Scroll down to the last paragraph. When I read that a functioning dictatorship requires 33% of the population if they have the guns, I popped The Handmaid's Tale into the DVD player again. Too scary. Try watching The West Wing instead.
Margaret Atwood: “If You’re Going To Speak Truth To Power,
Make Sure It’s the Truth”
Margaret Atwood is smiling, waving a green copy of her book The Testaments at me, while I wave a black one back at her. High-cheekboned, pale-skinned, her curly grey hair like a corona, she’s wearing a jewel-green blouse that makes her eyes glitter. Behind her stretches her large, comfy, slightly darkened sitting room in Toronto, with books and wall hangings and a whirring fan. Atwood gleams out of my screen, bright in all senses.
She is talking about being a grouch. She tells me she turns down a lot of interview requests, “and then I get a reputation as being very grumpy and hard to deal with. But who cares?” Grumpy seems wrong to me. I had been warned that Atwood was scary – super-sharp and impatient – but she’s not like that either. She is unsentimental, clear, sure of her facts and opinions, but she also has a light, mischievous quality. She says my name as though constantly on the verge of teasing me.
And she’s not grand, though she has every right to be, as one of the most successful writers in the world. Now 80, she has written 17 novels, 17 books of poetry, 10 books of non-fiction, eight collections of short stories, eight children’s books and three graphic novels. Her green copy of The Testaments is the paperback version of her slightly more cheerful sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: the black hardback sold more than 250,000 copies in its first month in the UK alone. Atwood could be forgiven for resting on her laurels – or resting, full stop – but she likes to be hands on: she runs her own Twitter and Instagram accounts, where she posts books she likes, links to campaigns and festivals, sometimes funny little clips (there is a great short film of her riding an electric scooter in New Zealand in February). She writes articles, and puts her name to open letters for causes she supports: Greta Thunberg’s environmentalism, free speech, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, birdwatching. She has a lot going on.
At the moment, like many of us, she is concerned about the US election, even if she has no vote. “Canadians are all pressed up against the plate glass window like this,” she says, making a splurgy face. While she considers Joe Biden electable (“He does appear to be a human being, he doesn’t appear to be a sociopath or a narcissist, so this is all to the good”), whether he will make it to the White House is another thing.
“It depends to what extent He Who Shall Not Be Named manages to destroy the postal services,” Atwood says. (Donald Trump comes up a few times in our conversation, though she refuses to actually name him.) “That’s not going to be a tippity-top popular move because people’s pension cheques, their medications, come in the postal service. If you don’t get your pension cheque, you’re going to hate the government. But then, if you can’t vote, it doesn’t matter if you hate them or not.”
At least it’s not your country, I say; maybe it shouldn’t matter to Canadians?
“Oh yes, it should,” she says. “That’s our border, the longest undefended border in the world.”
This border features in The Testaments – one of the heroines is smuggled over it, to and from the patriarchal totalitarian state of Gilead – and Atwood talks to me about its history through slavery and prohibition. Now, she says, Americans are sneaking into Canada to escape their own country’s hopeless approach to Covid-19. “They walk through the woods,” she says. “And I noticed, last time I was in Saskatchewan, which is out west, we were right near the border and there were drones patrolling it.” In another echo of her books, the woods are being watched for escapees.
The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments came out of Atwood
imagining what form a dictatorship would take in the US: does she
consider Trump to be a manifestation of this? She doesn’t say yes, but
tells me there is a “recipe” for putting in a dictator, which is:
destroy or take over independent media; do the same with independent
judiciary; kill artists or make them really compliant. “And once you
start shooting protesters in the streets, that’s a really big signal
that this is going to be a dictator.”
Writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she had it in her mind that a US dictatorship could never be a socialist one. “You would not be able to get the 33% necessary to support you. That’s the amount you need for a functioning dictatorship, as long as they’ve got guns.” Instead it would be a God-based affair. “It would fly under some weird, ‘Let’s stand in front of a church, holding a Bible upside down’ message,” she says. “Play God.” It’s clear who Atwood is referring to: a sort of dictator, who plays the God card and exploits the internet.