? Either you’re a true believer from the beginning, at which point you’re probably going to get purged later on, or you’re an opportunist. Or it can be fear, or it can be a combination of all of them. I would put fear as number one: If I don’t do this, I will be killed.

Aunt Lydia’s always been a climber, so she climbed up. She’s not easily disturbed, but she’s not a true believer like some of the others. As J Edgar Hoover did, she realises the power of having dirt on people that you don’t reveal publicly.

When did you first have the idea to write the sequel, and was it something that you had considered before but never gotten around to?

I’ve always been thinking about it. I went back in my notes recently and found out that I was thinking about a Handmaid’s Tale sequel back in 1991. So then you just jump in and see what happens.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ TV series has moved past the books 

I wondered if the success of the television show factored into your decision to write a sequel, and how it shaped your understanding of the world and the characters. Were you aiming to reassert creative control over the world that you created?

I can see why you might think that, but no, not really. It really is what I told you at first: how do totalitarianisms fall apart.

With a work that’s as beloved as The Handmaid’s Tale, you face enormous pressure to produce a satisfying sequel. Were you nervous about meeting fans’s expectations?

Will this ruin my future, my literary reputation? If I were 35, you would be absolutely right to ask that question. But it’s not a chief concern of mine.

Did you reread The Handmaid’s Tale before you wrote The Testaments? What struck you about it?

Of course. I also went back through my clippings file, because in those days, there was no internet, so we clipped things out of newspapers. And all of the things that are now such topics of conversation and such topics of agony, they were all being talked about then. The rise of white supremacy, that layer has never gone away, it’s always been there, but somebody opened a door. Religious cults subordinating women was being talked about. Baby stealing is an age-old human motif. Forcing women to have babies, it happens in the Trojan War, for heaven’s sake.

What recent events shaped your thinking?

I don’t want to be too specific, because you’re just dictating to the reader, and I would rather let them do their own thinking. That’s why when people say, what happened to Offred, I say, your choice. History is full of people who disappear and you can’t find any trace of them. What ending would you like to have?

The sequel is not as ambiguous and open-ended as the original. Was that deliberate on your part, to give the story a feeling of finality?

Oh, I don’t know. This one has more closure. Someone said, oh, it’s such a happy ending, well, not for everyone in the story. It is a more positive ending than one might have expected at certain points of the story. I’m a World War II baby. Things looked pretty dark in 1942.

How do you feel about the fact that your book has taken on new political resonance and that you’re sometimes held up as a figurehead of the resistance?

I have no control over it. I think using the handmaids’s costume as a protest mechanism is brilliant. You can’t be thrown out, you’re not making a disturbance, and you’re not saying anything, but you’re very visible and everybody knows what you mean. So it has been a brilliant tactic.

Is it also kind of depressing that people are seeing echoes of your fictional dystopia in contemporary politics?

From a political point of view, the desired outcome of The Handmaid’s Tale would have been that it would fade into obscurity as a period piece, so that my dire warnings would not prove to be correct. That’s not the turn that history has taken.

Both Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale and Aunt Lydia in The Testaments wonder if anyone will ever read the words they set down, if their stories will matter. I wondered if that reflected your own views on writing and your desire to connect with readers, and your fear that maybe your work won’t have an impact.

That’s true of every writer. Every writer. Even as you write, I see you writing away there, what if your editor kills your piece? Then you will never have a reader. Every time when you set implement to surface, I won’t even say pen to paper, because it could be a stone, it could be a tree, you’re implying a reader, and it’s always a future reader, unless the person’s standing looking over your shoulder. The writer is always in that position because you’re always separated in time and place from whoever’s reading your book. It’s always a leap into the unknown future to write anything.

Elisabeth Moss in the Emmy Award-winning series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale

In the past, you’ve rejected the feminist label, yet so many readers and critics see feminist ideas in your work. I wonder how you feel about being held up as a feminist icon.

I’m uncomfortable with the label if the other person won’t define it. You have to ask, what kind of feminism are you talking about? Like if someone asks you, are you a Christian, what kind of Christian? Are you someone who dances with snakes, do I think the Pope is infallible, what are we talking about here? Where are we on the spectrum, because there’s a lot of varieties. Similarly with feminists, who are frequently denouncing one another. So what kind am I? Because I’m interested in fairness, I’m of an egalitarian kind, in which equal means equal, it doesn’t mean superior. So you don’t get extra points.

You don’t mind your work being labelled dystopian, though.

I know what that means. It’s a society which we find less preferable than the one we’re living in, and utopian is one in which we assume that things will be better than the one we’re living in. But as I point out, some people’s dystopia is other people’s utopia, and vice versa.

What scares you the most right now?

I’m too old to be scared by much. You’re scared when you’re young you don’t know the plot. You haven’t achieved much when you’re 20, so you’re scared about your future, of course you are. You’re hopeful, you’re excited, but you’re also scared. So what I’m hopeful about, rather than scared, are the young people. They are changing the political discourse.

Have you thought about writing another book about Gilead, making it a trilogy?

No. I’m too old

The Handmaid's Tale season 3 episode 7 preview

Are you working on another novel?

It’s just a question of the timeline, how much is left? At my age, let’s say it takes me four years to write a novel. Who knows? These are theoretical questions. How many milestone birthdays can you have?

It sounds like you don’t feel a lot of pressure to write more, like you’ve got nothing left to prove.

It’s just that there isn’t a lot of time left. And that’s why they’re going so wild over the promotion of this book. I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking, What if she dies? Ooh, we better do it now. Go all out. Last chance. I say that and they just sort of blush and shuffle their feet. They can’t deny they’re thinking of it. [laughs]

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my collection of poems. It’s short

This article was originally published in The New York Times

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