A guest post by Kelly Gardiner and Adele Walsh, co-creators of the Unladylike podcast.
Right now, somewhere in the world, there’s a writers’ festival going on or, at least, an event in a bookshop or library featuring one or two writers or illustrators discussing their work and sharing their thoughts. There are dozens of podcasts, YouTube channels, writers’ centres and literary organisations. Never has there been so much talking about writing.
Interviewing writers, or being interviewed about your work, looks easy, but it isn’t – at least, not for everyone. We’ve learned the hard way, by participating in dozens of writer panels – including as chair or MC – and watching hundreds, maybe thousands of events. More recently, we’ve learned an enormous amount from the intimate setting of podcast interviews.
So if you’re a writer or someone who is about to interview a writer, if you’re chairing a session at a writers festival or participating in a panel, here are a few tips on making the most of your moment.
First: prepare. Read as many of the other writers’ books, stories, scripts, poems as you can. Read them like a writer – look for themes not evident at first glance, technique, structure, characterisation, world-building, language. Read or watch interviews with them, and check their blog posts and social media to see what interests them, how they respond, which questions they’ve answered a million times.
TIPS FOR INTERVIEWERS OR CHAIRS
Sketch out a biography for each participant, and chose a few key things that you’ll include in your introduction.
Write a list of interesting things that pop into your head while reading the writers’ work. Just jot them down and see what emerges. You don’t need to construct them as questions at first. These can be threads through the conversation, or you can turn them around into questions.
Order your list of thoughts into some kind of narrative, and see if you can rephrase some into questions. The event may not follow that path, but you need to prepare a logical progression of things to talk about, so that they seem to follow on from each other.
Have some questions that everyone on a panel can answer, and some specific to one person or their work. Make sure everyone gets the same amount of attention from you and acknowledge the answers before moving on to the next question.
Questions need to be answerable and open-ended. This is one of the hardest things to get right.
Questions, like those in any interview, are best if they:
- Can’t be answered with a yes or no
- Invite exploration, digressions, memory, story-telling
- Get in under the bonnet of the writing and the thinking behind the writing.
Write down your questions, but don’t get too attached to the wording. You will, inevitably, lose track, and that’s not a bad thing – it will (hopefully) mean that the discussion has become a conversation.
Before the event, read the questions over and over, so that the narrative is clear in your mind, even if you can’t remember each questions. Print them out at 16 point with plenty of white space in between so your eye can easily find them in the heat of the moment. If you’ve decided to use a tablet instead, turn off the automatic screen lock – you really don’t want to be entering your pin to unlock with everyone watching.
Check the pronunciation of everyone’s names, book titles, and if there’s anything they hate talking about. (You might decide you still have to raise it, if it’s controversial, but find a way to do so which is new and gives them room to engage with the ideas.)
Don’t put a position to the writer, forcing them to agree or disagree – it is awkward for them, and for the audience. (Academics often do this. “Your book engages with concepts of …”) Turn your opinion or critique into a question.
If you’re chairing a panel of writers, nobody really cares what you think. Your job is to enable them to shine.
TIPS FOR WRITERS AT EVENTS
If you’re one of a few writers on a panel, make sure you engage with the others. Don’t just sit there waiting for a question directed at you. Listen, extend the discussion from other people’s thoughts, look at them while they speak, give them reassuring messages with facial expressions and body language.
Try to find a balance between long rambling answers and short rejoinders that don’t give anybody else room to engage.
What to avoid:
- Flogging your books. It won’t work, because everyone hates that, so don’t even bother. If you’re interesting and engaging, people will be interested in what you write. Or not. Don’t be the 3am shopping channel.
- Dominating the conversation. Let the other people on the stage get a word in.
If you’re on a panel with other writers, you need to read their work. In fact, if it’s a festival event or major panel, it’s damn rude not to. You might think you’re too famous. You’re not. People – audience and other panellists – can tell if you’re not interested in the other writers and their work, and it reflects badly on you.
Scribble down a few answer to some obvious questions – what’s your work about, what’s it really about, how did you research it, anything controversial – so you can quickly explain the basics. Review these just before each event, so you have a few key words fresh in your memory.
Be Prepared For:
Audience questions. Yes. We know. Audience questions can often be rambling statements rather than actual questions, and this can be tricky. Find something in the statement – even if it’s just a word or two – that you can riff off or engage with. Remember audience members are often nervous – especially if they are children or young people. But be prepared to politely intervene if someone is just spouting off.
Cranky writers. Some authors will be on tours or have spent months talking about the same book over and over. Most will try to behave as if your conversation is fresh and new, and give their utmost. But if they are jet-lagged or weary or just a wee bit full of themselves, they may go into automatic pilot, serving up answers that feel like the same old schtick. But if you’ve read a whole lot of previous interviews, you’ll have questions that aren’t the same as everyone else’s, and you can engage them in something that feels to them like a human conversation more than an interview. And writers – don’t be that person. We can tell.
Be human, be generous, be attentive. Look out into the audience and smile (yes, even if you’re really shy and don’t want to be there).
Unladylike is a podcast on women and writing, hosted by writer Kelly Gardiner and literature advocate Adele Walsh. Look out for it on your favourite podcasting app or listen on unladylikepodcast.com.