The Handmaid's Tale, one of Margaret Atwood's most famous novels, debuts as a dance production by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet tonight.

On the eve of the premiere, Margaret Atwood sat down with CBC's Terry MacLeod at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

The conversation was wide-ranging. They talked about books, biology, and of course, the newest version of The Handmaid's Tale.

Q: What made you decide to allow the RWB to do this?

Amanda Green and Alexander Gamayunov

Amanda Green and Alexander Gamayunov in RWB's The Handmaid's Tale. (RWB/Réjean Brandt Photography)

A: I was approached 10 years ago by Lila York, the choreographer. She was passionate about doing it, just like the composer who wanted to do it as an opera.

He was so passionate about doing it that you have to say yes, because either it’s going to be horrible — in which case, it will never be heard of again — or it’s going to be terrific, and that will be a good thing.

You have to let them follow their vision of what it would be like.

Q: What kind of riders or terms do you put forward in an arrangement like that — do you say you will have any control over what they create?

A: No, you can’t. You can take your name off of it. It’s a bit like a film. In any of those deals, you have to trust the people doing it, so you try to make sure that it is someone you have confidence in. That means you actually say no to a number of things. And then you just have to let them run with it because it’s their art form.

I’m not a choreographer. I was bad at ballet — I got dizzy. I have great admiration for people who can do it, but I’m not one of those people.

Q: The book is almost 30 years old now. What is it about the tale of the Handmaid that continues to resonate with audiences and other artists? What’s in there that strikes people so powerfully?

A: I think it has something to do with the kind of news we’re getting these days — from far-flung places, such as Texas. It’s become a "meme"…. Particularly during the last U.S. election, when the gang of four Republicans unfortunately opened their mouths and said what was on their minds, in the area of, "The state should control people's bodies" — what does that remind you of? It reminds me of the U.S.S.R. under Stalin, but I may be very old-fashioned.

People were saying, "Could somebody please tell the Republicans that The Handmaid’s Tale is not a blueprint? It didn’t get further away from The Handmaid’s Tale between 1985 and now. It got closer. So that’s one of the reasons.

Plus, the whole world that we didn’t know very much about — the whole world about the treatment of women in other parts of the planet — we know a lot more about that now.

Q: I was talking to some women in their late 30s and early 40s about the influence that the book had on them when they read it first, and how it was for them a kind of awakening to second wave feminism. They thought this was something they needed to pay attention to.

A: I didn’t write it as a feminist book per se. I wrote it as a book about totalitarianism from a woman’s point of view, because one thing totalitarians always try to control is who gets to marry whom and who gets to have the babies and who gets to keep the babies. They are always very interested in controlling that.

The shocking thing that I did was I set it in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which fancied itself as a bastion of liberal democracy. But if you read any world history at all, you already know that these things can turn very quickly. They can turn from what looks like an open liberal democracy into totalitarianism very fast.

So I’ve never been a person who would say, "It can’t happen here." It can happen anywhere, given the conditions that give rise to those kinds of abrupt changes, because when push comes to shove, many people will give up a lot of their civil liberties if somebody tells them that they’re going to be safe. 

The Handmaid's Tale has its world premiere Wednesday night in Winnipeg and will continue with evening performances through Saturday and a matinee for students on Sunday.