WI14: Feeling like Cassandra: PW Talks with Margaret Atwood

Next month, a graphic novel edition of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian story, The Handmaid’s Tale (Doubleday/Talese), which has sold over eight million copies globally in the English language, will be released. Canadian artist Renée Nault did the adaptation and illustrated the book. In September, fans’ long-hoped for sequel to the novel will be published. The Testaments is set 15 years after the final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale, and publisher Nan A. Talese has announced a first printing of 500,000 copies.

Following the success of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu and a Netflix miniseries of her novel Alias Grace, Atwood spoke with PW in 2017 about the resurgence of interest in her work.

How surprised, if at all, are you by the reignition of interest in The Handmaid’s Tale?

During the 2016 election campaign interest was already picking up, since what was coming out of the mouths of some of the politicians was eerily close to the regime’s views in the book. Then, right after the election, it shot up further, and even more during the series. None of this was anticipated when Hulu and MGM started making the series. They just saw it as a good drama series potential. But they woke up on November 9 to find themselves in a different frame. As for me—I always saw this as a direction the United States could conceivably take, knowing what I did about its history. So surprised is not exactly the word. Alarmed might be better.

How does it make you feel that it has resonated with so many people at a point this distant from its publication?

Given a choice between literary obscurity for me but a strong, stable, and fully democratic United States, and my present notoriety coupled with the current state of affairs, I feel much as Cassandra must have felt as the axe descended. “I did tell you so. But you didn’t listen.”

I hasten to say that all is not lost, the true America will prevail, and so forth. But then, I’m a screamingly optimistic Pollyanna, or I wouldn’t write these books, would I?

Is there something distinctly Canadian about the vision of the book?

Canada has been, historically, the place you run away to when you’re running away from the northern part of the United States (or even the southern part, as in the days of slavery)—so there’s that feature. Also, Americans tend to be up close and personal in their encounters with their own country. Their view is introverted: it’s focused on themselves. This is the prerogative of a large and powerful country. Canada—a much smaller country—is extroverted: it depends on trade to a large extent, and is very aware of what others think of it. So it goes in for overviews—the foundation of The Handmaid’s Tale. An overview is the underpinning.

I set the historical notes at the end of the book at a conference taking place in the northern part of what is now Canada, as that is where populations will move as the heating and flooding set in. And yes, I was already thinking about that in 1985.

Is there anything people are misreading/misinterpreting about The Handmaid’s Tale in this moment in time?

You know that a dinosaur dressed as a Handmaid just took part in something called DragonCon? You’ve seen “Finally—A Handmaid’s Tale for Men” on YouTube? You glimpsed the picture of “The Handsoap’s Tale,” which was a liquid soap container wearing a red dress and a white bonnet? Um—what was the question?

Atwood will give a breakfast keynote in conversation with Erin Morgenstern on Thursday, January 24, 7:45–9 a.m., Ballroom B/C, Upper West ACC.

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A version of this article appeared in the 01/14/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: A Q&A with Margaret Atwood

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