A version of this story appears in the July 21, 2017 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on stands Friday, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Many celebrities have book clubs, but none share the clout of Emma Watson’s “Our Shared Shelf,” which has picked up nearly 200,000 members since it launched on Goodreads in 2016. As Watson wrote when she made The Handmaid’s Tale her May/June selection, “It is a book that has never stopped fascinating readers because it articulates so vividly what it feels like for a woman to lose power over her own body.” Thanks to the recent Hulu series, Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel has again soared to the top of the best-seller lists. Watson called up Atwood to discuss.
Watson: You were living in West Berlin when you wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984; it was before the wall came down. Was being in a divided city a big influence on the novel or had you been thinking about it before you arrived in Berlin? I’d love to know how the novel came about.
Atwood: I had been thinking about it before I’d arrived, and at that time — when I was in West Berlin—I also visited Czechoslovakia and East Germany and Poland. They weren’t revelations, because being as old as I am I knew about life behind the Iron Curtain, but it was very interesting to be right inside, to sense the atmosphere. East Germany was the most repressed, Czechoslovakia the second, and Poland was relatively wide open, which explains why Poland was where the Cold War wall first cracked. So it was very interesting to be there, but it wasn’t the primary inspiration.
Watson: What was the inspiration, if you don’t mind me asking?
Atwood: There were three inspirations. First, what right wing people were already saying in 1980. They were saying the kinds of things they’re now doing, but at that time they didn’t have the power to do them. I believe that people who say those kinds of things will do those things if and when they get power: They’re not just funning around. So that was one of the inspirations. If you’re going to make women go back into the home, how are you going to do that? If America were to become a totalitarian state, what would that state look like? What would its aims be? What sort of excuse would it use for its atrocities? Because they all have an excuse of some kind. It would not be Communism in the United States; it would have undoubtedly been some sort of religious ideology—which it now is. By the way, that’s not an “anti religion” statement. Recently, someone said, “Religion doesn’t radicalize people, people radicalize religion.” So you can use any religion as an excuse for being repressive, and you can use any religion as an excuse for resisting repression; it works both ways, as it does in the book. So that was one set of inspirations.
The second inspiration was historical. The 17th-century foundation of America was not, “Let’s have a democracy.” It was “Let’s have a theocracy,” which was what they established in the New England states, such as Massachusetts. Harvard—in and around which the novel is set —began as a theological seminary in the 17th century, and the Puritans excluded anybody who didn’t believe in their theology.
The third inspiration was simply my reading of speculative fiction and sci-fi, especially that of the ’30’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s, and my desire to give the form a try. Most of the ones I’d read had been written by men and had male protagonists, and I wanted to flip that and see what such a thing would look like if it were told from the point of view of a female narrator. It’s not that those earlier books didn’t have women in them, and not that women didn’t play important parts; it’s that they were not the narrators.
Watson: Yes, yes. So having written this book when you did and having realised that this might happen one day, did the election results and the new health bill in the US hit you hard? Was it a very depressing moment for you?
Atwood: I’m not easily depressed by these sorts of things. It’s happened before. If you were born in the ’90s, you were born into a world where quite a few rights for various groups had been established, at least in the West, and you thought that was normal. But if you’re older than that and you were born into a world in which this was not the case, you saw the fights that went into those rights being established, and you also saw how quickly—in the case, for instance, of Hitler—that you could take a democratically minded fairly open society and turn it on its head. So, it has happened before, but it’s also un-happened before, if you see what I mean. History is not a straight line. Also, America is not Germany; America is very diverse; it has a number of different states in it. I don’t think America is rolling over in acquiesce to all of this, as you’ve probably seen from reading the news. You’ve probably seen that women dressed as Handmaids have been turning up in state legislatures and just sitting there. You can’t kick them out because they’re not making a disturbance, but everybody knows what they mean.
Watson: Thank you for answering my question so thoroughly. It’s amazing how The Handmaid’s Tale has been read and discussed since its publication. It’s never faded from view. What is it about it, do you think, that makes it so endlessly interesting to new generations of readers, beyond the fact that it speaks to a specific political moment?
Atwood: There were a couple of rules I had for writing it, and one of them was that I would put nothing into it that had not been done at some time or in some place. All of the details have precedents in real life. Some of them are mentioned in the afterword, set at a historical conference that takes place several hundred years after the end of Gilead. The television series is following the same rule — they’ve added in some stuff, such as female genital mutilation, but they’re keeping to the rule that nothing goes in that doesn’t have a precedent in reality. So that’s one reason: People know that I wasn’t just making up horrors to be entertaining.
I also tried to be faithful, not to some abstract ideology, but to how people actually behave when they’re under a lot of pressure. There’s a great deal of literature on that. I was just reading a piece on male child soldiers kidnapped by Boko Haram – basically they either had to kill people the way they told them to, or they would be killed. When that’s the choice, a lot of people will do things they would never otherwise have done, in order to stay alive.
Another thing is, if offered a position of power within a relatively powerless position, some people will take that. People say, “Why do you have Aunt Lydia?” “Why do you have the female aunt being so controlling to women?” And I say because they would be! That’s how such a power structure would operate, that’s how they’ve operated in the past: You give somebody a bit more power over the others, and they will take it. So it’s not a case of all women being angelic. We know that’s not true. Women are human beings, a mixed lot. I tried to be true to human nature.
So the book isn’t a violation of human nature, and it’s not a just an invention. It’s based on stuff that people have really done and therefore could do again. Then there’s no gadgets in it, there’s no technology in it that we don’t already have. In the mid 1980s we didn’t have some of the stuff in the television series—believe it or not, there were no cellphones then and there was no internet. But there were credit cards, so they could already track you and control you through your credit cards.
Watson: That’s really freaky for me. I’ve just done a film called The Circle which is about how easy it is and would be to control huge groups of people with the amount of data that’s been collected.
Atwood: Dave Eggers’ book?
Watson: Yes, exactly.
Atwood: I reviewed it for the New York Review of Books.
Watson: I’ll have to read it—that’s amazing. Well, I read the book and became kind of obsessed with it.
Atwood: My review will explain the cover to you. [laughs] My theory is that it’s a manhole cover.
Watson: Speaking of translating books into films, The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted a number of times before, do you have a favorite adaption?
Atwood: Well, this [Hulu] television series is very good.
Watson: Yes, it’s insanely good.
Atwood: The opera was also good.
Watson: There was an opera?
Atwood: Yes, it debuted in 2000.
Watson: Do you like seeing your work adapted, or do you find it hard?
(Interview continues on page 2)