She’s considered Canada’s most famous scribe, and, at the moment, it’s easy to see why — everyone’s talking about Margaret Atwood. The television adaptation of her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is one of the year’s best TV shows. And while her book was written more than three decades ago, it proves scarily accurate in its depiction of current times.
Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale here:
That’s far from her only claim to fame, however. First published in 1961, Atwood has enjoyed a career most writers can only dream of. From her prolific literary output to her enthusiastic social media presence to her trailblazing in more ways than one, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Here’s seven things you should know about the woman behind this year’s must-see TV hit.
She has published over 80 works
She won the Man Booker prize in 2000 for her historical novel The Blind Assassin, earned nominations for The Handmaid’s Tale, Cats Eye, Alias Grace and Oryx and Crake, and took home the Arthur C Clarke Award for best science-fictional novel for The Handmaid’s Tale as well. And yet, astonishingly, those books represent less than six percent of Atwood’s literary output to date.
Indeed, the 77-year-old writer has written more than some people read in a lifetime, including a graphic novel, Angel Catbird, about a scientist who accidentally merges his DNA with a cat and an owl; eight children’s books; and non-fiction volumes about writing, Canadian literature, science fiction and even debt. She has also penned three television scripts, as well as the stage adaptation of her 2005 novel, The Penelopiad. Plus, she’s an accomplished poet, with her debut collection published eight years before her first book.
Her dystopian tales might seem futuristic, but they’re drawn from real life
Can Atwood predict the future? That’s a question that keeps coming her way, not only in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale, but Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, too. Contemporary parallels abound in her speculative science fiction stories — particularly The Handmaid’s Tale’s fictional world of oppression against women. The secret to Atwood’s seemingly prophetic nature, however, doesn’t stem from looking forward, but from looking to the past.
“My rule for the book was I would not put anything into it that human beings had not done at some time in someplace already in history,” Atwood explains. “Everything in the book has a precedent. For instance, the Handmaids and women in general are not allowed to read. It was illegal for slaves in America to read, just for instance. You can go through all of the different pieces in the novel and ask me where in history it happened, and I can tell you.”
One of her ancestors may have been accused of witchcraft
Speaking of the interplay of history and her writing, Atwood may boast a connection to America’s famous real-life instances of female subjugation — then again, it might be a family myth. As The New Yorker notes, she was told in her twenties that she was possibly related to alleged witch Mary Webster, who managed to survive a 17th century hanging attempt by Puritans in Hadley, Massachusetts.
As far as Atwood’s grandmother was concerned, however, “on Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn’t.” Whether the tale is true or not, it’s easy to see Webster’s plight as an influence on Atwood’s work, with The Handmaid’s Tale dedicated to her. Atwood also wrote a poem called Half-Hanged Mary.
She’s a prolific tweeter...
Writing for The New York Review of Books in 2010, Atwood described her “nothing ventured, no brain drained” jump into Twitter the year prior. “The Twittersphere is an odd and uncanny place. It’s something like having fairies at the bottom of your garden,” she explained. “ Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do.”
In the nearly a decade since, her words have continued to ring true — and her Twitter presence has only continued to grow. Indeed, sharing her thoughts to the world through social media feels fitting for someone well known for writing about societies where having a voice isn’t possible. Speaking about readers of The Handmaid’s Tale, she said, “I hope that the audience will understand why it is so important to speak your mind while you can,” a sentiment that can also be seen to mirror her approach to life in general.
And a fan of selfies
Atwood’s embrace of social media doesn’t just extend to tweeting missives in 140 characters or less. As her Instagram feed demonstrates, she’s quite fond of snapping the world around her — and sharing selfies, particularly with The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss.
On society’s growing obsession with the latter, she told The Telegraph in 2013, “I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, 'Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,' because people do.”
She invented a remote signing device
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but sometimes practicality is, too. Four decades into her career, Atwood came up with an idea that would enable someone to remotely write in ink anywhere in the world - the LongPen.
Her inspiration was the ability to conduct book tours — and sign books — without needing to be physically present, with the concept coming to her “after I'd flown from Japan, already did two events, one on the west coast and one in Denver, and had to get up very early to take a plane to Salt Lake City, and the same day take a plane to Boston”, she told The Guardian. The company she formed to launch the product has also stepped into the legal documentation realm.
More of her work is coming to a screen near you
If you’re a film and television fan keen on stepping into Atwood’s dystopian worlds, you’re in luck. The latest adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale — which was first made into a movie back in 1990 — isn’t the only effort based on her words hurtling towards a screen near you.
Alias Grace is the next Atwood-based effort on the agenda, with the Neflix series slated to hit the streaming service later in the year. Adapted by actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley, and directed by American Psycho’s Mary Harron, the six-part show tells of a servant accused of murdering her employer, and stars Sarah Gadon, Anna Paquin and Zachary Levi.
It’s due to be joined by a TV adaptation of The Heart Goes Last, which sees law-abiding citizens locked up and law-breakers roaming free. A planned version of MaddAddam is in limbo after HBO dropped out of the project, but filmmaker Darren Aronofsky hasn’t given up on bringing the story to the screen. And, for younger audiences, an animated version of Atwood’s children’s book Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery has been airing in Canada.
The Handmaid’s Tale 2 airs on SBS and SBS On Demand 8.30pm, from Thursday April 26. #HandmaidsTale
Catch up on The Handmaid’s Tale and binge season one on SBS On Demand now!