Ottawa Writers Festival: Margaret Atwood talks The Testaments and totalitarianism

Margaret Atwood reads from The Testaments Wednesday evening. Photo: Peter Robb

She came, she talked, she conquered.

Margaret Atwood, dressed in black with a red scarf, was her usual deeply intelligent, questioning, acerbic and funny self in a reading and one on one session with CBC journalist Joanne Chianello at a sold out Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on Wednesday night.

It’s not every day that an Ottawa Writers Festival event is this newsworthy, but then again it was Atwood, who has produced the most known and discussed novel of this season. That she is in mourning for her husband, the author and environmentalist Graeme  Gibson who died Sept. 18 after a battle with Alzheimer’s, made her appearance even more poignant. But she had made a commitment to appear in Ottawa (her birthplace), and Atwood kept her promise.

Of course, the topic was of the hour was The Book.

There has certainly been no launch of a Canadian novel ever that comes close to the ballyhoo surrounding The Testaments, Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Sales have soared into the stratosphere. The launch in London, England was beamed around the globe into some 1,300 movie theatres and included actors playing some of the key characters of the work.

The secrecy surrounding the novel rivalled Fort Knox. This was done to fend off a barrage of hackers seeking to liberate a digital copy and exploit it for a nefarious purpose. One almost did leak out, but it was stopped at the last moment, she said.

Even before its release on Sept.10, The Testaments made the Man Booker Prize short list and the Giller Prize long list (although it did not make the short list. The shortlisted authors will be in Ottawa on Oct. 16. The fall writers festival begins Oct. 24. For more:

The Testaments takes place 15 years after Offred’s final scene in the original novel, and is narrated by three female characters: Aunt Lydia, who is a key figure and a sinister presence in the The Handmaid’s Tale, including on the TV series of the same name; Agnes is a young woman living in Gilead and Daisy lives in Canada.

The latter two are Offred’s daughters. Agnes, who was adopted after being captured and taken from Offred, is being groomed to be the wife of a commander. Daisy was smuggled out of Gilead and placed with a couple who run a used clothing store in the Queen Street West part of Toronto, Atwood’s current hometown. 

That this second novel talks about the looming collapse of Gilead, it is a hopeful book and proves Atwood’s self-described optimistic nature, as she underlined Wednesday evening.

Much has been written about this sequel — how Atwood had been asked by fans over the years yearning to learn what happened to her central protagonist after she flees the totalitarian theocracy that is Gilead. Atwood had demurred to such pressure because  she didn’t think she had more to say about these characters. That is until Donald Trump was elected.

As she explained to her audience, Atwood has made herself a student of totalitarianism. She’s the novelist version of Hannah Arendt. She studies the trends and the signs and, as she said, she believes those with autocratic tendencies when they speak their minds.

Atwood was born in 1939 and her early years in Ottawa would have included the echoes of cannon fire from the war against Nazism. She grew up in an era when students were cowering under school desks during drills and waiting for The Bomb to drop as the Cold War hardened before the Soviet Union finally crumbled in 1989. You don’t forget these things and you are alert to them coming again.

The Testaments and The Handmaid’s Tale are also feminist documents. And the novels confront another kind of oppression, something else that she knows all too well.

Atwood also comes from a time, as she explained Wednesday night, when the guidance handbook on careers for women included: airline stewardess, primary school teacher, nurse, secretary and home economist and that was it. At one time she thought the latter was the career to have because it paid the most. But Atwood was raised to stand on her on two feet and chose her own path.

She also said one of the most exciting things that ever happened to her was to have a poem of hers published in the Canadian Forum magazine in 1960. But she submitted the work — “about peonies … and more” she said with a sly grin full of knowing innuendo — under her initials M.E. Atwood for fear of being rejected because she was a women. In those days only poets were allowed, she said, not poetesses.

Atwood is all about the details surrounding her books. This was a revealing and interesting part of the discussion as it focused on Atwood’s care with colours and their symbolism and her respect for what used be known as the domestic arts.

Atwood told the audience that, in fact at one point in her young life, she had wanted to be an artist. In a brief documentary clip before her appearance, there was a childhood writing that also featured her drawings. She has a passion for art.

She said colour helps define some of the characters in The Testaments and in The Handmaid’s Tale.

In medieval art, she said, red was the colour of sensuality and passion. It often associated with  depictions of Mary Magdalene. The handmaids wear red cloaks as anyone who has watched the TV series knows. Blue is reserved for the wives of commanders. Often in paintings, the Virgin Mary is cloaked in a blue robe. Blue was consider a royal and aristocratic colour because, in part, blue dyes were rare and expensive.

Atwood told the audience that she has a pack of crayons that she employed on the cover of The Testaments. That bright green is her handiwork. She coloured over an original blue with the bright green which calls to mind the renewal and new beginnings of spring, not, she said, green-eyed jealousy.

If you crack the book you will find images of real pieces of embroidery by Kelly Hill on the endpapers which when Atwood saw them pleased her very much, she said. Young women like Agnes are trained in the domestic arts in the novel.

No detail about her work seems to escape her. That focus is reflected in the way she writes which appears to happen pretty much everywhere — at cafes, on buses, in corners of buildings and on a VIA train delayed by a mudslide.

While she can focus on her writing to the point that people can blab at her and she won’t hear them, she says she is not “organized” in her writing. She doesn’t sit down every morning at a certain time and start writing in longhand (which she does do on every book initially). She writes when she writes.

Speaking of that, in a discussion on books that were not finished, she mentioned that she had been thinking of a story like The Handmaid’s Tale for years before she finally wrote it. But she avoided the novel because it was too out there, too radical, too weird. Instead she tried a more conventional work but, after some attempts, she put that aside and she and her husband went to Berlin in the early 1908s when the Wall was still up.

With the echoes of George Orwell’s 1984 in her mind, she finally gave into Offred. The result is what we see today.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published by McClelland & Stewart.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.