Chairing panels and interviewing authors on stage: what I’ve learned

This is an updated version of a post I shared on my old blog LiteraryMinded, in 2014 (and first in 2009). I’m about to start doing some festivals as an author for the release of my novel, A Superior Spectre, and I’ll be chairing some sessions as well. I thought it was time to revisit these points.

Interviewing Jerry Pinto at Adelaide Writers’ Week, 2015.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned about chairing and interviewing authors on stage, through watching good, mediocre or bad sessions at festivals, and through my own experience chairing panels at writers’ festivals in Australia and overseas over the past 10 years. I’m certainly not the sole authority and nor have I mastered all of these points. Like anyone, I have good days and bad, and I’ve had times when I’ve been nervous or have simply taken too much on. This post is intended to help people both chairing for the first time, and those who’ve become a little too comfortable (and perhaps over-confident) in their methods. I mention this last point because I’ve had conversations with friends where we’ve agreed that a panel or interview was badly chaired, but the interviewer is generally an intelligent and generous person and we don’t know how to broach the subject, or whether it is our place to.

To the person I later found out had snorted cocaine before chairing a writers’ festival panel: No. Just no.

Writers Who Blog panel at Sydney Writers’ Fest 2013. Mark Forsyth, Tara Moss, Lorraine Elliott & myself.

Here are some things I’ve learned about chairing panels and interviewing authors on stage:

1. Prepare well. Read the authors’ latest books, and if you have time, dip into their backlist as well. Both the authors and audience appreciate an in-depth knowledge of the work (as long as you don’t show off about it). If it’s relevant, also read up on the topic. For example, I chaired a panel with Margaret Drabble and Rabih Alameddine called ‘Grand Allusions’, and so I dug out my Oxford Dictionary of Allusions to swot up on literary allusion and reference.

2. Get in touch with the authors in advance. You don’t have to overwhelm them with information, just let them know that you’re preparing the session and that the channels of communication are open. Then they can let you know if there’s anything they are really keen to focus on, or avoid. I also sometimes contact them again the week before the event to give them an idea of some questions and topics I may raise on stage, so they have time to ponder them beforehand, or select an appropriate reading. I’ve found this helps to reassure authors that the conversation will have direction and that you’ll cover certain topics, so they don’t feel they need to explode and cover everything when answering the first question.

3. That said, you don’t want to exhaust the topic before the panel or interview even begins; leave plenty of room for spontaneity.

A New Frontier: Blogging, Dissent & Solidarity at Ubud Writers & Readers Fest 2009: Dian Di SudutBumi, myself, Ng Yi-Sheng and Antony Loewenstein.

4. On the day, keep the panellist introductions brief, respectful, and informative. Take highlights from the information the author has provided to you/the festival, and run it by the author in the green room. Make sure you have asked how to pronounce each authors’ name. You may also want to ask their pronouns, if this is not clear in the festival materials.

5. If you are in Australia, then you should also have an Acknowledgement of Country in your introduction. Sometimes the festival will provide the wording, and sometimes they will tell you it is unnecessary because there has been a Welcome to Country at the beginning if the festival. Whether it is encouraged or not, it is respectful to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which you are speaking.

6. During the introduction, you may also want to give a brief general introduction to the panel topic. This can be a few separate sentences, or may be woven into the introductions of the authors and their works. It just provides a little guidance for the audience about the topic and structure of the panel, and how the panellists relate to the topic.

7. Try to use the names of the authors’ books when referring to them, instead of saying ‘your book’. It will help the audience to remember the titles.

8. Be sure to ask individual questions of each author, as well as more general ones. This will allow more in-depth insights into their individual works, and the audience will leave knowing more about them. It’s also respectful to the authors, and shows you have read the books carefully.

9. That said, don’t over-analyse the authors’ books as part of your question. This event is not about how smart or insightful you are. It’s okay to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you don’t give the author much room to move, especially if they think you are wrong but want to remain polite. Don’t treat your preparation the same way you would if you were writing a review or an essay. As an example, instead of telling the author and audience that the book has strong female characters, you might ask the author about a particular character and then prompt them from there to give their own opinion or analysis. The audience wants to be party to the author’s own insights, not yours.

10. On that note, don’t show off. Don’t over-quote, or take too much time to delve into the book’s relation to (insert your own specialist area). One or two well-placed quotes or references can be incredibly effective, but I’ve seen panels and interviews where the chair will throw in a quote before every second question. Though the author is undoubtedly very smart and well read, you may be putting them in a potentially awkward position (or risk them thinking you’re a smart-arsey douche). The audience, too, will be groaning inwardly, or outwardly. They’ve come to hear what this author thinks about love, writing, death…

11. In sum of these last two points, keep the lead-in to your questions brief, and actually ask a question. One that works well for me is: ‘Could you tell us about…’

Relaxing with a drink by the authors’ yurt, Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013.

12. Be flexible. I’m definitely someone who over-prepares, and writes everything down. I would panic if I didn’t have my notebook on stage with me. However, I don’t entirely follow the questions as a script. I try my best to listen for the moments when an insight can be taken further, or when I can take something the author has said and tie it to another idea we’ve discussed, or throw it to the other author/s. If you’ve read your panellists’ books carefully, and also studied them and their careers, you’ll be able to carry off this segue action more easily.

13. That said, it’s nice for a panel to have an arc. So if you sense your panellists are giving away too much of the gold too early, or there’s a point you want to lead to, communicate that to them and the audience. It’s as easy as: ‘Okay, that’s fascinating, I definitely want to come back to that, let’s just get more of a feel for your character. Could you tell us…’ And then, if you have a bad memory like me, make a squiggle in your notes so you do remember to bring it back to that awesome point.

Eleanor Catton, Tom Cho and I at the signing table at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

14. Try to avoid um, ah, kinda, sorta, ‘sorta thing’ — I hate myself when that comes out of my mouth on stage — and upward inflecting too much when you speak, particularly in the introduction (that’s one I’ve tried to tackle after a nasty tweet at Edinburgh International Book Fest). Also, don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much. Nodding is good, but try to avoid lots of ‘yep’, ‘aha’, ‘cool’, ‘right’, and so on into the microphone.

15. Watch your feet. Are they jiggling, or swinging out whenever you laugh? Remember that your feet on stage can be at the eye level of the audience. Lots of movement can be quite distracting.

16. Most of the authors you end up chairing will be experienced, and will know how to talk about their book in a way that is genuine, insightful, and interesting. But wow, there can be some wildcards. Sometimes authors are nervous and can barely speak, other times they’ll completely dominate. My hardest interview was with someone famous who was used to performing solo. To the last minute he kept asking me to remove questions from my plan until I was panicking I’d have nothing left. Then he paced wildly, lay on the floor, and performed all sorts of other personal rituals before going on stage. I’ll admit to having a dram of whisky before that session… Luckily, it went fine, because his book is fantastic and he’s funny and smart, and I’d read and researched thoroughly. The point is, people are people, just be as open-minded and diplomatic as you can be. Be aware of both author and audience, and if someone is going on too long, try to butt in gently. If you’re chairing a complete arsehat, well, sh*t happens — try to channel their negatives into insights, or at least try to frame it as entertainment for the audience. It’s not always gonna work. Have the whisky ready for afterwards.

17. Sometimes, no matter how well you’ve prepared, and how great everyone is on stage, there’ll be a strange lack of chemistry. This has happened to me once or twice, and I’ve spent far too much time thinking about it afterwards. One time I think there just wasn’t enough to the topic, and it was difficult to draw the works together in relation to it. Another time I think I just didn’t prepare the best questions. Or maybe there was a full moon. Who knows. Just make sure you do the best you can.

18. Also, if you get nervous like I do, or if you’re tired, sometimes you might just completely blank. It can be hard to juggle ideas: seeking those titbits to carry further in the conversation versus going to the next planned topic or question. There’s a lot you have to hold in your head. Just try to breathe, relax, and be there. The notebook, again, can help. If your blank causes dead air, just be honest and apologise to the authors and audience, have a laugh, and then get back on track.

Interviewing Alan Hollinghurst at Adelaide Writers’ Week, 2018.

19. Individual festivals/venues will have their own guidelines for audience questions. Some audiences will be hanging out to get in on the action, especially with well-known authors. Other authors or topics won’t attract so many questions. Ten to twenty minutes is usually how long you’ll give over to audience questions. Make sure you still have some questions in reserve in case there aren’t any from the crowd. And be prepared to be tough with audience members who grandstand or try to make a long comment instead of a question (you know the type). The rest of the audience will get cranky if you don’t keep them in line! That said, some audience members are just nervous and may take a little while to get around to a really great question… It’s your call.

20. Don’t forget to mention book sales and signings at the end of the event.

21. I’ll say it again: it’s not about you. Mention your own book or who you are in the intro, and then that’s it (unless you are a ‘participating chair’, which is a horrible thing people should not make you do). Be curious about the person/people with whom you get to spend this hour. You have the power to create an enjoyable, memorable experience for both them and the audience. You’ve taken the gig. Do the job well.