Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall is packed with students and faculty, all eager to hear Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, and Cat’s Eye, among other novels, essays, and books of poetry, speak. Just before entering the hall, women’s rights activists, clad in red cloaks and white bonnets (a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale) stood outside, distributing flyers and holding signs. The presence of such women outside the hall was a reminder of the relevance of Atwood’s novel, which has gained a surge in popularity amidst a divisive American election and a Hulu/MGM television adaptation. As part of Northwestern’s One Book program, Atwood spoke on campus and answered questions with a wry, measured intellect and palpable love for her work.
Northwestern University Showcases Atwood Discussing the Truth Behind Her Novel
In discussing The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s inevitable that Atwood would discuss the inspiration behind the dictatorial theocracy at the heart of the novel. When asked about what inspired her to craft such a grim future for women by One Book Faculty Chair and English chair Helen Thompson, Atwood replied that nothing in her novel hadn’t happened before. “You probably aren’t old enough to remember,” she began, before Thompson interjected that Atwood might be surprised at her age. When Atwood finished her thought with “World War II,” the audience all laughed, one of many moments of levity despite the seriousness of Handmaid’s Tale’s subject matter. She continued that many of the events surrounding World War II, as well as other atrocities throughout human history, formed the bulk of inspiration for her novel. “I didn’t want anybody to read this book and ask me ‘Margaret, what’s wrong with you?’” she claimed, choosing to stick to actual events that did happen, even as the dystopian future she imagines is fictitious. The atrocities of Nazi Germany and the way an autocratic leader rose to power were key to this historical inspiration, as was Apartheid. While women being targeted for their fertility did not have historical precedent, Puritan law and other aspects of history gave her a methodology for how something like Handmaid's Gilead could be created. Atwood shared that that is a rule that the production team behind the Emmy Award-winning television series continues to follow, albeit updated for the present. “It’s one of the reasons some people can’t watch the show, because it’s too creepy, too close to home,” Atwood said.
Margaret Atwood Reflects on A Youth Spent Reading
Aside from discussing her groundbreaking novel, Atwood also answered questions about her general approach to writing. When discussing the inspiration behind many of the corporate and product names in her Madd Addam trilogy, Atwood waxed nostalgic on the advertisements in magazines and comic books that she used to clip out when scrapbooking as a child home sick from school. Atwood’s love of language and old words that have fallen out of fashion was also on display, as was a discussion of some of the novels that she read when a young girl, earlier than she probably should of. “I think that we often read books about things we aren’t ready for, but after we have read them, then we’re ready,” she said.
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