| ‘I’m not much interested in my deep, dark psyche, fascinating though it may be’ …|
Photograph by Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
A LIFE IN WRITING
Margaret Atwood: ‘I am not a prophet. Science fiction is really about now’
The TV adaptation of her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale captured the political moment. Ahead of a new series, Atwood talks bestsellers, bonnets and the backlash against her views on #MeToo
Saturday 20 Jan 2018
“It was not my fault!” says Margaret Atwood of 2017. But it was certainly her year. Now, just a few weeks into January, she is already making headlines with typically trenchant comments on the #MeToo movement. And, of course, the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale returns this spring: she has read the first eight scripts and has “no fingernails left”. While the world – and Gilead – show no sign of getting any cheerier, Atwood is seemingly unstoppable. In March the New Yorker crowned her “the prophet of dystopia” and the TV adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace has orbited her into an international stardom seldom experienced by novelists. Atwood was a consultant on both productions, and has cameo performances in each: as one of the aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale, slapping Elisabeth Moss’s Offred round the face, and as “Disapproving Woman” (the sign on her trailer) in Alias Grace. She will be on set in Toronto for the second season soon, again as a consultant, but not in a nasty aunt outfit this time. “Once was enough.” She has very much been cast to type. “Sometimes I pretend to be a scary old lady,” she confesses over coffee. “Yes I do,” she drawls menacingly. It is a complete coincidence that her near-future dystopia and her historical novel based on a real 19th-century murder have come at the same time, she says. “But they do have something in common: bonnets. So many bonnets.”
“I’m not a prophet,” she says. “Let’s get rid of that idea right now. Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.” She is, however, “sorry to have been so right”. But, with her high forehead and electric halo of curls, there is something otherworldly about Atwood. Dressed in one of her trademark jewel-coloured scarfs and a necklace of tiny skulls, she cuts a striking figure outside the cafe in Piccadilly where we are huddled.
Our chat ranges from the hermaphroditic Barramundi fish to Game of Thrones, to the card she is making for Diana Athill’s 100 birthday. Hers is a bird-like inquisitiveness and lethal intellectual agility: magpie and falcon (she’s a keen ornithologist). She talks in a distinctive low monotone, and is given to quizzical rhetorical questioning: “And why is that?” The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1984 in West Berlin – when else? where else? – to answer the question: if there was a totalitarian regime in the United States what kind of regime would it be?
Elisabeth Moss, right as Offred in the TV adaptation of Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Photograph: George Kraychyk/Hulu
Post Trump’s election, the novel is back on the bestseller lists, placards reading “Make Atwood fiction again” appear on the streets, and women have adopted her red robes in silent protest at threatened anti-abortion legislation. Much to her amusement, Handmaid-influenced outfits were even sashaying down catwalks, a far cry from the unglamorous original inspiration – an illustration on the 1940s Old Dutch cleaning product for sinks. We are living in an Atwellian era, and it’s not pretty.
She can’t deny her timing is spookily prescient. “Evidemment,” she replies with characteristic sang-froid. Lauded as the stand-out TV event of the year, the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale did not so much strike a nerve as send Taser-like shots through its viewers. The Netflix production of Alias Grace, her 1996 meditation on truth, memory and complicity, hinging on the veracity of a woman’s testimony, landed amid the torrent of Weinstein allegations. Even the book of her 2008 lecture series, Payback, written in a hurry to suit her publisher’s schedule, arrived bang on time for the financial crash: “Everybody thought I knew something. I thought I was writing a book about the Victorian novel.”
Her new-found celebrity (she likes being in London, she confides, because she’s not stopped so often for selfies) has come despite her “doing nothing”, she says. “They weren’t actually my accomplishments, it was all those other people, who acted, designed, wrote the shows.”
During her visits on set, she was struck by the actors’ total immersion in her almost unbearable world. “They did the whole thing without makeup. All of them. That’s dedication!” Moss worked 14-hour days, she says. “She told me, ‘Those bags under my eyes were real. The dark circles, they were real.’”
Atwood speaks equally warmly about Sarah Polley, the actor, screenwriter and producer on the nearly all-female team behind Alias Grace. Polley first wrote to her asking to adapt the novel when she was 17. They held off for 20 years – during which time she had two children – until she was ready to make the show. “This is going to make her career,” the author predicts.
While updating Gilead to a disturbingly recognisable present day, “lattes had not been deployed in North America in 1985”, the series honours Atwood’s rule of not including anything that hasn’t happened somewhere in the world already; the addition of modern horrors makes it all the more chillingly plausible. Female genital mutilation was taking place, she says “but if I had put it in 1985 probably people wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. They do now.”
We are accustomed to our dystopias being dusty ruins, and part of what makes the show so disquieting is its eerie beauty: the lushness, the hush (silenced cars, creepily amplified birdsong), the saturated colour and light. Does it look like she imagined? “It’s pretty close. Of course I can’t remember exactly the picture I had. But I know what the place looked like because it was a real place, Cambridge Massachusetts. It’s changed somewhat since that time, but essentially those residential streets look the same.”
Sarah Gadon, who plays the lead role in the TV adaptation of Alias Grace. Photograph: Sabrina Lantos/Netflix
Another question behind the novel was how, “now that the box has been opened and the butterflies are out flitting about”, could you make women return to the home, as some on the Christian right in the 80s were advocating? “By what method?” Her answer: reproductive slavery.
Raising the inevitable F-word with Atwood can be risky. “It is always – ‘What do you mean by the word?’ For instance, some feminists have historically been against lipstick and letting transgender women into women’s washrooms. Those are not positions I have agreed with.” Last weekend, Atwood provoked a Twitter storm with an op-ed piece in the Canadian Globe and Mail under the headline “Am I a bad feminist?”, in which she calls the #MeToo moment “a symptom of a broken system”. She adds: “The choices are: fix the system; circumvent the system; or burn it down and substitute something different entirely. Sexual assault is rarer in countries with less wealth imbalance, so why not start there? While we are at it, depriving women of contraceptive information, reproductive rights, a living wage, and prenatal and maternal care – as some states in the US want to do – is practically a death sentence, and is a contravention of basic human rights. But Gilead, being totalitarian, does not respect universal human rights.”
The central theme in Atwood’s fiction is power, inequality or abuse of power, against women or anyone else. “I’m afraid it is all about power for a lot of people,” she says. “A lot of these things don’t come out of a wish for power, they come out of fear. Not to be that one. Remember Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Do it to Julia! Not me!’” Social mobbings on Twitter are about being “on the side of those doing it rather than on the side of those having it done to them”.
Her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, dubbed “Lord of the Flies for girls” and written immediately after The Handmaid’s Tale, is an all too realistic story of schoolgirl bullying. The power structures of boys, Atwood says now, “are fairly simple and overt … hierarchical and stable”. Whereas with girls “it is much more like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: byzantine, covert … You can never quite figure out why that person is popular and suddenly not.”
Atwood recently met a young Korean woman who had been comforted by reading Cat’s Eye after having a horrible time at her all-girls school in British Columbia. Her mother had suggested she write down four things that she wanted to do in her life and put them in an envelope until she was 21. “And one of the things was meeting you,” the woman told Atwood, “and now I’ve done it.”
Pause. “Gee,” the novelist says, with tears in those terrifying blue eyes.
Although Cat’s Eye clearly draws on Atwood’s experience of moving from the Canadian wilderness to school in Toronto, memoir has never tempted her: “I’m more interested in what’s going on in the world than I am in myself,” she says drily. “I’m not much interested in my deep, dark psyche, fascinating though it may be.”
She has written nearly the equivalent of a book a year in over six decades. Her current project is adapting her comic series Angel Catbird into an audiobook: there is the vexed question of feathery superhero pants. “Nobody told me not to,” she says of her own polymath super powers. “That’s the secret. I was in a time and a place where there weren’t any professional anythings, so people just did those things.” So how does she do it? “I’m not a perfectionist. That’s one clue.” And she’s not fussy about when or where she writes. “I’m a downhill skier. I get to the bottom. Once I’ve gotten to the end I do a lot of rewriting. I start rewriting from the front while I’m still writing at the back, just to remind myself what I’ve written.”
This makes her process sound more spontaneous than it is: in fact, she plots graphs for each character from the year they are born. “I want to know how old they are exactly – so I don’t mess up.” For Atwood, the defining fact of her life is being born in 1939. “There’s no question!” Of all the referents that informed The Handmaid’s Tale – slavery, the Salem witch trials, the Soviet system (the list, as she says, is long) – Nazi Germany is its rotten heart: the idea that stability can be overturned overnight.
American democracy has never felt so challenged, she has said. But today she is a more chipper, or at least more contrary, Cassandra. “Why are you so shocked by it all?” she demands. “Look at their history. Come on! The real reason people expect so much of America in modern times is that it set out to be a utopia. That didn’t last very long. Nathaniel Hawthorne nailed it when he said the first thing they did when they got to America was build a scaffold and a prison.”
Things might be “very scary” right now, but “can we remember world wars one and two, just for a minute? And in the 50s we all thought we were going to be blown up with nuclear bombs. So there are different kinds of scary.”
A committed environmentalist, Atwood blames the state of the planet for “driving social unrest, wars and revolutions. You get those things when people feel they are running out of food. Why would you not?”
As we brace ourselves for the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, is there hope? For Offred? For us? It’s there in the book, she reminds me – in the epilogue Gilead is over. “There is always hope. Otherwise why get up in the morning?” she says. And as for human nature: “We are capable of the most amazing altruism and wonderfulness and we are also capable of the most vile atrocities and horrible acts. It’s not news. We behave well when times are good.”
2011A life in writing / John Burnside
A life in writing / Javier Marías