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Why Margaret Atwood said 'no' to a 'Handmaid's Tale' sequel — until now

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Author Margaret Atwood poses for a portrait
Author Margaret Atwood poses for a portrait in Toronto on Aug. 21, 2019. The longtime Toronto resident has written the year's most anticipated novel, "The Testaments," the sequel to her classic "The Handmaid's Tale."
Arthur Mola | Invision | AP

Margaret Atwood has written a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale — that sentence alone will move millions of readers to buy the book ASAP.

The final act of that book, published in 1985, saw its unnamed heroine Offred (at least, that wasn't her real name), step off the pages and into the unknown. 
 
The new book is The Testaments, and it returns us, 15 years later, to the fictional totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, with its Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Commanders and Aunts.

Atwood says it just seemed like the time for a sequel. 

"People had been asking me to write a sequel for a long time, and I always said no, because I thought they meant the continuation of the story of Offred which I couldn't do," she says. "But then I thought, what if somebody else were telling the story? And what if it were 15 or 16 years later? And it was also time, because for a while we thought we were moving away from The Handmaid's Tale. And then we turned around and started going back toward it, ominously close in many parts of the world. And I felt it was possibly time to revisit the question of, how do regimes like Gilead end? Because we know from The Handmaid's Tale that it did end."


Interview Highlights

On the three narrators of the new novel

Two of them are young, and not unrelated to Offred. And one of them has grown up inside Gilead, and the other one has grown up outside Gilead. And the third one is someone that we have already seen, but we have only seen her in The Handmaid's Tale from outside, that is through the eyes of Offred herself — and that would be Aunt Lydia, the head of the Aunts' contingent in Gilead. 

The cover image for "The Testaments," by Margaret Atwood.
The cover image for "The Testaments," by Margaret Atwood. The novel will be released on Sept. 10.
Nan A. Talese via AP

The other question that interested me, reading back through the history of totalitarian regimes was, how did the people who get into the higher positions in such regimes, how did they get there? What has motivated them? Are they true believers in whatever the totalitarianism is flogging? Are they opportunists who hope to profit by it? Or are they there out of fear, as people were a lot under Stalin — "If I don't rise in the organization and annihilate my rivals, they will annihilate me." So, what are the motivations of such people?

On why she calls her work speculative fiction rather than science fiction

There are two strands of this kind of future story, and one is descended from Jules Verne who wrote about things that he thought were really going to happen — such as submarines. And the other was H.G. Wells who wrote about Martians invading the earth in very large canister. And when Jules Verne read that he said ... "but he made things up!" So he felt he was writing about a future that could really happen, like pretty soon. And he felt H.G. Wells was writing about something quite fantastical. 

But it was H.G. Wells who gave rise to interplanetary travel, spaceships, Martians, that that whole group of characters with which we became quite familiar through B-movies of the '50s, at least I did. And then the other strand that led to 1984 and Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. So nothing in those books that we didn't have the technology for or it couldn't actually do. And so it is with The Handmaid's Tale.

On how regimes like Gilead fall apart

Let us suppose there's a founder generation. And then other people get born, and they grow up within the regime, and let us suppose also that those who have won their violent regime change are now in charge of things. And they have power. And you know what they say about power. So of course they're going to create exceptions for themselves — which they already have done in The Handmaid's Tale. Rules are for other people. And then things start getting more and more corruptibly pear-shaped ... It's the Mensheviks versus the Bolsheviks. It's the "reform the church from inside" versus the "split off from it and form a different sect." So time and again we've seen these patterns happening — and why would they not happen in in Gilead?

On finishing The Testaments with a sense of hope

As we knew from Book One, Gilead does end. And one of my models for that was 1984 itself, which does not end with Winston Smith about to be shot in the back of the head, but it ends with an essay on Newspeak written in the past tense in standard English — which means that the world of 1984 ended.

[George Orwell] did that very deliberately. He doesn't tell us how it ends, but he gives us the signal that it is ended ... So it may not surprise you to know that I was pretty interested in double agents and people working from inside totalitarian regimes, against those regimes, when I was writing this book.

Listen to the full interview here.

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.