At Margaret Atwood’s Prompting, Canada Launches Virtual Book Tours

OTTAWA — Margaret Atwood is launching an online series that she hopes will help Canada’s writers sell books to a nation of shut-ins. But even she has not been immune to the headaches plaguing many people as they attempt to communicate during the global pandemic.

One came half an hour into a conversation about upcoming books with Adrienne Clarkson, a friend and fellow author, hosted by the National Arts Centre on Facebook Live. Atwood’s image froze.

“Come back, come back,” Clarkson said. “Was it anything I said?”

After a few minutes, Atwood did reappear, in a different room of her house with a superior internet connection. The two women continued to go through a list of books they acknowledged that, for the most part, they hadn’t even seen, let alone read, but were written by authors whose earlier works they enjoyed.

Their chat, which veered into social distancing and gardening, among other subjects, was an extension of a program the arts center started two weeks ago, CanadaPerforms, to provide a paid venue for musicians, actors, comedians and other performers at a time when stages are dark around the world.

Initially funded by a donation from the Canadian subsidiary of Facebook, CanadaPerforms had streamed about 100 performances by Thursday, some of which have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The center pays artists 1,000 Canadian dollars (about $700) to stage performances at their homes for the streaming program.

Writers weren’t initially part of that mix largely because the National Arts Center, like the Kennedy Center in Washington and Lincoln Center in New York, is focused on performing arts. That changed as a result of Atwood’s involvement.

She had approached Facebook about creating virtual fund-raisers for two other organizations she supports, and in the process, she said, it became apparent that an expanded version of the art center’s program for performers might help authors facing canceled book tours.

“They’re really pinched,” Atwood said in an interview the day before she launched the authors’ series. “People are scrambling around, improvising and trying to get the word out there.”

Atwood has a history of marrying technology and book tours. Sixteen years ago, she developed a device known as the LongPen that allowed authors to capture handwriting digitally and then relay it to a robotic arm at a distant book-signing location. While it didn’t take off, she is named in a patent for a secure document system that contains some of its technology.

She is also active on social media, with 1.9 million Twitter followers.

Among the Canadian authors searching for a book-tour replacement is Vivek Shraya, whose second novel, “The Subtweet,” is scheduled for release next week. Despite being the author of a book in which social media plays a key role, Shraya said her digital appearance will be a personal novelty.

“This is my first real foray into the virtual world,” she said. “I do have that sort of old-fashioned desire to connect in person with people.”

The move to homemade online video, said Heather Gibson, who now runs CanadaPerforms but who is usually is the center’s executive producer of popular music and variety, required some adjustment.

“Here we do things with excellence,” she said. “Then we started this program, and we all had to kind of let go, because we have literally no control over the quality of it.”

Book programming producers at The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and staff at the Writers’ Trust of Canada and the literary magazine Quill and Quire are helping the center select the 100 authors. There are just two broad qualifications: They must be Canadian, and they must have a book that’s being published this spring or summer.

Atwood acknowledged that the online effort isn’t a perfect substitute for what people are missing.

“It doesn’t replace the fun of an audience, mass audience response, but it’s better than nothing,” she said. “I think we’re in the better-than-nothing era — do what you can.”

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