Last night I went to my first writer's event at the Wheeler Centre (for those who live outside Melbourne, it's a new writers' centre/venue where they have lots of talks, readings and meet the writer things). I went along with a friend to hear Kate Jennings. She is an author of several novels, including Snake and Moral Hazard, as well as collections of essays. She also has been a speechwriter on Wall Street, and has lived in New York for about 30 years. I've always liked her novels, and also her earlier essays, but hadn't read any recent ones. Nevertheless, I went along expecting to hear her talk about her writing.
It's always an interesting question - what is the role of the interviewer? I spent about eight years doing radio interviews with a wide range of both local and international writers, and I occasionally now do interviews as part of our Writers in Conversation events at Vic Uni. So I think it's the interviewer's job to ask questions that inform the audience about the writer's books but, more importantly, about their writing life. And their writing. Not that awful question: Where do you get your ideas from? But more about the writer's passions and what drives each novel, what their themes are, how they write, how their books affect readers, what their experiences of publication have been.
To focus on the plot of a novel, or too much on the most recent book which many people may not have read, is not a good tactic - it leaves the audience floundering. There is no context for this kind of discussion. But we came away from the Kate Jennings session with a pervading sense of dissatisfaction, and I couldn't help but think the reason for that was the interviewer. Hilary McPhee certainly has the credentials as far as publishing and book experience goes, but it seemed that she went for the "let's chat by the fireside" kind of interview, which meant a lot of skimming, a lot of meandering across politics and history and very few questions that actually led Kate Jennings into deeper discussion about her writing.
Maybe it was just me (and my friend). We're both writers - we go to those things to hear writers, whose work we love to read, talk about the creation of those works, and how the writer engages in that creation. Every writer is different, every writer works differently, they form ideas differently, they have a voice and a unique perspective on the world that informs what they do. I love to hear about those aspects, not a whole heap of stuff about the world in general. I can hear that any day on the radio or even on the train!
I remember at last year's Writers' Festival I went to a session where M.J. Hyland was being interviewed, and it was an excellent session indeed. The interviewer asked great questions that allowed Hyland to relax and simply respond and talk openly - about her writing and her novels. What do you expect from a writer's event? Are you happy with a little chat? Or do you want to come away feeling inspired and intrigued?