Margaret Atwood: ‘History changed and I saw a different way of doing the story’

The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is ‘partly inspired by world we’re living in’, says the author

Speaking to Margaret Atwood is no breezy endeavour. Extraordinarily focused and perfectly cordial at almost 80 years of age, it’s she who leads the twists and turns of our discussion, shutting down some topics and expanding on others as she sees fit. After 50 years of telling stories of sparky women and breaking a few moulds in doing so, I’d be disappointed with anything less.

The genre-defining writer – with no less than 27 honorary degrees to her name – delves into something of a history lesson, in which her voracious appetite for learning is clear. Atwood runs through the various waves of immigration from the US to her native Canada, explains how Black Death helped women's lib, and gives assurance after ample research, that with every brutal regime comes those brave enough to defy it – "the rescuers, spies, couriers – all of those people risking their lives"; in fact, she recalls befriending people involved in the French Resistance in the second World War as a young girl ("But some of them were kids, I don't think they knew that they could get killed"). Later, when we meander on to the lighter topic of Irish authors, she seeks a book recommendation and then quizzes me about Sally Rooney's Normal People, starting with the question: "And are they normal?" She's my new choice of dream dinner party guest.

In the 1990s, we all were under the illusion that we were moving away from The Handmaid's Tale. Then it appeared we were moving towards it. But it wasn't until November 9th, 2016, that people woke up and thought this was quite close

But right now, Atwood’s new book, The Testaments, is top of her mind. It’s the follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, and not one to follow convention, she’s presented it 34 years after its original release – surely some sort of record, if Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is accepted as a companion piece of To Kill A Mockingbird rather than a sequel. The timing of Atwood’s new novel is spot on, given that the multiple-Emmy-winning television adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss has brought the story of Gilead’s oppressive regime to a new generation. Was that the main prompt to produce a follow-up?

“Why now? Well let’s ask first, why not earlier?” Atwood says, unapologetically deviating from my question. “Earlier, people were saying ‘why not do a sequel?’ and what they meant by that was continuing the story of the central character in The Handmaid’s Tale, and that would not have been possible for me to do. Because what could you add?” she asks (despite it being the premise of the TV series).

“Then history took a different turn. In the 1990s, we all were under the illusion that we were moving away from The Handmaid’s Tale. Then all of a sudden, it appeared that we were moving towards it. But it wasn’t until November 9th, 2016, that people woke up and thought this was really quite close,” she says, referring to Donald Trump’s election win. She had already started writing The Testaments by then, and continued to in earnest as “history changed and I saw a different way of doing the story”.

The original story of The Handmaid’s Tale, about a near-infertile theocracy, in which women are forcibly made to procreate on behalf of their assigned commander and wife, still feels relevant every which way. It’s become a symbol of women’s rights, with the blood red handmaid’s uniform becoming a common sight in protests. When the book was finally translated into Arabic last November, it was viewed as a significant victory for women in the Middle East. Even secondary themes such as isolationism and immigration remain important in the intervening decades; on the day I speak to Atwood, the New York Times’ top story happens to be: “Women Are Fleeing Death at Home. The US Wants to Keep Them Out.” It’s no surprise that Atwood announced the release of The Testaments by saying it was partly inspired by “the world we’ve been living in”, though she won’t be drawn into elaborating. “I don’t wish to analyse, deconstruct, pick apart, or open up my own book for readers, because that is their job,” she says. “Asking me to do it would be me dictating to them how they’re supposed to react and think.”

The very end of The Handmaid’s Tale gave us some conclusion of June’s story – with the epilogue revealing that Offred escaped on the Underground Femaleroad, that Commander Waterford was killed in a purge – and that ultimately, Gilead was a thing of the past. But The Testaments, set 15 years after June was bundled into the van, reveals so much more.

The book is so anticipated I'm brought into the publisher's office to read it under lock and key. Tickets for the London launch sell with a fervour usually reserved for Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Moving away from June as the central character, the sequel is structured as unearthed testimonies from Aunt Lydia, the head warden of the handmaids, and two girls – one inside Gilead, the other in Canada. Like much of Atwood’s work from her debut novel The Edible Woman in 1969 to the Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin, the narrative is neat and eloquent enough to be a thing of beauty in itself. Just as well, given it’s a guaranteed cultural phenomenon. The book is so anticipated I’m brought into the publisher’s office to read it under lock and key, and tickets for the launch event in London sold out with a level of fervour usually reserved for Phoebe Waller-Bridge these days. To help satiate demand, the event was beamed across 1,000 cinemas globally.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, and indeed the TV series, The Testaments follows Atwood’s cardinal rule that “you have to show a real-life precedent for any skulduggery and weird pieces you put in there. There’s no shortage in the 4,000 years of recorded world history.”

A case in point is Aunt Lydia’s ascension from a family court judge to the person in charge of the women of Gilead (she’s also considered a gender traitor by some), which brings up the question of how the people in power end up there. “Are they opportunists, are they true believers? What is the nature of their involvement? Are they doing it in fear? Certainly, if you read the history of Stalinism, that happened a lot,” says Atwood. “You had to back up the party line, or you’d be next. Sometimes you’d be next anyway.”

Yet Aunt Lydia isn’t only playing ball to keep herself alive. “She’s manipulating herself into a position of power and collecting all the dirt on everyone, which is exactly what J Edgar Hoover did in the United States. He was head of the FBI. Any intelligence service, that’s what they do. And if they’re particularly unscrupulous they use secrets to manipulate the people who ostensibly have the power.”

I was very happy to be able to visit Newgrange – it's a remarkable place, particularly since they built it without horses or wheels

With the TV series taking on a life of its own – Atwood sold the rights to MGM three decades ago and now consults in the MGM/Hulu partnership – there’s the question of how The Testaments will work with the show.

“We didn’t want a novelisation of the TV series; that would have been bad,” Atwood says. “But because it takes place 15 or 16 years into the future there’s no overlap of that kind. I did say ‘this person has to be on this side of the border’ and ‘hands off that baby. No baby killing’.”

Is the intention to pick up where the series will finish? “We haven’t had that conversation yet but I’ve left them a lot of wiggle room,” she says. “The entire backstory of what happens to the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale and in the series is basically up to them. Except for Aunt Lydia.”

Yet with a fourth series in the works, and The Testaments its end goal, it makes me wonder how and when the series will reach it, especially given the reception has waned across the series run. According to that imperfect barometer of sentiment – Rotten Tomatoes – the first series earned an audience score of 91 per cent, but the third, 53 per cent. Stating it bluntly, the complaints seem to be that June’s story is stretched out with weaker plots, repeated devices, and unlikely character decisions. “You know, that’s not my business,” Atwood says. “I think everybody in the show is extremely dedicated to it. And you cannot fault the acting.”

Atwood can’t yet say whether The Testaments will be adapted for television, or indeed cinema, but if it is, it won’t be her penning the story. “I did screenwriting in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s lots of fun if you like the people and the project, and total hell if you don’t,” she says. “Whereas writing a novel is for megalomaniacs and control freaks, because you control everything – at least until you get it into the hands of your editors. At my age, I’m not going to go through the oddly summer camp experience of screenwriting with a group of people.”

For the next while, she’s preparing a book of poetry “which I think is a good thing to be doing just before you start out on a major book tour that will probably kill you,” she jokes.

The tour visits Dublin in November, “and you’ll be sick of me, because I’m going back to Borris Literary Festival next year too,” she says. “It was magic when I visited before, it’s really quite wonderful. It’s small enough that it’s not overwhelming. And I was very happy to be able to visit Newgrange – it’s a remarkable place, particularly since they built it without horses or wheels.”

For someone who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in the dystopian year of 1984 and in west Berlin while the Wall was intact, it seems apt that she’ll be present at another pertinent time in history: she’ll complete the UK leg of her book tour on October 31st, Brexit D-Day.

“I feel sad about Brexit. I feel it’s something they stumbled into without really knowing what they were doing,” she says. “I think they just kind of walked into it, and of course Ireland risks being plunged into north-south warfare if they establish a border.”

I guess you have to avoid getting into more of a mess than you're already in. Madeleine Albright has a very good book called Fascism: A Warning, and she lays out all the signs

Clearly educated in politics, power and history, I wonder if she can shed any light on how we, as a generation, can get out of this mess. “You think I know?” she laughs. “I guess you have to avoid getting into more of a mess than you’re already in. Madeleine Albright has a very good book called Fascism: A Warning, and she lays out all the signs. They include the destruction of a free and independent press, the conflation of an independent judiciary with the ruling of executive powers, and they always include rolling back of the rights of women. That’s just a bit of the playlist. She runs over quite a few of these kinds of governments. We think of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Russia, but there’s a lot that has happened in places since – like Chile and Cambodia and Rwanda. So these things have been happening in the 20th and 21st century, and nobody’s exempt.”

That’s a stark warning given the increase in right-wing aggression in Ireland, until recently thought to be unaffected by the rising nationalism elsewhere. “Oh no, you should never think it’s not possible,” she says, after enquiring about these current affairs. “Nowhere gets a seal of approval from the universe that says your society will never do that.”

As our time comes to an end, I ask if she intends to dig out more stories from within Gilead, or whether The Testaments was intended as the final instalment.

“I would never ever answer such a question. People who say ‘no’ end up doing it, and then they have to say why they changed their mind. And the people who say ‘yes’ and don’t do it then have to answer questions about why they didn’t do it.

“I think poor old George RR Martin is being driven crazy by people asking what he’s doing on Game of Thrones. Apparently he’s still writing away at it. I learned a long time ago to never say what I will or will not do.”

The Testaments is published by Chatto & Windus

Shilpa Ganatra

Shilpa Ganatra

Shilpa Ganatra is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture and travel