You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Margaret Atwood on How Donald Trump Helped ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

If you think it’s tough for a writer in 2018, imagine how Margaret Atwood felt at the beginning of her career. “It was impossible,” the celebrated author says. “I was starting out in Canada in the 1950s. There was no market. I thought I would have to have a day job.”

Her back-up plan could have made her into the next Danielle Steel. “I thought I’d write true romances,” Atwood says. “But I tried, and I basically couldn’t do it. I was 18, what can I tell you? It bogged down in the middle. I could do the plots, but I couldn’t do the prose. It was in the age of dots. Something happened on the sofa, and then they were …” She pauses. “Dot, Dot, Dot! I couldn’t do that.”

Atwood is one of five honorees at this year’s Variety Power of Women luncheon on April 13. As part of this week’s cover story, Atwood spoke to Variety about the secrets of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on her 1985 dystopian classic, how it plays during the era of Donald Trump, and why there should be one definition of feminism.

What are your memories of writing the first draft of “The Handmaid’s Tale?”
I started writing it in West Berlin in 1984. The wall was still in place. Because I was Canadian, we could go across to East Berlin, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, which we did. They were all Iron Curtain countries at the time. That definitely had an influence on the book, most particularly the feeling that people were very reluctant to talk to you until they absolutely trusted you and you were in a place that wasn’t bugged. I had been thinking about this book for a while. I had been collecting newspaper clippings, which one did in those days. There was no internet. So my rule for it was, nothing goes in that didn’t have a precedent in real life — somewhere, sometime.

What was your original title for it?
I was thinking of the title of the central character [calling it “Offred”], but then I thought nobody was going to understand this. I got that name by writing out a bunch of men’s names and putting “of” in front of them, to see which sounds better. And that was the one.

Was the title influenced by Geoffrey Chaucer?
Well, sure. I like Chaucer.

Did you always see “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a feminist story?
What does that mean? Look up types of feminism. You’ll find 50 of them. Did I always see it as a story with women at the center of it? Yes. Does that make it feminist? Yes. But does that make it a particular kind of feminist? There’s no one definition of feminist. That’s why I always ask people which kind do you mean. I don’t sign blank checks, and I’d like to know what I’m signing up for.

Do you think that’s a problem?
It’s a problem because if you say feminist, you’ll find there are a lot of positions that also call themselves feminist that you don’t agree with. It’s like “Christian.” Does that mean the Pope? Does it mean evangelicals? Does it mean Thomas Becket? What are we talking about?

What does feminism mean to you?
It’s not up for me to decide. For me, it means something that is working for women’s equality, and we are a long way from that. And by equality, I mean legal equality, political equality, and social equality.

Why did the movie adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” not work?
The 1990 movie, the screenplay was by Harold Pinter, and it included voiceover by the central character. And then the director, being in a minimalist phase, took it out. I think it would have been better with it in. Natasha [Richardson], who I knew, she expressed to me in rather pissed off terms, she had recorded all the voiceover and tailored her performance against it. It was a lot more like we have now, in which you heard Offred thinking from time to time.

Were you optimistic when they said they were doing a TV show?
I have no control over whether they do a TV show or not. MGM and Danny Wilson went with the original movie contract. When we wrote it back in 1989, the only kind of TV series that was on was basically like “Dallas.” They were soap operas. “Dallas” is a pretty good one. Then web streaming appeared and it created a whole new platform. There was too much story for 90 minutes. That’s another answer to why the movie didn’t work.

Showrunner Bruce Miller has said there could be 10 seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Ten sounds like an awful lot to me. But he’s thoroughly invested in it. We need to sit down and talk about how it can be 10.

Has he told you his plan yet?
No, because I don’t think he knows yet. But maybe he does!

How involved are you in the show?
I read all the scripts and I talk to Bruce. They even let me in the writing room, but it was before they had written anything on their big white boards for Season 2.

How is Season 2 different?
I’m not allowed to talk about it.

Have you seen it?
I’ve read all the scripts. I’ve seen episode one. They haven’t finished them.

Did you spend a lot of time with Elisabeth Moss before they started filming?
Not really a lot. It was mostly Bruce. They were in the middle of shooting the first season when the election happened. They woke up the next morning and said, “We’re a different show.” Nothing about the show changed, but the frame changed.

Netflix had originally turned it down.
I guess they didn’t think it was time yet. If, for instance, Hillary had won, people would have said, “Dodged a bullet! This isn’t going to happen.”

If Hillary was president, would the show not have worked?
It would have worked as a show, but it wouldn’t have worked the same way. Of course not. You always view these things through the lens of events that have taken place. Charles Lindbergh seemed like a possibility for president of the United States in the 1930s. But in 1942, he wasn’t anymore. Why? Because the United States was in World War II and he was a fascist.

Were you surprised that Trump was elected?
I’m too old to really be surprised. Think of how long I’ve been on the planet. I’ve seen a lot of regime changes in different countries. The people who were devastated were young people who had never experienced anything of the kind. And some of them were quite upset. But it’s not the end of the world, although it’s pretty bad for the environment.

You attended one of the women’s marches last year. What do you make of this latest wave of activism? 
Typically, waves are waves. They hit the shore and then they recede and then they hit the shore again. How many backlashes have we been through? We used to have a race going on, to see which would win, between “1984” and “Brave New World.” It looked as if “Brave New World” had won. That turned out not to be true. Just to give you a very creepy feeling, there was an opera of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that premiered in Denmark in 2000. It started with a film reel going across the top of the stage and showing various things blowing up. And one of the things that blew up was the Twin Towers. But it hadn’t blown up yet. They did the opera again, and they had to take it out, because it was no longer in the future. Does that give you a creepy feeling?

Yes, it does.
They didn’t get that idea from my opera, don’t worry. They got the idea from “Star Wars.”

Do you really believe that?
Remember the first one? Two guys fly a plane in the middle of something and blow that up? The only difference is, in “Star Wars,” they get away. Right after 9/11, they hired a bunch of Hollywood screenwriters to tell them how the story might go next. Sci-fi writers are very good at this stuff, anticipating future events. They don’t all come true, but there are interesting “what if” scenarios.

Do you ever get writer’s block?
No, I never feel I can’t write. I sometimes feel I can’t write the thing I’m writing. If it’s bad, I have to stop and write something else.

Do you have many abandoned novels?
Two major long ones that I did. They were structurally impossible. It was stupid of me to have attempted to do that thing I was attempting to do. For one, I was 200 pages in. I was interested in the people. But I had 200 pages and nothing had happened.

Do you write longhand or on a computer?
A combination. But I always edit on paper in the final phase. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever written anything entirely on a computer. And since computers have been invented, I never wrote anything entirely in handwriting and I never wrote anything entirely on a typewriter. I was happy when they invented spellcheck.

Are you not a good speller?
I’m a terrible speller. A lot of writers spell by ear, but that isn’t how the English language works.

Were you always bad?
I could spell fairly complicated words. I would screw up on words like “weird.” I still have to think about that. It’s “e” before “i” because otherwise it would be “wired.”

More TV

  • Netflix Orders Adult Animated Comedy 'Inside

    Netflix Orders Adult Animated Comedy 'Inside Job' from Shion Takeuchi

    Netflix is set to add another adult animated show to its burgeoning slate, Variety as confirmed. The streamer has put out a series order of “Inside Job” from “Gravity Falls” and “Disenchantment” writer Shion Takeuchi. The show will be the first series Takeuchi produces under her recently-signed overall deal with Netflix. The 20-episode adult animated series [...]

  • Peabody Award Logo

    Peabody Awards Announce First-Ever Catalyst Award and 2019 News and Radio/Podcast Winners

    The Peabody Board of Jurors have selected “$2 Tests: Bad Arrests,” “Anatomy of a Killing,” “Back of the Class,” “Cambridge Analytica,” “The Plastic Problem,” “Separated: Children at the Border” and “Spartan Silence: Crisis at Michigan State” as the 2019 Peabody Award winners in the news category, Variety has learned. Additionally, “Believed,” “Buried Truths,” “Caliphate,” “Kept [...]

  • Ryan Murphy Walk of Fame

    Ryan Murphy Says He Has 10 Greenlit Projects at Netflix

    At the Time 100 Summit on Tuesday, Ryan Murphy revealed that he has 10 greenlit projects in the pipeline at Netflix, including three documentaries, four TV shows, and three movies. Murphy has previously announced five titles slated for a Netflix release. Three are shows, including “Ratched,” the drama series starring Sarah Paulson as the infamous [...]

  • Zachary Levi

    'Shazam!' Star Zachary Levi to Host 2019 MTV Movie & TV Awards

    “Shazam!” star Zachary Levi will be suiting up next for the 2019 MTV Movie & TV Awards in June. Levi will emcee the award show on June 17 at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif. Nominees will be announced in the coming weeks. Fresh off DC Comics’ latest blockbuster, Levi is no stranger to [...]

  • Jussie Smollett

    Brothers Accused of Jussie Smollett Attack Sue His Attorneys for Defamation

    The two brothers who allegedly participated in a staged hate attack on Jussie Smollett have filed a defamation suit against Smollett’s lawyers, accusing the attorneys of smearing their reputations in a bid to salvage Smollett’s image. Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo filed suit in federal court in Illinois on Tuesday. The suit alleges that Smollett’s attorneys [...]

  • Laura Donnelly

    Joss Whedon's HBO Series 'The Nevers' Casts Laura Donnelly in Lead Role

    Laura Donnelly has been cast in the lead role of Joss Whedon’s upcoming HBO series “The Nevers,” Variety has confirmed. The drama was ordered straight-to-series back in July. The series is described as a sci-fi epic about a gang of Victorian women who find themselves with unusual abilities, relentless enemies, and a mission that might change [...]

  • Nailed It Season 3

    'Nailed It!' Season 3 Sets May Premiere Date at Netflix

    Netflix has renewed the reality baking competition series “Nailed It!” for a third season, set to premiere globally on May 17. The show is a twist on traditional cooking shows, by bringing together home bakers who make up for their lack of skill with their enthusiastic attitudes. Comedian Nicole Byer and renowned pastry chef Jacques [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content