The Handmaid’s Tale Author Margaret Atwood Talks Trump, Dystopias and Season 2

‘We are not in the [show] yet’

Margaret Atwood talked about the newfound relevance of her 1985 novel.
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It’s safe to say James Comey and Michael Wolff are not among Donald Trump’s favorite authors. But the same can likely be said of the prolific Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, whose 1985 novel turned award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, spoke last week at Tina Brown’s Women in the World summit about the similarities between her work and Trump’s America.

Atwood said the novel’s newfound relevance has been “quite strange,” but she also noted the Hulu series started filming in September 2016 and the cast woke up on Nov. 9, 2016 to realize they were working on a different show because the frame had changed and viewers would see the Handmaid’s Tale differently under a Trump presidency.

“Did I foresee that in 1985? No, I thought we were moving away [from the totalitarian government depicted in the book], but it’s always a possibility in this country,” she added. “There are a number of people out there who felt they weren’t being heard or who also might have felt some opportunities were no longer automatically available to them and then they’re willing to follow people who promise to give them that thing back or provide that thing for them.”

At the same time, Atwood noted the U.S. is a big and diverse country and she’s not giving up hope on it yet—and neither are its citizens who are increasingly running for office and pushing back with protests and marches.

“That’s a hopeful sign. They haven’t yet started hitting protest marchers—that’s always a bad sign. They have tried to enact some strange laws, but they haven’t succeeded,” she said. “I see a moment like this as two opposing forces. We’re not in the Handmaid’s Tale yet or I wouldn’t be sitting here and you’d be in jail.” (“You” was The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, who interviewed Atwood onstage.)

In addition, Atwood said there is no one single collective future, but rather a number of possibilities. Which one we get depends on what we do now, she said.

“I also know you can have the future laid out and predictable and something comes out of nowhere,” Atwood said. “There are a couple of ways to think that are not very productive: One of them is that progress is inevitable. That has never been true. It’s just an excuse for not doing anything. The other one is everything is circular. That’s not true either. The only thing that’s true is a number of different possibilities. Writing dystopias and utopias is a way to ask readers where they want to live and where they end up depends partly on what you do now. There are always some wild cards. Human technology has a good, bad and stupid side you didn’t anticipate.”

While Season 2 explores what Atwood called a brutal and riveting American future, she said showrunners are sticking to her main rule, which is nothing goes into the script that has not already happened somewhere in the world, like Romania’s 20th century efforts to increase birth rates by mandating pregnancies.

“It’s cruel and inhuman to force women to have children if not going to give them the money to do that,” she added.

And when the new season debuts April 25, viewers will also see characters like Offred, Ofglen and Aunt Lydia take on new life separate from the novel.

“In TV, you can film a character that disappears from the view of the central character. We can follow her, [the narrator] cannot, so they have built out the cast of characters and taken the narrative behind the scenes and they’ve gone to places they could never go in the book,” Atwood said.

(Atwood also said Aunt Lydia is reminiscent of her fourth grade teacher.)

“I think the Handmaid’s Tale has escaped from its book and is being reinterpreted not only by the TV series, but also by its readers,” Atwood said. “This movement of dressing as handmaids and sitting in on legislation or sitting outside is quite brilliant because they can’t throw you out—you’re not making a disturbance, you’re just there and anyone looking at you knows what that means. They might find it irritating, but they can’t do that much about it.”

The movement started in the US when a group of women ordered the outfits online, but the costumes that arrived were pink. So, Atwood said, they quickly devised patterns, which they put online so anyone could make them, and they’ve since popped up all over the world, including Poland, England and Croatia.

And this, too, may be a sign The Handmaid’s Tale is not necessarily America’s future.

Per Atwood, society was more equal in the days of hunters and gatherers, but when people began farming and suddenly had a surplus and could pay a standing army to defend the territory where they grew wheat, women were fed less well and became valued for their ability to produce children to help grow crops.

“That’s when things went down a slippery slope,” Atwood said. “In a different age, upper body strength [was valued], but that’s not such a necessity anymore. Women can work a keyboard and have a brain. In an age when brains and keyboards are important, women get an edge again.”

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