How to conduct an author interview or moderate a panel at a book festival

koleka-putuma-uct-nick-mulgrew

We’ve all seen this particular train-wreck – a badly moderated panel at a book fair, or an author interview that goes pear-shaped. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is the airy assumption that all authors and academics know how to do both. Ahem. NO.

Frankly, the best people by far for performing these surprisingly tricky tasks are professionals, especially journalists with radio/podcast miles under their belts. In other words, people who ask questions and draw people out for a living. When they love books as well, and make themselves available for book launches and literary festivals, we all heave a sigh of relief.

But what about the rest of us mortals who are asked to perform these tasks from time to time? Recently, a lovely and generous friend, herself a published author, had to do her first book launch where she would be doing the author interview, rather than sitting in the hot seat herself. Wanting to put her best foot forward, she wrote to ask advice, and thanks to her, this blog began brewing.

For starters, never assume that because someone’s words sparkle on the page, they’ll be equally entertaining in real life. Some authors are hermits, some freeze or fall apart in front of audiences, some are just plain difficult (fortunately, these are rare). Some of the funniest writers I know are absolutely wooden when asked to speak off the cuff. So never think that your author/s will do the heavy lifting, and all you’ll have to do is sit there and supply the occasional prompt. You have work to do. 

The Golden Rules

1) First: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.

You have a little more leeway if it’s a panel on a more general bookish topic, but the rule is that you are there to showcase the author and their book, with the focus on their most recent book (or play, or column, etc).

This means it is a grievous sin to bang on about YOUR books. This is especially the case if you have a full panel (three or more people) and some of them have come a long way to be present. I have never forgiven a moderator who took up more than half the panel time talking about himself and his work when his panel consisted of a Caribbean author who would almost certainly never be in South Africa again, my favourite Ugandan writer, and a much-loved local author who rarely appeared in public. I came to hear THEM, not you, I raged inwardly. Do not induce similar rage in your audience.

Start by introducing yourself briefly, so that the audience knows what makes you qualified to speak. Here you are allowed to say “I’m a Joburg-based author raised in Zambia, I have published four novels – a thriller and three romances – and a travel book, and my latest book, published by X, is XXXXXX.” But that’s it. Now introduce your authors at greater length, all upfront. Speak for at least two minutes on each one, if it’s a panel; a little longer if it’s a single author. Ask them to send you a recent bio ahead of time, but this won’t replace research, which you must still do.

Academics, this is especially for you, and I speak as a recovering academic and battle-scarred veteran of many academic conferences, seminars, and workshops. In your usual environment, you are expected to “perform” your expertise, your knowledge of your topic AND the tools – analytical frameworks, discourses and theories – you use to process and present that knowledge. But this is NOT a graduate seminar, and these are not your students or colleagues. When moderating a book panel, you need to switch to an entirely different mode. Heed the golden rule of the book industry: the most important element in the room is the AUDIENCE, i.e., the readers. What you say needs to be appropriate for and accessible to them. If yours is a contentious or nuanced view, this is a wonderful opportunity to put it across with clarity and conviction rather than burying it in your flair for trendy discourse. But even then, let’s go back to our mantra: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Most of the audience is present because of their interest in the speakers/authors. Get them to make the interesting points and arguments. Take a whirl on Google to see how professionals extract this kind of response from people.

2) Do your homework.

This may seem obvious, but hands up all those who have attended an author interview or book panel where it was clear that the interviewer hadn’t read the book, or had read only the blurb and maybe flipped a few pages. (Okay, you can put your hands down now.) This is unfair to everyone: authors, publishers and organisers alike. Remember the television interviewer who infamously said, “Let’s talk about your book. I haven’t read it, of course, because it’s a very big book.” If you don’t have time to read the book, politely decline to do the interview.

You not only have to read the book/s ahead of time, you need to research the author, and at least take note of their other works. (Ultimate clanger: “So, this is your first novel?” Author: “No. My fifth.”) Google is your friend. See if you can find fun bookish details or interesting biographical details. If there are any audio or visual clips, watch them to get a sense of how your author speaks. I did a book launch with the same lovely person mentioned above, and discovered she’d been a professional violinist. I was a distinctly unprofessional violinist in my youth, but it gave me a great lead-in, asking how being a musician helped her as an author, which segued beautifully into “It teaches you to apply bum to chair for hours at a time. Also: practice, practice, practice.”

3) Understand your role. 

You are not present as a critic. You are there, to be frank, to market books. It is no good being squeamish about this: if you agree to interview an author at their launch or moderate a book panel at a book fair, you are agreeing to help sell something, and heaven knows, we need people to buy books, especially local ones. Alongside this, you are there to entertain/enlighten an audience, whose members have often paid money to be present. Your job is to showcase the author and to brag a little bit on their behalf. 

However, while you should always be pleasant and upbeat, don’t be sycophantic. Generalisations like “This book is amaaaaaazing” or “this is the best book ever” will just make everyone feel faintly embarrassed. If you’re asked to speak about a book you consider to be weak or poorly written, this is NOT an opportunity to get out there with a hatchet. Just say no. (Unless the author is rich, powerful and famous, and has churned out a sloppy book -- but I still recommend politely declining to do the interview.) Beware of chairing a panel with both strong and bad/inexperienced writers; if you have a good relationship with the organisers, be frank about your qualms, and see if they can’t line up a more balanced panel. You do not want to preside over a bloodbath or (IMO, worse) a session in which everyone patronises the bad writer.

4) Don’t exclude the audience.

At launches especially, beware of going into a bubble where you and the author (who are both deeply familiar with the book) chat about details the audience – most of whom haven’t read the book yet – can’t relate to. This can be quite tricky: you don’t want the audience to feel left out, and at the same time you have to avoid spoilers.

So ask questions about things like the writing style, characters, pacing, politics, the immediate context of the book – how and why it is important now? What current concerns does it speak to? For every broad question, ask something more intimate: “You have three children under the age of six and a large dog. How did you find the time to write your book?” 

Remember to keep including the audience. Look out at them, make eye contact, and keep telling them how much they will enjoy X aspects of the book. I like to include them in a rhetorical question or address a piece of interesting information to them every third question. Or say something like “I have a question about X – but I should explain, for the benefit of all your readers here – that this interests me because...”

5) Ask the right questions.

Never ask questions to which the author can simply reply “yes” or “no” (see monosyllabic authors below). This is death, especially to single-author interviews. If your author is shy, try the overlap technique; when they say something, reflect it back to them and see if you can get them to take it a bit further.

By all means find nice things to say about the book (see 3 above), but make them specific and concrete, and see if you can lead them into questions: “I love the way you write about gardens and growing things in your novel – it’s so earthy. Do you like to garden yourself, or did you do a lot of research?” Encourage short anecdotes – these make everything more relatable.

I like to ask a few focused questions about concrete things, then invite the author to say something discursive: “explain the writing process you followed”. The idea is to coax them into chatting freely. Keep repeating this pattern until you run dry or the audience looks restive. 

Always come with more questions than you’ll need, even if you end up asking only half of them. It’s fine to bring a back-up list of questions, if you’re not getting good mileage out of the ones you think are important; sometimes the answers to those will be dry or predictable. Go off the beaten track, if necessary.

One way to end a panel or interview is to ask the author to read a passage; it’s a good idea to pick one or two juicy ones for them. Mark these clearly in your copy and hand them to the author, rather than asking them to start thumbing through their book. Another trend I’m enjoying is the practice, at book launches, of employing or asking a professional actor to read extracts, especially at the start of an event. 

Troubleshooting

Herding cats (specifically for panel moderators)

Make sure everyone gets more-or-less equal airtime. This is hard if you have great chatterers on panels alongside those who are agonisingly shy. This aspect of moderating is like being a good dinner-party host. Chip in pleasantly but firmly: “That’s really interesting, but I’d like to hear what Janet has to say about this.” Watch out for pernicious political habits: the famous, the privileged, politicians, and academics can be bad about hogging the limelight, and although it’s rare, some folks are guilty of appalling panel etiquette. These are my absolute no-nos: murmuring asides to others while another panelist is speaking, especially if you are a famous older white man and the person speaking is a nervous woman doing her first ever panel (you can tell I’ve seen this happen); mansplaining/ whitesplaining/ whataboutery; public drunkeness (yup, seen this, too). Be firm, fair and funny. Humour can salvage a lot of potential disasters. Don’t permit bad behaviour, but allow everyone to save face, too, so no public scolding unless you’re faced with egregious racism/ sexism/ homophobia. Try a comment to all the panelists along the lines of “Well, this is escalating rather fast, and I think the audience would like us to get back to the topic/ the book/ the question, and we can save the more intense discussion for afterwards when we all have more time.” For disrupters, try “It’s clear you have something to say, but I’d like Neo to finish answering her question, if you don’t mind.” If they persist: “I can see you’re bursting to say something, but I’d really like you to let Neo finish speaking.” With luck, Neo will have smacked the interrupter in the chops by now, saving you the trouble, but practice your lines just in case. Use body language: I find people often respond to hand gestures (and not just the smacking kind).

Good time management is essential: keep a time-piece on the table, and make sure everyone knows where they are time-wise. “We have ten minutes left, so I’ll ask everyone to answer one more question...” Sometimes I like to chime in “We’re already halfway through our time-slot, and there’s so much still to say!” Slip panelists notes (FIVE MINS LEFT) if necessary. 

Exactly the same goes for taking questions from the floor: take charge before these start by saying “I’ll ask you to keep your questions short, so everyone gets a chance to speak.” I am brutal about chipping in when an audience member is in full monologue mode: “Is there a question there? Because I see a lot of other hands, and we’re almost out of time.”

On this note: if there are roving mikes, this is because the organisers know they are needed. Don’t let an audience member speak until they have one in their hand. A question almost no one can hear is a waste of everyone’s time. If there are no roving mikes, always repeat the question that’s just been asked (reason #574 long monologues from the floor are not a good idea) for everyone to hear.

The short version of the above: use common sense, and insist on common courtesy. In fact, never mind professionals, I sometimes think kindergarten teachers would make the best panel moderators.

Author/crisis management

Although these scenarios are rare, I’ve had to manage all them at least once.

* Author breaks down in tears. Solution: do NOT get embarrassed or awkward: say something like “I get tearful when I talk about that too; it’s a perfectly normal response.” Then pass them water and/or a tissue, and speak directly to the audience in very calm tones about the topic in general terms until your author has recovered enough to go on.

* Author reads utterly inappropriate passage. Solution: cough loudly and say “I’m afraid I’m going to interrupt you right there because there are small children in the audience, but this is an example of the visceral truth-telling you can expect from this writer, and I encourage you all to buy the book to find out what happens next.” 

* Author babbles at machine-gun speed. Solution: be very zen, and speak more slowly yourself – it slows them down. Be prepared to repeat things to the audience. “So what I just heard you say was...”

* Author is inept with mike. It’s a good idea to check that everyone’s mike is working, and that they are comfortable using them before you start – at a professionally organised event, someone will do this for you. Unless you are in a tiny room in a quiet environment, the correct answer to “Do I have to use this mike?” is always “YES”.

* Author responds to questions in monosyllables only. Solution: prayer. I generally abandon hope and read the audience all the liveliest extracts from their book. 

* Author launches into frothing rant. Solution: wait for them to snatch a breath, then jump in to say, “That’s fascinating! Moving along, my next question is...” Unless the rant genuinely IS fascinating, in which case, sit back and enjoy the show.

* Author is a politician – i.e., they refuse to answer your questions, but keep repeating what they want to say. (I am indebted to Fred Khumalo for this definition.) Not sure there is a solution, although sometimes this stems from the author being over-prepared or messianic. Keep saying, “Yes, but I’d really like to know...” until one of you cracks.

One last thing about preparation and crisis management: sometimes a book, an interview or a panel deals with a difficult and upsetting topic. People will often attend because they are battling with that issue and need help and support. But remember that a book fair is not a safe or professional space for dealing with trauma, and authors and panelists are rarely trained counsellors. Yet attenders will often want to speak to them about their particular demons. If you are dealing with topics like trauma, addiction, depression, suicide, dementia and so on, explain right at the start that the issue could be upsetting or triggering, and then supply the appropriate hotline numbers and web resources. I’ve done several panels on sexual violence, and I insist everyone get out their phones and enter the number and link to Rape Crisis before the discussion gets under way. I then add that authors are NOT counsellors, but that there is help for anyone who feels unsafe or distressed via the resources I’ve just provided.

Most of what I’ve said here is summed up far more elegantly and succintly by Michele Magwood, herself a superb moderator and interviewer: “As someone who does a quite a bit of interviewing, both at festivals and for print and podcasts, I feel my aim is simple: to make the author/s shine. In order to do this, one reads the book (and ideally any others they have written). Don't laugh -- there are many interviewers who just read the blurb. Then you read and watch as many interviews with them as you can to see what makes them come alive, and what bores them. You read about their lives, their influences. And then when you have them in front of you you talk about the story, about technique, their preoccupations, their inspirations, about their world view, all those things that will interest the audience and hopefully make them buy the book. At book festivals we, the interviewers/moderators/chairs are not critics. We are there to amplify the books and their authors. To make them shine. It's not about us.”

Don’t be alarmed by any of the above. The truth is that 90% of authors and panelists and book industry people are professionals, and will deliver the goods. Many of them are delightful people. A successful panel discussion or interview is an exhilarating experience, and can lead to long-term friendships. Enjoy.

PS: It may seem obvious, but always thank the audience for coming. The worst book events are those where no one pitches up. Be properly grateful when they do.

Nick Mulgrew