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'Handmaid's Tale' sequel puts global spotlight on CanLit legend Margaret Atwood

TORONTO — It’s the international literary event of the season, industry watchers say, and in a rare feat, the spotlight will be on a Canadian author.

With Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to 1985’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to hit shelves on Sept. 10, the publisher and booksellers say the hype for “The Testaments” has already translated into strong preorders, early awards acclaim and sold-out events to celebrate the release.

“I think it’s thrilling for (Canada’s) literary reach,” said Jared Bland, publisher of McLelland & Stewart. “The most talked about, and hopefully the most read and discussed book of the fall is going to be by this iconic Canadian author.”

At the centre of the fanfare is Toronto-based Atwood, who will ring in the book’s midnight launch at an event in London, England, that will be beamed to more than 1,000 screens worldwide, including in Cineplex theatres across Canada.

She’ll then set off on a sprawling book tour that includes 10 Canadian stops from Charlottetown to Victoria.

But behind the scenes, Bland said a “global collaboration of enormous scale” between McLelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and its U.K. and U.S. counterparts has been underway to orchestrate the book’s far-reaching rollout.

“An event publication of this scale across all English-language territories doesn’t happen all that often,” Bland said. “Especially, it doesn’t happen all that often when the author’s Canadian.”

Over 34 years in print, Bland said “The Handmaid’s Tale” has emerged as an “absolutely colossal phenomenon,” selling more than eight million English-language copies worldwide as of November.

In recent years, Bland said the backlist title has surged to the top of bestseller lists in light of a hit TV show and perceived modern parallels to the dystopian novel’s tale of a totalitarian state that treats women as property.

With an initial Canadian print run of nearly 200,000 copies, Bland said early indicators suggest “The Testaments” will build on its predecessor’s blockbuster sales.

As of last week, the novel ranked among Amazon’s 50 bestsellers, while Canada’s largest book retailer says it’s been one of the year’s biggest preorders and expects demand will rise as publication day draws nearer.

In fact, Indigo is projecting that “The Testaments” will be the top fiction title of 2019.

“As book lovers, we are just as eager for this sequel as fans across the country are, and believe it will be just as successful as the first novel,” Rania Husseini, senior vice-president of print, said in a statement.

The hype was only furthered when “The Testaments” won a spot on the Man Booker Prize long list, raising hopes among readers that Atwood’s return to the theocratic regime of Gilead — which enslaves women to bear children for an elite group of men — will be worth the decades-long wait.

But in their citation, judges said a “ferocious” non-disclosure agreement precluded any description of the book’s “who, how, why and even where.”

Bland said asking anyone who sees the novel in advance to sign a non-disclosure agreements is one of the precautions the publisher is taking to ensure the sequel’s contents stay under wraps.

All that’s publicly known about “The Testaments” is that the novel is set 15 years after protagonist Offred’s final scene in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and that the novel is narrated by three female characters.

To prevent any other details from getting out, Bland said McClelland & Stewart has taken measures extending from how files are shared internally and with printers, security protocols around printing and shipping of books and how the publisher works with retailers.

Within the publishing house, the book is being circulated on a “need-to-read” basis, and Bland is among the rarefied few. Pressed to reveal the novel’s secrets, Bland said he could say “nothing, except that I think it’s wonderful.”

But Bland did offer that like “The Handmaid’s Tale” before it, “The Testaments” will speak to the world we live in, which Atwood has said served as her inspiration.

“One of the funny things about this book is that its prescience and its relevance is wonderful,” said Bland.

“But it’s also a sadness. I think Margaret herself would say that she wishes these things weren’t as relevant as they still are today.”

Following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been hailed by some as a cautionary tale about the consequences of state encroachment on women’s civil and reproductive rights. 

Fuelled by the Emmy Award-winning TV adaptation of the same name, which stars Elisabeth Moss and recently wrapped its third season, activists across the globe have adopted the handmaids’ scarlet robes and white bonnets as a protest symbol against patriarchal oppression.

Hannah McGregor, an assistant professor of publishing at Simon Fraser University, said this shows how the “singularity of this historical moment” has set up “The Testaments” to be a smash success, at least in terms of early sales.

“It’s a sort of perfect alignment of politics, celebrity culture and media,” she said.

The phenomenon around Atwood is helping keep the Canadian publishing industry healthy, she said, because it helps convince multi-national companies such as Penguin Random House to keep up their presence in Canada.

“It means there’s more money available, more resources available in the publishing scene,” she said.

But it remains to be seen whether those resources will trickle down to talented Canadian authors who may lack the sheen of international stardom, she said.

“I worry that people go to the celebrities, go to the books that have the massive media machines behind them,” she said. “I wish more Canadian readers … who like serious Canadian books would turn their attention to what’s getting published by independent presses.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press