Margaret Atwood rejects rumour she dumbed down ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ sequel to make it easier for TV producers

Novelist dismisses claims she wrote for screen rather than readers

Sherna Noah
Tuesday 10 September 2019 17:40
‘The Testaments’ sparked worldwide excitement and is already nominated for the Booker Prize
‘The Testaments’ sparked worldwide excitement and is already nominated for the Booker Prize

Novelist Margaret Atwood has dismissed the suggestion that she made her follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale an easier read for its new, TV audience.

The Testaments is published around the globe more than 30 years after her original classic, which sparked a recent hit TV series starring Elisabeth Moss.

Atwood, 79, told a press conference she was not “dumbing down”.

She said: “I don’t think that I was intending to have it ‘more accessible’. I always try to write in a way that’s clear. I try not to do really confusing things. I’ve never written a book in which the goal is to write a book minus the letter ‘a’ – it has been done...

“The choices have entirely to do with the realities of the world and the realities of the characters. I’ve always written short chapters and that’s to do with the fact ... I don’t have people bringing me my breakfast on a tray every day like characters in Henry James’s fiction. I get interrupted.

“There’s lots to see and do every day, therefore my writing time gets shoved into the early morning or the night these days.”

Atwood remained tight-lipped on whether there would be a third book following The Testaments, which has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

“I never say ‘never’ to anything because I have said ‘never’ and been wrong,” the Canadian author said. “I’ve also said, ‘I’m writing this’ and then I didn’t. I think it’s best not to tell anybody what you may or may not do because there’s just going to be endless questions.

“Politicians experience this all the time, but writers can avoid it by just not saying.”

She said she had a train journey to thank for giving her the space to put pen to paper.

She added: “I wrote part of it in a train going across Canada... We had won it as a prize, a fundraiser. It was a bit dicey, we were the attraction of the fundraiser and we won it. It looked fishy!

“It was a great place to write because nobody phoned. They couldn’t.”

Scene depicting FGM in The Handmaid's Tale

Asked whether she considered herself a literary “rock star”, she quipped: “I haven’t yet died of an opiate overdose, not yet, there’s time!”

But she said she was glad the attention around her came later.

She said: “I think this kind of thing could be quite ruinous for a 35-year-old because where do you go from there?”

Despite tight secrecy, hundreds of readers in the US received early copies of The Testaments before the embargo after books were shipped out early by Amazon, which apologised and blamed a “technical error”.

Speaking about the secrecy surrounding the novel, Atwood said at a press conference: “There were concerted efforts to try to steal the manuscript ... for fishing expeditions ... all your information in the hands of people who steal your identity.

“But that didn’t happen, but not for lack of trying. There were lots of phoney emails trying to steal just anything, even just three pages”.

After dismissing the notion of writing a follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, she said she changed her mind after the US moved nearer to the dystopia she described in her first novel.

“Instead of moving forward away from Gilead we moved towards it, particularly in the United States,” she said.

“I sent a two-paragraph summary to my publishers in 2017, saying what it was, who was going to be in it. Probably they were terrified.

“It does sound like a mad idea. Usually I never tell them what I’m doing because they always sound like mad ideas.”

She said of the book: “I was thinking about it in the 1990s ... next 9/11 (happened) and that changes the chessboard. We became much more fearful, inward-looking.”

The “world financial meltdown” in 2008 and the run-up to the 2016 presidential election in the US also spurred her on.

Laws are still being passed around the world which take control away from women over their bodies, she said.

The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss, first aired in 2017.


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