Finding Gilead With Water Colors: An Interview With The Handmaid’s Tale’s Renee Nault

by Rachel Bellwoar

Whether your first encounter with Gilead was in school or on Hulu, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been disturbing readers for decades with its dystopian vision of a world where infertility has been used as an excuse to take women’s rights away. Since it’s publication in 1985, the novel has been adapted into everything from a film, to a stage play, to an award winning TV show (which in season two surpassed it’s source material to become it’s own thing). This week marks the release of Renee Nault’s graphic novel adaptation, which uses watercolors to depict a world we might not be eager to see, but which needs to be seen to be prevented. Here Nault answers questions about how this project came together and the toll of spending so much thinking about an oppressive society.

Rachel Bellwoar: When were you first approached about adapting The Handmaid’s Tale into a graphic novel, and was it a project you were interested in working on from the start? How did you find out Margaret Atwood had hand-selected you for the art?

Renee Nault: The idea for the project was introduced to me back in 2013, but it would be some time before actual work began. I was immediately excited about it! A few different artists were asked to submit pitches and samples, which was nerve-wracking because I really wanted the job. When I heard Margaret had chosen my work I was ecstatic.

Renee Nault (Photo by Jaime Forson)

RB: Before working on this project, how familiar were you with the novel?

RN: Very familiar – I’d first read it back in high school (it’s part of the curriculum in Canada), and I’d read it several times since then, always finding it eerily relevant to real world events.

RB: How collaborative would you describe the process of working on this book? Did you have free reign over how The Handmaid’s Tale would be told visually?

RN: I had a lot of freedom to design and interpret the book according to my own vision. Margaret and the editors were always there to oversee things, and to help out if I got stuck, but for the most part I was given free reign. I’m very honoured by the trust they had in me as an artist and storyteller.

Margaret Atwood (Photo by Liam Shape)

RB: What made you decide on watercolors for telling this story?

RN: I love the the brightness and transparency of watercolors – you can get some incredibly vivid colours with them. They have a wonderful, spontaneous quality about them, since the paint can only be partially controlled. If you embrace this “flawed” quality it can lead to some of the best parts of the picture.

RB: Many of the colors (like red for the Handmaids) are dictated by the text but in the flashbacks there’s more freedom. What was your approach to coloring those scenes from June’s past and was it intentional to have yellow be such a prominent color in the first few, when it’s a color you rarely see in Gilead? 

RN: It’s very much intentional! I wanted a warm palette for the flashback scenes, and I wanted them to have a huge variety of colours. This is a strong contrast to the Gilead scenes, where the colouring is almost completely confined to the Red, blue, green and neutrals. The past is more “normal”, the present day of Gilead has been stripped down to a few symbolic colours, corresponding to rigidly enforced roles.

RB: The page layouts throughout the book are extremely varied. Two that immediately come to mind are whenever Offred and Ofglen meet in the lane for their shopping trips and it’s like they’re separated from the rest of the world in a dome, or when Janine gives birth and there are all these jagged panels for the labor, followed by a protruding curve, like a pregnant belly, when the baby’s born. Were these layouts something you landed upon organically or did you always want to break away from the traditional, square panel format? 

RN: I love to use layouts to convey mood, to repeat themes, or to hint at things that may be happening below the surface of the scene. I think that, even if people don’t notice it consciously on first reading, it influences their understanding of the story on a subconscious level.

RB: You worked on the illustrations for this book for over two years. What kind of effect did that long term exposure to Gilead have on you, and did you see your approach to the material change as time went on?

RN: It was emotionally difficult. Creating narrative art requires “living” the story to some extent, and Gilead was not a comfortable place to live. The political situation in the US was a constant background noise that grew louder as the work progressed.

RB: How much, if at all, were you influenced by the TV show?

RN: I made a deliberate choice to not watch the TV show until my work on the graphic novel was complete. I’m an artistic sponge, and I soak up everything I see, so it would have been impossible for me to watch it without being influenced by their ideas.

RB: Coming into this adaptation as someone who’s watched the show but never read Atwood’s book, one detail that really stuck out, in your design for the Handmaid’s uniform, is the skin-tight hoods that they wear to make their hair invisible (unlike the bonnets on the show, where you can usually tell hair color). It gives the world of Gilead an extra alien quality and also makes the pages where June’s hair is free, and she’s remembering her life before Gilead, all the more powerful. What inspired you to include the hood as part of their uniform?

RN: I wanted my design of the Handmaid’s uniform to look very strange – heavy, uncomfortable, unflattering. I also wanted it to have a strong visual shape that could be simplified down to something almost abstract – a wide triangle of red. The hood introduces an extra element of confinement and discomfort.

RB: Throughout the book Aunt Lydia appears as almost a devil on Offred’s shoulder — Offred’s consciousness, ensuring she stays on the path of the good Handmaiden. How did you settle on this interpretation of the character?

RN: In the novel, Aunt Lydia’s teachings often seem to pop into Offred’s head against her will. Even in the middle of her own stream of consciousness, an Aunt Lydia lecture will intrude. Although Offred speaks almost mockingly of the brainwashing tactics that were used at The Red Centre, I think her mental conditioning there went deeper than she admits to herself.

Thanks to Renee Nault, for taking the time to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale with us.

The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel Adaptation goes on sale March 26th from Doubleday Books.

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