What Happened to Offred? Margaret Atwood’s Big Sequel Answers Readers’ Questions

Posted by Hayley on September 9, 2019
For having one of literature’s most famous cliffhangers, The Handmaid’s Tale ends on a taunt of a last line: “Are there any questions?”

Oh, have there been questions. Margaret Atwood has heard them all. She published her groundbreaking novel in 1985 and has watched the book become a classic—as well as a movie, an opera, a ballet, an award-winning television series, and the launch pad for an entire subgenre of feminist dystopian fiction.

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Set in a totalitarian regime in a near-future New England, The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by Offred, a woman forced to live as a concubine. Her harrowing tale culminates in a leap of faith. She steps into a van, not knowing if salvation or ruin awaits.

So what was Offred’s fate? For decades, Atwood wouldn’t say. Readers came to terms with the ambiguity, though some could console themselves with the continuation of Offred’s story as depicted in the ongoing TV adaptation.

Then a literary bombshell of an announcement: In November 2018, Atwood announced she would be releasing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments would pick up the story 15 years later with the testimonies of three female narrators from Gilead. It hits bookshelves September 10.

Of course, we wouldn’t dare to give any spoilers here. Instead Goodreads editor Hayley Igarashi talked with Atwood about how current events inspired her return to Gilead, why she told The Handmaid’s Tale TV writers not to kill off Aunt Lydia, and what, despite her “Prophet of Dystopia” nickname, makes her optimistic about the future.

Goodreads: There has been so much secrecy around The Testaments—for good reason!

Margaret Atwood: People have been basically trying to kidnap it. Let’s see what happens! It’ll be quite the event.

GR: The Handmaid’s Tale famously ends on a doozy of a cliffhanger. Did you have an idea, back when you wrote it, that you’d one day want to return?

MA: No, I did not. And over the years, people have said, “Are you going to write a sequel? Please write a sequel!” And I always said no because sequels, to them and to me, meant the continuation of the story of Offred in her voice. And I would not have been able to do that. So I said no to that.

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But as time went on and we started moving not away from Gilead but toward Gilead, I saw there was a different way of approaching the story, which was how does Gilead fall apart. Or how does it begin to fall apart, because we know from The Handmaid’s Tale that it does end. We just don’t know how.

GR: You perhaps could not have had a more apt backdrop for beginning to write The Handmaid’s Tale: It was 1984, and you were in West Berlin. When did you start writing The Testaments?

MA: I do have a lot of my handwritten pages and notes from my creative thinking stage, but unfortunately I didn’t date them. I’d say that was around 2015 and 2016.

By 2017, the ideas were all pretty much there. I sent half a page to my publishers in February 2017 saying what the book was going to be.

GR: I want to congratulate you for making the Booker Prize longlist! Because the judges got to read the book before the public, all they could say was that it’s “terrifying and exhilarating.”

MA: [Laughs] I’ll take that! If they had said “soporific and soothing,” I wouldn’t have been quite so pleased.

GR: How does their description compare with your experience of writing the book?

MA: About the same. [Laughs] It was terrifying and exhilarating partly because who knew what was going to happen next? I mean, not only in the book but in my life. It was all quite a roller coaster.

GR: Tell me a bit about your female narrators and their place in Gilead.

MA: One happens to be part of the second generation of people who grow up in a totalitarian society. The first generation are the founders. They’re usually possessed of burning true belief or an extreme desire for power.

What happens to their children? Once the structures of the totalitarian society are in place, how do young people move through them?

And then we have the Aunts, who are women in positions of power over other women. How do people in totalitarian regimes get their position? Is it not true that groups wishing to suppress other groups usually raise up a group from within the oppressed group to do the oppression? Historically, that’s been the case.

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GR: While reading The Testaments, I was struck by how chilling it was to see the handmaids through these other women’s eyes.

MA: Well, they don’t know the handmaids. They don’t have personal relationships with them. The handmaids are sort of like sacred monsters to the younger women.

That’s how it would be. That’s how it has been. If you have a privileged position in the hierarchy of descending position, you want to keep your position, not risk it to help people who are not at that level.

GR: You were given the moniker “Prophet of Dystopia” by The New Yorker, but that’s rather grim. What about the future are you optimistic about?

MA: I’m quite optimistic about the under-18-year-olds right now. They are not sitting on their hands. Particularly the Extinction Rebellion folks. They know that we are in a serious position, and they are taking it seriously.

They’re making politicians take it seriously, too. Because although they may not be able to vote today, they’re going to be voting in a couple of years.

And even young Republicans are telling old Republicans: “Come out of your shell.” Because voters are now concerned. All that propaganda politicians did in the 1990s may have worked temporarily, but now that the Arctic is on fire and a great big section of the American heartland is flooded, people want these things taken seriously.

GR: Do you think there could be more room on our bookshelves in the coming years for more utopian fiction?

MA: You know, I’ve heard that talked about! I’ve seen it happening in nonfiction books—people giving ideas about how the future could be different in a positive way.

If you’re interested in that, the best place I could refer you to is a website called Project Drawdown as well as the book Drawdown. They lay out all the things we’re doing now that have the effect of drawing down carbon out of the atmosphere, or not releasing it in the first place. It’s not just all about oil. Some of it is about soil. Organic soil just holds a lot more carbon and water.

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And then there are always unexpected things that happen that change things. For instance, all the smoke pouring out of the tundra that’s on fire. That makes things harder.

How much of a feedback loop are we in, and how much do we have to do to get out of it? That is the burning question. Pun intended!

GR: I want to talk a little about the ongoing Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Did that affect or inspire the story you told in The Testaments?

MA: They were writing seasons 2 and 3 when I was writing the book. [Laughs] It was sort of an in-tandem operation.

I did tell Bruce Miller, who is the showrunner: “You can’t kill Aunt Lydia! Hands off Aunt Lydia! She must live.”

And he said, “I wasn’t going to kill her anyway.”

They were a very devoted team, and they followed the first rule, which is this: Nothing goes in that doesn’t have a precedent in real-life history. They do their research.

In the show, Offred skirts along the line pretty closely. I’m pretty sure Hitler would have killed her by now. But because she’s got some complicit-on-her-side things, she’s managing to survive.

GR: You had a brief cameo in Season 1. Can you tell me what it was like to be on that set?

MA: Well, it was thrilling to watch that scene get rehearsed. Because you see what a big difference a couple of small changes can make. Because television is very up close and visible. Nothing in it is non-specific. You can’t avoid seeing everything. Just a different expression of the face or a different gesture can completely change the meaning.

I got to see Ann Dowd in action. What a performance. And I had Elisabeth Moss say, “Hit me harder!” [Laughs] “Give me a real smack!”

And I told her, “No, no, I don’t want to hurt you. Let someone else do it!”

GR: One of my favorite things about you as a writer is your insatiable curiosity. What’s currently piquing your interest?

MA: A few things. The ongoing bird conservation and conservation in general. And the work of Equality Now after #MeToo.

Different kind of technology as well. I’m also keen on—and am an investor in—Recompose, a company that composts your corpse, which is carbon beneficial. You get put into a pod and you come out as compost. No fossil fuels used.

I think they sound pretty good! They promise tasteful facilities. They’re in Seattle. They began this thing called the Urban Death Project, which immediately caught my attention. They changed their name to Recompose to be more user-friendly.

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Which, by the way, is what my publishers did with my book on writing—from the title “Negotiating with the Dead” to On Writers and Writing. They said to maybe get rid of the “D” word. [Laughs] It puts people off.

GR: Are you tempted to return to the worlds of any of your other books?

MA: I never really speculate about what I might do in the future because every time I have speculated I’ve been wrong.

And then if I speculate out loud, people say, “You said you were going to do that. Why didn’t you do it?”

I tell them it’s just not working, and then they want to know why it’s not working. I say it’s because it just didn’t feel right, and they want to know why it didn’t feel right.

I can get sucked down that rabbit hole pretty quickly. A lot of times you don’t know why it’s not working. You can just feel it. And at that point you put it in a drawer.

Stephen King has just reissued his book on writing, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He says much the same thing. Sometimes it’s just not working. A lot of it is touchy, feely stuff.

GR: In 2017, you wrote a new introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale, where you talked about the “Dear Reader” for whom every writer writes. You said that many of those individual readers become writers in their turn and how especially important that is in this day and age.

MA: Yes, it is important. Those writers have to make up their own minds about the world. They have to make up their own minds about the books they want to write.

There is a whole generation now of female authors writing dystopias, and they sometimes say to me, “I read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school.” [Laughs]

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And what did I read in high school? I read 1984, which made a big impression on me. I also read Fahrenheit 451 and similar books of that kind.

I think we are quite influenced by what we read in high school. But it takes us a while to acquire the skills and craft to create our own.

GR: What’s a writing tip you wish you could have given your younger self?

MA: Learn to type! [Laughs] It would’ve saved so much time, but of course, one didn’t. And it would’ve been a great help if I had known how to touch type. But I didn’t, and that’s just where we are.

I also would say to myself: Why don’t you make your handwriting more legible so other people can type your manuscripts. Way too late for that now!

I sometimes tell writers to do the back exercises now because otherwise you’re going to be hunched over the keyboard. And you will get neck pain. [Laughs] It’s all very practical.

Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Testaments, will be available in the U.S. on September 10. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-50 of 59 (59 new)

message 1: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Russell I came across The Handmaid's Tale in 1985 by accident, and I loved it! I've reread it often. I'm looking forward to the sequel, please to know that it has gotten good reviews.

message 2: by Sarah (new)

Sarah I also read Handmaids Tale when it was first released! I was one of the fortunate people in Toronto to be invited to the premier of the movie! Margaret spoke elegantly of course! I eagerly await ‘The Testamont’. A proud Canadian ..... she the North!

message 3: by Alexa (last edited Sep 09, 2019 09:27PM) (new)

Alexa Please live to 150 and write more books, Margaret!

message 4: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I am so excited by this, my copy should be arriving today, so the husband will likely be abandoned for a couple of days...

message 5: by Priscillia (new)

Priscillia From Singapore right here and I LOVE THT. I reread it countless times and the words are all in my veins. Today is the official publish day and I have ordered it immediately!

message 6: by Darren (new)

Darren James WhT a fantastic author. It was great to listen to her at Hay last year. I am working through her superb back catalogue in a rather random order.

message 7: by Almond (new)

Almond I was lucky enough to meet Margaret Atwood when she gave a talk to a very small audience at Newcastle University . This was at the release of the Handmaids Tale. By this point I had already read Edible Woman. I have been a huge fan ever since and have been thrilled to see her work reach out to a much wider audience. Tonight I will be seeing her talk streamed live into UK cinemas. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a ticket to see her live talk at the Sage in Gateshead (a huge concert hall). It sold out practically in seconds after tickets were released. Much as I am jealous that I couldn’t get in I am happy that she has inspired a new generation of women. After all, how can you read her books and not think deeply about the world we live in.

message 8: by Jillian (new)

Jillian Louise I purchased my copy today. I have reread The Handmaid’s Tale several times over the years and cannot wait to read the sequel.

message 9: by F.J. (new)

F.J. Commelin Thanks so much for mailing me this link. I do look forward to read The Testaments. Her unique style in writing mesmerizes me most of the time. One of my other favorites by her is Cat's eye, which I keep rereading.

message 10: by Lisa Thompson (new)

Lisa Thompson Thank you for emailing me this! I have The Testaments downloaded into my kindle, and as soon as my work day is done will be diving in.

message 11: by and (new)

and margaret come to mantova at festivaletteratura again next year please!!!

message 12: by Susan (new)

Susan Radosta I have re-read THE HANDMAID'S TALE several times. One of my all times favorite.
I have THE TESTAMENTS downloaded into my Kindle.
Can't wait to start reading it!!!!

message 13: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Thanks for sending me this link. I read The Handmaid's Tale back in 1985 or 86 and have re-read it a number of times since. Really looking forward to tucking into The Testaments!

message 14: by James (new)

James So grateful to Goodreads for posting this interview. Ms. Attwood has helped this old man learn about humanity, women, misogyny, and hope through all of her novels. Her insights into the human condition make each of her novels a compelling odyssey of discovery.

message 15: by Ivana (new)

Ivana Books Are Magic Wonderful interview! I really enjoyed reading this. I really like how Margaret is always approachable but at the same time interesting and thought-provoking. Thank you goodreads.

message 16: by Samah (new)

Samah (The Nerdy Blogger) Ms Attwood saying she went back to the Hanadmaid's Tale world after seeing we're going toward Gilead and not away from it scared me.

message 17: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Carson Definitely on my to-read list. After the ironic appendix to the Handmaid's Tale, in which it was made clear that the future society which prided itself on having abolished theocracy and patriarchy wasn't really all that, I'm curious as to how the sequel fits in.

I totally agree on the need for more utopias. Some of my favorites are the possible future society in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, KSR's Mars Trilogy and Cory Doctorow's Walkaway.

message 18: by thattherepaul (new)

thattherepaul I appreciate goodreads taking the trouble to interview Margaret Atwood and Margaret Atwood for agreeing to be interviewed and giving such thoughtful answers. She is so kick-ass, I love her! I also appreciate Kevin's message immediately above, and Kevin, if you read this, I would be interested in some of your favorite dysptopia books? Others who read this, what other dystopias like The Handmaid's Tale did you find unforgettable? For me, it would be Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel, The Road.
- https://www.amazon.com/gp/profile/amz...

message 19: by Maria (new)

Maria Siopis She is absolutely one of my favorite authors. Love her style and her twisted plots and I’ll continue reading her work because she is has a unique voice.

message 20: by Theresa (new)

Theresa Thanks for the interview. I'm an Atwood fan. I am a retired Women's Studies professor and used The Handmaid's Tale in my Violence Against Women's class. It's brilliant and served my students well. It allowed them to see what potential effects could result from current events. I look forward to reading Testaments.

message 21: by Sue (new)

Sue Brilliant interview. The long awaited sequel....I pick up my copy soon and will be totally absorbed. The Handmaids Tale has had so much influence, a brilliant, scary and insightful warning of a novel. Thank you Margaret.

message 22: by Alee (new)

Alee OH Espero pronto llegue el correo con éste libro ❤️

message 23: by Tanya (new)

Tanya Not going to read this until I'm done with the book, just in case. Halfway through and I'm loving it.

message 24: by Miss (new)

Miss Drummond Best birthday present ever! So exciting :)

message 25: by tenzin (last edited Sep 11, 2019 02:44AM) (new)

tenzin I am quite happy with how The Handmaid's Tale unfolded and ended. However, seeing this interview makes me want to read what happens next.

message 26: by Patricia (last edited Sep 11, 2019 03:57AM) (new)

Patricia Bowen I read Handmaid's Tale again, this time in tandem with my teen-aged granddaughter, and it was quite the catalyst for discussion. Looking forward to doing the same with Testament.

Love her final comment at the end of the interview about writers' neck pain. She is so right. I taped a reminder to the bottom of my keyboard that says 'posture'.

message 27: by Zhana (new)

Zhana Zhana I read The Handmaid's Tale many years ago, after I saw the TV movie with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. the book is so well-written. It's amazing. Also highly disturbing.

I recall one commentator saying, "How did she know?", after information came out about what was happening in Afghanistan under the Taliban. So similar to what Margaret Atwood put in the original book.

The TV series is so disturbing as well. Don't know if I can bear to read Testaments. But I'm glad the new book is doing so well. It raises some important points about what happens with the next generation. And what happened in the past - I was not aware until I read this interview that it was entirely based on history.

message 28: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Moore I first read Handmaid’s Tale back when I was a teenager and my mom actually recommended it. It made such an impact on me!

message 29: by Frances (new)

Frances Beldia Thank you for letting me know about this interview. Can't wait to read this one!

message 30: by Kris (new)

Kris Heywood I finished The Testament in a couple of days. It was riveting, fast-moving, and as always beautifully written. It was a pleasure to read. I liked the depth Atwood gave to Aunt Lydia. There is pure evil, which would be Judd, and then there are extenuating circumstances, or evil layered with vision and laced with occasional goodness, and that would be Lydia. It is true that when we explore the landscape of evil, we often discover extenuating circumstances. A villain without depth is a cardboard character. Margaret gives us well-rounded evil, and shows us there can be redeeming qualities even in the worst of it.

message 31: by TMR (new)

TMR Heard about the handmaids tale first time when I was beginning highschool and generally in the book community. But I am definitely intrigued to start this series.

message 32: by Pulse (new)

Pulse What a legend.

message 33: by patricia (new)

patricia Pat I bought my copy on9/10 in Bam and there were only 4 left, there might have been more in the back but maybe not. hope to start soon.

message 34: by Leilani (new)

Leilani Leí el cuento de la criada principios de año, y la verdad ha sido una de mis mejores lecturas; me encanta, espero con ansias leer más de esta increíble autora.
Me encantaron los tips.

message 35: by Penny (new)

Penny I am one of those women who can say 'I read 'The Handmaid's Tale' in High School and it did inspire me to write too'. I am so eternally grateful to my English teacher who chose it for us to read while other classes got to read more fluffy stuff. And a few years ago I finally read '1984' and was stunned by that book too.

I can say that I never expected a sequel, I did like the original open-ended ending, but I am looking forward to reading 'The Testaments' with much intrepid excitement anyway. Thank you Margaret!

message 36: by Shereen (new)

Shereen Martin I read The Edible Women in the late 70's it made such an impression on me that I never wanted to get married and lose my sense of self and purpose. The Handmaids Tale really spoke to me about the suppression of women in our society even today it stands as a testament of the forced suppression of women. The sequel is timely and needed to show young women of today that they will leaders in the future...so mot it be

message 37: by M. (new)

M. Torres I read Handmaid's Tale many years ago and again before starting to watch the series. Can't wait to read The Testaments! Terrifying and, especially given the hard turn to the right our world is taking, absolutely realistic :-(

message 38: by Lena (new)

Lena D. Great interview and a good insight as to how the sequel finally came about.

message 39: by joanne hunter (new)

joanne hunter I have just finished Testaments, and was very glad to read your interview with Margaret Atwood. The book is terrifying and revealing. So much of the plot is already written in from history, and our present-day situation. It never fails to surprise me how many women I know are unaware of female suppression in our present society and around the world. May be they don't want to look it straight in the face? Margaret Atwood makes us aware. The geographic location of Testaments is timely : I live in Canada, and I would join the Mayday organisation to help the escapees. (Sorry, spoiler!) I haven't read the Handmaid's Tale, probably because it became too commercialised for me. Now I will read it: thanks!

message 40: by Carol (new)

Carol Daeley I was lucky enough to be in the Sheldonian with Margaret Atwood on November 9 2016. Her always calm, witty, wry presence was the best thing that could have happened that night, except for the discovery of a few more votes in Florida. I'm grateful to her for so much over so many years. The Handmaid's Tale, The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, the Oryx and Crake trilogy, Hag-Seed, and my favorite, Alias Grace. I gulped The Testaments down in one sitting and now am re-reading it slowly. And I'm getting a little pushy with some friends about finishing it so we can talk about it. It's funny, heartbreaking, realistic, idealistic, humane. What a gift to her readers.

message 41: by Melissa (new)

Melissa If she really wanted to write about female oppression she would set her novels in the Middle East or Somalia not with evangelical Christians. Or just sit in the Detroit airport and watch Jersey Shore velour tracksuit clad men followed by a harem of women cloaked in black tents. Clitorectomy isn’t practiced by Christians. Neither is honor killings. She’s just a crazy old bat who hated Reagan and throws shade at Southerners by stating Mississippi has no authors - hello - Faulkner is better than she will ever be!

message 42: by Linda (new)

Linda Cummings This isn't a place to slag someone off and get personal. We all know that our christianity does not practise the 2 things you mentioned. This is dystopia ! It is how the "Gileads" interpreted the bible for their own justification. Like most religious bodies do. Go praise Faulkner somewhere else, and leave us, her fans, to compliment Margaret Atwood here.

message 43: by Charly (new)

Charly George I watched the series, now I have got to read the book. Movie is excellent. Please write a sequel!♥️

message 44: by Charlene (new)

Charlene Roberson Melissa wrote: "If she really wanted to write about female oppression she would set her novels in the Middle East or Somalia not with evangelical Christians. Or just sit in the Detroit airport and watch Jersey Sho..."
Hooray for you for FINALLY saying what so many of us are thinking.!!

message 45: by Monique (last edited Sep 17, 2019 10:00AM) (new)

Monique Melissa wrote: "Clitorectomy isn’t practiced by Christians. Neither is honor killings."

and Linda wrote: "We all know that our christianity does not practise the 2 things you mentioned."

Mmm. Might want to brush up on your history. People calling themselves Christian have done and continue to do much of this. You're very lucky that you haven't personally run across them, but trust me they do exist (and right here in the good old 'Sip, too).

message 46: by Ashlie (new)

Ashlie Manger Still haven't read The Handmaid's Tale, enjoy the show, but this was a good interview and the new book makes me want to read the first even more now.

message 47: by Claudia (new)

Claudia Schumann I'm doing a 2nd (skim) read of The Handmaid's Tale to refresh my memory before I start The Testaments. The Handmaid's Tale was one of my favorite books. Also read the MaddAddam Trilogy, The Edible Woman. She is superb writer and prolific. I plan on reading some of her poetry.

message 48: by Chicagomel (new)

Chicagomel I do wish people would realize that protecting the rights and lives of unborn children isn’t taking away any rights of women. No one’s making anyone get pregnant. Don’t want a baby, abstain or use birth control. But society needs to accept that murdering children is not ok. Unborn rights are human rights.

message 49: by Mojojo (new)

Mojojo Not sure if you are male or female from your name, but your comments seem to suggest you are male. Birth control doesn't always work and sometimes husbands and boyfriends don't always take no for an answer. And I personally have never known any woman who has used abortion as a form of birth control. It is a last resort. But what "society needs to accept" is that not every woman is automatically a good mother and not every woman can financially afford to raise a child. What I want to know is when the "right-to-lifers" are going to put their money where their mouths are and start adopting unwanted babies and take the burden off of women who find themselves pregnant with no other options. And P.S. - an unborn baby is known as a fetus.

message 50: by Mansi (new)

Mansi What a lovely interview, Hayley. Having read both The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments and not watching more than one episode of the series, I feel that The Testaments is more a different perspective to the totalitarian society rather than a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. The juxtaposition of the narrators just makes you feel to what extent can an entire species just be made to believe something completely detrimental. You almost thank your stars for being born and grown up in the society you have.

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