Day 6

The Atwood archives reveal what the author was thinking about while writing The Handmaid's Tale

Around the time she was writing The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood gathered news stories about religious cults, forced pregnancies and credit cards.

News clippings she gathered include a Canadian MP's suggestion that citizens make babies for Christmas

Canadian author Margaret Atwood donated the materials she collected while writing The Handmaid's Tale to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston (Cole Burston/Canadian Press)
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This week, author Margaret Atwood won the 2019 Booker Prize with co-recipient Bernardine Evaristo. 

Evaristo is the first black woman to win the prize — Atwood is the oldest. 

In honour of the Canadian author's victory, Day 6 visited the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, home to the Atwood archives. 

"We're the sole repository for Margaret Atwood's papers," said archivist Natalya Rattan, adding that the library as been collecting Atwood's materials since the 1970s. 

"We have about 611 boxes now of her material, which is probably close to 80 metres of material."

Those boxes contain handwritten drafts of Atwood's novels, stories, poetry and essays. The collection also includes her research files, correspondence, artwork, photographs and even the  books she made when she was a child. 

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo jointly win the Booker Prize for Fiction 2019 at the Guildhall in London, Britain, Oct. 14, 2019. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

We asked Rattan to show us the newspaper clippings Atwood collected in the '80s, while she was writing The Handmaid's Tale and soon after its publication. 

One of the boxes carrying the clippings includes a letter from Atwood, in which she explains how the clippings shaped her thinking at the time of writing The Handmaid's Tale

"As I wrote, I kept a clippings file and into it went all sorts of oddments —  from PCB levels in polar bears to collective hangings in 17th century England," Atwood wrote. 

"Many other things fed into the book as well. As I collected all these bits and pieces, I reflected that there isn't much in the realm of human eccentricity and outrageousness that hadn't already been done." 

The articles Atwood kept are wide-ranging in topic, but some themes emerge overall. 

"She looked into toxic waste, birth control and fertility, sexual equality, abortion, surrogates money [and] baby stealing," Rattan said.

On religious cults 

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is the sole repository for Margaret Atwood's papers. (Yamri Taddese/CBC)

Among the clippings collection is a story published in the Evening Telegram on Oct. 31, 1985. 

The headline of the story reads, "Charges of brainwashing: Catholics say cult taking over." 

The Associated Press wire story, written in New Jersey, is about a 1,100-member religious cult accused of practising "subtle brainwashing" in a quiet suburb. 

State influence on women's bodies

Atwood also collected stories about politicians who forced or encouraged women to bear children. 

Her clippings include a story about a Romanian president who declared war on abortions and demanded that all patriotic Romanian women bear four children. 

In a Canadian Press story from 1984, a Canadian MP suggests citizens 'start with renewed vigor' over the holidays to increase the country’s population. (Yamri Taddesse/CBC)

Another article, a Canadian Press story from 1984, is headlined, "Make a baby for Christmas, MP tells Canadians." 

That report states that that a Progressive Conservative MP, a father of four at the time, had suggested that Canadians "start with renewed vigor" over the holidays to increase the country's population. 

Interestingly, Atwood also took a keen interest in stories about debit cards, which are often referred to as "plastic cards" in the articles she kept in her clippings file. 

Several of the clippings in Atwood's file are stories about the rise of debit cards. (Submitted by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

An undated Globe and Mail column written by Ellen Roseman talks about the clear benefits of debit cards to banks, but not to consumers. 

Another article, published in Esquire in 1984, includes an instruction on how to make "a plastic payment." 

On toxic dumps 

It's no surprise that Atwood, who created an epic dystopian world in The Handmaid's Tale, thought a lot about damage to the environment. 

Among her clippings is an undated Canadian Press story, which reports that "no living being" in Quebec has escaped exposure to highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS). 

Another story, published in USA today in 1985, is titled, "Toxic dumpers slip around the law." 

Atwood fans, and researchers, may visit the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library to look at the files. 

The creator of the epic dystopia in The Handmaid's Tale collected many articles about toxic chemical waste in the 80s. (Submitted by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

To hear more from Natalya Rattan, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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