Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writers' festival question time: thoughts from the chair

I've just been reading an entry on the Book Show blog about question time at writers' festivals, here. It's an entertaining sampler of Dumb Questions People Ask, but having had very different experiences at Writers' Week in Adelaide I'm wondering what causes the differences.

My guess is partly scale (all but a handful of evening sessions with Very Big Names happen at the same site, which comprises two big tents for parallel sessions plus a terrific book tent and ditto food and wine, plus surrounding parkland and riverbank, some of which is in deep shade and all of which is beautiful, although if it rains you're stuffed) and partly the audience demographic, which in Adders skews middle-aged to elderly, well-educated, and polite but forthright.

Over the years I've chaired a number of festival sessions in two different cities, though perhaps significantly neither of these was Sydney, and am still pleasantly surprised by the level of knowledge, engagement and intelligence shown by about 95% of the people who get up at question time. In Adelaide there are standing microphones in the tent aisles, so if people want to ask a question they have to make the commitment of getting up and making their way to the mic and queueing when they get there. And then when they do get there, they have the beady eyes of the rest of the audience upon them and will feel the heavy weight of disapproval if they bang on, ask stupid questions or show hostility to the guest, like the woman who got up a few years ago and said to Helen Garner, through a big cheery appeasing smile, 'My daughter's friend really hates you, what should I say to her?'

But it's the responsibility of the person chairing the session to make sure the session doesn't fall apart, and there are a number of techniques for this.

* Take notes, mental or paper (but probably not on your iPhone), of what the guest(s) is/are saying, so that you'll be ready with a few Dorothy Dixers -- or, indeed, real questions -- if nothing is forthcoming from the audience.

* If it's a one-writer session and she or he is clearly recalcitrant and ornery, and you are feeling brave, simply end the session early instead of soldiering on asking good-natured but increasingly desperate and laboured questions that the guest either answers in monosyllables, mocks, or ignores. I've seen a couple of hardened Melbourne literary types reduced to helpless gibbering by MWF guests (Thea Astley and Elizabeth Jolley respectively, they were, and there's a warning for you right there: never underestimate a festival guest who looks like a harmless little old lady, for she will do you like a dinner. My own worst-ever experience so far was with Ruth Rendell).

You are chairing this session for love, probably neglecting your day job in the process, and you did not sign up to be publicly humiliated. If you get angry enough, there's nothing to stop you taking in a deep lungful of the red mist and saying to the writer 'So tell me, Pommytwit McArrogance, what exactly do you think about the morality of having accepted the Festival's invitation, plane ticket, hotel room and free publicity if you're just going to sit there sneering and rolling your eyes?'

* Keep an eye out for rogue members of the crowd. This year at Adelaide Writers' Week I could see him coming a mile away: elderly, thin, untidily dressed, muttering to himself through a wolfish grin at nothing in particular and apparently having trouble with both his belt and his teeth as he made his way very slowly and ostentatiously across the front of the audience, between the front row and the stage, and my prayers (No no no make him keep going straight out of the tent don't let him turn down the aisle to the mic no no please Goddess) went unanswered. When he finally did get to the mic he unleashed a meandering stream of invective about how outrageous it was that nobody but him understood that Roger McDonald was the greatest Australian writer who ever lived, which he was perfectly within his rights to think but which didn't haven awful a lot to do with the session topic, which was 'Memoir'. (Nor with the guest list, which Roger McDonald wasn't on this year.)

As soon as was both possible and decent, I got a word in at the end of one of his increasingly long and indignant sentences to say 'Excuse me, Sir,' (always address them as sir or madam) 'but there are several people behind you in the queue, so could you get to the point and ask your question, please?' He did, albeit with much resentful tutting and eye-rolling, and Goddess bless Craig Sherborne for answering it, immediately, politely, succinctly and deadpan.

When this sort of thing happens, or indeed any other disruptive sort of thing you weren't expecting, YOU MUST INTERVENE, because nobody else is going to until the audience starts throwing food scraps. Or, if you're in Adelaide, throwing plastic mineral-water bottles, festival programs, tubes of 30+ blockout, Panamas, sunglasses, paper fans, signed copies of Hitch-22 or The Slap and bits and pieces of Zimmer frame.

* With reference to the above, always make sure you know where Security is before you get up on the stage. Also the tent manager and the sound dudes, and it's helpful to ask for and remember these people's names beforehand.

* Speaking of the sound dudes, there'll always be at least one person in the audience who starts jumping up and down and waving his or her arms and disruptively bellowing "Can't hear! Get closer to the microphone!' These people usually (a) date from an age when getting closer to a microphone made things better instead of worse, (b) don't understand that the techs are the people they should be notifying, (c) are almost certainly sitting somewhere out of proper speaker range in any case, (d) haven't caught on that above a certain decibel level the noise from the East Tent will start interfering with what's going on in the West Tent, and (e) don't have their hearing aids switched on.

* We are living in an age where nobody thinks any more that it might be polite to actually ask the participants whether it would be all right if they recorded (audio, footage, still photos, you name it) the session. They just go ahead and do it. Then they put it online, where you can study, at your leisure, every possible aspect of your appearance, voice, manner and general public presentation.

Do not agree to chair sessions unless you think you will survive this process. Especially not if you then have to cope with eminent gimlet-eyed crime writers whose initials are RR instructing you immediately before you get up on stage to interview them (see next dot point) that you must prevent people from taking photos, and somehow stop yourself from asking 'And how, pray tell, do you propose I manage that?'

* If you a chairing a single-author session, almost all of them will say they want to be interviewed rather than give any kind of presentation. Allow three working days for preparation if you want this to go even remotely well, bearing in mind that you won't find out that that's what they want until after they've arrived in town.

* Do not lose your nerve.

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