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In The Hot Seat

Hosting author events

Seat on stage

My first ever author event was at a cinema in London’s East End where I was interviewed by the crime fiction critic Barry Forshaw. I was both thrilled and nervous to talk about my debut novel that I’d written while living in Greece, in the Athenian heat. After the session, Barry joked that I’d soon be sitting in his chair. Having just survived my first public appearance, I thought this highly unlikely, but within a month a local bookshop had asked me to interview Sophie Hannah. As a long-time admirer of her books, I was keen to take up the opportunity although a little nervous that my questions might have a fangirl feel to them. I needn’t have worried. Sophie is a brilliant interviewee, and that evening marked the start of my unexpected career as an event chair. Since then, I’ve interviewed authors in venues from my local library to Iceland Noir in Reykjavik and in various formats including one-to-one interviews, multi-author panels, live-streamed events and pre-recorded sessions. It’s become an important element of my writing life.

The interviewer is key to an event’s success. Organisers work hard to assemble an interesting programme in a suitable venue, market the event both locally and nationally, sell a decent number of tickets and organise an on-site bookseller. For the hard work behind the scenes to translate into a successful live event, the interviewer must not only prepare well but take on a multitasking role on the day. The main driver of a successful event, of course, is the author who needs to be willing to chat. I’m always terrified of monosyllabic answers and prepare too many questions, but I’ve found even the most nervous of writers relax when talking about their books.

I’ve come to enjoy chairing an event as much as being interviewed about my own books but there is a strange dynamic in relation to author as interviewer. It’s as if we peel away our author coat and temporarily adopt the role of compere or chat show host for the duration of the event. It’s almost impossible to talk about your own books and that’s not what you’re paid for. As Barry Forshaw argues, ‘If I’m chairing a panel which may be built around the books that I’ve written – such as, for instance, Historical Noir – I have to make sure that it’s not an ego trip, and (to a degree) hide my light under a bushel. The job of any panel chair, of course, is first and foremost to make the authors on the panel shine, and one’s own role is to be something of a handmaiden, keeping your personality in check — and certainly not making too many references to your own work (although the odd casual reference is permissible!).’

There’s a hybrid role which some festivals adopt called a participating moderator where you’re asked to include your own books in the discussion. I’ve never found it to be a particularly successful format. It’s almost impossible to ensure a smooth-running event and talk about yourself. You’re too busy helping a faltering panellist, departing from your script when conversations take an unplanned direction, fading into the background when a discussion is going perfectly well and eliciting audience questions. As an author, you therefore rely on the generosity of the interviewees to bring your experience and stories into the discussion if they’re familiar with your work. Some authors, especially those who often sit in the interviewer chair themselves, are very good at this.

Audiences can be a minefield. Attendees might be devotees of a writer’s books or simply people curious to discover a new author. Questions are usually polite but can be long-winded or around a topic that was discussed at length in the interview. I often wonder, when that happens, if the audience member fell asleep at that point of the discussion. At one recent event, a question went on for so long the audience began to heckle. It reminded me of working with teenagers in Greece and I fell back on my old teaching tricks to restore order.

The more experienced bookshops and festivals ensure an interviewer’s books are on sale alongside those of the author. There’s no expectation that we’ll sell many copies, but it stops disappointed audience members telling us they’re sorry they can’t buy one of our own books. I’ve become adept in asking organisers to include some of my novels for sale. As Forshaw says, ‘if you’ve done your job well, the signing queues at the end of the session will have people lining up for your book as well as for those of the other panellists.’ Event chairing is also a great opportunity to speak to regional booksellers you might not have the chance to meet otherwise.

Event chairing is also a great way to interact with fellow writers. I live in a village high in the Derbyshire Peak District and while there is a loose network of authors in this region, my working day is mainly a solitary one. I’ve met exciting new debuts, bestselling authors and writers whose books I wouldn’t necessarily have discovered. Reading out of your comfort zone is one of the great benefits of being an interviewer, suggests author and co-founder of the Hull Noir festival, Nick Quantrill. He also finds that reading as an event chair helps him look at a text more critically. ‘I’m looking to extract what interests me about the plot and characters; essentially I’m trying to figure out what I like (or don’t like) about a given book — it’s all useful material to feed into my own work.’

Then there’s the issue of a fee. When I was starting out, I did a few interviews as a favour to very supportive bookshops, but I’ve found the time involved in preparing for an event means I simply don’t have the capacity to do justice to an interview without payment. It’s straightforward to negotiate a fee. I tend to do this upfront when I’m discussing dates so my payment feels embedded in the process from the beginning. I’ve also learnt to say no. A publisher wanted me to travel to London and interview two fellow crime writers with no mention of a fee. In the end, I pointed out I lived 160 miles from the capital and would need something to cover my costs. I didn’t hear from them again but I think this experience is becoming the exception. Publishers, bookshops and libraries are increasingly aware that they need to pay interviewers. Festivals that sell tickets rightly offer payment to both author and interviewer. It’s usual for the author to be paid more than the interviewer which I appreciate as a writer but feel lacks awareness of the hours of preparation event chairs put in.

Does hosting author events increase your profile? Nick Quantrill thinks it does to a certain extent. ‘In terms of my general profile, it certainly doesn’t hurt to sit alongside brilliant writers from the world of crime writing. On a more personal level, it’s also incredibly inspiring.’ I’ve also found that supportive programmers have allowed me to branch off from the crime fiction genre into my other interests, particularly nonfiction. Looking back on 2021, I see I talked to authors on subjects as diverse as Neanderthals, suffragettes, Judaism, genealogy and cemeteries. There is a risk that as your reputation as an efficient event chair grows, you become overlooked as an author. Event programmers are often sensitive to this and will make room for you as an author too.

If you’re asked to interview a fellow author, I’d say go for it. At the very least, you’ll gain a valuable insight into the hard work interviewers put into your own events. There’s never a dull moment. At one festival, I was a last-minute replacement for an interviewer who’d been called away to form a government. (Yes, the Prime Minister of Iceland is a crime fiction expert!) I’m not expecting anything so dramatic in the future, but it certainly keeps you on your toes. During the pandemic, of course, programmers, authors and interviewers had to be innovative to make book events a success. I moved my study around so I could display authors’ books on my shelves during Zoom interviews and learnt to keep an eye on the chat bar rather than a physical audience. However, I missed the buzz of the green room and the incidental conversations and connections, and I’m hoping 2022 will be the year we get to do that all again.

Sarah Ward is a crime writer who also writes historical thrillers as Rhiannon Ward. She is a regular chair at Derby Book Festival, Buxton International Festival and at various crime fiction events.

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