Margaret Atwood Talks 'Handmaid's Tale' Emmy Excitement, 'Alias Grace' and Her Huge TV Year

The revered Canadian author discusses her feelings as 'Handmaid's Tale' moves away from her book, the greatness of Sarah Gadon and the Canadian side of 'Alias Grace.'
Jan Thijs/Netflix

In 2017, television finally caught up with 78-year-old Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood and her feminist themes and dark undercurrents. Atwood was front and center as Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale dominated the Emmys. Sarah Polley and Mary Harron's adaptation of Alias Grace premiered to acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival and on Netflix. She even had a children's show, Wandering Wenda, on CBC Television.

In an interview, Atwood reflects on why 2017 was such a special year, the narrative ambiguity (and unambiguous Canadianness) of Alias Grace and her feelings about The Handmaid's Tale progressing past her book.

Seeing you get this standing ovation at the Emmys last year was this wonderfully strange, almost surreal moment. Do you take things like that in stride, or was there a part of your big Emmy night  that was even surreal for you?

We didn't know it was coming, of course. I had a coach who's another Canadian. She plays a Martha in the show. So she was sitting beside me and when Bruce [Miller] got it, she said, "Oh, we've got a chance." And then when Ann Dowd got it, she said, "Wow, we've got an even bigger chance!" Then when Elisabeth Moss got it, she said, "Get ready! Get ready!" They knew where I was sitting, but they were not putting me on the screen because somebody in the show, in the production, on the production end, must have known who was going to win. They were keeping it a surprise. I was very pleased for everybody in the show, of course. And they were super excited.

I think it's been discussed very amply why 2017 was such an appropriate time for your themes to hit home.

Unfortunately! Yes, I'm not pleased about that, that it should have been so very appropriate. But there's not doubt that when everybody woke up on November 9th, when they were in the middle of shooting the first season, they woke up and they said, "We're in a different show." Even though nothing had changed, the frame had changed. It was going to be viewed differently, which it was.

It’s been discussed very amply why 2017 was such an appropriate time for your themes to hit home, but why do you think TV, as a medium, was so ready for you in 2017?

I think because this new platform had come along, which is the streamed series. That allows more complex novels to expand to the length of time that is appropriate for them, rather than squishing them into 90 minutes, or 60 minutes. Great Expectations, for instance, when you see the movie, it really helps to have read the book, otherwise you get, "What? What just happened?" Those longer series started happening for novels, I think back in the '80s, but it was the BBC putting on things like Jane Eyre. And then we got higher class series like Upstairs, Downstairs, and we got that pioneer of the genre, The Singing Detective. The fact that they're able to have new platforms, and stream them, meant that you didn't have to go through network television anymore with all of the extremely complex considerations that have to do with ads and length of time and all of those kinds of things. The new platform has allowed a number of longer works to find the shape that's more appropriate for them. Alias Grace started out as a feature film, and then Sarah Polley said, "It's too long. Would you mind terribly if I made it into a six-part miniseries?" And I said, "What's that?" That's what she did, and it's appropriate, and it allows it to have the pace that it requires. 

A thing I love about the miniseries as it stands is how still distinctly Canadian it is, in both its history but also its tone, also its cast. You have David Cronenberg just popping up because, why not?

<laughs> I know. That's weird. The first time he's ever played a virtuous character. 

Do you have any sense about how the universal aspects, which might strike a chord with the American audience are different from what Canadian audiences get in terms of the very specifically Canadian themes of the project?

I think it's a lot like when I'm reading. For instance, when I read William Faulkner knowing nothing about the American South, and I said to somebody from Oxford, Mississippi, "What an amazing imagination he has. He invented all this and that." He said, "Honey, he didn't invent a thing. He just wrote it all down." It depends how far you, yourself, are away from what is being depicted. I think it was Margaret Laurence who said of The Stone Angel, that English people thought it was about old ladies. American readers thought it was about an old lady with whom they felt some connection and Canadians thought it was about their grandmother. So Americans get it, that it's about the servant class, and that it's about the fact that women under those conditions really had no rights. They get all of that. They probably don't get as closely as we do that there was a rebellion similar to the American Revolution that, however, failed. And that that had quite an impact on lives of people living just immediately after that.

Do you feel like the Canadian version of the "notorious woman" narrative is different from the American version in something like the Lizzie Borden story, or something to that effect?

Yeah, I don't know whether they're versions of the same thing. Lizzie Borden wasn't sex and violence, it was a family drama. What intrigued commentators at the time about Grace was, number one, she was young. Number two, she was good-looking. Number three, she was found having run away with a man in a hotel. Mind you, they were in different rooms, but nonetheless, it became a story about "Did she or didn't she?" and who was the villain. In cases in which there is a man and a woman involved, which was not the case with Lizzie Borden, it typically splits into "He's the villain. He coerced her. He made her run away, threatened her life." Or it is, "She was the instigator. She put him up to it. She was a vile seductress, etc." And that's exactly what happened in this case. 

The actual history of the Grace Marks case, and your book, foregrounds the ambiguity about her voice and trustworthy narrators.

That's because nobody ever knew. In real life, they never knew. My first conversations with Sarah Polley, she said, "Well, did she or didn't she?" And I said, "Nobody ever knew." Because there were four people in the house. Within a very short space of time, three of them were dead. Including the male murderer, who was definitely a murderer. We know he killed two people, and she either did or did not help him kill one of them. She didn't warn Kinnear. She must've known that something bad had already happened to Nancy Montgomery. She told three different stories. Which leads us to believe there was a fourth we were never told. And then she was the only one left alive, and that was it. She never actually said.

Knowing that, did you have any worries that in the actual visualization and transferring this to a permanent medium of screen, some of that ambiguity would be lost? That is would become a filtered version?

Yeah. It was quite important that it not be lost. Otherwise, it just becomes quite banal. The interesting thing, the reason for writing a book about it, is if I had known "Yes or no?" it wouldn't have been nearly as interesting. It was the way she provided us a blank screen for everybody to project their ideas onto, which they proceeded to do.

And you were part of the conversations with Sarah for so long. Did you get feedback in choosing a director, in choosing a star, any of that?

Absolutely. Especially with the cast.They would send me clips of people doing the reading try-outs for the thing.

Sarah Gadon's performance is at least three different performances, possibly four. As you're watching her both in auditions, but then actually when she was doing it, what struck you, that made you say, "Okay, this is a young woman who can do this?"

She has an extremely flexible face. You saw in the opening sequence when she's saying, "Some people think I'm this, some people think I'm that," and she doesn't overdo it. It's just a slight shift. And she looks like a very different person. You can't actually tell from looking at her that she's doing those scenes, when she's talking to him. Of course, she has thoughts to herself, some of which we hear. And of course, she's trying to give the best impression, and to keep him interested. Why wouldn't she be doing those things? But you can't actually tell from how she looks and the way she's talking. You cannot tell whether you're looking at an innocent person, proclaiming her innocence, or whether you're looking at a guilty person covering up.

As you've said, it's a story that's being told within the story, and it's so open to interpretation, even centuries later. I don't want to say disagreements, but did you and Mary [Harron] and either Sarah have any diverging opinions on aspects of Grace's story, and when certain things were more or less true?

No, not really, because I had gone over it. We had had extensive conversations. Sarah Polley and I had extensive conversations ahead of time, before she even started adapting it. Of course, it was going to depend a lot on the actress, was it not? How you say a line, and how do you say that line. The expression on your face as you say it can alter the meaning completely. It is a virtuoso performance by Sarah Gadon, and she also at the same time had to learn a Northern Irish accent from scratch.

In those conversations, was Sarah Polley ever going to direct and star also?

Not star, no. She was originally planning to produce and direct as well as write, but then life intervened. It took a while, first she had one baby, and then she had another baby, and then a fire extinguisher fell on her head. Gave her a concussion.

Yikes.

I said, "How did that happen?" She said, "Well, it was at my child's daycare and I was going through the lost and found box because I'd left my iPad there. I was throwing things about and I knocked it off and it fell down and hit me on the head."

Shifting gears briefly to Handmaid's Tale how much of the second season have you actually been able to watch so far?

I've read all of the scripts. I've seen episode one on a big screen viewing platform, and Bruce is supposed to be sending me the rest, but he hasn't done it yet. He's not quite finished editing, I would say the final half. Some of the journalists have actually seen more than I have of it, he says. He doesn't like me seeing them until they're absolutely finished.

I've seen six episodes. I don't want to taunt you or anything with that. I think it's very good. But I'm wondering for you, is it an entirely different experience, getting these scripts and seeing these episodes as the story shifts away from your book? What does that feel like to you, to maybe not know what's happening on the next page of the script when you're flipping through? 

It makes it more interesting for me to read. I already knew it would be so interesting. I'm look at the way also that they've picked up stitches from the book. They've picked up hints, they've picked up things that didn't go into episode one, and they've picked up hints and possibilities from the historical notes. 

How does that change, then, the notes and the comments that you're giving to Bruce as you see these? Are you responding in an entirely different way in the terms of the language that you're communicating back to him in response to this?

I wouldn't say an entirely different language. It's the same as making notes on any script. You say, "When this happened, this is too much." Actually, I haven't had much. There was one point at which I felt it might have been over the top.

Can you tell me what that would have been?

No, I can't, because I haven't seen the filmed version of it. I've just seen the script, and I don't know how he's reacted to that note. There was another point at which I said, basically, "Don't kill that baby." No babies shall be killed in the making of this film. I think he was toying with the idea, but he did not do that.

Has there been a shift in how proprietary you feel towards it, or the things that you feel more and less proprietary towards?

It's one of those books that has escaped from the covers. It's out there in the world, so it has taken on a meaning that it did not have in 1984 or 1985, because in 1984 or 1985, the political events we see unrolling before us had not yet happened. It is already, and this happens to a lot of books, they get read in different ways depending on what then happens. A very good example of that is Franz Kafka, who died long before Mr. Hitler came upon the scene, but then things like In the Penal Colony, etc., were used as metaphors for what then happened.

That makes it easier for you, the fact that it's been out there?

I don't think it makes it easier or harder. It's just a thing that happens to some books, and you cannot, in fact, control that, because as soon as you publish a book, it's no longer in the hands on the writer. If you want to retain control of a book, you don't publish it. Then it's all yours forever. Until, of course, you croak and then somebody finds it in a suitcase. A book out in the world is in the hands of its readers, and they will interpret no matter what you say. For instance, it wasn't originally my idea that the character's name should be June. It's the readers who decided that her name was June, and they did that through deduction. They looked at the names that are mentioned in this Chapter One, and of all the names that are mentioned, only June does not come up again. Therefore, her name must be June. That was the reader's decision. It fits, but it's an example of how the writer does not control everything about how a book is read.

And I suppose that, as problems go, that's a pretty luxury problem to have.

It's a very minor problem. A book out in the world continues to live because it's being read, and it continues to be read because people read it according to their own circumstances.

This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.