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Margaret Atwood on How She Came to Write The Handmaid’s Tale

25 April 2018

From Margaret Atwood via The Literary Hub:

Some books haunt the reader. Others haunt the writer. The Handmaid’s Tale has done both.

The Handmaid’s Tale has not been out of print since it was first published, back in 1985. It has sold millions of copies worldwide and has appeared in a bewildering number of translations and editions. It has become a sort of tag for those writing about shifts towards policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women’s bodies and reproductive functions: “Like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Here comes The Handmaid’s Tale” have become familiar phrases. It has been expelled from high schools, and has inspired odd website blogs discussing its descriptions of the repression of women as if they were recipes. People—not only women—have sent me photographs of their bodies with phrases from The Handmaid’s Tale tattooed upon them, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum and Are there any questions? being the most frequent.

The book has had several dramatic incarnations, a film (with screenplay by Harold Pinter and direction by Volker Schlöndorff) and an opera (by Poul Ruders) among them. Revelers dress up as Handmaids on Halloween and also for protest marches—these two uses of its costumes mirroring its doubleness. Is it entertainment or dire political prophecy? Can it be both?

I did not anticipate any of this when I was writing the book.

I began this book almost 30 years ago, in the spring of 1984, while living in West Berlin—still encircled, at that time, by the infamous Berlin Wall. The book was not called The Handmaid’s Tale at first—it was called Offred—but I note in my journal that its name changed on January 3, 1985, when almost 150 pages had been written.

. . . .

I recall that I was writing by hand, then transcribing with the aid of a typewriter, then scribbling on the typed pages, then giving these to a professional typist: personal computers were in their infancy in 1985. I see that I left Berlin in June of 1984, returned to Canada, spent a month on Galiano Island in British Columbia, wrote through the fall, then spent four months in early 1985 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I held an MFA Chair. I finished the book there; the first person to read it was fellow writer Valerie Martin, who was also there at that time. I recall her saying, “I think you’ve got something here.” She herself remembers more enthusiasm.

. . . .

The book came out in the UK in February of 1986, and in the United States at the same time. In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, Jolly good yarn. In the United States, however—and despite a dismissive review in the New York Times by Mary McCarthy—it was more likely to be, How long have we got?

. . . .

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

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14 Comments to “Margaret Atwood on How She Came to Write The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. A novel everyone should read.

    • Sorry, no.

      I’ve read it and I see it becoming one of those required books in school that most people hate.

      Frankly, I found it boring and preachy and aimed at a narrow audience. I suspect this is another book that people buy and never finish.

      • The book was inspired by the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the US in the Reagan years, when leftists tbe world over tsk-tsked about warmonger Ronnie Raygun.

        Oddly enough, four decades later, not only is the US not a theocracy, but a significant part of the political establishment is substituting freedom of religion with freedom from religion. Didn’t happen and it isn’t happening. Not now. Not ever.

        I’m not terribly impressed with her world building and lack of understanding of American *gun* culture. Anybody trying to establish such a misogynistic regime in the US is only going to discover just how well american women can shoot.

        Wouldn’t be pretty.

        Or maybe it would. 🙂

        • A theocracy in America is such a non-starter that I couldn’t take the premise of the story seriously (I saw the movie back in the day). Before you could establish one, wouldn’t there have to be a “jihad” to eliminate the free market in religion we currently have? Lutherans gunning down Baptists at their bake sales, evangelicals poisoning the Lutherans’ lutefisk, and I suppose the kids at Vacation Bible School would really be trained as commandos? Could the Jehovah’s Witnesses who bring those pamphlets actually be suicide bombers instead?

          Did Atwood really not know about the antinomian faction in early America (Rhode Island), and the FFs refusal to establish a state church like the Anglican Church? If there was going to be a theocracy where women wear those silly bonnets, that would have been the time, no? Those bonnets were even in style then! And yet …

          Not surprised she got guns wrong, too. To me the Handmaid is like Divergent, a dystopian whose premise is too ridiculous on its face. Even a Hindu reviewer thought the caste system in Divergent was absurd. It’s one reason I avoid dystopians where the cause is some sort of social breakdown: the writers just don’t Do The Research.

      • agreed Hunting

        Not sure what it is, maybe the age of the book made in a time long ago and now given new slant treatment in film/broadcast. Stale. Yes, we get it, men are bad again, big brother is no brother anyone wants. Women are slaves Blah.

        It seems when I read about this book that the author who is friends great with salman rushdie and other authors whose works seem more about the author than about original story, that the face of atwood is ever in the forefront, not really the story…

        If this becomes required reading in school its a sad day

        The Lottery short story already holds the place of horror-honor in old school system

  2. I love it. I’ve read it a few times.

  3. Fabulous book that is one of the few I’ve read several times. It gets better with age.

    One would think it might appeal primarily to women, though I know several men who have found it very compelling.

    I never saw the original movie, but the current series is quite tremendous.

  4. I first read the book shortly after it was published, and I remember feeling immediately as if I’d read a prediction about America’s future. I was married at that time to a born-again evangelical fundamentalist Christian, and could see how the circumstances in the book could come about. I lived that sort of life, among people who thought the way characters in the book did.

    Those of you who think religious people of that sort aren’t trying to take over this country haven’t been paying attention.

    • Christians don’t have a monopoly on dangerous fundamentalists. At this point, the progressive left is far more of a threat. Abortion is their baptism, white/male privilege their original sin. They are more anti science than the Christians, especially when it comes to gender. They are also more prudish than the Christians, yet somehow the #metoo movement has never blown back on the Clintons, despite the fact that Bill Clinton is at least as much of a monster as Harvey Weinstein, and Hillary was his enabler for decades. That alone makes the progressive left more hypocritical than the Christians ever were.

      I could go on ad nauseum. The patriarchy is their satanic conspiracy that secretly rules the world. The government is their God. “Racists” are their “infidels.” Political correctness is their gospel. “Hate speech” is their blasphemy.

  5. How long have we got?

    I seem to remember something about the Korean Olympics, where the Western news media were fawning over a troop of North Korean cheerleaders. They dress in red, dance in unison, report to the nation’s propagandist in chief, and “service” the sexual needs of their nation’s leaders. If they get out of line, they are tortured and murdered with their families.

    Judging from the unselfconscious way the media fawned over these real-life handmaids, it seems to me that voting Trump and Republican is the best way to put this nightmare off.

    • I still think the US is at greater risk of a Civil War than a tyrannical government.

      Exhibit A:


      There are more guns in civilian hands than in the hands of the military and gun owners trend libertarian more often than collectivists of all stripes. For that matter, so does the military who, it must be noted, swear allegiance to the constitution, not the state or ruler.

      It is no accident that whenever the collectivists get too full of themselves the Gadsden flag starts flying and THE ROAD TO SERFDOM gets popular.


      • Btw, religion has never been a significant threat to the American republic for all that it is represented as such so often. The primary and enduring threat is collectivist populism. Always has been, always will be.

        It has always been beaten back until now, when both parties have been taken over by populists. If the two gangs ever realize they’re two sides of the same coin…

        Well, that would be the time to worry.

        • The key thing to remember is that the “literary” types tend to the bohemian lifestyle, for whatever reason, and tend to be annoyed that there are people who think less of them for it.
          So, of course, they caricature those people as slavering tyrants.

          • Fair point.

            Civilization is a great thing, especially when you don’t have to do anything to keep it running. Then you can sneer at the “lesser” folk doing all the work.

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