Public Media Arts Hub

Why Margaret Atwood saw this as the moment for 'The Handmaid's Tale' sequel


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A dark, dystopian vision that is capturing the public's attention.

Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is now a cultural touchstone for readers and viewers. Her much anticipated sequel, "The Testaments," is out tomorrow, and is already on the short list for this year's Booker Prize and green-lit for a series on Hulu.

Jeffrey Brown sat down with Atwood recently in Toronto for a preview.

It is part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Actor: Whose fault was it?

Jeffrey Brown: In a harrowing scene early in the TV series "The Handmaid's Tale," young women are being forcibly reeducated for their subservient roles in the United States that has become a fundamentalist theocracy.

One of them, played by actress Elisabeth Moss, is suddenly struck. The perpetrator, in a surprise cameo appearance, none other than celebrated author Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood: And we had to shoot it four times because she kept saying: "Hit me harder."



Margaret Atwood: No, I don't want to injure the leading lady.

"Come on. Give me a whack."

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.

It was Atwood who started all this back in 1984, when she wrote her classic novel of a near future takeover of the U.S. by religious zealots, who forced fertile women into sexual servitude as childbearers.

Actor: You will bear children for them.

Jeffrey Brown: The new nation is called Gilead.

What did you think you were doing then at that time?

Margaret Atwood: I thought I was getting in trouble.

Jeffrey Brown: You thought it was going to get you in trouble because of the story?

Margaret Atwood: Well, it answered the question, if the United States were to become a totalitarianism, what kind of totalitarianism would it become?

Jeffrey Brown: Atwood, now 79 and author of more than 60 books, is Canadian, but traces part of her ancestry to early American Puritans.

"The Handmaid's Tale" struck a deep and lasting chord for millions of readers the world over. We talked this summer in her Toronto neighborhood.

You have got to be amazed by what "The Handmaid's Tale" has grown into as a phenomenon.

Margaret Atwood: It's out of control.

Jeffrey Brown: Out of control?

Margaret Atwood: Yes. Well, I can't do anything about it.


Jeffrey Brown: Well...

Margaret Atwood: Come back.


Jeffrey Brown: Not a chance. The story has been made into a 1990 film, an opera and ballet, a graphic novel, and, reaching millions more, the Emmy Award-winning hit Hulu series, which has completed its third season.

Atwood served as a consultant and, with her blessing, the series move well beyond her original ending.

Now Atwood has written her own sequel, "The Testaments," in part a response to her readers' continued interest.

Margaret Atwood: It was a lot of unanswered questions that either they kept asking or they kept making up answers to.

There's a lot of things left hanging at the end of "The Handmaid's Tale."

Jeffrey Brown: So you decided to address that?

Margaret Atwood: Investigate it.

Jeffrey Brown: The new book, set some 15 years after the previous ending, is told through three testimonies, two young women and an older one, Aunt Lydia, familiar to viewers of the series as the most powerful woman in Gilead.

Played by Ann Dowd, she's gone along with evil, and, for the young handmaids, become their principal enforcer, but Atwood had her own questions.

Margaret Atwood: Is she really evil? Is she totally evil? The question is, how do people end up in those positions?

And I remember, when I was born, which was 1939, I was a war child. So I have always been pretty interested in those totalitarianisms, how people born into them, how people rose in them, how they became members of the hierarchy.

Jeffrey Brown: So you're always looking to these historical analogies, huh?

Margaret Atwood: The series, as well as the book, and as well as "The Testaments," follow one axiom, and that is, you can't put anything in that doesn't have a precedent in human history.

So, yes, I'm always looking.

Jeffrey Brown: It has to have happen somehow at some time?

Margaret Atwood: Well, in these books, yes, because I didn't want anybody saying, you're just weird.

Somebody asked me on Twitter recently, how do you come up with this (EXPLETIVE DELETED)? The answer is, it's not me who comes up with it. It's the human race over the past 4,000 years.

Jeffrey Brown: And that leads to the other reason for the sequel, the times we're living in today, where Atwood and others again see women's rights under threat.

Margaret Atwood: If I had thought, let's write a sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale" this kind in 1999, I would have said, why bother? We're not going there. Surely, people are moving away from that.

But in the moment in which we now exist, that's not true anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: So, in 1999, you would have said, why bother?

Margaret Atwood: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: But, in 2016-'17?

Margaret Atwood: I'm going to bother. I'm going to bother. It's time to bother.

You can ignore the fact that there are a number of regimes that have come into power than have these kinds of ideas in mind. The thing they have in common is, they all want to roll back women's rights.

Jeffrey Brown: Atwood is no fan of Donald Trump, but doesn't see him in the world she's created.

Margaret Atwood: Trump is not Gileadean leader figure.

There's some other people kicking around on the U.S. political scene that would be much more like one of those figures, but he is not that kind of figure.

Jeffrey Brown: Gilead is a theocracy.

Margaret Atwood: We are probably pretty close to it in some states.

Jeffrey Brown: You wrote that readers bombarded you over the years with questions, right?

Margaret Atwood: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Is it a feminist novel? Is it a warning?

Margaret Atwood: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You're going to be asked the same thing of this new -- of this sequel.

Margaret Atwood: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: In what sense would you say it is a feminist novel?

Margaret Atwood: It makes women front and center and puts it reproductive rights front and center.

But it doesn't say all women are angelic beings who would never, ever do anything wrong, because, as we know from having been in grade four, that's not true.

Jeffrey Brown: And in what sense is it a warning?

Margaret Atwood: Don't go there. Don't make those choices. Don't go there.

Jeffrey Brown: Atwood's handmaids have become part of the political culture, popping up in protests.

And the frenzy around the new book is intense, unusual for any novelist this side of J.K. Rowling and another "Harry Potter" book.

Margaret Atwood: See you in September.

Jeffrey Brown: It includes a live event Tuesday in which Atwood and various guests will take part, which will be telecast in more than 1,000 theaters around the world.

And Atwood has been glammed up for features like this one in The Sunday Times of London "Style" magazine.

You are in rare air for a novelist, for a writer.

Margaret Atwood: I'm in rare air for an old bitty writer.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, you are. I mean, it's sort of international celebrity air.

Margaret Atwood: Well, yes.

And good thing that I'm old, because if this happened to younger people, it would probably ruin their life. Where do you go from here, except down?

Jeffrey Brown: Are you enjoying it?

Margaret Atwood: Of course I'm enjoying it. I would be lying to say otherwise.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Margaret Atwood: You saw the pictures of me with hair extensions. Who wouldn't enjoy that?


Jeffrey Brown: Margaret Atwood's "The Testaments" is out tomorrow.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Toronto.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.