her perch in Toronto, author Margaret Atwood has been
watching the American political landscape with a cat’s
watchful eye. Along with George Orwell’s
"1984," Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel,
"The Handmaid’s Tale," recently returned to
the Amazon best-seller lists. The Hulu TV version of the
novel, premiering in April, has no doubt spurred
interest, but it’s also a response to Donald Trump’s
America, where Gilead, Atwood’s imagined theocracy in
which women are forced into bearing children, seems more
possible than ever.
talking today about her graphic novel series,
"Angel Catbird," which debuted in 2016 to
sparkling acclaim. "Volume 2" arrived on
Valentine’s Day, and "Volume 3" comes out in
July. Since she’s cranking out sequels, it’s too
tempting to ask: Is she thinking of a follow-up to
"The Handmaid’s Tale"?
tell you the truth, yes. But I don’t know whether that
will happen or not. I’ve certainly been thinking about
it," she says, declining to reveal more. The
political climate, Atwood wryly notes, "changes day
by day — you never know what wondrous surprise will be
sprung on you."
today though, she has set herself a far more enjoyable
task: To figure out what kind of sound Angel Catbird,
the hybrid cat-owl-human at the center of her graphic
novels, would make for an upcoming audiobook that will
be performed like a ’40s radio play. "Would he
make a whoo-meow or a meow-whoo?" she asks, trying
out each with her soft voice before breaking into raspy
all her reputation as a serious author of dystopian
drama, Atwood is quick to laugh. She also occasionally
imitates a know-it-all elderly type in a high voice so
jarring that I thought another person had broken into
our phone line. The voice — "excuse me, dear, I’m
old enough to remember all this" — mostly comes
out when we’re talking about political history. At 77,
Atwood has witnessed many iterations, and they have
always banged around in her imagination. When she was a
little girl, Atwood drew cat-people holding balloons,
which she’d only seen in books because balloons weren’t
available in Canada during World War II. Those same
dream animals and their forbidden worlds show up in
by artist Johnnie Christmas and colorist Tamra
Bonvillain, "Angel Catbird" is a fantasia
firmly rooted in Atwood’s playful side, though not
without its bleak undertones. "Volume 2"
follows the same cast of shape-shifting characters,
including Strig Feleedus, a genetic engineer hybridized
with his pet cat and a preying owl in a chemical
spill-cum-car accident. He’s battling his villainous
lab boss, a rat-human hell-bent on wiping out all other
species, especially the cat-humans whom Angel Catbird
aligns with, mostly to spend time with sexy fellow
scientist Cate Leone.
all of Cate’s friends welcome him with open paws —
put off by his owlish tendencies, some call him a freak.
In our era of transphobia and white nationalism,
"Angel Catbird" is a clever metaphor for
people’s discomfort with those who don’t fit into
the accepted binaries. You haven’t seen identity
struggles until you’ve seen a man with talons, cat
eyes and a set of humongous wings convince himself not
to eat a fellow bird for supper.
didn’t purposely write characters who could be read as
transgender or biracial, but she sees them as being part
of a long legacy of transformation. "People in
comics have always been pretty malleable," she
said. "We’re in the land of saints and gods here,
and the saints and gods, particularly the gods, have
always been notorious shapeshifters." She brings up
Captain Marvel, who transforms from little boy Billy
Batson with the call of Shazam, derived from the
mythical figures Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus,
Achilles and Mercury.
may seem like a 20th century invention, but
"stories beget other stories," says Atwood.
"Mine is an homage to the comics of the late ’40s
— but where did that style come from itself? The roots
of these stories go very deep."
Atwood acknowledges that recent graphic novels like
"Maus" and "Persepolis" made it
"safe" for novelists to "act out their
sacred fantasies," Atwood’s interest in comics
isn’t a passing fancy. She’s as fluent in Wonder
Woman’s original mission (fighting Nazis) and the
Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating body
established by the comic book publishers in 1954, as any
fairy tale from Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian
Andersen, to name two wells she’s drawn from in her
doesn’t, however, let the weight of history keep her
away from a tasty cat or rat pun, of which there are
many in "Angel Catbird." The rat-army is
called the Murines (rats are part of the superfamily
Muroidea), there’s a Queen Neferkitti, and Atwood’s
particularly proud of the vampiric Count Catula, an
undead cat with bat and human attributes and several
one of its wonderfully campy scenes, Atheen-owl (half
owl, half woman) and Cate get into a fight over Angel
Catbird’s affections. Both women proudly own up to
being "catty" in a moment that asks why we don’t
let women claim their full range of behavior.
"Women are human beings," Atwood says.
"If you’re going to pretend that they’re some
angelic species at heart, then you are exempting them
from being human. You’re setting the bar impossibly
high; everyone has to behave well all the time. In what
world do men have to behave well all the time?"
of men behaving badly, Atwood has threaded environmental
and animal welfare messages throughout "Angel
Catbird" to counteract what she sees as a
frightening disregard for our planetary wellbeing. Clean
water and algae-rich oceans, for instance, "ought
to be commonly shared concerns that cross party lines.
There’s something really wrong if you think not
poisoning kids is a liberal concern."
she was in the era of writing "The Handmaid’s
Tale," Atwood is also concerned about reproductive
rights, though she thinks the battle is more complex
than environmentalism. "Whenever you have the
choice between two things (forced childbirth or abortion
rights), neither of which are good, it’s always going
to be difficult." Forced childbirth, as required in
Gilead, "has never worked out well," Atwood
says, citing Romania’s former Decree 770 which forbade
abortion for nearly all women.
she’s billed as a consulting producer, Atwood’s
involvement in the TV show isn’t on the script level,
which will leave her discovering just as much as the
rest of the Hulu viewers. So far, so good: "I’ve
seen the first episode, and it’s stunning."
is pleased the show writers have updated her book in one
key way: more nonwhite characters, most notably Samara
Wiley (Poussey from "Orange Is the New Black")
as a fellow handmaiden to Elisabeth Moss’ main
makes it better for today," Atwood says. "I
think it would be that way. In the world they’ve
created, babies trump race as it were."
the political landscape shapeshifts each day, Atwood has
words of advice for writers struggling to create in such
a fast-moving era. "1. Don’t stop. 2. Your
subjects will find you. 3. Make sure there will still be
outlets for our voices. Support publishing companies,
periodicals and newspapers." For one thing, in this
era of fake news, newspapers can still be held
accountable, Atwood says.
a recent interview with NPR, Atwood speculated that the
next big dystopian novel should be written as a
newspaper serial, "because events are evolving so
fast it would almost take a serial form to keep up with
them." But she’d never dream of telling writers
what, exactly, to write: "You can’t tell them
what to do; they will find out what to do." Angel
catbirds, it turns out, are just one of the many winged