Once or twice in a generation, a novel appears that vaults out of the literary corral to become a phenomenon, familiar to people the world over who have never read the book: George Orwellâ€™s 1984 is one and Margaret Atwoodâ€™s The Handmaidâ€™s Tale is another.
So itâ€™s perhaps not surprising that a new 10-part TV series based on the novel has struck a chord. Starring Elisabeth Moss as handmaid Offred, the series launched in the US last month and comes to the UK later this month trailing superlatives.
At 77, Atwood combines the loftiness of a high priestess who does not suffer fools gladly with an unstinting generosity to those she deems not to be foolish. She is a passionate environmentalist, with a particular interest in birds, which she shares with her husband, Graeme Gibson.
If her determination to live by her principles occasionally seems incidentally comic â€“ as when she embarked by boat on an international tour of a stage show publicising the second novel of her MaddAddam trilogy, The Year of the Flood â€“ she also brings to her politics a healthy dose of intentional humour.
On a recent visit to her Toronto home, her longtime UK publisher Lennie Goodings was surprised to meet her carrying a paper bag bulging with four large rubber turkeys. â€œShe showed them to me with that funny, head on a tilt, wicked smile of hers. They squawked when she pressed them.â€ It turned out that she and Gibson were about to present the prizes at an annual RSPB competition. â€œThe winners each receive a rubber turkey from Margaret, at which point she conducts them in a squeezing squawking choir.â€
Atwood traces her concern with the environment back to a childhood spent criss-crossing the forests of Canada with her entomologist father. She was the second of three children, and the familyâ€™s itinerant lifestyle meant that she did not go to full-time school until she was eight years old. She began publishing her poetry while a student at the University of Toronto, won her first major literary prize for a poetry collection published in 1964, and three collections later diversified into fiction in 1969 with The Edible Woman, about a woman driven mad by consumerism.
â€œShe is a very hands-on person,â€ says Goodings, a fellow Canadian, who has been her publisher at at the feminist imprint Virago since 1979. â€œHer self-sufficiency comes from her childhood but also from her involvement in the early days of CanLit [Canadian Literature]. She designed her own cover for her first book of poetry, The Circle Game, with the red dots you buy at stationery shops. In the early days of Virago she enjoyed â€“ and learned alongside us â€“ bookshop point-of-sale material such as shelf strips and dumpbins.
â€œOnce she and I travelled in a taxi to an event with a large cardboard woman â€“ a replica of the figure on the cover of [her 1988 novel] Catâ€™s Eye. She loved it.â€
Her hands-on approach has carried her energetically into the digital era. As an internationally successful author who has been awarded 24 honorary degrees in six different countries, been shortlisted five times for the Booker prize (winning it in 2000 for The Blind Assassin), and who was more recently invited to Norway to bury a manuscript for 100 years as the first participant in The Future Library project, she faced the tricky issue of a gargantuan carbon footprint. She tackled it by inventing the LongPen, which enabled her at least to do book signings without leaving her home.
Her penultimate novel, The Heart Goes Last, began its life on the fanfiction platform Wattpad, and she has 1.6 million Twitter followers, to whom she tweets a dozen times a day on subjects ranging from the urgent need to protect the monarch butterfly to the vilification of Hilary Clinton.
She has also made cameo appearances in The Handmaidâ€™s Tale, and as an apocalypse survivor on Zombies, Run!, a fitness app combining an audio drama with an immersive jogging game, which was devised by her protege, the English novelist and gaming wizard Naomi Alderman.
The two were brought together through a mentoring scheme run by Rolex. â€œFour of us got flown out to Canada to meet her and I think she picked me because I was funny,â€ says Alderman, who credits Atwood with the convent setting of her latest novel, The Power, which is in the running for the Baileys prize. â€œSheâ€™s really involved me in her family in a way I hadnâ€™t expected. Iâ€™ve been bird watching in Cuba with her brother and his wife, and to the Arctic.â€
Atwood has said she was reluctant to get involved with the scheme, and some of her more institutional mentoring relationships have been less encouraging. â€œAs a tutor she was pretty hectoring,â€ says one former student on a creative writing MA. â€œShe read all our first chapters and we each had one grilling with her about our books. Almost every question she asked was, â€˜And then what happens? And then what happens?â€™ so I guess plot is pretty important.â€
Her abrasive side has also been evident in run-ins with the science fiction community as to which genre her novels belong to, insisting that they are speculative fiction on the basis that: â€œScience fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.â€
The veteran SF writer Ursula K Le Guin countered in a Guardian review: â€œTo my mind, The Handmaidâ€™s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future thatâ€™s half prediction, half satire.â€
Published in the mid-1980s, with a Canadianâ€™s mounting dismay at the religious resurgence she was observing over the border in the United States, The Handmaidâ€™s Tale, a story of a theocratic state in which young women are treated as brood mares by a brutal revolutionary elite, has become a staple of the school curriculum in the English-speaking world.
In the late 20th century, when advances in feminism appeared irreversible, it seemed a cautionary tale of what might have been. At the Hay festival in 2003, Atwood herself argued that it had less general relevance than the first novel in what was to become her MaddAddam trilogy about a world facing the consequences of environmental meltdown. Oryx and Crake, she said, addressed global issues whereas The Handmaidâ€™s Tale was specifically about America.
But three decades after The Handmaidâ€™s Tale was published, there are many all-too-real places where the denizens of the fictional republic of Gilead would feel at home, from Donald Trumpâ€™s increasingly authoritarian and misogynistic US â€“ where protesters against two abortion-related bills turned up at the Texas senate in March dressed in the long red robes and white bonnets of Atwoodâ€™s handmaids â€“ to a Nigeria in which schoolgirls are kidnapped en masse, and a growing number of theocratic states across Asia and the Middle East.
The Year of The Flood, published in 2009, features â€œGodâ€™s Gardenersâ€, a religious sect devoted to the melding of science, religion, and nature, whose hymn-singing was enacted in a curious roadshow.
Atwood herself opened the show, intoning on a monotone from a wooden throne. As Diana Quick, one of the performers, recalls: â€œPeggy was rather eerie on that funny promo production â€“ because she had written all their hymns of praise and she took to blessing everyone, as it were, ex cathedra. I think she had had great hopes for it and was quite stage struck, and then disappointed in the execution of the piece.â€
Perhaps we were too far away to see that â€œwicked smileâ€, though an endnote to the novel would suggest not. In it, Atwood invited readers to listen to the Gardenersâ€™ hymns on her website and to use them â€œfor amateur devotional or environmental purposesâ€. If she sometimes takes herself rather too seriously, she has surely earned the right to do so over a 60-book career which shows no sign of ceasing to produce spookily prescient books.
Anyone inclined to argue that The Handmaidâ€™s Tale is still a parochial parable should consider its relevance to even supposedly liberal societies in an era of a mass surveillance that would have been unthinkable when the novel was written. Like the citizens of Gilead, we have internalised the twisted logic of Atwoodâ€™s sinister Aunt Lydia, the apparently kindly supervisor who is actually a state stooge. â€œThere is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from,â€ she says. â€œIn the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Donâ€™t underrate it.â€ As Orwell almost said, Big Sister is Watching You.
Born: 18 November 1939
Career: Started out as a poet and has to date written nearly 60 books for adults and children. She has also produced opera libretti, television scripts and a graphic novel.
High point: Winning the Booker prize in 2000 with The Blind Assassin, the fourth of her novels to be shortlisted.
Low point: The Handmaidâ€™s Tale has been censored from schools and libraries all over the US for being â€œanti-Christianâ€ and â€œsexually luridâ€ and has appeared on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for the last 20 years.
What she says: â€œOptimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. Iâ€™m a realist.â€
What they say: The National Book Critics Circle of America gave her a lifetime achievement award this year for her â€œgroundbreaking fiction, environmental and feminist activism, and service to community as a co-founder of the Writersâ€™ Trust of Canadaâ€.