A friend who didn’t know much about The Handmaid’s Tale, either the terrifying series or the even darker Margaret Atwood novel it was adapted from, was surprised when I called it an alternate history. All he knew was glimpses of the ads, which highlighted the show’s visual signature: Lines of meek-looking women shrouded in blazing red robes and face-hiding white bonnets. He thought it was some show about 17th century America. That’s by design. This is science fiction set in the future that looks to the past and magnifies the present…
The Handmaid’s Tale television series was not my deal. I sold the rights to MGM in 1990 to make a movie – so when the TV rights were sold to Hulu, the money went to MGM. We did not have a negotiating position. I did get brought on as an executive consultant, but that wasn’t a lot of money. People think it’s been all Hollywood glamour since the TV show happened, but that’s not happening to me. But book sales have been brisk, so there’s that.
Unlike many writers, Atwood does not require a particular desk, arranged in a particular way, before she can work. “There’s a good and a bad side to that,” she told me. “If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.” The good side is that she can write anywhere, and does so, prolifically.
So set up a writing space to all your favorite specifications. By all means, be comfortable when writing. But don’t let that stop you from writing whenever and wherever and however you need to.
A few months ago, some teenagers spraypainted swastikas and various other offensive things onto a historic black schoolhouse in Virginia. When they were sentenced, the judge said they were going to have to read a book each month for the next 12 months and write a report on each one.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks
Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind
Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas
Black Boy, by Richard Wright
The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang
Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
Too Late the Phalarope, by Alan Paton
A Dry White Season, by André Brink
Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides
Certainly several of these books would be considered standard assignments in any basic college course that dealt with multicultural or tolerance issues (Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alan Paton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Harper Lee).
But others selections are more interesting, such as Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (a North Korean defector struggles to adapt to life outside the dictatorship) or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian fiction about a theocratic America in which women are merely vessels for reproduction). It sounds like the judge is looking at a broader idea of educating here that involves not just tolerance but empathy–which is, after all, one of the greatest lessons that fiction can provide.
Because there is apparently no end to the inventive riches of Scandinavian literary culture, we now have the Future Library Project.
They are planting a forest of 1,000 pine trees in Norway north of Oslo that will be harvested a century in the future and used to print an anthology of writing. In the manner of a literary time capsule, the pieces for the anthology are being written now at the rate of one per year and held in secret until publication in 2114.
There’s something magical about it … It’s like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they’ll wake up, come to life again. It’s a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years.
Fellow quasi-futurist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks) is next up.
It’s a fascinating thing to contemplate, writing something that won’t be read until well after one is dead. The advantage? No worries about reviews. The downside? No adulation.
Still, it’s worth thinking about the next time you sit down to your next writing assignment. Pick up a book from the 1910s and see how much the language and underlying societal assumptions have changed since then. Then, taking that into consideration, start writing with an eye for timelessness. Who knows? Somebody may pick it up in 2114, on a screen or yellowed paper, and you want to make sure that they will know what you are talking about.
People don’t often think about what they need to write. Just a great idea and 10,000 hours, right? They don’t realize that writing requires tools, always. And not the ones that all those websites have been trying to sell you, either.
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s different for every writer. Maybe you’re one of those people born knowing the right word. If so, chuck the thesaurus and move on.
But she’s right about the no-whining thing. Get on with it. Writing still beats doing everything else out there. Except maybe velociraptor wrangler; that’d be cool.