Q&A: Margaret Atwood on Trump, (not) moving to Hollywood and The Handmaid’s Tale
In the early 1980s, Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about a post-American totalitarian society where borders are closed and women’s rights are under siege. Sound familiar? The political drama playing out south of the border is one of a few factors that have turned the 77-year-old Atwood into the hottest Canadian export since Justin Bieber met YouTube. Now that the novel is a much-anticipated TV series—it’s on Hulu now and premieres on Bravo this Sunday in Canada—we spoke to the author (and “bit part” actress) about Handmaid-mania, Trump’s election and whether she wrote her book with a crystal ball by her side.
Atwood-mania has taken hold in America. What has that been like for you?
Atwood-mania—I love that. The celebrity has come and gone over the years depending on what book I’ve got out, though this is very large because of the conjunction of the Hulu series, the election of Donald Trump, and the fact that they put a commercial for The Handmaid’s Tale right slap bang in the middle of the Super Bowl.
After all these years as a Canadian treasure, what’s it like to get a more American celebrity experience?
You know Canada—you’re not supposed to be too full of yourself. If people think you’re becoming too much of a celebrity, they poke holes in your balloon. But as long as you keep acting real, they’re okay with it. I have people saying to me now, “I guess you’re going to move to Hollywood.” No, actually, I’m not.
So you haven’t become too full of yourself then?
I’ve had 77 years of practice in not getting too full of myself.
What sort of hype have you seen for the book and TV show?
The Handmaids have come out of the book and they’re roaming the land. At the Los Angeles Book Fair, they were behaving very well, walking two by two in a line and handing out cards that said “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” And they were freaking people out at the South By Southwest Festival in Texas. There have also been Handmaids that aren’t associated with Hulu turning up here and there, notably at the Texas legislature [where a group of women dressed as handmaids protested a bill that would ban second-trimester abortions]. They were sitting calmly surrounded by men with guns, which could have been a still out of the series.
How are you involved with the show?
I had some conversations with the creators and I became a consulting producer, but that doesn’t mean I have the final say in anything. It means that the only person who knows what the characters had for breakfast is me. I’m the historical consultant. I talked with all kinds of people, including the wonderful clothing designer Anne Crabtree and Reed Morano, the director of the first three episodes. They’re all tip-top people and actors, so it was a great experience. I was on the set a couple of times and I even did a cameo.
Who did you play?
Well, you’ll see it in the first episode. I get to whack Elisabeth Moss over the head.
That was you?
That was me. Look again. They’re going to make that into a GIF, you just know that.
[Editor’s note: we did.]
Did you get to choose the role?
No, I didn’t. I was assigned my role and told what to do. I was a bit actor. I didn’t even get a line.
There seems to be some debate around whether The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist story. Presumably you have the final word on this.
Okay, let me make sure I get these words in the right order: it is not only a feminist story. It is also a story about totalitarianism and its impact on everybody. But even if we don’t start from an ideology, which I never do, if you just describe reality, you’re going to come up with something called feminism because that is reality. Somebody said it was a survivor story, and I said, “Yes it is, but all feminist stories are survivor stories.”
When you were writing the book, did you have a sense that you might be predicting the future? Today, everyone thinks you must have had a crystal ball by your side.
Not true. Of course, I had some sense. You can go into the Fisher Rare Books Library and ask for my clippings file because I cut the stuff out that I was using. People were saying then what sorts of things they would like to do if they got the power. Having gone through a number of totalitarianisms in my life, I don’t believe it when people say, “Oo, they’re just fooling around” or “That’s just an election line.” I never believe it can’t happen here. It’s not that I knew it was going to happen, but I knew we were on a road that was leading in that direction.
So many of us failed to see Trump’s victory coming right up to the night of the election. Were you wearing blinders?
No, because I saw the wind-up speeches and I looked at the polls, which were very close by that time, as well as the final pitches that each of them made. The thing is, Donald Trump is a good pitch man.
You describe yourself as a cheerful person, and yet you are the queen of dystopia. Is there a relationship between those two things?
The one allows me to survive the other. If I were depressive by nature, and these things are often genetic, I would want to read nothing but cheery, happy books about gardening. I have a magic, protective cheeriness that allows me to go into those dark places without being squashed to a puddle on the floor. I joined Amnesty in 1970. That’s like a ringside seat to the most horrible human behaviour you’d ever want to know about.
Does the work you do make you more paranoid in your day-to-day life? Like, if your bankcard gets refused, are you thinking “random technical glitch” or, “Oh god—it’s starting!”?
I’m not paranoid. I feel I’m realistic. I’d think random technical glitch, but if it happened seven times in a row, I’d be wondering what is going on.