Q&A: Margaret Atwood on why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is more relevant now than ever

Patt Morrison Asks

When “The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985, reproductive rights were under siege and acid rain was corroding the forests and rivers. The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood reasoned that if you took all this to its logical end, you could wind up with a theocracy, not a democracy, and a population rendered sterile by its own poisons. So her novel of speculative fiction imagined a hyper-religious nation where young women who were still fertile were rounded up and confined to the human equivalent of puppy mills, forced to bear the children of powerful men. Well, here we are in 2017, and women’s rights to control their own bodies are at risk again, the environment is threatened again — and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is more popular than ever. It became a feature film in 1990, and this April 26, Hulu launches “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a 10-episode series. Why is this book, like George Orwell’s “1984,” finding a new and large and attentive following? Margaret Atwood has some ideas.

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More than 30 years after you wrote it, there’s a renaissance of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with the television series; it’s selling in bookstores, and there’s a waiting list for it in public libraries. What’s going on?

Yes, it’s all quite surprising but not, I suppose, when you consider the backgrounds. MGM and Hulu started making this television series really well over a year ago, and they started shooting in September, before the election. So that caused some resurgence of interest — the mere fact that they were doing it.

And then the election happened, and the cast woke up in the morning and thought, we’re no longer making fiction — we’re making a documentary. I think that is one reason for the resurgence of interest.

Obviously I don’t think we’re going to get the outfits [the red robes the “handmaids” are forced to wear], but the rollback in rights that women have thought they could take for granted is frightening to many people.

Is it a case of cognitive dissonance that your book and Bill O’Reilly’s about traditional values are both on best-seller lists?

Well, I’d like to see what those traditional values are. Do they include lots of orphanages? Because if you decide that women should have babies because the state wants more babies, then you either have to provide lots of orphanages, or you have to pay them [to support the babies]. Otherwise you’re going to get [dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu in Romania, who decreed that women had to have four children, and gave them pregnancy tests every month. And if you didn’t get pregnant, you had to account for why not. And that filled the orphanages up pretty quickly because the women could not afford to support four children.

Could we be closer to that?

I think people should think through what kind of country they live in and what kind of country they want to live in, and what they want to pay for. If what you’re saying is that poor women ought to be forced to have children which they then will be forced to support, you’re just preparing not only a very unfair situation, but a tragedy. Is that the kind of country you want to live in? At least the handmaids in “The Handmaid’s Tale” get fed properly.

Is there a difference in how earlier generations read this book versus how young women are reading it now, young women who’ve grown up perhaps taking all those rights for granted?

I think so. I think the earlier generation — although some people took it [the book] seriously — they saw it more in the realm of fantasy, like this could never happen here. In England, it was a jolly good yarn. In Canada, it was, could it happen here? And in the United States, some people said, how much time have we got? But other people said, surely we’re beyond that and it’s not going to happen here, and we will never have a dictatorship because we’re a democracy. And I don’t think anybody should ever feel secure about that one, either.

At a legislative hearing in Texas over a bill to roll back reproductive rights, women showed up in “The Handmaid’s Tale” outfits, the red robes and white bonnets, as a way of protesting.

They did. And you have a picture of them sitting there very quietly surrounded by men with guns. It could be a still out of the television series.

The television series is going to reach a different audience from the one the feature film did. How do you compare the two in how they delivered on your book and what the impact may be?

We’re now in an age in which we have a relatively new platform, and that is the well-produced video-streamed series. And that has created lots of possibilities for novels that weren’t there before, particularly longer novels, because with a longer novel, it’s very hard to get all of it with any nuance into a 90-minute film. But now that we have this relatively new platform, all kinds of novels are being adapted for presentation in that way.

What will happen in the television series as compared to the feature film? First of all, it’s longer, so they’re able to get more of it in. And some of the characters that simply dropped from view in the novel because the narrator has no way of knowing what happens to them — in the series they’re able to follow some of those stories and we will see what happens to them.

Does that render the series in a way more powerful and frightening?

I think it goes beyond both the book and the original feature film. I think actually it is the more frightening

Do you see an arc from what was going on in your life or in the world when you first wrote this, to where we are now?

A lot of people are saying that. First of all, any totalitarianism always has views on who shall be allowed to have babies and what shall be done with the babies. For instance, the generals in Argentina were dumping people out of airplanes. But if it was a pregnant woman, they would wait until she had the baby and then they gave the baby to somebody in their command system. And then they dumped the woman out of the airplane. Hitler stole his children, blond ones, hoping that he could turn them into blond Germans. It’s been going on for really a long time.

The United States has traditionally taken the view that your private life was your private life as long as you didn’t frighten the horses, do unacceptable things in public. But they seem to have made an exception for that in the case of women’s bodies. So you have in fact a purportedly liberal democracy claiming agency over other people’s bodies.

That happened with men and now also with women. In cases of the draft, the state has the power to enlist you in the army. That would be the parallel.

What people often say is, “Well, if the woman doesn’t want the baby, it will get adopted.” That’s not always true. As soon as you get all the people who want to adopt babies having adopted them, what are you going to do then?

In the novel, Canada represents a place of escape and freedom just as it was for slaves during the Civil War. As a Canadian, your perspective on how power is used gives you some perspective we may not have in this country?

Well we of course like to think so, but are we always just flattering ourselves about its truth? It tends to be a one-way plate-glass window; that is, spend more time staring at you, but usually you don’t spend very much time staring at us, because you don’t need to.

But we flatter ourselves that we think we know what’s going on, although I have to say at this moment in time, nobody knows what’s going on. From day to day, you really don’t know.

Yes, Canada has been the place of refuge not just for slaves in the antebellum South but for various other groups as well. During the Vietnam war a lot of people went to Canada as well. And after the Revolutionary War, a lot of people went to Canada because they’d been on the losing side.

It does give us a perspective; it may not be a correct perspective.

Your book was banned from a high school, and it’s required reading elsewhere.

I realize now why we read so many 19th century novels in high school. It’s because there was no sex in them. There was sex in the margins of them; a lot of them were about that, but you never got to confront it. It was sort of off in the shrubbery somewhere.

And a lot of people feel that teenage people are too young to deal with such things. They’re entitled to their opinion, but other people are as entitled to their contrary opinion. In one case, the school board tried to ban the book and the students mounted a campaign and made every reasonable presentation and won their case as to why they should be allowed to study this book in school.

Is the Trump era leading this new misogyny or is it just the biggest voice and face of it?

I think it’s a voice and face. But also what leaders do gives permission. So you can have people all along who have thought those things and done those things, but if a world leader is doing them and making clear that that world leader is thinking them, it gives permission to other people to be much more in your face about it.

The galvanizing movement for women in the United States has been this administration and some of its ideas; it takes a lot of energy to keep movements going.

It does take a lot of energy. What may happen is that the administration will enact some of its ideas, and people will find themselves living with the consequences. And that may change things quite considerably. Women are not the only subjects here. The environmental protection laws are a huge issue, and they do have impact on women because they have impact on families and on health. How much fun is it going to be if all of a sudden your drinking water isn’t protected anymore?

That’s one of the underlying premises of “The Handmaid’s Tale” too, the environmental depredation that’s affected human fertility.

Exactly. We are already seeing that happening because of all the plastics and the chemicals leaching out of plastics into the water. There’s a couple of studies about declining male fertility and it is due to human stuff, plastic in the water. You can deny those studies all you like but it will have consequences.

I once interviewed a doctor who, back in the era before Roe vs. Wade, had treated hospital patients, desperate pregnant women who had tried to induce abortions, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

As I said, more orphanages — and you can add into that more dead women. You can add into that people who had illegal abortions, botched illegal abortions, then couldn’t have children. All of those things we assume are going to happen again.

There was a reason why people fought to have some legal means, nonlethal procedures, because so many people were having lethal, toxic, damaging events. It does all come back to who’s going to have the babies, how many are they going to have, whose responsibility are the babies?

When you go back and look at people in history who’ve had these ideas — Napoleon banned abortion because he wanted more cannon fodder. There have been various have-more-babies programs in other countries. Hitler had one — Hitler had a couple.

I can imagine your fan mail. I can’t imagine your hate mail.

I’ve gotten lots of hate mail over the years. I’ll probably get more once the television series comes out. But I’m not advocating for one thing or the other. I’m saying that what kind of laws you pass — those laws will have certain kinds of results. So you should think carefully about whether you want to have those results or not.

If you’re going to ban birth control, if you’re going to ban information about reproduction, if you’re going to de-fund all of those things, there will be consequences. Do you want those consequences or not? Are you willing to pay for them or not?

Is there anything I forgot to ask you that you think is important?

Oh, you could ask me something like, why are you so short?

That’s science, and that’s another story altogether — abandonment of science goes hand in glove with so much of this.

People are always happy to have the kind of science that results in new inventions that make money — not the kind that warns you about consequences. They don’t like that kind.

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