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Tuesday 12 November 2019

'Ireland is an example of the fact that things can change and they can change radically' - Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has won the Booker Prize for a second time (Ian West/PA)
Margaret Atwood has won the Booker Prize for a second time (Ian West/PA)
Margaret Atwood, joint winner of the Man Booker prize and creator of 'The Handmaid's Tale'
The write stuff: Joint Booker winners Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evarist. Photo: Getty Images
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Margaret Atwood has described Ireland as a "little point of light" in the world amid the threat to liberal democracy.

The 79-year-old author of 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale was speaking about how the US may be moving towards a totalitarian regime like that of Gilead, which features in the novel.

In conversation with Brendan O'Connor, standing in for Marian Finucane on RTE Radio 1, she said that following the end of the Cold War people spent the 90s "shopping" before 9/11 which "shifted the world out of balance".

"Then we had the financial meltdown and that made a lot of people very anxious and scared because they were losing their houses, they were losing their jobs, and they were in turmoil and frightened and angry," she said.

'The Handmaid's Tale'
'The Handmaid's Tale'

"And when you have frightened and angry people they are very open to 'Mr Fix It' or 'Ms Fix It' and they also become more conservative and they are willing to give up rights in exchange for stability and that's when totalitarianism comes in."

Atwood, who has just won the Booker Prize (shared with British author Bernardine Evaristo), for her Handmaid's Tale follow-up, The Testaments, added that the US "probably won't get Gilead with the outfits, but you will certainly get the rollback on the rights for women and that's what regimes do."

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (Waterstones)
Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (Waterstones)

She added that she does not think Gilead is populated by "real Christians, because if you put at the core of your Christianity 'love your neighbour', these are not neighbour lovers. They don't really love their neighbour very much at all."

While the threats to liberal democracy and women's rights are on the rise globally, however, she said there are also "little points of light shine out, such as Ireland."

“Ireland is really quite different from the Ireland of maybe 30 years ago. So it is an example of the fact that things can change and they can change quite radically.”

In the US there is, she said, some portions which are "very dedicated to an open society and liberal democracy and they are fighting very hard to keep Gilead from arriving. So there's that side to it as well and in the long game I'm betting on them because we have a lot of young people coming along who are not going to buy into a Gilead type arrangement."

Atwood also expressed faith in young people and their ability to fight for change and said she supports Extinction Rebellion "because they're numerous now to move the political needle" on climate change.

"We have to [take climate change seriously] because if we kill the oceans we will stop breathing. That is in one sentence the short story," she said, adding that the conservative government in the UK banning fracking "didn't do that out of nowhere. They were reading the tea leaves."

The Handmaid's Tale TV series based on her novel has won eight Emmy Awards across its three seasons, and Atwood spoke of her delight at its success, and of her cameo in which she slapped lead actress (and series producer) Elisabeth Moss.

"No, I did not slap Elisabeth Moss in the face, as people sometimes say. Back of the head. We had to do it four times because I didn't do it forcefully enough. And they added that sound effect," she said.

"It's an odd sensation to have your leading lady turn around and say to you, 'Hit me harder!'"

Read more: Daring sequel testament to Atwood's literary powers

'Instead of moving further away from Gilead, we started moving towards it' - Margaret Atwood on why she wrote The Testaments

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