Fun facts about Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale
1. Atwood has had a record number of nominations for the Booker Prize. The Canadian novelist has been nominated five times for the prestigious award, and on one of those occasions, Atwood won the coveted prize, for The Blind Assassin. Her 2009 book The Year Of The Flood, a dystopian novel, reportedly infuriated the chair of the Man Booker panel so much that he threw it across the room. John Sutherland reports this in his hugely entertaining Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives: the book was hurled with such anger that it dented the judge’s bedroom wall!
2. Margaret Atwood invented a handy device which enables her to sign fans’ copies of her books – even while she isn’t physically present. In response to the numerous problems surrounding the idea of the book tour – one cannot be in two cities at once, and there is a limited number of venues writers can fit into their itinerary – Atwood came up with the idea of the LongPen, a device which enables a writer to sign books virtually, using the internet and a tablet or other handheld device. The LongPen was dreamt up in 2004 and sounded like something out of one of Atwood’s own novels (which often incorporate elements of science fiction; though Atwood herself prefers the term ‘speculative fiction’ for her work), but in 2006 it became a reality.
3. The screenplay for the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale was written by Harold Pinter. Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel – and perhaps her most widely read – is arguably The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel published in 1985 but set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, at a time when Christian fundamentalism has overthrown the American government and women are seen as breeding vessels for a select group of men. The ‘handmaid’ of the title, one of the women kept for breeding, is Offred, her adopted ‘name’ signalling her status as a man’s property or chattel (‘Of Fred’; it is also one letter away from ‘Offered’, suggesting an echo of female religious sacrifice or ‘offerings’ to the gods). The film adaptation, released in 1990, starred Robert Duvall as the Commander and Natasha Richardson as Offred. The playwright (and later Nobel Laureate) Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay. In 2013, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet company adapted The Handmaid’s Tale as a ballet choreographed by Lila York. The title The Handmaid’s Tale is, of course, a nod to Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales.
4. At Toronto University, Margaret Atwood studied under Northrop Frye. In the late 1950s (Atwood was born in 1939), she began studying at the University of Toronto, where one of her lecturers was the hugely influential literary critic Northrop Frye, perhaps best known for his Anatomy of Criticism and a towering figure in literary studies at the time. Atwood would begin her writing career as a poet in the early 1960s, before moving to novels at the end of the decade.
5. Atwood’s novel The Penelopiad is her rewriting of Homer’s Odyssey. Margaret Atwood returns to handmaidens in this 2005 work. Like James Joyce‘s Ulysses, Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a response to Homer’s classic epic poem. Many of Atwood’s novels since 2000 have returned to ideas and tropes that appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale, though her treatment of them remains fresh and different: she returned to dystopian fiction with Oryx and Crake (2003; for our money, her finest novel) and then (controversially, as we saw above) The Year of the Flood (2009); and she returned to the notion of the ‘handmaid’ serving men in a patriarchal world in The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths) (2005). The short novel takes its title from Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and its perspective is very much hers rather than her husband’s: famously, Penelope patiently waited for Odysseus to return home from the Trojan Wars. (It took him ten years – his dinner must have been very cold.) The novella also features a chorus of twelve handmaids.
If you’re new to Atwood’s fiction, we’d strongly recommend trying what is probably her defining book, The Handmaid’s Tale (Contemporary Classics).
Image: Author Margaret Atwood attends a reading at Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, Ontario, Canada in September 2006 (author: Vanwaffle), Wikimedia Commons.