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Margaret Atwood and Bruce Miller talk Handmaid’s Tale, pitch tampon names

Penguin Random House

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most talked-about shows of the year so far — and the novel by Margaret Atwood on which it’s based is experiencing a massive revival, with political protesters everywhere waving signs demanding that we make Margaret Atwood fiction again.

On Friday at New York City’s BookCon, Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller sat down with author Margaret Atwood to discuss both the novel and the show. Their conversation covered everything from the historical atrocities that formed the basis of the novel to the surrealism of tampon ads.

Below are excerpts from their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

How The Handmaid’s Tale was born

Margaret Atwood

I think I decided to give it a try because there was a conjunction of three things. Number one, my study of 17th-century American Puritans — not a democracy, just letting you know. It was a theocracy. My study of early utopias and dystopias, which I had of course yearned to write but which I had not felt able to do. And in the early 1980s, the rise of the religious right, who were saying at that time, not long ago, what they would like to do if they ever got the power to do it.

Remember what year I was born: 1939. Who was World War II with? It was with Hitler. What did Hitler write in the ’20s? He wrote a book called Mein Kampf, and in it he said all the things he would like to do if he got the power to do it. And then he did get the power to do it, and then he did them.

So I’ve never been a person to believe, “It can’t happen here,” and I’ve never been a person to believe, “Oh, they’re just funning. They’re just fooling around. It’s just to get votes.” I don’t believe that. I believe that people will actually do the things they say they’re going to do if they get the chance to do them.

My question to myself was, “If America were going to have a dictatorship, what kind of dictatorship would it be?” And that was the answer. It was based on history and probability, given the early 1980s. And what it definitely would not be: It would definitely not have been an atheist communist dictatorship. What’s your other choice?

On Gilead’s historical analogues

Margaret Atwood

Everything in it is based on something that people have already done, usually multiple times. I have a questionnaire that was just sent to me by a French publication asking the very same question, so I thought I would give them some French examples.

People torn apart by mobs: That’s in episode one. There are two French references, and I will give them. One is the Princesse de Lamballe in the French Revolution, who was torn apart by a mob. The other one is from a novel by [Émile] Zola, based on real stuff. It takes place in a coal mining town, a company town, in which there’s a revolt against the oppressive coal mining regime. And the manager of the company store gets torn apart by a mob, because he has been sexually exploiting the women and the wives and daughters of the coal miners, because they don’t have any money.

With the Princesse de Lamballe, it was her head that was paraded around town on a pike. With the coal mining example, it was another part of this man’s anatomy. Think hot dogs.

On the creation of the TV show

Bruce Miller

Interestingly, Margaret had a lot more experience having this particular novel adapted than I had experience adapting novels at all. It was a book that had already been a movie, a play, an opera, a ballet. In fact, it was her encouragement to think freely and think about adapting the book to another medium, something that she had done many times before, that made it a lot easier to think big and to think about big changes and other parts of the world to dramatize.

And then I had to send her the two scripts that I wrote, so if you will for a minute imagine that: You write two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and then have to send them to Margaret Atwood. I didn’t go to the bathroom that weekend. But whether she liked it or not, she was exceedingly kind. And it’s continued ever since. She’s been very generous.

Margaret Atwood

Well, you’ve kept to the core premise, which is, nothing goes in that doesn’t have a real-life referent. So it’s not just making stuff up. You have to be able to point to the real world and say, “This is where I got it. These are the multiple referents for this particular thing.”

Bruce Miller

I think the fact that it was tethered to the real world is something we have tried to keep going in the show. Otherwise it just turns into coming up with cruel things to do to people, mostly women, and that doesn’t seem like a very good enterprise to be advancing. And living in the world that we do, with not just so many cruel things happening, but so much more information about it, we found that we haven’t had to go astray from finding examples in the real world, even in very recent history.

So it makes it very difficult for us when we write to have to do all that research. But people like Margaret, and the UN, and Planned Parenthood, and all these places, have been incredibly helpful and generous in terms of keeping us on the right track. It’s very easy to slip into a version of violent pornography when you’re just coming up with cruelties, and we certainly don’t want to fall down that road.

Margaret Atwood

There’s a number of other areas as well, because there are now 13 countries in the world where homosexuality is a hanging crime, punishable by death. So I built that in as well, because that was happening back in the ’80s, too. And as far as killing people because they’re of another religion, that has such a history. There are lots and lots of examples of that, currently and also far back in history.

Bruce Miller

Unfortunately all the things that Margaret mentioned in the book are still very easy to find happening now. That’s disappointing, but it’s something that we try to reflect in the show.

The effect of the election on the creation of the show

Bruce Miller

For me, it didn’t change consciously what we were doing. It unfortunately made it easier to find examples, but also easier to find the language that people use to justify this kind of thinking.

The fact that people were more comfortable speaking about things that I thought were terrible, heinous ways to think about the world, the fact that you had people explaining it to you, even if you didn’t agree, that was very helpful to us as writers. Because your story is only as good as your villain. Alan Rickman is a lot better than Bruce Willis in Die Hard. So you have to be able to understand and have true compassion for the people who seem to be the bad guys.

How art and activism are intertwined

Margaret Atwood

People usually have it backward: They think that you take these things that you believe and you put them into books, like you would put the raisins into the raisin bran. But I don’t think that’s really how it happens.

I’m not a real activist. Real activists, it’s their job. They work with organizations; they get paid. I am a person who doesn’t have a job, and therefore, I cannot be fired. And therefore, I frequently get asked to speak about these things, because other people would like to speak about them, but if they spoke about them they would get fired, except for real activists whose job it is to speak about them.

It’s not actually my job to speak about them. I get asked to speak about them because I don’t have a job. My real job, if you like, is writing. That’s the thing that I do, and it’s because I do that I don’t have another sort of job that I could be fired from.

In a totalitarianism, of course, I’d be shot immediately, because they go for the writers and artists first, people who have independent voices. So lucky me, the fact that I’m still among you indicates that you’re not there yet. You’re not yet in a real totalitarianism.

How tampon ads lead to Shakespeare

Bruce Miller

We’ve been supported quite well by Hulu and MGM. Every time I think they’re going to balk and say, “You can’t put that on television,” they seem to embrace it. And I don’t know if you guys have been watching, but we’ve had some stuff that they don’t put on television. The most controversial was showing someone’s period on their underwear, which seemed strangely not controversial to me.

Margaret Atwood

Well, at least it’s not like those ads in which bodily fluids are blue. That confuses a lot of people’s children. “Mommy, why isn’t my pee blue?” “You’re normal!” At least it was the right color.

Bruce Miller

I have a daughter who’s 12 who was so confused by all the feminine product ads. She couldn’t figure out what the story was, because it’s all euphemisms. I would never in a million years let her watch the show, but it would have illuminated things a little. In 10 years, when she can watch it.

Margaret Atwood

[Old woman voice] “Back in the ’50s,” things were even more coded. It was magazine ads. There was this product called Modess. [Whispered] It was a feminine product! Is anybody old enough to remember this? You’d see a woman wearing a very glamorous evening gown, ascending a staircase with drapery rippling in the wind, and the ad would say, “Modess: Because.”

Prompting a child of mine to say, “Mom, because what?”

“Never mind, dear. You’ll understand that later.”

Bruce Miller

I don’t know why you would call a product Always. That seems like the worst advertisement.

Margaret Atwood

You want it to be called Only Occasionally.

Bruce Miller

At Some Point It Will Stop.

Margaret Atwood

I believe that it’s supposed to suggest that you can always depend upon the product. The ones I liked much better at that time were put out by the Kotex company. They were 20 questions: You would get a question such as, “What do you do if you’re going to the prom and you think your hands are perspiring too much? Do you (a) put talcum powder on them, (b) wear long white gloves, (c) wipe them on the back of your date’s shoulder?” And then there would be a right answer. And then the fourth panel would be, “What do you do on ‘those days?’” “Those days.”

“Mom, what are ‘those days?’”

Bruce Miller

The euphemisms do get us into more trouble than anything.

Margaret Atwood

Yeah, but I think it’s the beginning of surrealism and of literary metaphor. You understand that this stands for that, except you’re not always sure what that is. And that gives us Shakespeare.

The problem of knowledge in a totalitarian state

Bruce Miller

It translates so interestingly into our time, because of the internet. I have a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old as well, and for them knowledge is really easily accessible. The thing that drives them crazy about the show is that she [Offred] can’t know. And we’re so used to knowing so much.

Margaret Atwood

We’re used to thinking we know, which is different. You go back maybe 200 years, before there was a telephone, before there was a telegraph; and then you take away reading, so no letters, no newspapers: How can you know?

Gossip, word of mouth — if you trust the other person enough, and that in a totalitarian dictatorship is always a very dangerous thing to do.

Bruce Miller

You take away every dependable source of information.

Margaret Atwood

Yes, take away any certainty of being able to trust other people. When we premiered the original feature film back in 1990, it was just as the Berlin Wall was coming down, just at that moment. So we had two premieres. We had one of them in West Berlin, where the post-showing conversation was about aesthetic matters: the direction, the acting, the artistic choices. Because they didn’t really believe, at that moment in Western Germany, that the United States would ever do anything like that. They just didn’t believe it. They’d done all their religious warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries: “Over and done. We’re not going to do that again. We might have a Hitler, but we’re not going to have a theocracy. And anyway, America’s the home of the brave and the land of the free. They would never subvert their own democracy,” thought they.

Then we went to East Germany, and they watched it in an entirely different way. It was framed very differently. They watched it and afterwards they said, “This was our life.” By which they meant, you didn’t know who to trust. You couldn’t communicate because you did not know who to trust. And now that we’ve opened the Stasi records and we’ve seen the film The Lives of Others, we know how true that was.

Bruce Miller

The closest relationship and the biggest conflict as I see it in the show is between June and Offred: Offred is pushing compliance while June is pushing rebellion, and trying to live even while you’re trying to survive. And that ends up being the only person she can trust. June and Offred are the only two people who really have an open relationship.

On making Gilead an environmentally friendly regime

Bruce Miller

Every time Gilead does something that I think is good, it makes me feel ooky. I read a biography of Hitler once — this’ll actually make sense. They talk about this town that Hitler loved visiting and how beautiful it was in Germany, and I said to my wife, “Should we go visit it?” And then you feel like, do I want to take travel advice from Hitler? He’s not a bad, evil traveler!

You put Gilead in such a box of “everything they do I hate,” and then when you put in some things that you support, it makes it a more interesting viewing experience, I think.

Margaret Atwood

On a number of occasions, people have said, “It looks so lush and beautiful. It looks so leafy, and the colors are so saturated.” And you said, “In a lot of dystopias, everything’s white and rubble and what have you, and it makes it much more real to us to have it the other way around.”

Bruce Miller

To the point where, when we do the sound for the show, we cut out all the sounds of cars, even in the distance. There’s no planes, and there are probably 10 or 20 times the number of bird songs. We added birds that don’t really exist in that part of Massachusetts anymore.

Margaret Atwood

You’re going to hear about that from the bird people.

Bruce Miller

It was on purpose, because they come back to Massachusetts. The sound guys put together a world that sounds very different from our world, and you may not notice it when you watch, but you do feel it.

Margaret Atwood

You feel that it’s eerily quiet.

On finding the moment that the state becomes totalitarian

Bruce Miller

There’s a scene later where June and Luke are in bed. They’re cuddling, and she’s very upset about losing her job. To me, that was the moment it became a totalitarian state: When the state actually gets into your bedroom, then it controls the total person.

Margaret Atwood

Yes, he’s feeling cuddly and she isn’t. [Ad announcer voice] “Totalitarianism will ruin your sex life!”

On why states that restrict access to reproductive rights need to pay up

Margaret Atwood

Sometimes people have to live their dream. So, if living their dream means a lot of dead women and orphans, maybe they’re going to have to live their dream, and maybe they’re just then going to have to figure out who’s going to pay for this. Who’s going to pay for the orphans and the dead women? Because that’s what you’re going to have.

I’m waiting for the first lawsuit in which the family of the dead woman sues the right state. I’m also waiting for the lawsuit that says that if you force me to have children that I cannot afford, you should pay for the whole process. You should pay for my pre-natal care. You should pay for my otherwise very expensive hospital delivery. You should pay for my health insurance. You should pay for the upkeep of this child after it is born, because that’s where the concern seems to cut off for these people; once you take your first breath, out the window with you.

It is really a form of slavery to force women to have children that they cannot afford and then to say that they have to raise them. So if that’s not going to be the story, then you’re going to end up with Romania under Ceausescu, in which the orphanages fill up. In Romania under Ceausescu, for those who don’t remember it, he mandated four children per woman. You had to have a pregnancy test every month, and if you did not get pregnant, you had to state why. Why you had not gotten pregnant, I mean, it was nuts. And it did result in a number of suicides, and in a number of kids being put into orphanages with no proper care at all. It was just horrible.

So, if that’s what you want, state of Texas, live your dream. We can all watch and see what that looks like, and whether you’re actually going to go so far as to force this upon women and families, and not pay for any of it.

If you’re drafted into the army, the other situation in which the state seizes control of the body, at least you get three meals a day, clothing, and a place to sleep. So if you’re going to do that to women, pay up.

On trying to know the future

Margaret Atwood

You can’t know. That’s the problem. Because now is now, unless you have clairvoyance. The future doesn’t exist. It’s an infinite number of possible futures, and you don’t know which one is going to come true.

Suppose the worst, and suppose a future in which people are saying, “Well, why didn’t they elect Donald Trump sooner?” It could go that way.

People at the time don’t think they’re doing the bad thing. They think that out of all the possible decisions, even supposing they’re all bad ones, they think they’re choosing the best one. Because people try not to act in their own worst interests. They may not see that this thing that they have done is in their own worst interests, but they think that they’re choosing the best thing.

On the opulence of the Waterford household

Margaret Atwood

These are the top people. The other thing about totalitarianisms is, the people at the top get the good stuff. It’s sort of like society in general, but it’s more enforced in a totalitarianism.

Joe Stalin and his pals were not lacking in stuff, and neither were the top brass of the Nazi party in Germany. It was actually pretty opulent until everything fell apart.

You’re seeing the inside of a top household, and you’ll notice that the way they’ve done it is, there’s a lot of physical stuff that is old. The physical stuff was already there. They just got it. They have that stuff, but it’s not new stuff that is being made. It’s old stuff that they have got. And when you think of how those things work, a lot of old stuff changed hands under the Nazis because they stole it, and then they had it.

Bruce Miller

We did look at the way that the Nazis took over the houses of the people that they kicked out of any society. Also there’s a lot of stuff in the house that’s looted. All the pictures on the walls in the Waterford house are pictures from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They’ve all been taken. The ones in the Commander’s office are a little more chance-y.

Margaret Atwood

Did you get to use the real pictures or are they prints?

Bruce Miller

We had some very nice anonymous gentleman in China paint them all for us, for like 20 dollars each. It was amazing, and they’re beautiful. And except for one or two, they’re life size. And that’s the one writing that you have in the house, is the signature of the artist in the corners of the paintings.

They’re sucking off the bigger economy that came before. But there’s no computers, there’s no TVs. There’s extensive things that they don’t have, so that they have money left over for this kind of opulence.

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