"It's based on stuff that people have really done and therefore could do again," Atwood says
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)
Atwood: Well, I used to write film and television scripts in the ’70s. My first one, it never got made, but it was very interesting to do. So I understand there’s a process, and I understand that there are things you can do with words that you can’t do with pictures and things you can do with pictures and music and acting that you can’t do with words. A film is a group effort, any film or television series is. Working on it is like summer camp for grown ups — if the weather is nice and you like the people, it’s a joy, but if the weather is horrible and you don’t like the people it’s hell, and your parents won’t come and take you home. I’ve had both experiences, as anyone who has worked on such things for any length of time probably has, and I also know that you can have the best script and the best actors and the best everything, and it could still be a stinker.
Watson: This is the gamble we all take!
Atwood: Yeah, making a film is not predictable. It’s a chemistry thing, and you can have a project that you don’t really set much store by, with a small budget and actors nobody has ever heard of, and it becomes a cult classic like Night of The Living Dead (the first one). So I know it’s a gamble, but anything in the arts is a gamble, and there’s a lot of luck involved — good or bad.
Watson: Just coming back to a question, based on something you said in your earlier answer: We live in a patriarchy, we live in a particular power structure. Do you think it’s possible for all women to be harmonious with each other? I’m interested in whether it’s harder because of the shape of the power structure and our place within it.
Atwood: Of course; there are hard things. But we’re human beings! It’s possible for men to be harmonious with one another even though they’re often very competitive. But women too are human beings, that’s my foundational belief — so they’re not exempt from the emotions that human beings have. Love, hate, jealousy, competitiveness, cooperation, loyalty, betrayal — the whole package.
And we don’t live in just “a” patriarchy, we live in a number of different kinds of patriarchies. You can pinpoint the moment in which women started to be treated markedly worse than men (advent of wheat and agriculture). Let me put it to you this way: Amongst the Inuit things are somewhat more equal because each half contributes to not just the welfare but the existence of the other. So men do the hunting by and large, but in order to do the hunting they have to wear waterproof clothing that is expertly made by women. If you make faulty clothing the man will get wet and then he will freeze to death. And your kayak is viewed as a piece of clothing that’s fitted to you so if you roll your kayak the water will not get in and you’ll right yourself. Making the clothing is a very laborious process, and it’s an expert skill and highly valued; so in societies in which women do something that is highly valued, of course their place is going to be more equal. We know this through micro financing — I don’t know whether you follow that story, but in countries like Bangladesh, microfinancers give small loans to women to allow them to start up small businesses, and as soon as they start bringing in money to the family their status and situation improves. Microfinancing businesses will not lend money to men, they only lend to women, because they say the women have an interest in helping their families whereas the men might spend it on just showing off. So all of that is to be taken into consideration; but none of it means that women are exempt from bad individual behavior towards one another.
Watson: Definitely not! Misogyny has no gender.
Atwood: Yes. And it has nothing to do with whether women should have voting rights. If voting rights were determined on all men behaving well, they wouldn’t have any. Rights as citizens are quite apart from individual behavior.
Watson: Are you bored of the “Are you a feminist” question? You must have been asked that a lot whilst talking about the new TV show.
Atwood: I’m not bored with it, but we have to realize it’s become one of those general terms that can mean a whole bunch of different things, so I usually say, “Tell me what you mean by that word and then we can talk.” If people can’t tell me what they mean, then they don’t really have an idea in their heads of what they’re talking about. So do we mean equal legal rights? Do we mean women are better than men? Do we mean all men should be pushed off a cliff? What do we mean? Because that word has meant all of those different things.
Watson: I agree. I think there’s still a huge amount of confusion and misconception around the word, so it can become tricky territory.
Atwood: It’s like Christians. Do we mean the Pope? Do we mean Mormons? What are we talking about here? Because they’re quite different.
Watson: Of course.
Atwood: So, if we mean, should women as citizens have equal rights, I’m all for it and a number of advances have been made in my lifetime regarding property rights and divorce and custody of children and all of those things. But do we mean, are women always right? Give me a break! I’m sorry, but no! Theresa May is a woman, for heaven’s sakes!
Watson: As well as being a writer, you’re also a campaigner for various different causes, including environmental ones.
Atwood: It’s true! But I’m not a professional one; it’s not my job. I don’t get paid for it.
Watson: No, no, but I was wondering if you could talk about a couple of the causes that you campaign for and what you’ve learned about campaigning over the years as you’ve been doing.
Atwood: Okay, so I often get asked to be a spokesperson for a very simple reason, and that reason is that I don’t have a job. So I can’t be fired. A lot of people would like to say those things but they have jobs and they may have families, and they would put themselves in jeopardy if they said some of the kinds of things that I do. So that’s why artists and writers are so often picked. They can’t be fired. They can vilified, people can call them names…but they can’t actually be dismissed. So I do get asked to do a lot of things and the ones that I do, as people know, are pretty much environmental ones, women’s rights ones—and that would expand to include gay rights when that was an issue, and other gender related issues—and things related to the arts, which includes the things that PEN does, like defending writers who have been jailed for what they’ve written or exiled or banned.
Watson: Have you ever experienced burnout as a campaigner?
Atwood: I think I have experienced overload, but if you mean burnout — like I give up —then no. I think people who experience burnout are people who think this is the worst it has ever been and it will never get any better, and that what they’re doing isn’t make any difference. The hardest thing to campaign for is — but it’s getting easier — the environmental issues, because people initially didn’t see any direct connection to themselves.
Watson: And now they are.
Atwood: They are more. They get it that if there’s poisons in the water and no one’s paying attention to that, their unborn child may suffer an injury, and so forth.
Watson: You are also very supportive of other writers.
Atwood: Well, I can’t be supportive of all other writers! [laughs]
Watson: Are there particular upcoming writers that you admire or anyone that you particularly love at the moment?
Atwood: Yes, but I can’t pick favorites, otherwise the others would get upset.
Watson: That’s very diplomatic. I understand.
Atwood: But from time to time I might tweet a book, and I’ve certainly judged more than enough literary contests, and I’ve done a mentoring thing. But I am getting kind of old for it, to tell you the truth.
Atwood [laughs]: Yesssssss!
Watson: Many of your novels are speculative fictions that imagine a future scenario for possible society…
Atwood: One that’s possible, yes.
Watson: Do you, as a novelist, see that as part of your role?
Atwood: Novelists have a primary role, which is to write their novel the best way they can, just as actors have a primary role, to do the best acting job they can. So if you weren’t first and foremost, dare I use the word an artist, no one would be paying any attention to you anyway. If you weren’t good at what you do, none of your other things would actually matter that much. So your first responsibility is to your primary vocation. Society is full of people who will tell artists what their role should be because they want you to be their megaphone, but your primary role, your primary responsibility is to your vocation. In my case, writing. If I give up trying to be a good writer, then what the heck am I doing? Should novels have “a message”?
Everything you write is of your own time. You can’t help that. Walter Scott wrote a medieval romance called Ivanhoe, which is a 19th-century novel because that’s when he lived. Tennyson’s long poem about King Arthur was a 19th-century poem with all of the 19th-century values that he had. They’re not medieval values. Whether you like it or not or acknowledge it or not, as a writer you are in fact channeling things about your time and the values of your time, negative or positive. You can be conscious of it or unconscious of it, but it will happen anyway.
Watson: Yes, yes, very true. You have your own perspective, and you think for yourself. I’m really interested in how you came to be this person that believed in her own perspective and opinion.
Atwood: You mean not easily frightened?
Watson: Yes! That’s exactly what I mean.
Atwood [laughs]: Okay, so Emma, I grew up in the woods. It gives you a different viewpoint; I was improperly socialized. I think if I’d grown up in a small town or if I’d been sent to a girls’ boarding school when I was four, as some of my acquaintances were, things would be somewhat different. But as it is I am frightened of three things—thunderstorms, forest fires and bears…. I was once told by someone who was teaching me to drive when I that he could not continue with it because I didn’t have enough fear. [Laughs]
Watson: [laughs]: That’s amazing! That is fantastic.
Atwood: Well, it’s not. It’s foolhardy, actually. I should probably be more fearful because not having enough fear can certainly get you in trouble.
Watson: Yes, I’ve found that too.
Atwood: Well, Emma, how do you account for yourself then? [laughs] You didn’t grow up in the woods.
Watson: I didn’t grow up in the woods, but sometimes I do get myself in sticky situations, by being a little braver than I quite know how to be, but the reverse is that you spend time fearing fear itself which I don’t find particularly instructive or helpful either.
Atwood: So we should try for pragmatic realism, I suppose.
Watson: Yes, yes, that’s the goal, that’s the dream—pragmatic realism.
Atwood [laughs]: Well, good luck with it!
Watson: Yes, best of luck! [laughs] Thank you so, so much for doing this, and for writing this book, and for continuing to write everything you write. You know, there have been moments where I’ve read something that you’ve written and it’s made all the difference.
Atwood: That’s really wonderful to hear.
Watson: So thank you so much for doing what you do and being Margaret Atwood. You’re just awesome.
Atwood: And thank you for being Emma! I think you’re inspiring a lot of young people.
Watson: I, well, I hope so. Life has handed me an extraordinary set of opportunities, and I’m just trying to be worthy of them.
Atwood: And you are. And that’s a good thing to see.
Watson: Thank you, thank you. This was wonderful, this was absolutely wonderful, I was told I had 30 minutes of your time, and I’ve taken up 34, so I hope I’ll be forgiven.
Atwood: You are immediately forgiven. [both laugh]