Why Margaret Atwood Said 'No' To A 'Handmaid's Tale' Sequel — Until Now | WYPR

Why Margaret Atwood Said 'No' To A 'Handmaid's Tale' Sequel — Until Now

Sep 7, 2019
Originally published on September 7, 2019 11:42 am

Margaret Atwood has written a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale — that sentence alone will move millions of readers to buy the book ASAP.

The final act of that book, published in 1985, saw its unnamed heroine Offred (at least, that wasn't her real name), step off the pages and into the unknown.

The new book is The Testaments, and it returns us, 15 years later, to the fictional totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, with its Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Commanders and Aunts.

Atwood says it just seemed like the time for a sequel. "People had been asking me to write a sequel for a long time, and I always said no, because I thought they meant the continuation of the story of Offred which I couldn't do," she says. "But then I thought, what if somebody else were telling the story? And what if it were 15 or 16 years later? And it was also time, because for a while we thought we were moving away from The Handmaid's Tale. And then we turned around and started going back toward it, ominously close in many parts of the world. And I felt it was possibly time to revisit the question of, how do regimes like Gilead end? Because we know from The Handmaid's Tale that it did end."


Interview Highlights

On the three narrators of the new novel

Two of them are young, and not unrelated to Offred. And one of them has grown up inside Gilead, and the other one has grown up outside Gilead. And the third one is someone that we have already seen, but we have only seen her in The Handmaid's Tale from outside, that is through the eyes of Offred herself — and that would be Aunt Lydia, the head of the Aunts' contingent in Gilead.

The other question that interested me, reading back through the history of totalitarian regimes was, how did the people who get into the higher positions in such regimes, how did they get there? What has motivated them? Are they true believers in whatever the totalitarianism is flogging? Are they opportunists who hope to profit by it? Or are they there out of fear, as people were a lot under Stalin — "If I don't rise in the organization and annihilate my rivals, they will annihilate me." So, what are the motivations of such people?

On why she calls her work speculative fiction rather than science fiction

There are two strands of this kind of future story, and one is descended from Jules Verne who wrote about things that he thought were really going to happen — such as submarines. And the other was H.G. Wells who wrote about Martians invading the earth in very large canister. And when Jules Verne read that he said ... "but he made things up!" So he felt he was writing about a future that could really happen, like pretty soon. And he felt H.G. Wells was writing about something quite fantastical. But it was H.G. Wells who gave rise to interplanetary travel, spaceships, Martians, that that whole group of characters with which we became quite familiar through B-movies of the '50s, at least I did. And then the other strand that led to 1984 and Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. So nothing in those books that we didn't have the technology for or it couldn't actually do. And so it is with The Handmaid's Tale.

On how regimes like Gilead fall apart

Let us suppose there's a founder generation. And then other people get born, and they grow up within the regime, and let us suppose also that those who have won their violent regime change are now in charge of things. And they have power. And you know what they say about power. So of course they're going to create exceptions for themselves — which they already have done in The Handmaid's Tale. Rules are for other people. And then things start getting more and more corruptibly pear-shaped ... It's the Mensheviks versus the Bolsheviks. It's the "reform the church from inside" versus the "split off from it and form a different sect." So time and again we've seen these patterns happening — and why would they not happen in in Gilead?

On finishing The Testaments with a sense of hope

As we knew from Book One, Gilead does end. And one of my models for that was 1984 itself, which does not end with Winston Smith about to be shot in the back of the head, but it ends with an essay on Newspeak written in the past tense in standard English — which means that the world of 1984 ended.

[George Orwell] did that very deliberately. He doesn't tell us how it ends, but he gives us the signal that it is ended ... So it may not surprise you to know that I was pretty interested in double agents and people working from inside totalitarian regimes, against those regimes, when I was writing this book.

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Margaret Atwood has written a sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale." Now, that sentence alone will move millions of readers to buy the book ASAP. The final act of that book, published in 1985, saw its unnamed heroine Offred step off the pages and into the unknown. Margaret Atwood's new novel is "The Testaments," and it returns us, 15 years later, to the fictional totalitarian theonomy of Gilead - with its handmaids, Marthas, wives, commanders and aunts.

The publishing event of the fall, of the year, of many years, begins next week. Margaret Atwood joins us now from Toronto. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARGARET ATWOOD: My pleasure.

SIMON: And what moved you to write a sequel 34 years after the original?

ATWOOD: Well, it seemed like time. People had been asking me to write a sequel for a long time, and I'd always said no because I thought they meant the continuation of the story of Offred, which I couldn't do. But then I thought, what if somebody else were telling the story? And what if it were, oh, 15 or 16 years later?

And it was also time because for a while, we thought we were moving away from "The Handmaid's Tale." And then we turned around and started going back towards it, ominously close in many parts of the world. And I felt it was possibly time to revisit the question of how do regimes like Gilead end because we know from "The Handmaid's Tale" that it did end.

SIMON: Tell us about these new narrators that pick up the action 15 years later.

ATWOOD: Oh, so there are three narrators. Two of them are young and not unrelated to Offred. And one of them has grown up inside Gilead, and the other one has grown up outside Gilead. And the third one is someone that we have already seen, but we have only seen her in "The Handmaid's Tale" from outside - that is, through the eyes of Offred herself. And that would be Aunt Lydia, the head of the aunts contingent in Gilead.

The other question that interested me reading back through the history of totalitarian regimes was how do the people who get into the higher positions in such regimes, how did they get there? Like, what has motivated them? Are they true believers in whatever the totalitarianism is flogging? Are they opportunists who hope to profit by it? Or are they there out of fear, as people were a lot in - under Stalin - if I don't rise in the organization and annihilate my rivals, they will annihilate me. So what are the motivations of such people?

SIMON: Thematically, a lot of this book has to do with the bond between parents and children, even when it's broken, even when it's strained.

ATWOOD: Yes, that's very true. And as you know, I put nothing into the first book for which there was not a precedent in real life, and the same has been true of the second.

And when you go back through periods of war, disruption, totalitarian regimes, there has been a lot of baby stealing over the years. Argentinean generals, during their reign, would - if they had some prisoners who were female and pregnant, they would wait until the woman gave birth, and then they would drop her out of a plane and give the baby to - guess what? - some Argentinean generals. And those children are now discovering their antecedents - in a few words, hey, my parents killed my parents.

SIMON: I think - is this why you've referred to these books, not as science fiction, but speculative fiction?

ATWOOD: Yes. There are two strands of this kind of future story, and one is descended from Jules Verne, who wrote about things that he thought were really going to happen, such as submarines. And the other was H.G. Wells, who wrote about Martians invading the earth in a very large canister. And when Jules Verne read that, he said (speaking French) - but he made things up (laughter). So he felt he was writing about a future that could really happen, like, pretty soon. And he felt H.G. Wells was writing about something quite fantastical.

But it was H.G. Wells who gave rise to interplanetary travel, spaceships, Martians, that whole group of characters with which we became quite familiar through B-movies of the '50s, at least I did. And then the other strand that led to "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and "Brave New World" and "Fahrenheit 451" - so nothing in those books that we didn't have the technology for or couldn't actually do, and so it is with "The Handmaid's Tale."

SIMON: Is there a tension in Gilead between those who want to redeem a society that they think has gone off the rails and those who want it torn down because it, by definition, has been corrupt and oppressive?

ATWOOD: OK, so how do these regimes fall apart? So let us suppose there's a founder generation. And then other people get born, and they grow up within the regime. And let us suppose, also, that those who have won their violent regime change are now in charge of things, and they have power. And you know what they say about power. So of course, they're going to create exceptions for themselves, which they already have done in "The Handmaid's Tale." Rules are for other people.

And then things start getting more and more corruptibly pear-shaped. It is the ameliorist versus the Trotskyites, let's put it that way. It's the Mensheviks versus the Bolsheviks. It's the reform the church from the inside versus the split off from it and form a different sect. So time and again, we've seen these patterns happening. And why would they not happen in Gilead?

SIMON: Am I wrong to finish this book "The Testaments" and have a sense of hope?

ATWOOD: I don't think you're wrong at all because after all, as we knew from book one, Gilead does end. And one of my models for that was "Nineteen Eighty-Four" itself, which does not end with Winston Smith about to be shot in the back of the head, but it ends with an essay on Newspeak written in the past tense in standard English, which means that the world of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" ended.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. I mean, you're right, of course, but that reading of it had never occurred to me until now.

ATWOOD: Well, he did that very deliberately. He doesn't tell us how it ends, but he gives us the signal that it has ended.

SIMON: Yeah. My feeling of hope is not just that Gilead was ending but that...

ATWOOD: That people aren't total rats...

SIMON: Yeah.

ATWOOD: ...Universally.

SIMON: Exactly.

ATWOOD: They're not universally total rats.

SIMON: Yes, exactly.

ATWOOD: So it may not surprise you to know that I was pretty interested in double agents and people working from inside totalitarian regimes against those regimes while I was writing this book. And there's lots of instances of that.

SIMON: You know, as I don't have to tell you, Ms. Atwood, we Americans have a hard time thinking that our - the society we know - we know it'll change and grow, but we have a hard time thinking of a world without the United States.

ATWOOD: And so do we all have a hard time thinking of a world without the United States. When are you going to put it back?

SIMON: Margaret Atwood. The sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale" is called "The Testaments." Thank you so much for being with us.

ATWOOD: And thank you.

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