Margaret Atwood unveils The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood might be getting the rock star treatment as she launches The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, but the Canadian icon is taking it all in stride. 

Author reveals 'concerted efforts to try to steal the manuscript'

'I'm very pleased and grateful to the readers who have stuck with me all these years,' Margaret Atwood said in London Tuesday, the official release date for her Handmaid's Tale sequel The Testaments. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Margaret Atwood might be getting the rock star treatment as she launches the The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, but the Canadian icon is taking it all in stride. 

"I think this kind of thing could be ruinous for a 35-year-old, because where do you go from there?" the author, who turns 80 in November, mused Tuesday at London's British Library, where international reporters gathered for a news conference on the book's official date of release.

"Am I overwhelmed by it? I'm very pleased and grateful to the readers who have stuck with me all these years and... the people who have been working an amazing number of hours putting it all together and trying to keep the lid on."

Set 15 years after the original, which introduced an oppressive fictional regime that forces women into sexual slavery, The Testaments arrives amid buzz and advanced acclaim. It is already in the running for both the U.K.'s Man Booker Prize and Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The literary roll-out came after maximum pre-publication security — a massive global effort compromised last week by e-retailer Amazon, which accidentally mailed out several pre-ordered copies early.

But the appetite for a sequel was such that both Atwood and her publishers were even targeted by cyberattacks, she revealed. 

Atwood poses for photos at the British Library in London on Tuesday, at a news conference for The Testaments. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

There were "concerted efforts to try to steal the manuscript... That did not happen, but not for lack of trying," Atwood noted, adding she was told the attempts were intended to fuel phishing expeditions designed to hook eager readers.

The book made its debut with midnight parties held at bookstores in London and the celebrations will continue in the British capital Tuesday evening with a gala at the National Theatre that will be streamed to 1,300 cinemas worldwide, including Cineplex theatres across Canada.

"London loves a happening, does it not? Atwood quipped.

"And it's quite amazing how people will turn up in the middle of the night to see the great pile of books revealed… So it was lots of fun. I think people had a pretty grand time."

Already atop Amazon's U.S. and Canadian bestseller lists, the book has reportedly been flying off the shelves, including in Toronto, where Indigo CEO Heather Reisman was among those eager to get a copy Tuesday morning.

Reisman, who chose The Testaments as her pick of the month without having read it, said she turned down an offer to get a sneak peek so she could join other Canadians celebrating its release.

Atwood is also set to take the novel on a worldwide tour this month — which will include nine Canadian stops. 

Many early reviews have been positive. "The Testaments is Atwood at her best, in its mixture of generosity, insight and control," said the Guardian, while the New York Times stated: "Atwood's sheer assurance as a storyteller makes for a fast, immersive narrative that's as propulsive as it is melodramatic."

In the new novel, "Atwood explicitly wears the mantle that The Handmaid's Tale conferred upon her: that is, literary social critic and seer extraordinaire," says the NPR reviewer, while the Los Angeles Times notes said her "powers are on full display."

A billboard promotes The Testaments at the Oxford Circus station in London's Underground. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

'Out of the cupboard'

The Handmaid's Tale found new resonance in recent years, in part thanks to the Emmy-winning Hulu TV adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss. The Testaments has also been optioned for a TV adaptation by Hulu. 

The Testaments is told by three narrators connected to Handmaid's narrator, Offred. Atwood said she wanted to explore what happened to Offred's two daughters — the one taken from her and the other she was pregnant with at the original novel's end — as well as Aunt Lydia, a key defender of the book's theocratic state. 

The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale, about women forced into sexual slavery by the theocratic state of Gilead. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Many have called Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale eerily prescient, given the rise of political extremism, authoritarianism around the globe and the curtaining of women's reproductive rights in the U.S.

However, on Tuesday, Atwood reminded reporters that even in 1985, when the original novel was published, "people were talking about what they would like to do in the United States if they had the power. Now they do have the power."

The U.S., she contined, was "was selling itself as the alternative to the Cold War evil empire. They were the land of freedom, democracy, equality, opportunity for all… They were not showcasing their shadow side, which was kept pretty firmly under wraps in those days. But once that opponent was gone, everything could come out of the cupboard that had always been there. And out it has come."

With files from CBC's Stephanie Jenzer, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press


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