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Some Highlights From Margaret Atwood's Warm, Thoughtful Reddit 'AMA'

By Petr Knava | reddit | March 9, 2017 |

By Petr Knava | reddit | March 9, 2017 |

Margaret Atwood’s seminal, brilliant, and horrifyingly timely dystopian novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is getting a Hulu adaptation.

As part of the promotional circuit for the show, Atwood recently popped into Reddit for an Ask Me Anything. You can find the whole thing here, but below are some of the highlights of what was a typically thoughtful and warm set of exchanges.

‘Thank you so much for everything you do! I don’t even know how to give you a compliment that sums up everything I want to say about your writing and your existence.

I do especially want to thank you for the sophisticated presentation of feminism in your literature. As feminism goes through its latest identity crisis, I find myself also struggling with what it means to me.

My question(s): How, if at all, has your feminism changed over the last decade or so? Can you see these changes taking place throughout your literature? Lastly, can you offer any advice for feminists of the millennial generation? What mistakes are we making/repeating? What are our priorities in this political climate?’

Thank you again :)

Hello: I am so shrieking old that my formative years (the 40s and 50s) took place before 2nd wave late-60’s feminist/women’s movement. But since I grew up largely in the backwoods and had strong female relatives and parents who read a lot and never told me I couldn’t do such and such because of being a girl, I avoided the agit-prop of the 50s that said women should be in bungalows with washing machines to make room for men coming back from the war. So I was always just very puzzled by some of the stuff said and done by/around women. I was probably a danger to myself and others! (joke) My interest was in women of all kinds — and they are of all kinds. They are interesting in and of themselves, and they do not always behave well. But then I learned more about things like laws and other parts of the world, and history… try Marilyn French’s From Eve to Dawn, pretty massive. We are now in what is being called the 3rd wave — seeing a lot of pushback against women, and also a lot of women pushing back in their turn. I’d say in general: be informed, be aware. The prioriies in the US are roughly trying to prevent the roll-back that is taking place especially in the area of women’s health. Who knew that this would ever have to be defended? Childbirth care, pre-natal care, early childhood care — many people will not even be able to afford any of it. Dead bodies on the floor will result. It is frightful. Then there is the whole issue of sexual violence being used as control — it is such an old motif. For a theory of why now, see Eve’s Seed. It’s an unsettled time. If I were a younger woman I’d be taking a self-defense course. I did once take Judo, in the days of the Boston Strangler, but it was very lady-like then and I don’t think it would have availed. There’s something called Wen-Do. It’s good, I am told.

‘How did your experience with the 2017 version differ from the 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale?’

Different times (that world is closer now!) and a 90 minute film is a different proposition from a 10 part 1st season series, which can build out and deep dive because it has more time. The advent of high-quality streamed or televised series has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for longer novels. We launched the 1990 film in West and then East Berlin just as the Wall was coming down… and I started writing book when the Wall was still there… Framed it in people’s minds in a different way. Also, then, many people were saying “It can’t happen here.” Now, not so much….

‘Thank you so much for writing The Handmaid’s Tale. It was the book that got me hooked on dystopian novels.’

What was your inspiration for the story?

Ooo, three main things: 1) What some people said they would do re: women if they had the power (they have it now and they are); 2)17th C Puritan New England, plus history through the ages — nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere and 3) the dystopian spec fics of my youth, such as 1984, Ray Bradbury;s Fahrenheit 451, etc. I wanted to see if I could write one of those, too.

‘What is your guilty pleasure film that you hate to admit you enjoy?’

Haha there are so many of them! Just say Miss Congeniality again on a plane — very funny! Also The Producers and Young Frankenstein. Also Singing in the Rain when depressed. In the World O Vampires, I am a Christopher Lee fa; but also Let The Right One In, Swedish version. Night of the Living Dead, first one… a classy low budget horror film I could go on… :D

‘What is a book you keep going back to read and why?

PS, Thank you so much!’

This is going to sound corny but Shakespeare is my return read. He knew so much about human nature (+ and minus) and also was an amazing experimenter with language. But there are many other favourites. Wuthering Heights recently. In moments of crisis I go back to (don’t laugh) Lord of the Rings, b/c despite the EVIL EYE OF MORDOR it comes out all right in the end. Whew.

‘Where do you get your amazing ideas?

Any advice for struggling novel writers?’

Ideas… never a shortage! I think my brain just works that way. Not all of my ideas have been amazing. Some have not, NOT worked out! As they say (I think it was Beckett): try, fail. Try again, fail better. Or something like that. We have all had projects that have ended up as smashed eggs on the floor. Struggling writers: check out Chuck Wendig’s blogsite/website at He has SO MANY tips and encouragements! He saves me a lot of time b/c I would say much the same things myself. He’s a freelancer, like me. If you have a day job (as I did for I dunno 16 years or something) the advice just has to cover a more challenging time period (i.e 12 midnite). No one said this would be easy!

How does it feel knowing America is basically on the road to becoming Gilead?

I cannot tell you how strange this feels. I wrote the book hoping to fend it off, and I believe it will be fended off: America is very diverse, a lot of people have been jolted out of political slumber and are paying attention, and the Constitution still stands. The upcoming Hulu TV series of which I;ve seen 3 episodes is even more up-to-date and chilling than the book, so let’s see how that may impact. Support your leaders who are standing against unconstitutional laws; keep informed, as best as possible. Everything is “as best as possible” right now.

‘Thank you for doing this!

What book do you believe vital for kids to read before age 18/while still in school?

Also: Stone Mattress is a treasure and I have wondered if you had traveled to the Arctic before writing that piece?’

The Arctic - yes, many times over the years. I started writing the story on a ship there to amuse my fellow passengers, with How-Tos contributed by my criminally-minded partner; there really were 5 men called Bob. Tey got very nervous.

I think kids find books that call out to them if given half a chance. What IS vital is to have a school library + access to a librarian (marks go up by 20% on average) and a home with books in it, even public library books if possible. I don;t like to tell people what they Have to read because it is a very individual thing. I would have to have a convo with a person. Then I might begin to be able to make a recco.

‘Also, a Reddit constant question: would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses? Why?’

Hmm. Good question. Are the ducks dead ducks, or are they alive? Are they Zombie Ducks? Is the horse a Pale Horse? Maybe not enough information here. I think I’d pick the hundred duck-sized horses. Easy to stampede, no? (“Scram, ducks!” Opens and closes an umbrella very fast. That’s worked for me in the past, against those weeny ducks.)


Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.