Margaret Atwood, upon the worldwide publication Tuesday of her sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” said she was inspired to return to that repressive world because that repressive world had returned to her.
“Instead of moving away from Gilead, we started moving towards it, especially in the United States,” Atwood said in London on Tuesday, in her first public comments upon the release of “The Testaments.” She said she began writing the novel more than two years ago, notifying her publishers of the project in February 2017 – soon after Donald Trump moved into the White House.
Since then, parts of the U.S. have moved to restrict women’s reproductive rights in ways reminiscent of the theocratic, reactionary dystopia of Gilead. “For a society that claims to value individual freedom, I would say to them, evidently you don’t think this individual freedom extends to women,” Atwood said.
“The Testaments” picks up about 15 years after “The Handmaid’s Tale,” far past the point where the acclaimed TV adaptation has taken the story through its three seasons. MGM and Hulu are reportedly developing “The Testaments” for television and discussing with showrunner Bruce Miller whether the new book can be integrated into “The Handmaid’s Tale” series, a fourth season of which has been ordered.
The narrator in the sequel is no longer Offred (the character played by Elisabeth Moss in the Hulu/MGM series) but instead three women, including the fearsome disciplinarian Aunt Lydia (played by Ann Dowd).
“Although I could not continue with the story of Offred, I could continue with three other people concerned in these events and tell the story of the beginning of the end, because we know from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ that Gilead vanishes. It’s no longer present 200 years into the future, because they’re having a symposium on it” at the end of the original novel, Atwood told a small gathering of journalists in London. “How did it collapse? How do these kinds of regimes disappear?….I was interested in exploring that.”
If “The Testaments” can be worked into the current TV series, a wardrobe shift will apparently be necessary: The book jacket shows a silhouette of a handmaid in a green robe instead of a red one. “There [are] some new costume choices in this book,” said Atwood, who is Canadian. “Human beings throughout time love outfits that tell you who you’re looking at, like football teams and things like that. So yes, we have some new outfits.”
The author said she was in regular contact with Miller and clued him in, at least in general terms, about where she planned to take the story in “The Testaments” – for example, her intention to write about Nichole, the baby Offred has with Nick, Commander Waterford’s aide. “When I said, ‘Hands off that baby,’ [Miller] said, ‘Oh, OK,’” Atwood recalled with a laugh.
As for the show, “I read the scripts; I make notes on them,” she said. “I have influence but no actual power. But luckily we’re in accord most of the time.”
The anticipation surrounding “The Testaments,” which comes 34 years after publication “The Handmaid’s Tale,” has resembled the frenzy that greeted new Harry Potter installments. Crowds gathered at midnight Monday night to lay their hands on a copy at bookstores across Britain. On Tuesday evening, Atwood will speak at a sold-out event at London’s National Theatre that will be live-streamed to 1,300 cinemas worldwide. Actress Lily James will read from the new novel.
“I’m very pleased and grateful to the readers who have stuck with me all these years, and to the teams of people both here and in the U.S. and Canada who have been working an amazing number of hours trying to keep a lid on” the book, Atwood said.
She has also been impressed with the adoption of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its costumes as symbols of resistance around the world.
“It’s brilliant as a protest tactic, because you’re not making a disturbance. You’re not saying anything. You’re sitting very quietly and modestly, and you can’t get kicked out for dressing inappropriately, because you’re all covered up…no frightful bare shoulders,” Atwood said. “It’s a very striking visual image.”
Atwood was one of Variety’s Power of Women honorees last year. She told Variety that she began writing “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 1984, when Germany was still divided and many countries in Eastern Europe were surveillance states under the thumb of the Soviet Union. “My rule for [the book] was, nothing goes in that didn’t have a precedent in real life – somewhere, sometime,” she said.