Margaret Atwood says thieves made concerted efforts to steal her manuscript for The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
The author and her publisher were targeted by “fake emails” from “cyber criminals”, trying to obtain the unpublished novel, she told the BBC.
She described the attempts as a “phishing exercise” that could have led to blackmail or identity theft.
“It was a commercial venture of a robbery kind,” Atwood said.
“People were trying to steal it. Really, they were trying to steal it and we had to use a lot of code words and passwords,” she told BBC arts correspondent Rebecca Jones.
“What would they have done with it if they had succeeded? They might have said, ‘We’ve got the manuscript, and we’re putting it up online [unless you] give us your credit card details’. Or they might have said, ‘Read this excerpt and download it. And if you downloaded it, a virus would have stolen your information’.
“Think of how terrible we all would have felt had that happened.”
In the end, the novel was kept out of thieves’ hands and a major operation was put in place to ensure plot details did not leak to the press.
Early review copies were issued under a different title for fear of their being stolen; while judges for the Booker Prize were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they could read watermarked manuscripts that were locked in drawers overnight.
Then, last week, online retailer Amazon mistakenly delivered copies of the novel to US customers a week ahead of the 10 September publication date, causing uproar amongst independent booksellers.
Atwood played down the incident, characterising it as a “boo-boo” and a “big fracas”, saying the biggest surprise was that Amazon had apologised.
“Apparently, it’s the first time they’ve ever apologised for anything ever,” said the 79-year-old. “At least, that’s what I was told.” (Never habitually contrite, Amazon has apologised at least once before, in 2009, for remotely deleting copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from people’s Kindle devices).
However, Atwood suggested that there should be financial penalty for such errors whether “on purpose or by mistake”.
“I think anybody putting an embargo in place in the future should attach a dollar amount,” she said. “They should say if you violate the embargo, this is what it will cost you and that money will go to independent bookstores.”
Despite the secrecy surrounding The Testaments, the novel has already received dozens of positive reviews, with critics deeming it an “addictively readable, fast-paced adventure” and “a rallying cry for activism“.
Set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, it returns readers to the oppressive Republic of Gilead, a dystopian future America, where women have been stripped of their rights and reduced to sexual slavery.
The original narrator, Offred, has escaped to Canada and the story is continued by three female narrators who provide differing perspectives on the regime as it begins to crumble.
Atwood says she was inspired to return to Gilead by events in “the world we’ve been living in” – and The Testaments arrives as access to abortion and women’s health services are being restricted in several US states.
“The big effort of the Trump administration in that area will be to try and get rid of Roe versus Wade,” says Atwood, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court judgement, which enshrined a woman’s right to have an abortion.
The political shift has made the story of The Handmaid’s Tale more relevant to a generation of young women who “feel they’re on the verge of having decisions made about them, and about their future and fate and body and health that they have not been able to design,” the author continues.
“Young women of reproductive age are always in the minority in any society and therefore, they’re never allowed to vote, as a group, on measures that concern them.
“So the people making the decisions are going to be men, and they’re going to be women who are not of reproductive age.”
The Canadian author says she’s been encouraged by women who adopt the Handmaid’s “uniform” of white bonnets and long, red capes to protest laws that restrict women’s rights.
“It’s a brilliant demonstration stratagem,” she says. “It started in Texas, when a number of them went into the Texas legislature where… a group of men in suits were making laws about women’s bodies.
“So there they were and you can’t kick them out, because they’re not saying anything, and you can’t kick them out because they’re dressed improperly, as they’re all covered up. But everybody looking at them knows what they mean.
“So therefore, in the age of TV, they’re very visible and very clearly signifying [resistance].”
The imagery has attained even greater cultural relevance thanks to the hit TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred.
While the first series adhered closely to Atwood’s novel, the second and third season have developed Offred’s story beyond the scope of the source material.
The Canadian writer says she reads and approves all the scripts, but has yet to sit down with the box set (“I will watch all of it when I have a little more time”).
However, she denies having written The Testaments to reclaim ownership of her story.
“I think you’re implying that I’m more vengeful and weird than I actually am,” she laughs. “Not that I’m not vengeful and weird.”
“But everybody in the show is very dedicated to it and for them, it’s not just another show, it’s not just an acting part. They get very involved.”