Holly Walker shelled out big bucks to see The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood being interviewed by Kim Hill in Wellington on Monday. After a prickly 90 minutes of questioning, she left wondering what Atwood gets out of her seemingly endless live appearances.
We filled the lobby of the Michael Fowler Centre. We wore jumpsuits. We wore wedge heels. We wore tunic dresses with geometric prints. We lined up for plastic glasses of rosé and Kapiti ice-creams, but they ran out of rosé. We bought pinot gris instead and drank it perched on leather benches outside the Fay Richwhite VIP room while we waited for the doors to open, or our friends to arrive. Most of us were indeed rich (having forked out between $70 and $150 for a ticket) and white. Among us were poets, feminist economists, MPs, ex-cabinet ministers and RNZ presenters. One or two of us had brought men, but most of us were with our book clubs. We filed in and took our seats. The stage was lit in cool tones of blues and greens. Slightly sinister cello music pulsed in the background. The relief image of a handmaid’s headdress from the cover of The Testaments was projected onto the back curtain with the hashtag #askAtwood. It waved ever so gently. There were two large armchairs on the stage, and a small table with no less then three copies of The Testaments propped up precariously around two glasses of water. There was an air of anticipation.
The music faded out, and we fell instantly silent. After the briefest of pauses, Kim Hill sauntered – actually sauntered – onto the stage. Thank god it was Kim Hill. I did a little cheer. The last time I saw Hill on stage at the Michael Fowler Centre was at the opening night of the NZ Festival Writers Week in 2018. For once that night, she wasn’t presiding, but participating, and came on to read a wry and devastatingly funny and sad story about her mother. She was the best thing about the whole night.
Now here she was to introduce Margaret Atwood, double Booker-prize winning Canadian author of more than 40 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, most notably for our purposes The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments. Apparently, Atwood once said wanting to meet an author because you like their work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté. “So here, ladies and gentlemen,” said Hill, “is the duck you’ve been waiting for.” I’d like to say Atwood waddled on, or at the very least e-scootered, but she walked, carefully, with a black handbag strung over her arm, and took her seat. We would have 45 minutes of conversation, a 15 minute interval, and then 45 minutes of questions, which we could submit via the #askAtwood hashtag.
It was a bumpy start. “There is more than one kind of freedom,” quoted Hill, quoting Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.” The question: “Are we living in the days of anarchy now, do you think?”
“Not exactly, but we’re not exactly in a totalitarian state either,” said Atwood.
Hill tried again. “Are we a society dying of too much choice?”
Atwood: “Don’t confuse me with my characters!”
Hill: “I would never do that! But do we have too much choice?”
Atwood: “I don’t know, you’d have to ask young people.”
A pause. Hill, thinking of The Testaments’ young and old narrators: “I’m interested in that juxtaposition of young and old.”
Atwood, withering: “Why?”
It was funny, but I didn’t understand why Atwood was so determined not to let Hill find a way into the conversation: conversation, after all, being the whole point. I think Atwood must at some point have made a policy decision never to do the work for her interviewers, always to answer only the question directly put, or if she didn’t like the question, to challenge it. I had to admire her for it, this refusal to display the very female trait of conversational generosity, to let the other person do the work and feel the discomfort. It’s something I wish I was better at. It was confronting though, seeing it deployed against Hill, whom I admire for a similar kind of take-no-prisoners stance in her interviewing style. It was like seeing two members of your favourite sports team suddenly facing off against each other. Who do you root for? I found myself loyal to Hill.
The stalemate broke when Hill tried the more banal entry point of whether Atwood always intended to write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale and some of the tension drained away as we settled in for a discussion centred almost exclusively on Gilead in its literary and televisual guises (and the fusion between the two achieved in The Testaments). This might have been disappointing for those hoping for a wide-ranging exposition of Atwood’s considerable back catalogue, but I suspect most of the audience were satisfied with this focus.
With terrifying prescience, Atwood predicted in 1982 the kinds of attacks on women’s rights, bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom that are now firmly on the agenda of the religious right in parts of the US, as well as the dangerous slippage towards totalitarianism that can take place given the right conditions. (Though don’t try to tell her she predicted the future: “This isn’t the future. If this were the future we wouldn’t be sitting on this stage because you wouldn’t have a job and I’d be dead.”). We’re looking to Gilead now to explain and interpret Trump’s America, and maybe to tell us how to reverse current horrifying trends.
Without giving away too many spoilers, The Testaments turns on the assumption that sunlight is the best disinfectant, an idea that seems quaint in the wake of Trump’s acquittal in his impeachment trial, and every other recent example of the truth mattering not a jot. In the words of New York Times columnist Michele Goldberg: “Imagine: a world where exposing the misdeeds of a regime could unravel it!”
(Hill pressed gently on this difference in tone and optimism between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, hinting, I think, at her own view of the book, which I share – did Atwood think her readers might be disappointed at this change in tone? “I don’t know what people think,” said Atwood. “They mostly say nice things because if they don’t say nice things I put the evil eye curse on them.”)
Given this job of interpreting the present for us, Atwood presents a curious mix of hope and nihilism. Alongside her insistence that we remain hopeful “or the other side wins”, she can drop casual truth bombs like “climate change causes famine, famine causes war, and wars are shit for women”.
There was an interval, in which some of us used the men’s bathroom, there being no men to use it themselves. In the second half, Hill scrolled through the #askAtwood hashtag and Atwood parlayed questions such as “what is your favourite time in history?”, “how have your feminist themes changed over time?”, and “what would you say to New Zealand politicians ahead of the 2020 election?”.
I found myself wondering exactly why Atwood is doing this tour, especially when her spiky answers to Hill made it seem like she’d rather not be being interviewed at all. Surely by now, she has answered any possible combination of questions a million times and is bored out of her brain. Yet it’s not like we forced her: her tour is a standalone thing, not even part of a book festival to which she was invited.
She could just be taking us all for a ride. No matter how brilliant she is, $150 for an author talk is hard to swallow. (Yes, as Michele A’Court said on the On the Rag podcast, you’d pay that for Elton John, and Margaret Atwood is just as much of a legend. But Elton has a band, and quite an impressive stage show, and Atwood’s choreography was limited to swapping seats with Hill at half time.)
Surely there has never been a book publicity machine like that rolled out to promote The Testaments. Its London launch in September saw simultaneous events over several hours including a panel of Elif Shafak, Neil Gaiman, A.M. Homes, Temi Oh, and Jeanette Winterson discussing Atwood’s work, a live recording of the Guilty Feminist podcast, speed mentoring for women, ‘soapbox moments’ from renowned activists and poets, an appearance by actress Romola Garai, a cinema screening of season one of the TV series, and a crafting and placard-making cocktail zone, culminating in a midnight appearance and reading by Atwood herself. I mean, just, what? Soon after, an author talk with Atwood was held at Britain’s National Theatre, filmed, and broadcast simultaneously in cinemas around the world.
The Testaments, of course, went on to win (jointly with Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) last year’s Man Booker prize, so depending on how you look at it you could either say the hype was justified, or that the hype worked. That joint award proved controversial, with many decrying that the impact of the historic first win by a British woman of colour (Evaristo) was both diluted by the decision to award it jointly with Atwood, and upstaged by the ensuing controversy. Neither Atwood nor Everisto could have been satisfied with the result, though both have been gracious in their public comments.
Atwood is so dry, so sharp, with such an eye for skewering the ridiculous. Why is she participating in this circus? Is she herself, being taken for a ride by publishers and production companies looking to turn our need for help to interpret our dystopian present into a fat bottom line? Or is she laughing merrily (as she did at her own jokes, several times) at the centre of all this?
Maybe I’m just being churlish. The Handmaid’s Tale is a near perfect thing. The TV adaptation is one of the best pieces of culture I think I’ve ever consumed. I gobbled up The Testaments with that satisfying feeling of wanting to tear through it, even if the neatly wrapped up conclusion felt a little hollow. And Atwood’s other works are brilliant, incisive, funny, challenging, beautiful. She’s been at this for more than 50 years, and frankly, she’s earned the right to do whatever she wants. Whether or not The Testaments deserved the Booker, she’s one of the great writers of our time, who will be read for the next 50 years and more. Maybe she sees such excessive publicity as an opportunity to get our faces and tell us “climate change causes famines, famines cause wars, and wars are shit for women. Don’t give up hope. Watch out for Extinction Rebellion.” Maybe she just wants to visit some new cities and try out an e-scooter.
Hill finished by asking Atwood, “do you still write to find out what you think?” Surely by now, she knows what she thinks about everything. But “yes, absolutely,” said Atwood. “I start with a question, and I write until I see where it goes.”
“Well I’m very grateful that you do, and that you’re here,” said Hill, placing her hand in the vicinity of her heart. Atwood made a little noise like “ohhh.” We applauded them both, the near-full auditorium, some on our feet. As they turned to leave, Atwood reached her arm around Hill’s shoulder, and squeezed, and kept it there until they had left the stage.