A sure sign of things to come

WHEN I INTERVIEWED MARGARET ATWOOD, the doyenne of Canadian literature, almost 20 years ago about her novel Cat's Eye, she told me about the panic that had surrounded the publication of her debut novel, The Edible Woman. There had been a slightly hysterical phone call from her publisher, who confessed that the printers had made a mistake and run off 400 rather than 300 copies - how would they ever sell that many books?

Sitting in the basement of Bloomsbury books in 1988, the story was amusing. Now it seems almost mythic as Atwood's stature has grown, with huge international sales and critical recognition. She was nominated for the 2005 Man Booker International Prize, won the Booker for The Blind Assassin (2000) and a clutch of awards, from the Governor General's in Canada to the Italian Premio Mondale and the Norwegian Order of Literary Merit.

But there has always been more to Atwood than her fiction, poetry and collections of critical essays and "mini-fictions".

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"I was brainwashed by the Brownies in childhood," she tells me over salmon sandwiches at the Royal Overseas League club in London. "Lending a hand - it's hard to get rid of that. Counter-productive for writing, but what can you do?" If further evidence of Atwood's myriad talents were needed, her most recent collection uses her own illustrations; a children's book that she lettered and illustrated has just been re-issued; last year she published a collection of essays on the myth of Penelope for Canongate and in September there will be another collection of short stories.

But now Atwood has taken her biggest gamble yet with the development of LongPen, a "Meccano-like" device that will enable her to autograph books at a distance. Launched last week at the London Book Fair, Atwood says it will enable her to keep up with the demand for public appearances and enable her to keep a sane schedule. "You can't be in ten places at once, and because of the Amazon-thing we have now, English-speaking countries, and increasingly Germany, all want to publish at the same time," she says. "Then they all want you to be there and you can't."

Atwood, 66, had an epiphany about the ludicrous demands of a publishing tour one night on an American sortie when she'd had crisps for dinner and, in an exhausted daze, found herself crawling around the floor of a hotel room looking for her suitcase key. "I don't want to have to get up at 4am to get to Salt Lake City to a middle-of-the-day event and then get back on a plane to go to Boston," she says. There have been plenty of weeks when Atwood has flown for nine hours in a day to attend an hour-and-a-half seminar. "It's too crazy."

There had to be another way so, back at home in Toronto, Atwood found a group of technicians who could invent a pen that would reproduce a signature at a distance. Atwood will sit in front of a screen, speak directly to her fans and write her autograph straight on to their books by pushing a send button. A device at the other end - the LongPen, attached to a mechanical arm - reproduces whatever Atwood has written. "It thinks for about 30 seconds and then the Meccano-set pen comes over, finds the spot on the page of the book where I wrote, and writes everything I've written. If I draw a smiley-face, it draws a smiley face."

Atwood has invested her own money in the project and set up a company, Unochit, to manufacture and market LongPen. "It's a whole new area of learning things and meeting different sorts of people," she says. "I've now got a board and a CEO and a CFO - these are pretty competent guys and they wouldn't be doing it unless it had potential." LongPen has also been tested on hockey sticks and basketballs, with obvious potential for enormous marketing possibilities with other celebrities, and even legal contracts.

Looking out over the frozen lawn of London's Green Park, Atwood jokes that she and her husband are in their "golden years" when constant travel takes an increasing toll.

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"By the time I get to the wheelchair stage, it's increasingly going to be that I can't do this travel," she says.

The idea that an author might autograph at a distance, however, has already proved controversial. Atwood snorts with exasperation at critics such as DJ Taylor who has dismissed LongPen as "an absolutely feeble idea" and Jilly Cooper, who mourns it as the death of a signing tour. Atwood says such naysayers don't understand that LongPen is an addition to an author's tour rather than a replacement of it. "I know people are saying, 'She doesn't want to do it any more, blah, blah, blah,' but it's not that I don't want to, but can't, and it's increasingly going to be, can't."

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Has Atwood been surprised by the criticism? "Of course not," she says. "Anything I do is controversial. It is the story of my life. Of course it was predictable that if you do something like this, people will take a poke at you, just because you're you. If it was someone called John Doe inventing this people wouldn't be saying this is a joke, she's a lunatic, what a terrible idea." Authors might bristle, but Atwood says her company has already had a flood of inquiries from publishers.

There's no denying that Atwood is taking more than a financial risk with this new venture and the big unanswered question is how readers will respond to having their favourite author signing their newly purchased book from another corner of the globe.

If LongPen doesn't catch on, Atwood is still to be admired for being unafraid to court controversy and to take risks other authors would never consider. "My line is that writers are the most entrepreneurial people there are because they take nothing and make it into something. Why should anyone be surprised?"

Atwood has been surprising her reading public since the 1970s with The Edible Woman which, shockingly, explored a woman's struggle with an eating disorder. The Handmaid's Tale seemed to prophecy the rise of religious fundamentalism and infertility; and, more recently, her meticulously researched Oryx and Crake described a world virtually destroyed by genetic engineering and global warming. Even in The Tent her mini-fictions, dramatic monologues and dialogues, many with mythic Greek characters, there is a sense of foreboding and an underlying darkness.

In the eponymous story, The Tent, Atwood writes: "It's an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armour, a kind of charm, because no-one knows better than you do how fragile a tent really is." Atwood bristles at my suggestion that there is a message in these violent little fictions about our impending doom. "I don't do prophecy, I may do educated guesses," she says. "That's why the prophets were so vague, they always spoke in metaphorical language because you can't do exact predictions, there are too many wild cards."

Now Atwood is checking her watch and, as the hour's interview-slot melts away, she is off to do a telephone interview, her jam-packed schedule in one hand, her bag in the other. When do you have time to write? I ask. "That," she says with a smile, "is a mystery, isn't it?"