“My larger fear: that all my efforts will prove futile, and Gilead will last for a thousand years. Most of the time, that is what it feels like here, far away from the war, in the still heart of the tornado. So peaceful, the streets; so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that near a high-voltage power line. We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate, we quiver, we’re always on the alert. Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”
In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood published an instant classic: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a chilling work of speculative fiction told from the point of view of a young woman trapped in an oppressive American regime called Gilead, where she was forced to bear children for the state. Over the years, it never left public consciousness, becoming a feature film, a television series, an opera, a ballet — but for several decades, its writer thought she was finished with that world.
In the ‘90s, said Atwood in a telephone interview from her Toronto home, “people weren’t that focused on politics. That’s probably the furthest away I came from thinking I was going to continue.”
Long an activist for climate change awareness, Atwood wrote a trilogy of speculative fiction novels exploring environmental themes — “Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of the Flood,” “MaddAddam” — during the early part of the new century. “And then the politics turned around and started going back towards very polarized factions, as it had been in the 1930s,” she said. “That’s when I thought, OK, we’re going back into an age of dictatorships or attempted dictatorships, and this does not look happy. Then I thought, we’ve seen them come and go, we’ve seen how they arise, but how did they crumble? I was interested in the crumbling part.”
So back she went to Gilead, for “The Testaments,” published in 2019 and co-winner of that year’s Booker Prize. But finding her way back into the original novel’s world was complicated; she didn’t want to re-create the voice of Offred, who narrates “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And, because the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” of which Atwood is a consulting producer, had already gone beyond the events in the original novel, she needed to be careful not to contradict a story already being told.
The solution was to set the new novel 16 years in the future — the show hadn’t gotten that far yet — and to find new voices to tell it. (Nonetheless, Atwood said, her publisher assigned someone to read both novels and watch every episode, making notes on any discrepancies. “They didn’t find many!”) The author settled on a trio of female characters, speaking in alternating chapters: Agnes, a privileged young woman who grew up in Gilead; Daisy, raised in Canada watching Gilead on television but not knowing her connection to it; and Aunt Lydia, familiar to readers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as one of the cattle-prod-carrying “aunts” who serve as enforcers of the regime.
Atwood said she’d been intrigued by the many depictions of Aunt Lydia she’d seen over the years in “Handmaid’s Tale” adaptations. “In all of those versions, she herself was not revealing her own inner life — other people were guessing at it,” she said. She began thinking about Aunt Lydia and her complex relationship to power — “Stalin’s wife, Stalin’s daughter, Hitler’s two girlfriends, women in regimes that don’t favor women. How do they get along?”
We’ll eventually be seeing more of Aunt Lydia on-screen: “The Testaments” has also been acquired for television. It isn’t entirely clear, Atwood said, whether the book will be the basis of a new show or a continuation of the current “Handmaid’s Tale” series on Hulu. Her own relationship with the show is fairly distant (though she filmed a cameo appearance in the pilot, as an Aunt). “I have influence but no power. I get to read the scripts and make comments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
Outside of scripted television, Atwood’s influence can be seen worldwide, as protestors don the now-familiar handmaid’s garments — red cloak, white winged bonnet — to add silent emphasis to their message of demonstrating for women’s rights. “I made a pretty smart choice,” said Atwood, of the look, described long ago in the original book. “It’s instant, it’s visible, it’s colorful, and if what you wish to do is go into a legislative assembly to bear witness, people can’t stop you because you’re not making any noise. They can’t kick you out for being immodestly dressed, because you’re covered up.”
After much travel associated with the new book’s launch, the Booker Prize and her own social and environmental activism, Atwood’s life has grown quieter since the pandemic. Speaking engagements are all virtual for the foreseeable future, she said, noting that technology has always intrigued her: In 2004, she was one of the inventors of a robotic device called LongPen that allowed authors to sign books remotely.
“Nobody was doing this and everybody thought we were lunatics!” she said. “At that point, the book industry couldn’t figure it out. They’d like to have it now, but the time has gone.” The product, she said, has morphed into “a very comprehensive signature company” called Syngrafii.
Between virtual events, which she appreciates because “you don’t have to put on your shoes,” Atwood has kept busy attending to the estate of her late partner Graeme Gibson (a Canadian novelist who died last year; the two had been together since the 1970s) and reading. Recent choices include the 1936 novel “Mephisto” by Klaus Mann (“I was asked to choose a favorite political novel; it seemed appropriate for our time”), “The Decameron,” and “Blood in the Water,” a nonfiction book about a murder in a Nova Scotia fishing community, written by Silver Donald Cameron. (Should you be curious about Atwood’s reading habits: She prefers books in print as opposed to e-books, usually has “about eight books in the pile,” and is “definitely a sticker person” when it comes to marking pages.)
And she recently completed an unusual reading project: rereading both “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Testaments,” in order to annotate them for an auction. “I creeped myself out quite a lot,” she said. In terms of the world today, “they’re just a little bit too accurate.”