Interview With Renée Nault: The Handmaid’s Tale
When Renée Nault’s graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, was released, the book received critical acclaim and quickly became a bestseller, with several new international language editions. We interviewed Nault to discuss the making of the graphic novel, as well as other works.
Nuno Pereira de Sousa: How did occur the opportunity to adapt “The Handmaid’s Tale” to a graphic novel? Were you already familiar with the novel?
Renée Nault: I was first approached by Ms. Atwood’s Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stewart. I was very familiar with the novel – it’s an extremely famous book here in Canada, and it’s even studied in High Schools across the country.
NPS: What are the major topics in this novel that you care about?
RN: I’ve always been interested in dystopian fiction. It shows us a worst-case scenario version of the future, and makes us think about how we could avoid it. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is especially meaningful to me because of its focus on women. Some aspects of the story have proved to be eerily prescient.
NPS: What were the major difficulties you faced with the adaptation to a graphic novel?
RN: The most difficult part was in condensing a long novel into a much shorter format. It was very difficult to decide what to cut out. Margaret’s prose is so beautiful, and there are so many interesting moments in the story… It took a long time to make a script that I was happy with that was short enough!
NPS: Do you think that those who draw parallels between “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Trump’s election as President of the United States are going too far? Are you concerned with some of Trump’s policies?
RN: Yes, I’m very concerned, and I think the comparisons are accurate. Many of Trump’s policies attack women’s freedoms, particularly their bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. “The Handmaid’s Tale” shows this oppression of women taken to its logical end.
NPS: In your opinion, in the western world in general and Canada in particular, are female comics artists nowadays being treated the same way and getting the same opportunities as male comics artists?
RN: Opportunities for women artists have grown significantly in the last few decades, but there’s still a long way to go. Men in comics tend to hire and collaborate with other men, and women are often shut out or not considered. At industry events like comic conventions the guests are mostly male artists and writers, with women often represented only in “women in comics” panels, or not represented at all. I’m hopeful that this is changing, but change is slow.
NPS: Besides Atwood’s novel, where did you get the graphic inspiration from? Did you watch the TV series, movie, opera or other adaptations?
RN: When I began my adaptation, the TV series had not yet premiered – when it came out, I made a choice to not watch it, worried that it would influence my own version of the story too much. I did watch the Opera, many years earlier when it was staged in Toronto. I enjoyed it very much! I took my visual inspiration from all kinds of places – fashion design, art nouveau, ukiyo-e prints, film noir, and old propaganda posters.
NPS: Did Margaret Atwood intervene in your work? How was her reaction when the graphic novel was ready?
RN: Margaret was consulted at every step of the process. She approved the initial script that I created, and then looked at every stage of the artwork to make sure it looked good to her. But she didn’t micromanage the project at all! She was very willing to let me tell the story in my own way, and only offered minor corrections. She was extremely enthusiastic and supportive, and just wonderful to work with!
NPS: What materials did you use for drawing and painting the graphic novel? How long did it take to finish once you started the script?
RN: My work is all done traditionally, so I used ink and watercolour paint on paper. It’s time consuming to work this way, but I really like the way it looks. I think it took maybe 3 years to finish, but the work was slowed down by a wrist injury.
NPS: You have several shorts comics published in anthologies, “The Handmaid’s Tale” being your first long one published. Did the different length change your approach?
RN: “The Handmaids Tale” is by far the longest work I’ve created. It was challenging to work on the same project for so long. Sometimes it was challenging to keep working on it day after day, especially since the story is not a happy one.
NPS: What can you say to our readers about your comic named “Witchling”?
RN: “Witchling” is a fantasy/horror comic that I write and illustrate. Since I’m writing it myself, I can include all the things I like to draw the best – like cats, monsters, and clothing from the 1920s. I illustrate it all in watercolour. You can read some of it on my website!
NPS: The Magnetic Fields fans would like to know that one of the short comics you did was based on one of their songs. What made you do it?
RN: There was a project to make a comics anthology based off of all the songs in the album “69 Love Songs”, which I really like! I chose the song “Zebra” because it’s a light, silly song but has a lot of great visuals – the pyramids, the Louvre, and of course zebras!
NPS: Besides being a comic artist, you also work as an illustrator. The vivid colours are present in both works. Why this attraction?
RN: Colour impacts us on such an instinctive, emotional level, and has so much power to influence our perception. In “The Handmaid’s Tale”, colour takes on yet another dimension – people’s whole lives are defined by their colour-coded societal roles.
NPS: In what way is your interest in Ukiyo-e related to your work?
RN: I’ve done a lot of travel in Asia, and was very influenced by the art of different cultures. I particularly love Ukiyo-e prints for their elegant arrangements of ornate patterns and empty space.
NPS: Regarding comics, can you tell our readers what are you working on?
RN: A lot of exciting things that I can’t talk about yet! You can see news of my projects on my social media pages, where I also post sketches and illustrations.