From her perch in Toronto, author Margaret Atwood has been watching the American political landscape with a cat’s watchful eye. Along with George Orwell’s “1984,” Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” recently returned to the Amazon bestseller lists. The Hulu TV version of the novel, premiering in April, has no doubt spurred interest, but it’s also a response to Donald Trump’s America, where Gilead, Atwood’s imagined theocracy in which women are forced into bearing children, seems more possible than ever.
We’re talking today about her graphic novel series, “Angel Catbird,” which debuted in 2016 to sparkling acclaim. Volume 2 arrived on Valentine’s Day, and Volume 3 comes out in July. Since she’s cranking out sequels, it’s too tempting to ask: Is she thinking of a follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
“To tell you the truth, yes. But I don’t know whether that will happen or not. I’ve certainly been thinking about it,” she says, declining to reveal more. The political climate, Atwood wryly notes, “changes day by day — you never know what wondrous surprise will be sprung on you.”
For today though, she has set herself a far more enjoyable task: To figure out what kind of sound Angel Catbird, the hybrid cat-owl-human at the center of her graphic novels, would make for an upcoming audiobook that will be performed like a ’40s radio play. “Would he make a whoo-meow or a meow-whoo?” she asks, trying out each with her soft voice before breaking into raspy laughter.
For all her reputation as a serious author of dystopian drama, Atwood is quick to laugh. She also occasionally imitates a know-it-all elderly type in a high voice so jarring that I thought another person had broken into our phone line. The voice — “excuse me, dear, I’m old enough to remember all this” — mostly comes out when we’re talking about political history. At 77, Atwood has witnessed many iterations, and they have always banged around in her imagination. When she was a little girl, Atwood drew cat-people holding balloons, which she’d only seen in books because balloons weren’t available in Canada during World War II. Those same dream animals and their forbidden worlds show up in “Angel Catbird.”
Illustrated by artist Johnnie Christmas and colorist Tamra Bonvillain, “Angel Catbird” is a fantasia firmly rooted in Atwood’s playful side, though not without its bleak undertones. Volume 2 follows the same cast of shape-shifting characters, including Strig Feleedus, a genetic engineer hybridized with his pet cat and a preying owl in a chemical spill-cum-car accident. He’s battling his villainous lab boss, a rat-human hell-bent on wiping out all other species, especially the cat-humans whom Angel Catbird aligns with, mostly to spend time with sexy fellow scientist Cate Leone.
Not all of Cate’s friends welcome him with open paws — put off by his owlish tendencies, some call him a freak. In our era of transphobia and white nationalism, “Angel Catbird” is a clever metaphor for people’s discomfort with those who don’t fit into the accepted binaries. You haven’t seen identity struggles until you’ve seen a man with talons, cat eyes and a set of humongous wings convince himself not to eat a fellow bird for supper.
Atwood didn’t purposely write characters who could be read as transgender or biracial, but she sees them as being part of a long legacy of transformation. “People in comics have always been pretty malleable,” she said. “We’re in the land of saints and gods here, and the saints and gods, particularly the gods, have always been notorious shapeshifters.” She brings up Captain Marvel, who transforms from little boy Billy Batson with the call of Shazam, derived from the mythical figures Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.
Comics may seem like a 20th century invention, but “stories beget other stories,” says Atwood. “Mine is an homage to the comics of the late ’40s — but where did that style come from itself? The roots of these stories go very deep.”
Though Atwood acknowledges that recent graphic novels like “Maus” and “Persepolis” made it “safe” for novelists to “act out their sacred fantasies,” Atwood’s interest in comics isn’t a passing fancy. She’s as fluent in Wonder Woman’s original mission (fighting Nazis) and the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating body established by the comic book publishers in 1954, as any fairy tale from Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, to name two wells she’s drawn from in her fiction.
She doesn’t, however, let the weight of history keep her away from a tasty cat or rat pun, of which there are many in “Angel Catbird.” The rat-army is called the Murines (rats are part of the superfamily Muroidea), there’s a Queen Neferkitti, and Atwood’s particularly proud of the vampiric Count Catula, an undead cat with bat and human attributes and several cat-wives.
In one of its wonderfully campy scenes, Atheen-owl (half owl, half woman) and Cate get into a fight over Angel Catbird’s affections. Both women proudly own up to being “catty” in a moment that asks why we don’t let women claim their full range of behavior. “Women are human beings,” Atwood says. “If you’re going to pretend that they’re some angelic species at heart, then you are exempting them from being human. You’re setting the bar impossibly high; everyone has to behave well all the time. In what world do men have to behave well all the time?”
Speaking of men behaving badly, Atwood has threaded environmental and animal welfare messages throughout “Angel Catbird” to counteract what she sees as a frightening disregard for our planetary wellbeing. Clean water and algae-rich oceans, for instance, “ought to be commonly shared concerns that cross party lines. There’s something really wrong if you think not poisoning kids is a liberal concern.”
As she was in the era of writing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood is also concerned about reproductive rights, though she thinks the battle is more complex than environmentalism. “Whenever you have the choice between two things [forced childbirth or abortion rights], neither of which are good, it’s always going to be difficult.” Forced childbirth, as required in Gilead, “has never worked out well,” Atwood says, citing Romania’s former Decree 770 which forbade abortion for nearly all women.
Though she’s billed as a consulting producer, Atwood’s involvement in the TV show isn’t on the script level, which will leave her discovering just as much as the rest of the Hulu viewers. So far, so good: “I’ve seen the first episode, and it’s stunning.” Atwood is pleased the show writers have updated her book in one key way: more nonwhite characters, most notably Samara Wiley (Poussey from “Orange Is the New Black”) as a fellow handmaiden to Elisabeth Moss’ main character, Offred. “It makes it better for today,” Atwood says. “I think it would be that way. In the world they’ve created, babies trump race as it were.”
As the political landscape shapeshifts each day, Atwood has words of advice for writers struggling to create in such a fast-moving era. “1. Don’t stop. 2. Your subjects will find you. 3. Make sure there will still be outlets for our voices. Support publishing companies, periodicals and newspapers.” For one thing, in this era of fake news, newspapers can still be held accountable, Atwood says.
In a recent interview with NPR, Atwood speculated that the next big dystopian novel should be written as a newspaper serial, “because events are evolving so fast it would almost take a serial form to keep up with them.” But she’d never dream of telling writers what, exactly, to write: “You can’t tell them what to do; they will find out what to do.” Angel catbirds, it turns out, are just one of the many winged messengers.
Wappler is a writer in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, “Neon Green,” came out last summer from Unnamed Press.