Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto, Ontario. Her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, became a bestseller again in 2017 after being adapted into a television series starring Elisabeth Moss in the leading role. A polemicist, renowned for her uncompromising works that push the norms and conventions of literature, Margaret Atwood has been capturing the issues of our world with humor and lucidity for decades.

When you wrote 'The Handmaid’s Tale', were you drawing on things that already happened?

Yes, partly because I didn’t want anybody saying to me: “Where does Margaret Atwood get this weird shit?” I wanted to be able to say: “From the behavior of the human race over time.” And that is in fact what I did. Nothing went into either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments that did not have a precedent or precedence. If you do just make stuff up, you’ll probably find that it has already happened.

Do you notice any difference in the impact The Handmaid’s Tale had as a novel versus as a series?

Every time there is an American election, the sales of The Handmaid’s Tale went up. Because when I wrote this book in 1985, it was a possibility. A backlash against women, a return to a theocratic form of government was a fictional possibility before the Berlin Wall came down, during the Cold War, when nobody wanted to see the United States as a potentially retrograde and oppressive place, although it already was for some people. They wanted it to be a beacon of light, freedom, democracy, free speech. There was a “No, that would never happen here.” Then, the Iron Curtain came down and the United States become autocratic and repressive. The book kept reminding people that “it can’t happen here” is never true anywhere.

Do you think the conversation about notions of identity—gender, race, and nation—in the Canadian literary society is helpful?

I think in a country like Canada, which is very multitude—Toronto is said to be the city in the world that contains the largest number of different ethnicities and identities—that is helpful. We have seen over the past 20, 30 years, a lot of people coming into literary expression who hadn’t been doing it before. When somebody of my age started out being a writer, it wasn’t a respectable thing to do. For a first generation of immigrants, you want your kids to be a doctor or a lawyer. Being a writer is something that arrives, probably with the next generation along, who then want to describe where they’ve come from, where their parents have come from, what their grandparents were doing.

Are there some things that changed for the best in our difficult times?

We have seen a big change in attitudes towards racial inequalities. We have seen support for the protests, but that goes way up from where they were in France since 1968. I think it’s due to the existence of the cell phone. Reading about somebody getting killed by the police is different from actually seeing somebody being killed by the police. Images are very telling.

Should writers be trying to write about the pandemic?

We can’t tell writers what they should or should not do. Some of them are writing about it now and some of them wrote about it before it happened. But that was just coincidence, because everybody writes about things that have happened. You can’t actually write about the future, because there isn’t any “the future.” There are multiple possible futures, and which one we get is not going to be known to us until we arrive at it.

Charles Foran is an author.

Back to Main Publishing in Canada 2021 Feature

Back to Main Canada FBM 2021 Feature