Margaret Atwood has described the crackdown on women's reproductive rights in the United States as like "the draft" and said the country has moved "towards" her dystopian vision of Gilead in the 35 years since The Handmaid's Tale was written.

Speaking about her latest novel, The Testaments, in London on Tuesday for the first time, the 79-year-old said she was inspired to write the much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale by current events in the US.

"There had been many requests for a sequel which I'd already said no to because I understood it to mean that it would be a continuation of the narrative voice of Offred….and there was no way I could recreate that," she said in reference to the protagonist of the first novel.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood speaks during a press conference at the British Library to launch her new book 'The Testaments' in London, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo / AP
Canadian author Margaret Atwood speaks during a press conference at the British Library to launch her new book 'The Testaments' in London, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo / AP

"However as time moved on and instead of moving further from Gilead we started moving it towards it….I re-examined that position."

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The Canadian novelist said the crackdown on women's reproductive rights essentially means "the state owns your body" and compared it to the military draft – when men are forced to go to war by the government.

"But when they do that they pay for your clothing, lodging, food, medical expenses and they give you a salary. So I say unto them, if you want to conscript women's bodies in this way you should pay for them. As it is, you're forcing women to deliver babies…and you're not paying for any of it.

"Cheap labour and that's a pun," she said.

Publication of The Testaments has been dubbed the most hotly anticipated literary event of the year for the Booker prize winning novelist who is renowned as the "prophet" of dystopian fiction.

Such is the presence of the diminutive novelist that retail giant Amazon apologised over a "technical glitch" that sent copies of the book out ahead of the release date and it's been a target for cyber thieves in order to carry out phishing expeditions.

A scene from The Handmaid's Tale series. Photo / Supplied
A scene from The Handmaid's Tale series. Photo / Supplied

Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale in West Berlin in 1984 having travelled and researched extensively behind the Iron Curtain, including real-life tactics of authoritarian regimes, such as Romanian president Ceaușescu who "passed laws that said women had to have four babies." She has repeatedly said she "didn't make it up" about the dystopian world, with meticulously researched clippings instead providing the backdrop for Gilead.

Since it's publication in 1985 the book has exploded from cult classic to full-blown literary phenomenon thanks to an Emmy-award winning television series starring Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Australian Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Feinnes.

The Handmaid's outfits - worn by fertile young women raped by their commanders in order to bear the next generation of children for the republic - have become a symbol of resistance to those protesting the rollback of women's rights at the hands of male legislators.

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"It's brilliant as a protest tactic because you're not making a disturbance, you're not saying anything. You're sitting very silently and modestly and you can't be kicked out for dressing inappropriately because you're all covered up. No bare shoulders," Atwood said.

Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel in The Handmaid's Tale series, based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel. Photo / Supplied
Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel in The Handmaid's Tale series, based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel. Photo / Supplied

The official launch of the book in London featured Handmaids walking in silent procession into a Piccadilly bookshop at midnight. It was dubbed a "celebration of resistance, courage and social change" featuring activists, speakers and embroidery with actress Romola Garai and Atwood herself doing a reading.

The latest book is told through three different women - Aunt Lydia, and two young women, one inside and one outside of Gilead and chronicles the breakdown of the regime. There are new characters dubbed the "pearl girls" and crucially, new outfits, with "testament green" set to become a new protest outfit of choice.

"These kind of regimes are very big on outfits," Atwood said drily at the launch. "Human beings have been throughout time. They love outfits that tell you who you're looking at, like football teams," she said.

The inspiration came from exploring the collapse of the regime and what life would be like for the second generation of Gilead, who had not been part of the "bloodbathery" that saw it established.

The complexity of Aunt Lydia also proved irresistible to explore in terms of questioning the role of those in power, while the financial crisis, 9/11 and 2016 Presidential election all played a role in fomenting the sequel in her inquiring mind.

"How do these people get into it? How do they get into their positions of relative power? What do they use that power for? And what is their justification to themselves about why they're doing it? Atwood said.

The cover image for The Testaments, released on September 10. Photo / AP
The cover image for The Testaments, released on September 10. Photo / AP

As for her influence on the television show of the same name, Atwood said she provides notes on the script but has no power over the plot. The election of President Trump meant the team woke up in November 2016 thinking "we're in a different show" as the "frame had changed".

The fiercely intellectual author who has written more than fifty books said she read first-hand accounts from inside regimes of absolute power as inspiration. As she nears here 80th birthday in November she's also witnessed first-hand the collapse of communism and unveiling of the "shadow side" of the US coming to the fore.

"Until the Cold War ended the United States was selling itself as the alternative to the cold war evil empire so they were the land of freedom, democracy, equality, opportunity for all and therefore they were not showcasing their shadow side which was kept pretty firmly under wraps," she said.

"But once that opponent was gone, everything could come out of the cupboard that had always been there and out it has come."