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Atwood’s best-known tale makes pointe in RWB adaptation

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AS Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood contemplates her bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale being adapted into a ballet this fall, she remembers her brief flirtation with tutus and pointe shoes.

"I took ballet classes, but they made me dizzy," Atwood says during a telephone interview a short time after the Royal Winnipeg Ballet announced it would open its 2013-14 season with New York choreographer Lila York’s adaptation of her 1985 dystopian novel.

Atwood was 11 and taking after-school ballet lessons in Toronto when it came time to master the classic pirouette. The trick to not becoming disoriented is for the dancer to fixate on a point on the wall as she spins.

"That was not something I seemed able to do," Atwood says, without a bit of remorse.Ballet’s loss was certainly writing’s gain; Atwood has gone on to become a giant of Canadian literature (even if Toronto Coun. Doug Ford wouldn’t recognize her) with a body of work worthy of winning a Nobel Prize some day.

At 73, the grandmother still commands attention for her prodigious output and surprises with her enthusiastic engagement of the brave new world of social media. She has over 350,000 Twitter followers, is writing a serial novel called Positron in real time for the cutting-edge website Byliner and received the Los Angeles Times’ Innovator’s Award last weekend for her efforts in pushing narrative form.

"Usually these things go to younger people," says the Ottawa-born Atwood. "It was a trip. I got it for doing strange things with prose and fooling around on the web. I don’t particularly feel like an innovator."

But there she was, participating in a live Skype interview viewed at the RWB season-launch press conference Tuesday. She was gracious and appeared comfortable with technology that has been hit-or-miss in her experience.

"I’m an explorer like everyone else," says the two-time Governor General’s Award winner.

Her new book, MaddAddam, will be published Aug. 27 and completes the speculative-fiction trilogy begun with

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The cover includes the line: "Booker Prize winning author of The Handmaid’s Tale," a reference to the book that has sold millions and been translated into 35 languages.

"I’m certainly quite well known for it, particularly recently when it became a reference point during the U.S. elections," says Atwood, who has penned her first chamber opera, Pauline, which premières next year in Vancouver. "The Republicans made ill-advised comments about women’s reproductive systems that attracted a lot of Handmaid Tale’s comments."

The novel is set in an oppressive future America called the Republic of Gilead, where veiled women are employed as breeders. Atwood has created a terrifying future based on actual events; the views held by some Republicans, such as Rick Santorum, made her feel like the plot was not so far-fetched.

"I was right, I am sorry to say," says Atwood, whose book The Penelopiad had its stage adaptation presented at the RMTC Warehouse in February.

The Handmaid’s Tale has already been re-imagined as a 1990 movie and an opera in 2000. The idea of a ballet version might bring to mind a long line of high-kicking handmaids hopping around the Centennial Concert Hall stage next October.

"The dancing handmaids will have to be in the musical," says the avid ballet-goer. "We haven’t had the musical yet. I’m holding out for the musical version."

Atwood’s works attract a lot of interest from potential adaptors; she primarily bases her decision not on the form being pitched but by the artistry of the people doing it. She thinks of herself as being generous for allowing other artists to play with her "toys" if they are people of a certain quality. Otherwise she can be fiercely protective.

"You think, ‘Why not let them do it and see what comes out,’" she says. "If someone said, ‘I want to make Handmaid’s Tale as a maidens-in-prison, leather-and-whip movie,’ I would say no."

Atwood wouldn’t want the book for which she is probably best known besmirched by a gimmicky transformation into another medium. She has always been loath to name a favourite book, once saying playfully, "The others are listening and they will be upset." History will decide whether The Handmaid’s Tale is the novel for which she is most remembered.

"It will depend on who is doing the remembering," she says. "If the Republic of Gilead comes into being, every copy will be burned, of course. On the other hand, if the Republic of Gilead becomes a far different memory, it will then become obsolete. You can’t predict these things. And guess what? I’m not going to be there."

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