What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? As it turns out, some pretty fascinating conversation! Emma Watson, beloved actress (“Harry Potter,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and women’s rights advocate, recently sat down with author and respected activist Margaret Atwood to discuss the enormous legacy of Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” for Entertainment Weekly. Below are some of the best exchanges from that conversation.
On the inspirations behind “The Handmaid’s Tale”:
Image courtesy of CBC
Watson: You were living in West Berlin when you wrote “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 1984; it was before the wall came down. Was being in a divided city a big influence on the novel or had you been thinking about it before you arrived in Berlin? I’d love to know how the novel came about.
Atwood: There were three inspirations. First, what right wing people were already saying in 1980. They were saying the kinds of things they’re now doing, but at that time they didn’t have the power to do them…. The second inspiration was historical. The 17th-century foundation of America was not, “Let’s have a democracy.” It was “Let’s have a theocracy,” which was what they established in the New England states, such as Massachusetts… The third inspiration was simply my reading of speculative fiction and sci-fi, especially that of the ’30’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s, and my desire to give the form a try. Most of the ones I’d read had been written by men and had male protagonists, and I wanted to flip that and see what such a thing would look like if it were told from the point of view of a female narrator.
On the staying power and popularity of the novel:
Image courtesy of International Business Times
Watson: What is it about it, do you think, that makes it so endlessly interesting to new generations of readers, beyond the fact that it speaks to a specific political moment?
Atwood: There were a couple of rules I had for writing it, and one of them was that I would put nothing into it that had not been done at some time or in some place. All of the details have precedents in real life. The television series is following the same rule — they’ve added in some stuff, such as female genital mutilation, but they’re keeping to the rule that nothing goes in that doesn’t have a precedent in reality… So the book isn’t a violation of human nature, and it’s not a just an invention. It’s based on stuff that people have really done and therefore could do again.
On Bonding Over “The Circle”:
Image courtesy of Geek.com
Watson: I’ve just done a film called The Circle which is about how easy it is and would be to control huge groups of people with the amount of data that’s been collected.
Atwood: Dave Eggers’ book?
Watson: Yes, exactly.
Atwood: I reviewed it for the New York Review of Books.
Watson: I’ll have to read it—that’s amazing. Well, I read the book and became kind of obsessed with it.
Atwood: My review will explain the cover to you. [laughs] My theory is that it’s a manhole cover.
On adapting her books for other mediums:
Image courtesy of The Washington Post
Atwood: Working on it is like summer camp for grown ups — if the weather is nice and you like the people, it’s a joy, but if the weather is horrible and you don’t like the people it’s hell, and your parents won’t come and take you home.
Watson: This is the gamble we all take!
On the patriarchy and the meaning of the word “feminist”:
Image courtesy of TED.com
Watson: We live in a patriarchy, we live in a particular power structure. Do you think it’s possible for all women to be harmonious with each other? I’m interested in whether it’s harder because of the shape of the power structure and our place within it.
Atwood: Of course; there are hard things. But we’re human beings! It’s possible for men to be harmonious with one another even though they’re often very competitive. But women too are human beings, that’s my foundational belief — so they’re not exempt from the emotions that human beings have…
And we don’t live in just “a” patriarchy, we live in a number of different kinds of patriarchies. You can pinpoint the moment in which women started to be treated markedly worse than men (advent of wheat and agriculture)… So all of that is to be taken into consideration; but none of it means that women are exempt from bad individual behavior towards one another.
Watson: Definitely not! Misogyny has no gender.
Watson: Are you bored of the “Are you a feminist” question? You must have been asked that a lot whilst talking about the new TV show.
Atwood: I’m not bored with it, but we have to realize it’s become one of those general terms that can mean a whole bunch of different things, so I usually say, “Tell me what you mean by that word and then we can talk.” If people can’t tell me what they mean, then they don’t really have an idea in their heads of what they’re talking about.
Watson: I agree. I think there’s still a huge amount of confusion and misconception around the word, so it can become tricky territory.
Atwood: It’s like Christians. Do we mean the Pope? Do we mean Mormons? What are we talking about here? Because they’re quite different.
On the political necessity of artists:
Image courtesy of New World Encyclopedia
Watson: No, no, but I was wondering if you could talk about a couple of the causes that you campaign for and what you’ve learned about campaigning over the years as you’ve been doing.
Atwood: Okay, so I often get asked to be a spokesperson for a very simple reason, and that reason is that I don’t have a job. So I can’t be fired. A lot of people would like to say those things but they have jobs and they may have families, and they would put themselves in jeopardy if they said some of the kinds of things that I do. So that’s why artists and writers are so often picked. They can’t be fired. They can vilified, people can call them names…but they can’t actually be dismissed.
On their childhoods and living life without fear:
Image courtesy of Belfast Telegraph
Watson: Yes, yes, very true. You have your own perspective, and you think for yourself. I’m really interested in how you came to be this person that believed in her own perspective and opinion.
Atwood: You mean not easily frightened?
Watson: Yes! That’s exactly what I mean.
Atwood [laughs]: Okay, so Emma, I grew up in the woods. It gives you a different viewpoint; I was improperly socialized. I think if I’d grown up in a small town or if I’d been sent to a girls’ boarding school when I was four, as some of my acquaintances were, things would be somewhat different.
Watson: I didn’t grow up in the woods, but sometimes I do get myself in sticky situations, by being a little braver than I quite know how to be, but the reverse is that you spend time fearing fear itself which I don’t find particularly instructive or helpful either.
Atwood: So we should try for pragmatic realism, I suppose.
Watson: Yes, yes, that’s the goal, that’s the dream—pragmatic realism.
Atwood [laughs]: Well, good luck with it!
Featured image courtesy of PlayGround.