The Handmaid's Tale has not been out of print since it was first published, back in 1985. It has sold millions of copies worldwide and has appeared in a bewildering number of translations and editions. It has become a sort of tag for those writing about shifts towards policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women's bodies and reproductive functions: "Like something out of The Handmaid's Tale" and "Here comes The Handmaid's Tale" have become familiar phrases. It has been expelled from high schools, and has inspired odd website blogs discussing its descriptions of the repression of women as if they were recipes. People – not only women – have sent me photographs of their bodies with phrases from The Handmaid's Tale tattooed on them, "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" and "Are there any questions?" being the most frequent. The book has had several dramatic incarnations, a film (with screenplay by Harold Pinter and direction by Volker Schlöndorff) and an opera (by Poul Ruders) among them. Revellers dress up as Handmaids on Hallowe'en and also for protest marches – these two uses of its costumes mirroring its doubleness. Is it entertainment or dire political prophecy? Can it be both? I did not anticipate any of this when I was writing the book.
I began this book almost 30 years ago, in the spring of 1984, while living in West Berlin – still encircled, at that time, by the Berlin Wall. The book was not called The Handmaid's Tale at first – it was called Offred – but I note in my journal that its name changed on 3 January 1985, when almost 150 pages had been written.
That's about all I can note, however. In my journal there are the usual writerly whines, such as: "I am working my way back into writing after too long away – I lose my nerve, or think instead of the horrors of publication and what I will be accused of in reviews." There are entries concerning the weather; rain and thunder come in for special mentions. I chronicle the finding of puffballs, always a source of glee; dinner parties, with lists of those who attended and what was cooked; illnesses, my own and those of others; and the deaths of friends. There are books read, speeches given, trips made. There are page counts; I had a habit of writing down the pages completed as a way of urging myself on. But there are no reflections at all about the actual composition or subject matter of the book itself. Perhaps that was because I thought I knew where it was going, and felt no need to interrogate myself.
I recall that I was writing by hand, then transcribing with the aid of a typewriter, then scribbling on the typed pages, then giving these to a professional typist: personal computers were in their infancy in 1985. I see that I left Berlin in June 1984, returned to Canada, wrote through the fall, then spent four months in early 1985 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I held an MFA chair. I finished the book there; the first person to read it was a fellow writer, Valerie Martin, who was also there at that time. I recall her saying: "I think you've got something here." She herself remembers more enthusiasm.
From 12 September 1984 to June 1985 all is blank in my journal – there is nothing at all set down, not even a puffball – though by my page-count entries it seems I was writing at white-hot speed. On 10 June there is a cryptic entry: "Finished editing Handmaid's Tale last week." The page proofs had been read by 19 August. The book appeared in Canada in the fall of 1985 to baffled and sometimes anxious reviews – could it happen here? – but there is no journal commentary on these by me. On 16 November I find another writerly whine: "I feel sucked hollow." To which I added: "But functional."