From a park bench on the Victoria College campus, Margaret Atwood - class of 1961 - can trace her life of the mind.
"It was here that I decided to become a Victorian (literature student) at a time when it wasn't at all fashionable. They were considered gauche, kitsch, sentimental, absurd," she says, remembering the times she would dash back and forth across the park to take English classes on one side and history and philosophy on the other. "But the foundations of women's equality - John Stuart Mill, those kinds of thinkers - were Victorians and the position of women was a real hotbed topic, extending all the way from proper undergarments to higher education.
"One of my cherished facts is that women weren't allowed into classical art schools because they might see naked women," she adds with a laugh. "What a shock!"
Atwood is among the world's most celebrated authors and most famous Canadians, but on this humid afternoon she is undisturbed by passersby, beyond a few who momentarily turn their heads at the woman in the dark sun hat and blue buttoned shirt.
Just months shy of her 80th birthday, the longtime Toronto resident has otherwise never been more noticed. She has written the year's most anticipated novel, The Testaments, the sequel to her classic The Handmaid's Tale and a Booker Prize finalist. Its contents were so guarded over the summer that early review copies were sent under a different title for fear of their being stolen.
Atwood is a literary writer who tries not to act like one, taking mock umbrage - "Of course. What do you take me for?" - when asked if she has read The Hunger Games. She even apologises for being "too erudite," although she can no more avoid being erudite than she can avoid speaking at all. Whatever the subject - Victorian literature, resistance movements, Game of Thrones - she is not only knowledgeable, but interesting - interesting and funny, interesting and incisive. Her voice, like her writing, is level and pointed, with the slightest inflection turning the mood toward irony, scandal or foreboding.
She has written more than 40 books - novels, story collections, essays and poems - and her awards include the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin and Canada's Giller Prize for Alias Grace. She is a feminist heroine who in the introduction to a recent edition of The Handmaid's Tale defines a feminist novel not as idealising women, but humanising them, with "all the variety and character and behaviour that implies". In her fiction, women are both killers and killed, betrayers and betrayed, rebels and oppressors.
The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985 and is well settled alongside 1984, The Origins of Totalitarianism and others in the canon of books warning us how bad bad can be. In the Republic of Gilead, formed in what was Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the wake of a radical coup, women are confined within a strict caste system that determines how they dress, how they are named (some for the men they serve) and with whom they may bear children. They are forbidden to vote, have jobs, or read or write.
In announcing The Testaments last fall, she cited readers' curiosity about Gilead and, more darkly, "the world we've been living in". As she explains during her recent interview, she wrote The Handmaid's Tale in part as a response to the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s. She didn't expect to write a sequel because she didn't expect the rise of Donald Trump and the world becoming more like the original novel. Even before he became president, she was resurrecting Gilead. In February 2017, just weeks after Trump's inauguration, she sent a memo to her literary representatives that outlined The Testaments, how it would have three narrators and would be set around 15 years after Offred fled to an undetermined future.
The Handmaid's Tale anticipated much about the current moment, whether the "resistance" movement Mayday or Gilead's infamous Wall. In The Testaments, the Wall remains, the resistance is stronger than ever and so are the denials; the official Gilead News service deems such reports "all fake."
Praised by The New York Times as a "compelling sequel", The Testaments was in the top 10 on Amazon.com a week before its publication, and will become a million seller if only a fraction of Handmaid's Tale readers buy it. Atwood has received letters from readers saying her book helped them cope with depression or make sense of living in religious communities. Naomi Alderman, whom Atwood mentored as Alderman wrote her acclaimed 2016 novel The Power, says she was a teenager and an Orthodox Jew when she read The Handmaid's Tale, which "pretty well rearranged" her brain. Woman activists around the world have worn the handmaid outfits, protesting in silence against everything from anti-abortion laws in Ireland to the general policies of Trump.
"Smart protest choice. They can't be thrown out for creating a disturbance, because they are silent," Atwood observes. "They can't be thrown out for dressing immodestly. But everyone seeing them knows what they signify."
Screen adaptations of acclaimed novels have a long and often unhappy history, but the Hulu project has been embraced by Atwood, audiences and critics. The series has received six Emmys, including one for lead actress Elisabeth Moss. Atwood is pleased "they have remained true to the central premise: Nothing goes in that does not have a real-life referent." Bruce Miller, the Hulu series' creator-showrunner and executive producer, says it was "very easy to glom on to her brilliant idea," and found it more creative to search for details in history and current events than "to sit around and invent atrocities."
Atwood, born in 1939, is from the last generation of writers who lived her early years without television. The daughter of an entomologist (her father) and dietician (her mother), she spent much of the year in the North Woods of Canada, not only without TV, but without theatres, grocery stores, furnaces and flush toilets. Her imagination was formed by reading, whether comics, detective stories or The Wizard of Oz. At Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto, she studied under the influential critic Northrup Frye, a most literary scholar who nonetheless appreciated a good detective story.
Atwood first gained attention as a poet, starting in the early 1960s with Double Persephone and reaching a national audience in 1966 with The Circle Game. Her emphasis on poetry wasn't only artistic, she says - poetry was cheaper to publish than fiction, and Canadians writers in the 1960s were just beginning to establish themselves. Atwood, Nobel laureate Alice Munro and Robertson Davies were among those who helped Canadian literature become known worldwide, with Atwood's early contributions also including such novels as Surfacing and an influential work of criticism, Survival.
Her thoughts may run to the macabre and to disaster, but rarely to despair. Along with tyranny in Gilead, there is resistance, and confidence that hate is no more permanent than love. She has called herself a realist whose outlook is neither better nor worse than the world itself. But she also can't help believing that better is always possible.
"All writers are optimists," she says. "Why? Because it's a very optimistic thing to think one can actually write a book, and then to think that you can finish it, and then to think you can get it published, and then to think somebody may read it, and to think that some of them might like it.
"It's all very optimistic."