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Margaret Atwood explains how to know if you’re living in a totalitarian state

An interview with the author of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

In the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy, each wealthy and powerful man has a team of women to serve him. "Martha" cleans his home. The "Handmaid," one of the few fertile women in the military regime, presents her body for him, lying silently on her back while he thrusts into her. His wife, hoping to become a mother to the offspring that could be created in this royal bedroom, holds the Handmaid's head in her lap during the ceremony, watching — punishing her, later on, whenever there's a chance.

This nightmare is the fictional creation of Margaret Atwood, the 77-year-old Canadian author, poet, and environmentalist. Born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1939, Atwood spent most of her youth in the Canadian wilderness.

In 1984, she began work on The Handmaid's Tale, the dystopian story that has become a warning to women across the globe, who have written its text on their protest signs and chanted “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — translation: “don't let the bastards grind you down.” A book that, even before the election of Donald Trump and the renewed conversation around women's rights, was being turned into an original Hulu series, starring Elisabeth Moss as a Handmaid who struggles to resist her fate, which premieres Wednesday.

Atwood is a prolific and greatly loved author. Over the past half-century, she has earned dozens of awards for her work. She's been on the shortlist for the Booker Prize, a finalist for the Governor General's Award, and a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science writing.

I spoke to Atwood from Los Angeles, where she was in town for the premiere of The Handmaid's Tale, about her views on the current political situation in the US, women's rights, and the environment. Here's our conversation, lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

In the new Hulu series, Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, talks about how the current situation came to be. She says, "I was asleep before. That's how we let it happen."

Margaret Atwood

Then you wake up.

Hope Reese

Yes. That line really struck me — the idea that change happens so incrementally, and all of a sudden you find yourself in a totalitarian nightmare. I'm wondering what you think about that line, especially in light of the recent US presidential election. Is that something that could happen today?

Margaret Atwood

Well, we always hope for the best, don't we? So we think it can't happen here. "Oh, they would never do that." I was just reading this morning in the Los Angeles Times about Kim Kardashian backing the new film about Armenia. And the reason the Kardashian family [left Armenia in 1914 and] ended up in Los Angeles is that somebody came with a warning to their church and said, "Everyone here is going to be killed." And they believed it, but other people didn't. So they left, and other people stayed behind and were killed.

Hope Reese

My gosh.

Margaret Atwood

But, of course, you never know whether a warning like that is real or not. You don't. And similarly, a lot of people in Germany, a lot of Jewish people, thought, "Oh, they would never do that." And then they did.

Hope Reese

In The Handmaid's Tale, it seems that once the government opens fire in a city square, that's when the "waking up" happens. Do you think that's the tipping point? Where, all of a sudden things go from, "Hey, this is very bad," to, "Wow, it's over."

Margaret Atwood

The point at which you know you're under totalitarianism is when a peaceful protest crowd is fired upon. You're getting close to it when that happens just a little. But when you have a full-out shutdown, then there aren't any more protests because people know what will happen. Or there's such overwhelming protests that it can't be controlled.

Hope Reese

The book was written more than three decades ago. What was your state of mind at the time of writing, and have you viewed this story differently as the world has changed?

Margaret Atwood

So if I were writing it now, how would I write it differently? Well, for one thing, people would have cellphones, as they have at the beginning in the television series. For another thing, there would be social media. So I would have to write in how that was shut down.

And for another thing, in the book the regime is able to be segregationist, and in the film series there are too many interracial friendships and marriages for them to really make that work. In any case, fertility is more important to them than race. So those changes have already happened because the television series wants to start from now. So Offred's past is our now. Offred's past is not 1985, as it was in the book.

So things have changed that I would have to take account of in the plot. But the general idea, if I really think about it, is that the only data they had in 1985 to close you down was your credit card information. And now they have a lot more. So whoever gets hold of that data bank has got an enormously powerful tool of social control.

Hope Reese

I find that really interesting — to think about where the story stands in a historical context. What happens to Offred and others in the story is horrific. Yet I know that you drew on what has happened in the past, our history.

Margaret Atwood

I put nothing in that has not already been done sometime, someplace. So it's based on human behavior. And it's not based, for instance, on ant behavior or bunny rabbit behavior. It's based on things that human beings have done. And that which they have done, they can do again.

Hope Reese

This idea, especially when it comes to women's rights, that, "Okay, well, things are moving forward. Women are better off than they used to be." Do you think we're rethinking whether that is always true right now?

Margaret Atwood

Well, there's no such thing as inevitable progress. And it always has been true and always will be true that rights did not descend out of the sky. Rights are things that people agree on, and they end up agreeing on them because people work to get them to agree. So they can always change their minds. They say, "Well, this has gone too far. We certainly can't have high heels; let's abolish them.” Or whatever it may be. And people are prone in times of crisis, turmoil, and social unrest ... to limiting things. Because it makes them feel safer.

So there's no inevitability about it. And you can't have human rights for women unless you have human rights. Think of that. You cannot. Because unless you decide that women are some class of nonhuman beings and should have special treatment, then you have to have a general category of human rights, which includes women as human beings.

Margaret Atwood signs autographs at the premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Rich Fury/Getty Images

Hope Reese

There’s been a resurgence of women's rallies recently, with many activists using lines from The Handmaid’s Tale on signs. And in March, a group protesting anti-abortion legislation in Texas donned red robes, dressing as the Handmaids in your story. How do you feel about your story being used by protesters as kind of a symbol of, "Here's what could happen if we're not careful"?

Margaret Atwood

Well, as a writer, of course, I think it's flattering. But I think it also means that it's because I color-coded the people in that society as they have been color-coded in other societies. Romans wore purple only if they were aristocrats, and need I mention the yellow Jewish stars? Because I color-coded them, I created the possibility for an immediately recognizable visual symbol. I didn't do that on purpose. I didn't know that was going to happen.

But it has been happening for quite a few years now — it's immediately recognizable. And therefore, it is a conveyor of meaning. It's a symbol. So if people want to, I guess a few Handmaids have escaped from the book and they're no longer my Handmaids —they're everybody's Handmaids, as it were. So of course, people are playing in my sandbox, and I think that's fine.

Somebody gave me the other day a little knitted Handmaid's chicken. It was a sort of fundraiser they were doing, but there it is. I have a knitted Handmaid's chick. Little red dresses and hat on it, and a beak.

Hope Reese

Do you see a villain in that story? If you had to point to a similar villain today, who would it be? Do you see religion being a big part of this, enabling authoritarian power?

Margaret Atwood

No, no. Religion in itself does not create these behaviors. It's [that] people appropriate religion and use it to shut other people down. You can say the same of atheistic ideology.

So in Iron Curtain times, that was not a "religion" in the way that we understand it. But it acted like a system in which if you didn't agree with it, you were a heretic. So that's how absolutisms work, and they don't have to be religions. So quite frequently under those circumstances, the religion is the opposition. And in the book, because it's a totalitarian regime that permits only one of version of religion, they are shutting down people who belong to other religions. So Catholics and Baptists are in their crosshairs. And the Quakers have gone underground and are running the underground female railroad. Help people escape, as they would, as they did during the days of slavery. As I said, I didn't put anything in that hasn't already happened.

Hope Reese

Even the state-sanctioned rape part?

Margaret Atwood

Well, that would not be called rape by them. It would be called the use of sexual intercourse for divinely sanctioned purposes of procreation. And you can go back in the 19th century and read tracts that said women should not experience pleasure and you should only have sex in order to make children. That's not so long ago. And it circles around that whole issue of consent. Because she could say no. Then she could go off the colonies and get killed by toxic waste. She does have a choice, just not a very good one.

And going back to the Bible, because one of things I was interested in was literalism. The rules around rape are pretty interesting. So if the rape takes place far away from other people, where nobody could hear you, then the guy gets condemned. But if the rape takes place within earshot of other people and the woman doesn't scream, then they both get condemned. But I ask you, how much choice to scream does she have under those circumstances? So are we going to call it rape, or are we going to call it the ceremony? Or are we going to call it what could go on anyway all the time?

Hope Reese

How do you view what's happening, say, with restricted access and funding for abortion providers?

Margaret Atwood

Here's what I think. It's state-mandated childbirth. So the state is deciding for purposes of its own that it owns women's bodies, and that it can control what happens with those bodies. There is a parallel for men, and that would be the draft, in which men are drafted into the Army, told they have to do this and that and this and that, and risk their lives. But under those conditions, men who are drafted get fed, clothed, and sheltered.

So if they're going to mandate childbirth, if they're going to make it so that for state reasons the state owns your body and can tell you what to do, they ought to pay for it in the same way. You know, to feed, clothe, and shelter the people they are drafting into their childbearing army.

Because otherwise what you're going to have is a lot of poor people who can't afford to have, to support these babies. And they are going to be malnourished ahead of time. The impact of the health of the babies will be affected, not to mention the mothers. They will have no assistance, they will have no professional assistance. They won't be able to pay the hospital bills. And they won't have any support afterward.

So what's going to happen then? You're going to have ... a lot of illegal abortions resulting in death. You're going to have a lot of children given up to orphanages. I know people said they would be adopted, but look at Romania — that didn't happen. That's the situation you're creating. If the state wants to mandate what happens to women's bodies, they should pay for it. And that should be a taxpayer-supported expense.

What do you think of that? Fair enough?

Hope Reese

It's still a bit terrifying to me.

Margaret Atwood

It is. If you think for one minute that the US taxpayer is going to go for that, you're quite wrong. So if they don't go for it, let the guilt be upon their heads. All those dead babies.

Hope Reese

A recent New Yorker profile called you the "prophet of dystopia." What do you think of the title? The theme of dystopia is frequently used to describe your work.

Margaret Atwood

Yeah, I know, I'm not a prophet. If I were, I would have made millions out of the stock market years ago. So I would call it an educated guess.

Hope Reese

You have been very active in voicing concerns over climate change and supporting causes that help the environment. What is your view of our current situation?

Margaret Atwood

If the ocean dies, we will choke to death. So, therefore, start paying attention to that before it's too late.

Hope Reese

Do you have a specific environmental issue that's closest to your heart?

Margaret Atwood

Well, it's bird conservation, but bird conservation takes you everywhere. They are canaries in the coal mine, and you can see from looking at birds what's happening to the environment in general. But it really is. They've just discovered a caterpillar that eats plastic. Hope on the horizon.

Hope Reese

Would you say that you still are an optimist, if you have to categorize yourself?

Margaret Atwood

I'm always an optimist. Why not? Otherwise you give up. But I don't mean [a] sort of witless optimist [that] everything will work out regardless. Optimism that people will pop out of their trance and solve some of these problems.

Hope Reese

What is the role of the novelist in how we think about the world today?

Margaret Atwood

People always like to boss novelists around, and it's never any use because they will write what they want to write. But the novel and forum is the closest you can get to being inside somebody's head, so it allows you to understand people who aren't you in a way that no other forum can do, although film and television is extremely persuasive at telling stories. They can show you, but they can't take you completely inside somebody else's head the way novels can.

And so in-depth novels increase empathy. More of that is needed if we are going to get together as a society to work on common projects for our survival. We need to understand people who aren't us.

Hope Reese is a staff writer for TechRepublic (a division of CBS Interactive) based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.

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