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Margaret Atwood books a date with history

Margaret Atwood (right) speaks with moderator Katherine Stewart at FFRF’s national convention on Nov. 19, 2021.
Photo by Ingrid Laas

By PJ Slinger

Esteemed author Margaret Atwood admitted to the FFRF convention audience late last year that she initially thought her dystopian book, The Handmaid’s Tale, might be too outlandish to be published. 

“I put it aside because I thought it was too crazy, even for me,” she said in Boston on Nov. 9, 2021. “I thought, ‘Oh, come on, nobody’s going to believe this.’”

Now, of course, with Roe v. Wade overturned, and the wall of state/church separation being dismantled by a Christian right Supreme Court, Atwood’s book seems prescient.

At the convention, Atwood, interviewed on stage by author and journalist Katherine Stewart, spoke about The Handmaid’s Tale, the fragility of democracy in the United States, her upbringing in a remote setting, the Future Library project, and numerous other topics, including her love of hockey.

Atwood was presented with FFRF’s Forward Award, which recognizes individuals whose lives and achievements move society forward. Previous recipients of the award have included the writer Katha Pollitt, the activist and former head of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards, and Nancy Northup, who leads the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Atwood earned the award for showing, through her books, the dangers of the loss of reproductive and other rights. Atwood has authored more than 50 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Her most recent novel, The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, won the 2019 Booker Prize. She’s received the German Peace Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize, the Pen American Pen Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, among others. In 2019, Atwood was presented with a companion of Honor Award by Queen Elizabeth, making her the third civilian Canadian ever to receive this distinction.

When Stewart brought up how the Supreme Court is likely to reverse Roe v. Wade and how “we have a political party that seems to want to unite church and state,” Atwood said she hoped the pillars of American democracy are strong enough to withstand such a political storm.

“Let’s count on the American Constitution, such as it is, to hold firm against church and state uniting,” she said. “There would be a big problem in this country [if it didn’t].” 

She expanded upon that claim, wondering which religious sect would be in charge if religion were to prevail.

“Does the United States want to see religious wars dividing their country? . . . One reason they made the Constitution the way they did was that they had seen the religious wars in Europe in the 17th century, and they had been horrific. Theology would win the day if they decided to unite church and state.” 

Atwood continued: “I think the one of the tasks in a democracy is — and the framers of your country knew this — is to limit the power available to any given individual or group. Unfortunately, you haven’t been doing a very good job of it lately. It was a big mistake [for the Supreme Court] to say that corporations are the same as people. They’re not. It’s not true. I mean, wow.”

Stewart pointed out that many of Atwood’s works show how there is abuse of power and its effects on people. 

“Where there is power, somebody is going to abuse it,” Atwood said. “I’m very interested right now in utopias and dystopias because they are the yin-yang of each other. And looking back over the 20th century, it had its jolly moments, but then it had its other moments that were pretty brutal. A number of these things started as utopias. The Soviet Socialist Republic was going to be just great. They were going to do away with all of these bad problems that they had had before, such as aristocracies and accumulations of wealth, and that was all going to be fixed. Didn’t happen.”

Getting more personal, Stewart asked if Atwood paid a price early in her career for writing about power and gender dynamics.

“Well, I probably did, but I was so oblivious,” she said. “I wasn’t properly socialized, and I think this explains a lot.”

She told the audience how she had grown up in the woods, which was different than growing up in the country. 

“In the country, you’ve got cows and stuff like that,” she said. “In the woods, you’ve got bears. But even if you grow up in a small town, you’re very aware of what other people think of you. But if there aren’t any other people, like in the woods, you’re not aware of what they think because they aren’t there.”

She said that by not having a strong social upbringing, she felt out of place in public settings.

“Other people just grow up and they know you’re not supposed to do this or that,” she said. “They know there’s some kind of social hierarchy. They know who’s bottom dog and who’s top dog. But, for me, it was a little bit like being an alien from outer space, like, ‘Oh, these are your customs, Earthlings. What strange customs you have.’”

Atwood said one of the weirdest customs she encountered was religion.

“As a teenager, I was somebody who went around to all the religions I could get my hands to see what they were doing. Often, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is strange.’”

Stewart questioned Atwood on how she gets her ideas for novels.

“It’s never just an idea that would be a thesis,” she said. “If it’s a novel, it’s usually a scene. And in The Handmaid’s Tale, that scene was the hanging of people on the Harvard wall.”

Atwood then described a humorous detail of how the filming of that scene for a 1990 movie (not the Netflix series) wasn’t allowed by Harvard University, so they filmed it at Duke University.

“We were filming the hanging scene and you’ve got all of these people in costume doing this,” she said. “And the door to the Duke chapel opened and a wedding rehearsal party came out. There were quite upset. They even wrote a letter to the [university] president. I don’t blame them. It’s not what you expect at all.”

In 2016, when they started working on the filming of The Handmaid’s Tale for the Netflix series, the presidential election happened, with Donald Trump winning.

“Had the election gone the other way [with Hillary Clinton winning], it would still have been a good show, but it would have been viewed differently,” Atwood said. “It would have been viewed more like, ‘Whew, look what we missed’ or ‘That’s not going to happen now.’ But, as it was, it was viewed like, ‘Here it comes.’ Very much so.”

Atwood then spoke of The Future Library project of Norway and her involvement in it. The Future Library is a public artwork that will collect an original work by one popular writer every year from 2014 to 2114. The works will remain unread and unpublished for 100 years. One thousand trees were specially planted for the project in the Nordmarka forest at its inception. Then, in 2114, the 100 manuscripts will be printed in limited-edition anthologies using paper made from the trees.

Atwood, in 2014, was the first author to be chosen to write a manuscript. The title of her unpublished work is called Scribbler Moon, although no one will be able to read it for 92 more years.

“You write a manuscript — it’s going to be made of words, no pictures,” she said. “So, it could be a poem, a word, a novel, a short story, a letter, a laundry list, a sermon, a diary of any of these things. But you can’t tell anybody.

“In the 100th year, in a Sleeping Beauty-ish way, the boxes will all be opened. They won’t have to be kissed by a prince first. . . . But think of all the optimism involved in that. The trees will grow. People will still be interested in reading. I think that’s just amazing.” 

And finally, prompted by Stewart, Atwood spoke of her love for hockey.

“People often ask me whether I’d prefer to be a novelist or a poet, but what I really want to be is a goalie,” she said puckishly. “Go on YouTube and search for ‘Margaret Atwood goalie.’ That’s what I want to be.