Could you chair a book festival?

24 September 2018

Do you like talking about books in public? Can you read fast? Can you keep a conversation going between lots of people at once? Are you curious, bordering on nosy? 

If you answered yes, then you have many of the qualities required to chair an author's event at a book festival. 

But there's one more thing: a willingness to be almost invisible, and allow others to shine. 

Three people who have hosted hundreds of author events at Wigtown over many years are Stuart Kelly, Lee Randall and Peggy Hughes. Here are their insider secrets.

Stuart Kelly 

I probably do 20 events a year at Wigtown, and I’ve been doing it for ten years. One year, I calculated that I was on stage for 46 hours. And of course I read all the books first. 

That's the only responsibility: to read the book. The only skill is to have a conversation. 

It sounds simple, but you need to listen to the things the person says. It has to feel spontaneous. That can be impeded when an author has rehearsed the answers in advance.

As an interviewer, your biggest ally is silence. When the person has finished speaking, don’t ask the next question at once - just wait, and they may say something fascinating.

Chairing an event is a strange thing. It’s a bit like being the conductor of the audience. If I smile, the audience will. If I look pensive (leaning forward), the audience will too. The last thing to do is to look bored - because the audience will too!

Is it ever boring? Not really. But what I don’t like is when authors do a lecture for a whole hour. They don't realise that that will not sell any books. You need to leave the audience wanting more.

Peggy Hughes

I don’t usually like to plan events with authors beforehand, because I want to keep it spontaneous. If you discuss it ahead it can be too much like a presentation. The secret is to do enough preparation so that if something surprising comes up you know you'll be OK.

One of the frustrations is when I have met an author in the writer's retreat and they have been really interesting - but they get awkward in front of an audience. Then it can feel like getting blood from a stone. There was one author I asked about 59 questions in an hour. Think about that!

Stuart was really kind to me when I started, and gave me lots of advice. Like, if you ask the audience for questions, and there’s silence, just wait. If you step in too soon, people will think they missed their chance. Also, it’s better not to rely on notes. And remember that no one is there to see you, so make yourself invisible. If the event goes well, nobody will remember you. Does that hurt? No. For me this is a happy sideline, and I can enjoy it on that basis. 

The things I've learned for myself? I've become more confident, and comfortable with an audience. I've learned to handle difficult questions from the audience. And I've got a good sense of what an hour feels like.

I genuinely love doing this. It’s one of my all-time favourite things.

Lee Randall

Over the years, I've probably chaired about 100 sessions at Wigtown. One of the greatest highlights was the year we had the authors of Perfume. We installed a massive industrial fan on the stage, and blew smells at the audience so the authors could talk about them. 

Each time, the person in the first row would get a little damp immediately - because this is liquid, right? - and the person at the back didn’t get the scent for a few minutes. From the stage, I watched the little smiles spread gradually back through the room. That was a real highlight.

Why do I do this? Well, I need the money, and this is a great way to make a living. Books are oxygen to me. I mean, that sounds pretentious, but you should see inside my home - just don’t light a match! I’m always putting books in people’s hands. It's what I do. I say, read this, read this! So to be up on stage with the author, getting people to be enthusiastic and persuade them to read the book - that’s just great.