With waves lapping in the background and a wonky cellphone connection, Margaret Atwood, The Most Popular Author In The World Right Now, is hunkered down in a shielded nook somewhere in the wilds of the Lake Erie island where she has a home.
The things an author must do in the name of book promotion.
“There’s a live event in London which is streaming to 1,500 cinemas in the rest of the world,” she’s saying. “Because if you actually went to those 1,500 places you’d be burning up a lot of carbon.”
We are talking, of course, about the release of The Testaments, the much-hyped sequel to her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale, which has spawned TV shows, memes and worldwide excitement.
The Testaments has already appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist (she won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin) and the Giller Prize longlist (she won in 1996 for Alias Grace) — under a cloak of secrecy Gilead’s Aunt Lydia might admire. In a turn of events that only helps a book that’s also already made “most anticipated books this fall” lists everywhere, judges for the various prizes could read the book, which isn’t released until Sept. 10, but couldn’t actually talk about it.
This left the Booker judges to sum up their nomination simply: “Spoiler discretion and a ferocious non-disclosure agreement prevent any description of who, how, why and even where. So this: it’s terrifying and exhilarating.”
Which it is. Gilead is also, in some ways, just what we’d expect to see 15 years after Offred left the Commissioner’s house to step into a van going God knows where, with the parting words “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”
So now, we step into a mature Gilead. There’s the Underground Femaleroad taking women out of Gilead and into Canada, corruption at the top, treachery, lies, murder, well-born girls who’ll do just about anything to prevent a forced marriage, others quite willing to turn them in — everything you’d expect in a patriarchal dictatorship, and some of them sound eerily recognizable.
When the news about The Testaments’ existence was first released last year, Atwood said she was inspired by two things: “the many questions of what happened to Gilead (and) the world we’ve been living in.” What she says today is that, “I finally found a way to tell it.”
As it turns out, it was really about how you define sequel. When people asked about it “they meant Offred’s story told by Offred,” Atwood says. She couldn’t do that. Offred had said her piece, and to go back and recreate that would have sounded fake, she says.
“What had really interested me was: How would such a regime fall apart?” Atwood says once we settle in with a clear cellphone connection. Because all dictatorships eventually do, she notes. Once that became the question, picked up the story 15 years later, with three different speakers — Aunt Lydia, who becomes the second most powerful person in Gilead; and two girls roughly the same age: Daisy, who lives in Canada; and Agnes, who was born and grew up in Gilead. The trio’s “testimony” is being presented to a symposium on Gileadean studies in 2197
This new, future Gilead is not entirely what fans of the show might expect; Atwood is walking a fine line between managing expectations and exercising artistic freedom.
“There’s 15 years for them to work with,” says Atwood, referring to the show’s writers and producers, who can do what they like with the narrative between the time The Handmaid’s Tale ends and The Testaments begins. She gave them only one directive: “Don’t kill Aunt Lydia.” Oh, “and you’re not killing any of those babies, either.”
And so the story unfolds. It’s page-turning and painstaking in its details, creating the immediacy of a familiar world: we hear the echo of Trump, with protesters in Canada carrying signs “Climate Science De-Liar!” “Down with Gilead Fascists!” “Sanctuary Now!”
At one point Aunt Lydia says that, with one flare of the match, her history gets burned — and the “future reader” would be “wiped away as if you had never been, as if you will never be.” Which conveys a couple of things: the immense power of words but, also, a great deal of hope.
“Anything you write postulates a future reader,” Atwood says. “Which is why Jimmy in Oryx and Crake (the first book in her MaddAdam trilogy) doesn’t keep a Robinson Crusoe (diary). He doesn’t believe that there’s anybody alive who could read what he has written. And it’s why Aunt Lydia does.” There’s a hopefulness to that. “Absolutely, it’s an act of faith.”
It’s also a very literary book, referencing Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, Cardinal Spellman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (in a hollowed-out copy of which Aunt Lydia hides her account), the Bible. The audience for this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985, is bound to be wide-ranging, spanning ages and interests, the literary crowd and pop culture. “The people who recognize (the references) will pick them up, but they won’t be an impediment to people who don’t recognize them,” Atwood says.
There’s lots of giggling and laughter in our conversation (Munro, she says, once pretended to be her on a train — “it’s the hair,” she quips; when recounting how somebody mistook her for Margaret Laurence, she laughs sardonically: “All the same, old lady writers”); not, perhaps, what you might expect with Atwood — but don’t let that distract you. There’s dead seriousness there as well.
The same is true with her writing. The Testaments is, in spots, laugh-out-loud funny, certainly a change in tone from the original. “I thought parts of it were hilarious but not everybody else did,” Atwood says about The Handmaid’s Tale. An example: Aunt Lydia jokes to Commander Judd (Gilead’s supreme leader) “Not for nothing do we at Ardua Hall say Pen Is Envy.” Women and girls in Gilead, of course, are not allowed to read and write. The Freudian double entendre is subversive — meant for Lydia’s and the readers’ amusement only.
Atwood quickly shares a personal story.
“My mother and her two sisters were the children of a country doctor. So they always had to be on their best behaviour and they always had to sit in the front pew at church. And they had a guest preacher. And he was he was of the hellfire-and-brimstone pulpit-thumping kind and he was giving forth, thumping the pulpit, and as he thumped he gave a particularly emphatic thump. And his false teeth shot out of his mouth.
“At which point he reached out his hand and caught them — evidently, this must have happened before — and stuck them back in, all in one gesture. Well, my mother said the pews shook. But the laughter was silent because, she said, they would have got ‘Hail Columbia’ if they had laughed out loud.”
Just when one wonders why, exactly, Atwood is telling this admittedly hilarious story, she wraps it back round again: “And so Aunt Lydia’s pew is shaking. She can’t do it out loud. It is graveyard humour because her neck is on the block.”
A mix of high and low, literary powerhouse and pop-culture icon, filled with homespun wisdom and razor-sharp observation.
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While The Handmaid’s Tale might be the book that’s made her famous, Atwood has some 50 others, and is putting together a new one, a collection of poetry. “It’s a good thing to do while waiting for the publication of a novel,” she says. The poems have accumulated over the years, since she published her last collection The Circle Game. She handwrites them all before sitting down at the computer to edit and put the collection together.
When she doesn’t have a pen and paper at hand “I always regret it. But that’s not just because of the poetry. It’s because of people’s phone numbers and things I have to buy.”
Even with Atwood, the poetry mingles with the prosaic needs of the everyday. “And so,” she says, “it is in life.”
ATWOOD ON OUR TIMES
In a wide-ranging interview, Atwood made plenty of observations about voting, climate change, freedom and chaos. Here are some of the highlights.
On voting and climate change:
“I think you shouldn’t vote for whoever says this climate crisis isn’t happening. Because that person is lying. You also shouldn’t vote for the person who’s saying it is happening, but it’s not us. And you also shouldn’t vote for the person who says I have a plan but they don’t have any actual goals. There’s a reason young people are very agitated about this. Because it’s happening a lot faster than originally thought.”
On the Handmaid becoming a protest meme:
“It’s a brilliant protest device, because you can’t be thrown out for causing a disturbance. You’re not saying anything. And you can’t be thrown out for dressing immodestly. You’re highly visible, and everybody knows what you mean. So it is very effective. It’s a way of protesting without actually getting dragged off kicking and screaming.”
On safety and freedom:
“I think ‘freedom from’ is … when you walk along the street nobody’s going to rape you. You’re safer, aren’t you? We really buy into the idea of safer but we should think pretty hard about what that is. Who’s going to make us safer? And how much control are they going to have over us? If things get quite chaotic you’ll vote for whoever says they’ll restore order. People can’t live in chaos.”
On chaos as a tool in politics:
“It seems quite deliberate (south of the border). So if you make enough chaos, then people will opt for more dictatorial, leadership won’t they? But somebody who did that in Ontario was Mike Harris. Remember premier Harris. And again, like Ford: cancel everything all at once, everyone runs around like ants with lemon juice poured on them and they all go screaming around and meanwhile you can do what you like.”
On Canada as having moral sway:
We still have more than some people, and that’s all it’s ever been. We sometimes get quite smug and think that we’re better than other people. And that’s, not really true. We haven’t had the power and opportunity to be as bad as other people. We haven’t had the money. We are a smaller country. We’ve done some pretty dodgy things, and we’re still doing them.
Deborah Dundas is the Star’s Books editor. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: debdundas