With her 80th birthday just days away, Margaret Atwood admits she never expected to find herself hailed as a “fully-fledged literary rock’n’roll star.”
But as fans around the world snapped up copies of The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, the author embraced her new preeminence and said she hoped the novel would inspire hope among its readers.
Published 34 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian classic given fresh currency by renewed threats to women’s reproductive rights from US legislatures, The Testaments was given a launch more akin to a Harry Potter novel.
A midnight reading at Waterstones in Piccadilly was attended by 400 book lovers, whilst an audience with the Canadian author at the National Theatre was beamed live to 1,300 cinemas. A “phishing” attempt to steal the manuscript was thwarted.
Asked about her “rock star” status at a London press conference, the author said she was surprised “given the lives that rock stars lead – I haven’t yet died of an opiate overdose”.
Sympathising with rock stars whose best work is behind them at the age 35, she said: “Where do you go from there? I’m very grateful for the readers who’ve stuck by me over all these years.”
The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of its predecessor, with the theocratic republic of Gilead beginning to rot, whilst still forcing women to serve as concubines and surrogate mothers.
Could there be a third and final return to the story? “I never say never to anything,” said Atwood, whose policy is “not to tell anybody what I may or may not do” to avoid speculation. She did not consciously write The Testaments, shortlisted for The Booker Prize, in a more accessible style than The Handmaid’s Tale for that novel’s new TV audience, she said.
“I don’t think that I was intending to have it ‘more accessible’. I always try to write in a way that’s clear. I try not to do really confusing things.
“I’ve never written a book in which the goal is to write a book minus the letter ‘a’. It has been done… the choices have entirely to do with the realities of the world and the realities of the characters.”
Atwood hopes The Testaments will continue to inspire protests, led by women dressed in the red robes and white bonnets made famous by the Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation, against attempts to restrict abortion rights.
“Writing is always an act of hope because it presumes a reader in the future,” she said.