“The Handmaid's Tale” Author: For Women, Money Can Be Power

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Wealthsimple is a whole new kind of investing service. This is the latest installment of our recurring series “Money Diaries” where we ask interesting people to open up about the role money has played in their lives.

There’s a part in The Handmaid’s Tale when the men suddenly are placed in control of the women’s bank accounts. It’s a terrifying prospect that, with digital technology, is in some ways not far from being possible. When I was writing the book, I refused to put into the story anything that had not already happened at some time, somewhere. I just relocated all of those things to a place that was considered to be the bastion of political democracy.

In my own life, I’ve probably been discriminated against financially because of my gender. Then again, how would I know? How would you know what other people were making? Discrimination manifests in other ways when you’re a writer. You run into stupid comments. “You may be a good writer but I wouldn’t want to sleep with you,” one writer said to Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature five years ago. “Well, I didn’t ask you to,” she shot back at the time. It’s something we notice in how our books were reviewed, or what grants male writers got that female writers didn't. One magazine, The Idler, ran an illustration of me dressed up as a dominatrix — a leather corset, a whip, the whole thing — along with an article about power-hungry women. It was the age in which “she writes like a man” was considered a compliment.

The Handmaid’s Tale television series was not my deal. I sold the rights to MGM in 1990 to make a movie – so when the TV rights were sold to Hulu, the money went to MGM.

#metoo is a symptom of something bigger. The same way having a temperature when you’re sick is a symptom. When you have a temperature, you think, there’s something wrong with me. What shall I do? That’s what #metoo is. It’s a wake-up call, not the solution. Structural support for women was allowed to lapse. We were told all we had to do was wear more Chanel and smile a lot and lean in.

The Handmaid’s Tale television series was not my deal. I sold the rights to MGM in 1990 to make a movie – so when the TV rights were sold to Hulu, the money went to MGM. We did not have a negotiating position. I did get brought on as an executive consultant, but that wasn’t a lot of money. People think it’s been all Hollywood glamour since the TV show happened, but that’s not happening to me. But book sales have been brisk, so there’s that.

There’s a quote I like from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. It’s the often-quoted recipe for happiness from the bankrupt Mr. Micawber, supposedly modelled off Dickens’ own father. “If a man had twenty pounds a year for his income and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but if he spent twenty pounds, one (shilling) he would be miserable.” That's me. I hate being in debt. I always pay my credit card on time. I will go without rather than go into debt. I don’t go into hock over things I can’t pay for. People of my generation always think they’re on the verge of being kicked out onto the street. It’s ridiculous, but it’s a mindset.

My parents were Depression-era parents. They both worked from an early age to support themselves. My father lived in a tent and cleaned out rabbit hutches when he was a graduate student and still managed to send money home. My mother had four envelopes labelled Rent, Groceries, Other Necessities, and Recreation. She divided up my father’s paycheque every month and if there was money left over for Recreation, they went to the movies. We had a framed embroidery piece hanging on the wall that said God Bless Our Mortgaged Home. Everyone had one. It was the 1940s. People would have mortgage-burning parties once they’d paid off their houses.

At eight years old, I was wheeling babies around in strollers in the snow for twenty-five cents an hour, which is more tooth decay than my five-cents-a-week allowance could buy. My father decided I should have a bank account, so we went to the bank and opened an account and I had a little bank book. When I was 13, I had a job teaching puppetry at a Saturday morning class at Bennington Heights School. Me and my partner, we eventually had a puppetry business in high school. We had an agent who was booking us into children’s Christmas parties. Our target audience was about five years old. I can tell you what five-year-olds really like: cannibalism. Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs — danger and cannibalism.

I knew what the cheapest things were to eat. Onions, hot dogs. Potatoes were quite nourishing as long as you didn’t cut off the skins.

I also had a job in high school at the Toronto Anglers and Hunters Club. I worked on the archer’s row, showing people how to shoot the bow and not to shoot at me when I went to collect the arrows. Three shots for a quarter. In university I did poster design and I was a cashier and waitress in a coffee shop in Toronto. I think they hired me because they thought their real cashier was ripping them off and they wanted someone really inept. I’d been turned down for better jobs: Bell Telephone turned me down for a sales job. Both of the publishers that subsequently became my publishers turned me down at that time as a publicity representative.

As a young writer, I didn’t starve because I was very frugal. I once lived in a rooming house with a hot plate. I was eating boil-able vegetables from a plastic package and Kraft Dinner. I knew what the cheapest things were to eat. Onions, hot dogs. Potatoes were quite nourishing as long as you didn’t cut off the skins. I once bought this enormous cow’s tongue — they were fairly cheap — and put it in this pot and started to boil it. It was horrifying, this tongue sticking out of my pot. In the rooming house in Toronto, I used to keep my food in the bureau drawer and on the windowsill. I didn’t have a fridge. I had to do my dishes in the communal bathtub.

My undergraduate adviser told me I should just forget about the whole writing and graduate school thing. “You should find a good man and get married,” he told me.

My old professor, Northrop Frye, had better advice. First he counselled me against running off to Paris to starve in a garret while writing. I thought it would be romantic —smoking, drinking absinthe, getting tuberculosis. But he said”I think you might get more writing done at Harvard.” So I went to Harvard. After graduate school, I began to teach, and in 1972, after The Edible Woman and Surfacing were published, I became a full-time writer.

I’ve never stopped worrying about money. Well, I should say that I think I stopped worrying about my own money around 1975. We were living quite cheaply on a farm near Alliston, Ontario. We had chickens. We grew vegetables. We ate our sheep. I realized I’d be fine. But now, I worry about money for other people and I worry about income inequality. It makes for a very unhappy society.

Every election, there’s a surge in book sales. But I would like to live in a society where people are not saying, “Oh my god, this is where this is going to happen.”

I think my greatest financial indulgences are good face cream and art supplies. I have too many art supplies, lovely watercolours and ink and crayons. I never use them. I’m probably a bit too extravagant in what I give to other people, but if I tell you, everybody will line up and ask. I give to family members and charities. I’ve been on other people’s mortgages — my daughter, a couple of friends, you know, the bank of Margaret. Nobody has screwed up on me. I help other people with their projects too, many of them environmental causes, like Help for Pelee Island and the Midhurst Ratepayers Association, both environmental initiatives in Ontario. When I was 31 or 32, my dad guilted me into buying my first piece of land. He said if I didn’t, it would turn into a gravel pit and screw up the entire watershed. He was right. Now I own bits of land here and there.

I heard a horrible story yesterday from my dentist in which somebody’s caregiver got into their bank account and took everything. That happened to Leonard Cohen, too. He put someone else in charge while he went up a mountain to meditate and he came back and it was gone. A cautionary tale. You need to have an expert — I have a wonderful bookkeeper and a wonderful assistant. But I’m very supervisory. For the last 40 years, I’ve had an update every week from them on what the money is doing.

Money is a symbol. It doesn’t have any value in and of itself. You can’t eat it, drink it, or wear it. For me, if you want to sum it up, it means self-reliance. I was never told that I should marry a rich man and lie around in a negligee and eat chocolates. I’ve always been expected to support myself and I always have.

I was just on set of The Handmaid’s Tale yesterday, they’re filming season two. I’m glad people are talking about The Handmaid’s Tale again. Every election, there’s a surge in book sales. But I would like to live in a society where people are not saying, “Oh my god, this is where this is going to happen.” I would prefer this not to be happening. It’s like that sign that someone was holding up during the Women’s March. “I can’t believe I’m still holding up this fucking sign.”

As told to Katherine Laidlaw exclusively for Wealthsimple. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell. We make smart investing simple and affordable.

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