Handmaids in Hay

When I first read the programme for this year’s festival I was excited to see Margaret Atwood's name on it. Her event on The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the ones I’d most been looking forward to ever since. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.

Hundreds of fans gathered outside the Tata Tent nearly an hour before the start of the conversation between her and Peter Florence, the director of the festival. Among the spectators there were all kinds of people: fans of her books and of the Hulu series based on her novel. There were also, most particularly, a large number of young readers who waited eagerly clutching copies of the books in their hands. One of them, a girl of fifteen, told me she has read “everything” Atwood has published.

The moment the doors opened, people ran to find their seats. But they didn’t expect what would happen next. A group of the famous handmaids came in: they were dressed in their now iconic red dresses and white hoods. All the handmaids had their eyes on the floor and walked quickly. They sat down in some seats in front of the stage, their backs to us. Soon Florence and Atwood appeared on stage and received an ovation worthy of a superstar.

“Don’t you get tired of talking about this book?” asked Florence.

“Of course not: on the contrary, I think it’s a story that’s gaining a new life. I keep meeting more readers who have new ideas about the novel and I think it’s delightful.”

“Does it bother you that the people who created the series are inventing a plotline that doesn’t appear in the book?”

It doesn’t bother me. It’s a TV series and they have their own narrative logic. I think the production and the performances are marvellous. I think they’ve taken decisions that make sense with what would happen in the novel.”

For an hour, the author dissected her masterpiece. She recounted the origins of the novel that were born out of her thoughts from the seventies. She described her extensive historic research: every element that appears in The Handmaid’s Tale is taken from some historical reality or other. The talked about feminism, about totalitarianism and about how she found her narrator’s voice. She even explained that when naming her she wrote a list of male names and gave each of them the prefix “of”. Her favourite was Offred because of its sonority and because it contained the word “red”. And also because others, like Ofkeith, sounded ridiculous.

Atwood boasted a fantastic sense of humour. She said that what she most enjoyed now was seeing responses to the novel: the Youtube parodies, pets dressed up as handmaids and cupcakes with white hoods.

At the end the audience gave her a standing ovation. She too has been crowned queen of Hay.