The Current

Why Margaret Atwood waited more than 30 years to write The Testaments

Margaret Atwood had notes about a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale that date back to the early 1990s, but didn't notify her publishers until 2017. For those intervening decades, she wrestled with the idea.

Women’s rights, real-life politics inspiration for sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, author says

Margaret Atwood says she had notes about a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale that date back to the early 1990s, but didn't notify her publishers until 2017. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

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Originally published in September, 2019.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood says the world's dynamic and uncertain political climate was the push she needed to write The Testaments the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale many fans had been seeking for more than 30 years.

"I was no, no, no, no, no for awhile, but then No. 1: history changed," Atwood told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

"Instead of going away from Gilead, we turned around and started coming back towards Gilead." 

Atwood reflected on the years between the novels, referencing the fall of the Berlin Wall, which people thought was the "end of history," and decades of feminist struggle that seemingly suggested women's rights were achieved and irreversible. 

Then the 9/11 attacks rocked the U.S. and the world. That signalled that politics would "become a lot more conservative, which societies always do when they're attacked," Atwood said, with all of that leading to the 2016 U.S. election and the ongoing state of political discourse.

"People who think that progress is a one-way street and only ever goes in one direction have not read a lot of history. You cannot count on the yellow brick road leading to the City of Oz."

The Testaments hits shelves Tuesday in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. — although copies of the book were mistakenly shipped to some customers a week early.

Atwood poised for international stardom with The Handmaid's Tale

38 years ago
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Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is hailed as a literary breakthrough.

Even with the success of the 1985 original that elevated Atwood to the bestseller list, she said publishers never put any pressure on her to write the sequel. 

When she revealed her intention to write a followup, they were nervous. So was she.

"It's a high-wire act, and would I fall off?"

I made a rule for myself, which was nothing goes in for which there is not a historical precedent.​​​- Margaret Atwood

But before the sequel was even published, Indigo projected it would be the top fiction title of 2019, and Canada's largest book retailer told The Current it's been one of the year's biggest preorders.

Atwood is again in the running for both the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller prize, and a TV series based on the forthcoming novel is already being planned by MGM and Hulu, which made the Emmy-winning TV version of The Handmaid's Tale.

Returning to Gilead

The original tale is told from the perspective of Offred, a forced surrogate or handmaid. 

She narrates how fertile women are bound into sexual servitude in order to bear children to powerful men and their barren wives. In the nightmarish world of the Republic of Gilead, women's bodies are not their own. Under the careful watch of facilitators, handmaids are controlled — assigned to powerful couples — and harshly reprimanded for disobedience. 

Atwood showcases the cover of her new novel, The Testaments. (Margaret Atwood/Instagram)

Atwood is mindful not to fabricate any of the abuses that her characters suffer.

"I made a rule for myself, which was nothing goes in for which there is not a historical precedent."

The sequel is centred around a "time jump" in Gilead, according to Atwood. It picks up 15 years after readers saw Offred forced to leave the Commander's house and get into a van with men of unknown allegiance — either to the republic or the resistance.

As the van door slammed in the book's final scene, Offred was headed toward freedom or at the mercy of the secret police.

What’s changed since the Handmaid’s Tale was published?

4 years ago
Duration 1:54
Margaret Atwood’s novel was published in 1985. She reflects on the years between the novels.

Atwood said she had notes about a sequel that date back to the early 1990s, but didn't notify her publishers until 2017.

For those intervening decades, she wrestled with the idea. Readers wanted to know whether Offred escaped Gilead, an answer the 79-year-old said she couldn't deliver.

"I've been thinking about it off and on in a negative way ever since I published the first book, because readers kept saying: 'What happens next, and tell us whether Offred gets out.' And I said: 'Well, I can't tell you. I don't know,' " she said.

Atwood told Lynch that she didn't feel she could continue Offred's story "because you can't recreate a voice like that."

Who are the 3 female narrators?

Instead, Atwood said she focused on exploring what happened to Offred's two daughters: the one who was taken before Gilead was created, whose name was never revealed in the book, and the other she was pregnant with in the last chapter.

The third narrator in The Testaments, Atwood said, is Aunt Lydia.

"I've always wondered about Lydia." 

Looking back over totalitarianism, they do ultimately fall apart.- Margaret Atwood

In The Handmaid's Tale, Lydia is given the title of Aunt to signify women who are assigned to indoctrinate the handmaids with the beliefs of Gilead society. At the Red Centre, or re-education facility, they learn to renounce their previous identities and accept their assigned fate.     

"In the original novel, she's seen completely from the outside. We know nothing about her except her speechifying and her bad behaviour," said Atwood. "But we don't know how she got into that position, [and] what she actually thinks."

In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia's character "collects secrets," and this knowledge is the source of her power, said Atwood. This differs from The Handmaid's Tale where Offred "can't know a lot of things" because she is the sole narrator and therefore the reader only sees Gilead through one lens. 

"We find quite a lot out about how the Aunts' operation actually runs, what they're really doing … and the origin story about Lydia," Atwood said. 

The author said Aunt Lydia also serves as an allegory for how people's behaviour can be influenced by totalitarianism when they're faced with a near-impossible dilemma of whether to join the resistance and face death or play along and wait for opportunities. 

What Margaret Atwood thinks of protesters dressing as handmaids

4 years ago
Duration 0:39
The distinctive red cloaks and bonnets have become a symbol of resistance.

"Your choices: co-operate or get shot. Which would you do?" she said. "Some people elect to get shot. She does not elect to do that."

Asked whether she's hopeful for equality and political stability in the future, Atwood said: "I'm always optimistic.

"Looking back over totalitarianism, they do ultimately fall apart."

Written by Amara McLaughlin. Produced by Julie Crysler.