Last fall, Margaret Atwood published The Testaments, a sequel to her 1985 bestseller, The Handmaid’s Tale, which for decades has served as a cautionary tale about how easily a once-democratic and thriving country such as the United States can slip into authoritarian rule. Since the success of the Emmy-winning Hulu series adaptation of the prescient dystopian novel about theocratic totalitarianism, many have seen her as a sort of feminist prophet — especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
With the paperback version of The Testaments available this month, we caught up with the Canadian author to discuss her “clairvoyant” abilities, her love of Dolly Parton, and her hopes for American society on the eve of the 2020 election. She even shared a Spotify playlist she made (with the help of son-in-law and Brassland label co-founder Alec Hanley Bemis) to accompany the book, which includes new songs from Taylor Swift, as well as Pete Seeger folk standards.
And when asked about the November presidential election and the potential for everything to go to hell, she remains sanguine: “Good luck with everything. We’ll be watching as we always do.”
On whether Aunt Lydia “gets off easy” in The Testaments
No, I don’t think she gets off the hook. But in a serious totalitarianism, you don’t have a lot of choices. So either you’re under the radar and just kind of keeping your head down and and going “Heil Hitler,” like everybody else — no matter what you may think — or you’re on the radar. Your choices are even more limited because either you seem to be a loyal supporter or, in our democracy, you get fired. But in no totalitarianism, you get shot. There’s actually quite a big space between those two things, getting fired and getting shot.
I’m old enough to have lived through the major totalitarianisms and seen them at the end of, and the mid 20th century. Then other ones came along, and we’ve got some with us to this very day and other countries that went through a period of liberation and democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but are now going back towards very autocratic forms of government. So I’m interested in how they get in; why people are enthusiastic about them, usually at the beginning. And then how they crumble. What what brings them down? So The Testaments is not the beginning of Gilead, it’s along towards a middle-and-already-corrupt period. And we say the beginning of the crumbling. So crumbling can happen when the curtain is drawn back and you realize that what you’ve being what you’ve been told is not true.
On being a fan of country music
OK, so being the age I am, I came to being during the era of folk singing. So the Pete Seeger revival. And those kinds of songs were very much to the fore at the end of end of the Fifties, early Sixties. … But I’ve also always been a country & western fan. Why is that? Because there were two hit parades in those days that you can listen to on the radio: One of them was the regular hit parade; the other was the country & western hit parade. And western songs had stories. So as a person who is very interested in the stories, I was interested in the songs that had stories, which come right out of the ballad tradition. Ballads were a way of telling a story in a way that people could understand it pretty quickly, and especially in an age when not everybody can read. In fact, quite a lot of people couldn’t read. They were a way of making the names available. Go back and look at a lot of old ballads, they’re about train wrecks and ship wrecks and cataclysmic events of one kind or another. They’re not all just about being lovelorn.
… and especially Dolly Parton
I love some of [Dolly’s] remarks very much. She said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” But she is somebody who is authentic to herself, and then she’s also paying forward into her community. So I’m a big fan of hers. And in another life we’re going to have a wardrobe of wigs just like hers. There’s no sort of secret Dolly Parton, who is an evil human being. That isn’t what you see. So it is pretty much it is what you got. And I don’t think she’s ever tried to be anything other.
On the potential failure of the American “experiment”
I’ve lived in the States and and I’ve been to, you know, just about every state in the union. It’s a very interesting place and a very interesting experiment. So I hope that what we are not seeing is America’s loss of belief in its own aspirations. The aspirations are pretty good: Liberty and justice for all — who would say no to that? The problem is implementation. So it’s what they have said both about Christianity: Great idea; never been tried. And about communism: Great idea; never been tried. It’s very hard to carry these things out. But if you lose the aspiration, you know, if you lose the idea that you should be having liberty and justice for all, then you’re really in the soup, because then you are going to be in an authoritarian dictatorship.