'The Handmaid’s Tale' author Margaret Atwood on President Donald Trump's America: 'We’re not living in Gilead yet, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on'

"I didn't put anything into the book that people had not already done."

May 4, 2018, 2:42 PM

Hulu’s award-winning show “The Handmaid’s Tale” can be tough to watch, because the brutality toward women is relentless.

But to Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author who wrote the 1985 novel on which the series is based, the book and show are a cautionary tale.

“I didn't put anything into the book that people had not already done at some time, some place. And the show is following that,” Atwood, 78, told ABC News’ “Nightline.”

When Atwood’s book first came out, some prominent feminists said it lacked the ring of truth.

Mary McCarthy wrote in her New York Times book review: “I just can't see the intolerance of the far right, presently directed not only at abortion clinics and homosexuals but also at high school libraries and small-town schoolteachers, as leading to a super-biblical puritanism by which procreation will be insisted on and reading of any kind banned.”

Feminism, McCarthy argued, had already started to vanquish the worst of male chauvinism. A rollback of women’s rights as extreme as what Atwood projected just wasn’t likely.

More than 30 years later, the huge success of the Hulu show has driven Atwood’s book, now a feminist classic, to the top of the bestsellers list.

But Atwood doesn’t believe she’s having the last laugh.

“I don’t enjoy being right, because being right means that we are where we are,” she said. “And that’s, that’s not a fun place.”

“I would rather be where Mary McCarthy thought we would be,” she said. “I would rather she had been right.”

Atwood points to attacks on the freedom of the press, the prevalence of sexual harassment, and an erosion of reproductive rights as symptoms of a larger culture of misogyny in the US.

“We’re not living in Gilead yet, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on,” she said.

Gilead is what’s left of the US, in the world Atwood imagined after a cataclysmic civil war. It’s a theocracy as well as a police state in which women’s rights have been severely restricted.

Women are forbidden to read or write. Fertile women are enslaved, forced to be surrogate mothers for the ruling class. Procreation takes place through a ritual of rape, and the handmaids are forced to give up their babies.

Of course, that’s not to say the US is there yet. But, Atwood argues, many women are worried and angry, after the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of President Donald Trump. That’s what she believes accounts for the phenomenal success of the TV show.

“People woke up on the 9th of November, people in the show, and they said we’re in a different show. Nothing about the show had changed. But,” she said, “the frame had changed.”

In Atwood’s world, Canada becomes an escape valve, a society with markedly different values than its neighbor to the South.

“Canada is the escape. It’s not the Utopia. It’s where you try to get to so you won’t be you know killed, locked up, those things,” Atwood said. “And it has been that before. It was that for escaping slaves before the American Civil War, it was certainly that during the Vietnam War and it has been that at various other times.”

Atwood, Canada’s most celebrated living author, insists the two countries are very different. “Because the foundations of America are a 17th century Puritan theocracy. That has been an underlying foundation stone all the way along. And it’s not the foundation of Canada,” she said

The show, now in its second season, stars Elisabeth Moss as the handmaid Offred, aka June Osborne. The first season tracked closely with Atwood’s novel, adapting it to the screen. The new season ventures beyond Atwood’s original story.

Atwood is advising the show’s writers and producers going forward, but says she doesn’t have veto power over the direction the show will take.

“No author ever has veto power,” she said. “I have consultation power.”

She said one reason she never wrote a sequel is that she couldn’t decide what would happen to Offred.

“Sometimes I think she escapes out of Bangor, Maine, or goes to Canada and then gets over to Europe somehow. And sometimes I think, ‘No, they catch her.’”

She’s delighted with the scenario the show’s writers have come up with for season 2. But won’t say more.

“My lips are sealed. But you will be surprised. You will be surprised and then you will be surprised again and then after that you will also be surprised.”

Watch the full story on ABC News' "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET.