Sunday June 04, 2017

How Margaret Atwood's Puritan ancestors inspired The Handmaid's Tale

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26:  A view of an art installation, designed by Paula Scher and Abbott Miller, and book giveaway celebrating Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' opens on the High Line on April 26, 2017 in New York City.
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"Nothing went into that book that people had not done somewhere at some time already before."  - Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood still has the first copy of George Orwell's 1984 that she bought as a teenager. The paperback had a slightly salacious cover with "lots of cleavage." No matter. She read it and remembered it and has that original copy still.

In 1984, Atwood wrote her own dystopian fiction novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which has been turned into a television series, and has received lots of attention in the Trump era.

At the Restorying Canada conference at the University of Ottawa, the evening's moderator, professor Emma Anderson, asked Atwood about the elements that influenced the novel.

"One was my study of 17th century Puritan New England. I have a personal connection because some of my ancestors were creepy 17th century Puritan New Englanders. One was even implicated in witchcraft. She's in a book by Cotton Mather. That's why The Handmaid's Tale is dedicated to Mary Webster. My granny was a Webster."

Salem witch trial

She says her writing was also influenced by rise of the religious right in the early 1980s. And her interest in dystopias as a literary form also played a role in sparking The Handmaid's Tale.

"I had never written one to that point. I had read a lot of them. If you figure out how old I am, you will figure out that I was at a very impressionable age when 1984 was published (in June, 1949). I read it at about age 13. There were these cheesy editions in drugstores. People bought them because they looked like true romance literature. And then you would find yourself reading Hemingway or Faulkner. I still have that copy of 1984. There is a lot of leering and cleavage on the cover. I was also reading Ray Bradbury and (Aldous) Huxley and H.G. Wells."

1984 Orwell book cover

When Atwood was writing The Handmaid's Tale she says she mused about what kind of totalitarian dictatorship could occur in the U.S. 

"If the United States were to have a totalitarian dictatorship, what kind of totalitarian dictatorship would it be?  It wouldn't be communism. I used to think it wouldn't be, 'Oh, we're a liberal democracy, but in order to preserve liberal democracy we have to put in all of these laws and arrest all of these people.  I didn't think it would be that...I might have been wrong about that one. We'll wait and see."

Click LISTEN above to hear this Q&A.