Margaret Atwood reveals more about why she’s writing a sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Margaret Atwood, who is writing a sequel to her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” will be honored Monday by Equality Now.
(Mike Coppola / Getty Images for Tory Burch Foundation)

Margaret Atwood is writing a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her prescient 1985 novel later adapted for a hit series on Hulu. Announced on Wednesday and expected in September 2019, “The Testaments” is set 15 years after the protagonist’s final scene in the original book and is narrated by three female characters.

An informed expert on dystopian, patriarchal societies, the prolific Canadian author of “Alias Grace,” “Oryx and Crake” and the “MaddAddam” trilogy will also be honored on Monday by leading women’s rights organization Equality Now. The Make Equality Reality gala will also laud “The Hate U Give” actress Amandla Stenberg and behavioral geneticist Sue Smalley at the Beverly Hilton hotel.

Atwood, 79, spoke with The Times on Thursday morning about penning a “Handmaid’s Tale” sequel and writing work that inspires readers to take action.

Congratulations on being honored by Equality Now.

Yes, I’m being honored but really, I’m helping them to raise money. They fight for women’s rights, and that’s the kind of feminist I am. They’re based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which everyone should go back and read because they’ve forgotten about it. They are real activists, that’s what they do every day. I’m not a real activist. The difference between them and me is that I’m just a person who doesn’t have a job, so people like me have the privilege of getting to mouth off because nobody can fire them.


“The Handmaid’s Tale” has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, from the Hulu series adaptation to the use of its signature garb in legislative demonstrations. Why write a sequel?

That’s easy to answer. Number one, it’s fun. But that’s a very frivolous answer. Number two, I’ve been asked these questions by readers for 35 years. “Oh, come on, Margaret!” So it’s time to address some of the requests. It’s not a continuation that starts five minutes after the book ends and then I tell you what happens next. It takes place 15 years after the book ends. [I’ve had the idea] over the past five years or so. I’m almost finished with it.

Your Wednesday announcement said it’s inspired by “the world we’ve been living in.” What did you mean?

The news has become so much more extreme. What about these people in Ohio that are saying motherhood should be mandatory? They haven’t done it yet, they’re talking about it. But when people talk about things like that, being the age I am, I’m remembering that Hitler said it all in “Mein Kampf” and then he did it. If they had the power, they would do it. These ideas have been tried before.

What I’m fixated on now, of course, like all Canadians, is we’ve got our faces jammed up against the plate-glass window, looking into your country. What kind of shenanigans will they be up to next? What’s gonna happen next? I’ve never seen anything like it, and neither has anybody else. On one hand, it’s just riveting, and on the other hand, it’s quite appalling.

What’s the key to any successful sequel, even if it’s more than 30 years after a previous installment?

Who knows? Let’s see if it does work. The jury is not in. But I did the “MaddAddam” trilogy, so I think this is true for any world invention: You have to be consistent with your own axioms.

I’m not going to say more [about “The Testaments”]. You can’t pry it out of me. I can tell you that [my publishers] do have a cover, and they will be releasing it later. And they are going to release a newsletter that people can subscribe to. It’ll probably be things like, “Got up this morning, had some coffee, did some copy-editing ...” Stuff you really need to know. That’s their idea, that it’s sort of like a diary. “Now it’s at the printer, and I got it back, and there were 115 typographical errors!” [Laughs] Well, that is not going to happen.

What women’s rights initiatives have excited you lately?

Just yesterday, I was having a meeting about a new development under the umbrella of the Canadian Women’s Foundation called AfterMeToo. It will be a web-based initiative available to all that will provide people with the things they want and need the most: safe reporting, immediate counseling and third-party investigation. As in, not from within the company or educational institution because when it comes from within, is the main goal to fix our PR or to help the person? As we know, they tend to do what’s best for them. It’s been super troubling to watch over the years.

This will help people make informed decisions, presenting them with their options and chances of success and steps you need to take. If I do this, what will happen? What sorts of resources can I depend on? If I’m going to be a witness in a court case, do I get to have a lawyer? The knowledge of this is almost nonexistent among the kinds of people who are the most vulnerable.

I’ve never seen anything like it, and neither has anybody else. On one hand, it’s just riveting, and on the other hand, it’s quite appalling.

— Margaret Atwood on the state of the world

What advice do you have for authors aligning their fiction with social-justice issues?

People don’t like being preached to when they’re reading fiction, and avoiding that is manuscript-specific. And with any manuscript, some people are going to like it, some people are going to hate it and some people are going to be indifferent. You have a problem if everybody hates it, and you probably have a problem if everybody likes it.

So it’s then, what is good writing? The “art for art’s sake” people will have a different answer than the Victorian moralists. Look at the trial of “Madame Bovary,” Salman Rushdie’s fatwa. People forget these things and they forget that Hitler and Stalin and the Inquisition were big book burners. It’s always gonna be this tug of war between a freedom of expression and “in the interest of the public good, we’re not only gonna burn your book but also fry you at the stake.” So how much of a lynch mob do you want to inspire?

We’re not there yet. We’re not seeing big piles of books being burnt in the streets. Remember, you can have totalitarianisms on the left as much as you can on the right. It’s not a question of, this side is good, this side is bad; it’s when things get to an extreme, they look much the same.

You’re active on Twitter, which can be overwhelming with our current news cycle as well as reader questions. How do you manage?

I can’t read everything. It’s not humanly possible. I have rules, but like everybody else, I don’t necessarily obey them. “Now I’m going to go to bed” isn’t always a self-admonishment to which I liveth. I would love to have a schedule that I actually paid any attention to.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.