As she approaches her 80th birthday, Margaret Atwood doesn’t mind being called a literary rock star, and she smiles at the hype surrounding the launch of her new book The Testaments.
“Considering the lives that rock stars lead, I haven’t yet died of an opiate overdose. Not yet. There’s time,” Atwood said with a chuckle during a press conference in London on Tuesday to mark the release of her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. She described the massive anticipation as something that could be "quite ruinous for a 35-year-old, because where do you go from there? In my case we kind of know the answer, we know the plot.”
The Testaments has been one of the hottest book launches in years, rivalling only Harry Potter for fan frenzy and glitzy publicity events. Hundreds of people lined up at bookstores across London just before midnight on Monday to buy the first copies. Some came dressed in the distinctive red robes and white bonnets of the handmaids. There were panel discussions, celebrity readings, themed cocktails and even some placard-making. A reading by Atwood on Tuesday night at the National Theatre sold out in hours and will be broadcast to 1,300 cinemas around the world. The book has also been short-listed for Britain’s Booker Prize and long-listed for the Giller Prize in Canada, even though it has only just been released.
Dressed in a black jacket and sporting a flowing scarf and silver running shoes, Atwood seemed almost mesmerized by the attention the book has received. “London loves a happening,” she said after describing the launch as a circus. “And it is quite amazing how people will turn out in the middle of the night to see the big pile of books revealed.”
There’s little doubt that the book’s popularity is due in large part to the successful TV series based on her 1985 novel and a reaction to the populism of U.S. President Donald Trump. Both books portray a repressive theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian region of the United States where handmaids are forcibly assigned to bear children for infertile members of the ruling class. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale focused mainly on one character, Offred, The Testaments takes place 15 years later and pulls together the stories of three women, including the infamous Aunt Lydia, the tyrant in charge of the handmaids. The television show is in its third season, and the makers are planning a further series based on The Testaments. (Atwood said she has influence over the scripts but no power to make changes.)
Atwood said she repeatedly turned down requests to write a sequel but changed her mind “as time moved on, and instead of moving further away from Gilead we started moving towards it, particularly in the United States”. She noted with pride that the handmaids’ bonnets and red robes have become popular with pro-choice demonstrators in several U.S. states where abortion laws have been tightened. She called it a “brilliant protest tactic." She added, “Everybody looking at it knows what it means because of the television series. ... What those restrictive laws about women’s bodies are claiming is that the state owns your body. There is a parallel for men, and it would be the draft.” Military conscription, she noted, comes with a big difference. “When they do [conscription], they pay for your clothing, lodging, food, medical expenses and they give you a salary. So I say unto them, if you want to conscript women’s bodies in this way, you should pay for it. As it is we’re forcing women to deliver babies. It’s enforced childbirth, and you are not paying for any of it ... It’s cheap labour, and that’s a pun.”
The seeds of the Trump movement, she said, were planted long before he came to power, and even in 1985 she heard rumblings of what was to come. “Until the Cold War ended, the United States was selling itself as the alternative to the Cold War evil empire," she said. “But once that opponent was gone, everything could come out of the cupboard that had always been there, and now it has come.”
She spent more than two years writing The Testaments, jotting down an outline a couple of months before the Handmaid’s Tale series aired in April, 2017. She wrote part of the book while sitting with her husband, novelist Graeme Gibson, in a dome car on a train trip across Canada, a journey she won in a raffle. As research, she pored over the diaries of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s main propagandist, and read a biography of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s ruthless fixer. Those stories helped her explore how people attain positions of power. “What do you think you’re doing? And how do you justify to yourself, I have to kill these people because otherwise my other plans won’t work out?,” she said. In the end, she added, most autocratic regimes collapse, including Gilead.
The Testaments might not be the end of the story. When asked if she might revisit the horrors of Gilead once more in another novel, she smiled and replied: “I never say never to anything.”
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