I have been extremely fortunate in the last few months to work with Margaret Atwood on the new Folio edition of her novel, The Handmaid's Tale. And even more so to have the chance to interview her about the book, its illustrations and a few other issues I hope you'll find interesting. So, here it is...
Firstly, my colleague Johanna gave you a copy of the new Folio edition of The Handmaid’s Tale – what did you think?
This is a truly stunning version. Everyone who has seen it is smitten with it.
Many authors struggle with the stasis of artistic representations of their characters as opposed to the fluid imaginative creations of readers’ responses. Handmaid’s Tale has been visualised many times – in film, opera and now by the Balbussos – do you find this an enjoyable part of your book’s legacy?
Well, it may be a bit soon to start talking about legacies – that word reminds me of the will-reading scenes in Agatha Christie murders – but it’s telling that so many people have given physical shapes to the characters in the book. It means that the narrative resonates with them. We’ve even seen people dressing up as Handmaids in protest demonstrations.
What can an author learn about their characters in their new incarnations and visualisations?
If the incarnations are good, they can open up parts of the text in ways you as the author may not have anticipated. Who could have imagined an operatic aria sung on the theme of the menstrual cycle?
Do you think there is a ‘should’ when it comes to illustrating fiction? Should it be simply decorative? Or atmospheric? Or delve deeper into the artist’s own interpretations?
Like a lot of people my age, I came in contact early with Arthur Rackham illustrations, Arabian Nights illustrations, older Grimms illustrations, Kate Greenaway books, pre-Raphaelite illustrations to such things as Tennyson’s Idylls of the King . . . And I’ve done some illustrating myself, and partnered with artists, most notably Charles Pachter, who did several handprinted books of my poetry. The Journals of Susannah Moodie is particularly amazing.
The illustrations have to have their own life. They are what happens when text encounters the artist’s imagination and something is ignited. Unless the artist feels an inner connection with the core of the work, the pictures will be merely decorative and somehow flat. When ‘inspiration’ happens – when the artist “breathes in” the work – then a new being will emerge.
In your new introduction to the Folio edition you wrote that ‘Those who lack power always see more than they say’. Is some (of your) fiction more predisposed to being illustrated?
Novels and stories can have a strong visual element, or not. Some texts are musical rather than visual. But really the illustrations and their strength depend on the artist – not the text.
When we worked together on The Handmaid’s Tale we found some textual discrepancies between various editions. Can you tell us a little about your process of revising manuscripts?
It’s so far back I can hardly remember, but in those days editions came out in different countries at different times, and thus went through two editorial processes. The US one was later. I think they found some typos, but also they put in some changes that – when we went over it again – didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Those might have been new typos.
I think we caught everything this time!
I see you’re closely involved in the campaign to prevent library closures in Canada (an increasingly big issue in the UK also) – can you tell us more about that?
(Long story. Too long for here.) Libraries that make books and newspapers and internet access accessible to the general public are one of the foundations of a functioning participatory democracy.
What are your thoughts on the importance of the book as an object, versus etexts? Are they mutually compatible in the long run?
The neurology is different. We will obviously end up with both. Anything you want to keep should exist in physical form, because one big solar flare or other electromagnetic pulse, and boom – there goes your e-data. A change in technology can quickly make your data inaccessible, too . . . Look at floppy disks.
Finally, what books would you like to see Folio to publish in the future?
Of mine? Oryx and Crake, definitely. I think an illustrator could have a field day with it.