Toronto Star

Why write a Handmaid’s Tale sequel?

Author discusses reasons ahead of being honoured Monday by women’s rights group Equality Now “People don’t like being preached to when they’re reading fiction,” Margaret Atwood says.


LOS ANGELES— It was the news that book lovers had been anticipati­ng for a very long time: Margaret Atwood is writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Expected in September 2019,

The Testaments is set 15 years after the protagonis­t’s final scene in the original book and is narrated by three female characters.

An informed expert on dystopian, patriarcha­l societies, the prolific Canadian author of Alias Grace and the MaddAddamt­rilogy will be honoured on Monday by leading women’s rights organizati­on Equality Now. The Make Equality Reality gala will also laud The Hate

U Give actress Amandla Stenberg and behavioura­l geneticist Sue Smalley at the Beverly Hilton hotel.

Atwood, 79, spoke with the Times on Thursday morning about penning a Handmaid’s

Tale sequel and writing work that inspires readers to take action. Congratula­tions on being honoured by Equality Now.

Yes, I’m being honoured but really, I’m helping them to raise money. They fight for women’s rights and that’s the kind of feminist I am. They’re based on the Universal Declaratio­n of Human Rights, which everyone should go back and read because they’ve forgotten about it. They are real activists, that’s what they do every day. I’m not a real activist. The difference between them and me is that I’m just a person who doesn’t have a job, so people like me have the privilege of getting to mouth off because nobody can fire them. The Handmaid’s Tale has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, from the Hulu series adaptation to the use of its signature garb in legislativ­e demonstrat­ions. Why write a sequel?

That’s easy to answer. No. 1, it’s fun. But that’s a very frivolous answer. No. 2, I’ve been asked these questions by readers for 35 years. “Oh, come on, Margaret!” So it’s time to address some of the requests. It’s not a continuati­on that starts five minutes after the book ends and then I tell you what happens next. It takes place15 years after the book ends. I’ve had the idea over the past five years or so. I’m almost finished with it. Your announceme­nt said it’s inspired by “the world we’ve been living in.” What did you mean? The news has become so much more extreme. What about these people in Ohio that are saying motherhood should be mandatory? They haven’t done it yet, they’re talking about it. But when people talk about things like that, being the age I am, I’m rememberin­g that Hitler said it all in Mein Kampf and then he did it. If they had the power, they would do it. These ideas have been tried before.

What I’m fixated on now, of course, like all Canadians, is we’ve got our faces jammed up against the plate-glass window, looking into your country. What kind of shenanigan­s will they be up to next? What’s gonna happen next? I’ve never seen anything like it and neither has anybody else. On one hand, it’s just riveting and, on the other hand, it’s quite appalling.

What’s the key to any successful sequel, even if it’s more than 30 years after a previous instalment?

Who knows? Let’s see if it does work. The jury is not in. But I did the MaddAddam trilogy, so I think this is true for any world invention: you have to be consistent with your own axioms.

I’m not going to say more about The Testaments. You can’t pry it out of me. I can tell you that my publishers do have a cover and they will be releasing it later. And they are going to release a newsletter that people can subscribe to. It’ll probably be things like, “Got up this morning, had some coffee, did some copy-editing …” Stuff you really need to know. That’s their idea, that it’s sort of like a diary. “Now it’s at the printer and I got it back, and there were 115 typographi­cal errors!” (Laughs) Well, that is not going to happen.

What women’s rights initiative­s have excited you lately?

Just yesterday, I was having a meeting about a new developmen­t under the umbrella of the Canadian Women’s Foundation called AfterMeToo. It will be a web-based initiative available to all that will provide people with the things they want and need the most: safe reporting, immediate counsellin­g and third-party investigat­ion. As in, not from within the company or educationa­l institutio­n because when it comes from within, is the main goal to fix our PR or to help the person? As we know, they tend to do what’s best for them. It’s been super troubling to watch over the years.

This will help people make informed decisions, presenting them with their options and chances of success, and steps you need to take. If I do this, what will happen? What sorts of resources can I depend on? If I’m going to be a witness in a court case, do I get to have a lawyer? The knowledge of this is almost nonexisten­t among the kinds of people who are the most vulnerable. What advice do you have for authors aligning their fiction with social-justice issues?

People don’t like being preached to when they’re reading fiction and avoiding that is manuscript-specific. And with any manuscript, some people are going to like it, some people are going to hate it and some people are going to be indifferen­t. You have a problem if everybody hates it and you probably have a problem if everybody likes it.

So it’s then, what is good writing? The “art for art’s sake” people will have a different answer than the Victorian moralists. Look at the trial of Madame Bovary, Salman Rushdie’s fatwa. People forget these things, and they forget that Hitler and Stalin and the Inquisitio­n were big book burners. It’s always gonna be this tug of war between a freedom of expression and “in the interest of the public good, we’re not only gonna burn your book but also fry you at the stake.” So how much of a lynch mob do you want to inspire?

We’re not there yet. We’re not seeing big piles of books being burnt in the streets. Remember, you can have totalitari­anisms on the left as much as you can on the right. It’s not a question of, this side is good, this side is bad; it’s when things get to an extreme, they look much the same.

You’re active on Twitter, which can be overwhelmi­ng with our current news cycle as well as reader questions. How do you manage?

I can’t read everything. It’s not humanly possible. I have rules but, like everybody else, I don’t necessaril­y obey them. “Now I’m going to go to bed” isn’t always a self-admonishme­nt to which I liveth. I would love to have a schedule that I actually paid any attention to.

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