Interview: Margaret Atwood on her 'Handmaid's Tale': 'I'd rather be wrong'

Margaret Atwood has published more than 60 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s literature and has written TV scripts, opera libretti and, most recently, a graphic novel. She also has received dozens of awards.
Margaret Atwood has published more than 60 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s literature and has written TV scripts, opera libretti and, most recently, a graphic novel. She also has received dozens of awards.
Published April 23, 2017

"I'd rather be wrong," Margaret Atwood says. "I'd much rather be wrong about a lot of things."

Atwood is talking about the renewed timeliness of her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale. The book is back in the news, on bestseller lists and about to debut as a television series on Hulu. The day before the interview, a group of women dressed in the red robe and white bonnet of the novel's title character staged a sit-in protest in the Texas Legislature, where a bill was being considered that would ban some methods for second-trimester abortions.

"They looked exactly like the women in the movie," Atwood says. "The best thing was all those security guards with guns surrounding them: 'Look out! They might stand up!' "

The book's dystopian tale of the enslavement of women in a totalitarian takeover of the United States feels, to many people, more relevant than ever in a political climate in which reproductive freedom is under threat.

Atwood spoke about The Handmaid's Tale by phone a few days after a trip to New York from her home in Toronto to accept the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. The Canadian author began her speech at the ceremony by joking that she was relieved she hadn't been stopped at the U.S. border and ended by saying, "I will cherish this lifetime achievement award from you — though, like all sublunar blessings, it is a mixed one. Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did the lifetime go?"

Atwood has certainly filled the 77 years she has lived so far, publishing more than 60 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children's literature as well as writing TV scripts, opera libretti and, most recently, a three-volume graphic novel, Angel Catbird. She has received dozens of awards and is an internationally respected voice for environmental activism, feminism and Canadian literature and culture.

Out of that remarkably productive life, she is best known for The Handmaid's Tale. Published 32 years ago to critical acclaim, it still stands as a masterwork of speculative fiction, a powerful tale of dread so firmly grounded in the real world that even now — maybe now more than ever — it can leave a reader feeling an icy finger down her spine.

The Handmaid's Tale has never been out of print, and it's a standard on high school and college reading lists, "probably because it's so screamingly teachable," the author says. It has been published in so many editions and languages and formats (including plays, a movie, an opera and a ballet) that Atwood says she "can't begin to estimate" how many copies it has sold.

In the last five months, its sales have taken off. Atwood's publisher printed 100,000 new copies to meet a demand that started to rise after the election of Donald Trump. For several weeks in January and February, The Handmaid's Tale and George Orwell's 1984 traded the No. 1 bestseller spot back and forth. At the Women's March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, demonstrators carried signs like "The Handmaid's Tale is NOT an Instruction Manual!" (Atwood herself attended the Women's March in Toronto.)

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Politics aren't the only thing driving the sales surge, Atwood says. "It's probably because of the trailer (for the TV series) during the Super Bowl. It was guerilla marketing. People were saying, 'What did I just see?' "

She calls the 10-episode Hulu series "quite an inspired reading" of her book. "I've been very lucky with the team they assembled."

The series deal didn't involve her directly because the film rights were sold years ago. She is an executive producer, but, she says, "You know what that means. I've talked extensively to the showrunners, and they're very nice, but I had no control."

She praises the "very, very good acting," "brilliant casting" and the series' production values. "The costumes are really gorgeous, and so comfortable," she says. "It makes you go, wait a minute. Beautiful clothes — that's how they get you."

Atwood herself has a cameo in the series, as one of the Aunts who train and monitor the Handmaids, fertile young women who are forced to bear the children of powerful men in a society where most women cannot have healthy babies. "There aren't very many roles for women of my age" in the world of the novel, Atwood says wryly.

Although she created that world, "I didn't want a book in which there were weird things just made up. The weird things (in the novel) have all been done."

Since she wrote it, the author says, "We have inched and leapt closer to this society. In a way, ours is the worst of all possible worlds for some women. At least the Handmaids get three meals a day, good nutrition, they can't smoke, their health is carefully monitored. If you're going to force women to have children, give them medical supplies and food and a decent place to live. Where's all this concern for life after the child is born?"

Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale while living in Cold War West Berlin. Its suffocating, paranoid atmosphere is "very much the atmosphere in the Iron Curtain countries before the wall came down. You never knew who was an informant."

A lifelong student of history, Atwood says, "Having been born in 1939, I had a precocious interest in totalitarianism. You don't want to let it get going, because it's very hard to stop." The three key tactics of successful totalitarians, she says, are controlling the military and judiciary and "delegitimizing the media so the only voice is yours."

That includes, she says, digital media. "Any badly disposed authoritarian system with a lot of knowledge, a lot of control knows what it can turn off at will. We've always trusted our system not to do that.

"Any form of mobs, including social media mobs, should make us look askance."

Atwood says she "has never been one to believe it could never happen here," so she keeps "writing, writing, writing." But she is descended, she says, from a long line of troublesome women. Among the branches of her family tree is a Massachusetts woman named Mary Webster who in the 17th century was convicted of witchcraft and hanged.

"The hanging didn't take," Atwood says. "They left her there all night, and when they came back in the morning she was still alive. They called her Half-hanged Mary. She lived another 14 years.

"She's a good ancestor to have."

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.