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Q&A: Margaret Atwood's Fanado helps musicians, artists make connection

Brad Frenette

Margaret Atwood will not stand still, nor rest on her Booker Prize, Governor General's Award or any other of the 50-plus international accolades she has earned over her distinguished career. Too many prizes, says the CanLit icon, and some people think "you should exist as a statue somewhere."

Rather, Atwood, 72, has carved out many careers: as novelist and critic, as poet and eco-activist and, lately, as a champion of online connectivity.

Using her sizable social media presence, and building on her previous invention, the LongPen, Atwood recently launched Fanado, an online "event space" where artists, writers and musicians can interact with fans through live-streaming chats and videos, as well as autograph collectibles using Atwood's invention.

The author's latest initiative with the company has been the launch of an Indiegogo campaign, which closes Saturday and seeks to raise funds for creating a mobile app for Fanado, and to help spread the word about the initiative.

CBC Music reached Atwood to chat about Fanado, her new social life and how she aims to help Canadian musicians, and music fans, connect.

Q: I first heard about this project when you launched it as LongPen.
A: That was a long time ago. That was before there were e-books. Imagine that! The first iteration did physical objects – and we can still do physical objects – including posters, photos, T-shirts and anything flat. We don't do stomachs. Stomachs aren't flat.

The whole idea was to replicate the physical event, but at a distance. For instance, Norman Mailer did his last appearance in this life from his home. But he was in Edinborough, Scotland, on the big screen, and signing books. The LongPen worked beautifully and we did it all around the world. But it wasn't scalable.

Listen: Margaret Atwood sings with the Sadies on Q.

Q: How did it evolve into Fanado?
A: From listening to people, and hearing about their problems. Both in the book and music industry, the problems are similar, and internet-related. Let's take books; you have a traditional author's tour. And those who are most requested to do the tour don't need one, and those who really need it, you don't get it. And same with cities – if you are remote, you don't get [a tour stop].

Music … was impacted by piracy, the Napster phenomenon. So bands had to constantly go on tour. Whereas before they could do a few big events, now they are on the road a lot.

Q: How do you envision the application for musicians?
A: There's a tour we're co-promoting, with 8mm, [which is] based in Los Angeles. The band is going on tour ... and having the kind of hookup that Fanado can give them will allow them [to] build out their tour, make it broader and connect with people who can't be there.

You can take people backstage. 8mm is going to ... allow fans to go backstage with them before and after [their performance]. It allows a degree of up-close-and-personal that is hard to get otherwise. I can talk to people from my kitchen, but I'm not going to let 500 people into my kitchen. They wouldn't fit.

Q: What do you say to someone who says, "This sounds good, but I'd much rather meet you in person"?
A: I say that's great, but wait until I'm dead. Then you'll feel otherwise; then you won't want to meet me in person [laughs].

It's lovely to meet people in person, but you can't do it all over the place. You can't be at eight places on the same night. And you can take people into places where they are otherwise never going to be. We got to see, for instance, Marilyn French's flat in New York when she did LongPen to the London Book Fair. You can see the pictures on people's walls and people actually love that. At one event we were doing with Anita Shreve, her dog came in. You're not going to have your dog on tour.

All you see on tour is the person. You see the event, then the signing table. That's it. They are taken out of their personal life and put into this other space, whereas with this they stay in their personal life and let you in. It's more individual, more personal.

Q: You launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to create a Fanado mobile app. You're pretty close to your goal – what have the benefits been to crowdsourcing this investment?
A: Number one is to gauge interest. If nobody was interested, then that's the end of it. What we found was a huge amount of creators want to do it. Then, suppose the creators do, will the fans do it, too? Those too, there were takers.

It's not only raising money, it's getting feedback and certainly a huge amount of publicity; 25,000 people have visited that Indiegogo site, and it has hit the press and gone hither and tither.

Q: You may be surprising many by proving you can be an important, internationally award-winning author and still be creating apps.
A: Those are the kinds of people that think that if you get a certain amount of awards, you are dead. And that you should exist as a statue somewhere. And we all know that the people we study in high school are dead by definition, and they are always quite surprised to find out you're alive. You don't stop being alive just because you get to a certain age. It can happen, but it shouldn't be that surprising. If you look at [writers] in the past, a lot of them were constantly experimenting.

Q: You've become a big hit on social media, with over 300,000 followers. Was Twitter sparked by that same impetus for experimenting?
A: Twitter was sparked by the website I built for The Year of the Flood. As part of that, the web builders said you need a Twitter feed. And I said, "What's that?" I continued it and it somehow just got bigger.

The Rob Ford Library event was essentially a Twitter-created event, or certainly a Twitter egged-on event. When I retweeted the library's website, so many people piled onto it that it crashed. Then it became a news item and the rest is history.

Q: So what's a more powerful vehicle for making an immediate impact: books or social media?
A: It depends what you are talking about. For example, I happened to be awake at the time the tsunami was approach[ing] the shore of the United States. So I was tweeting its approach and apparently the two sources were the weather people and my Twitter feed, which is completely bizarre.

For immediate news there's no question: it's social media, which is another version of radio or television. For thoughtful deep diving, it's a book.

Q: What's some of your favourite Canadian music?
A: A long, long, time ago we were in France, where they were just beginning to teach Canadian literature. We were invited to dinner and told [the hosts] announced that they had a great surprise for us after dinner. After dinner they brought out, with great reverence, their prized Ian & Sylvia record. This was the age of vinyl, so already Canadian music was making the rounds. It has a high reputation these days.

I'm kind of keen on a group called the Arrogant Worms. When I'm explaining Canada to people who aren't Canadian, I always start with their song, "Canada's Really Big."

Joni Mitchell, of course. And a lot of music from Nova Scotia. And there's Feist, indeed.
But it's a hard life. What is produced changes, according to how it is distributed.

LISTEN Find out what esteemed fellow CanLit icon Margaret Atwood once sang a duet. 

Q: How can Canadian musicians get involved with Fanado right now?
A: The contact information is on the site. They can get onto the beta testing list. A number of enterprises have channels, but we want it to be so that anyone can do an individual event. This will get the event, the memento signing and then it will give you a YouTube-able piece of video. People can put their digital memento on their social site. It augments your presence and give[s] you the ability to reach more people.

And they themselves are going to determine a lot of how this is used. You give people the tool and say, "This is a screwdriver," and they say, "Well, no it is not – it's the leg of a robot." Once you make a tool, people will play with it in innovative ways.