Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On chairing a literary panel

On Sunday I went to Hamilton Gardens to chair the event “Men Behaving Bookishly”. The panellists were, in reverse alphabetical order, novelist Tim Wilson, noir novelist Chad Taylor, poet Kevin Ireland and true-crime writer Scott Bainbridge

Three of them had connections with Quote Unquote the magazine: Chad was on the cover for this interview in May 1995; Tim wrote for us in 1993, our first year, including this piece on Shonagh Koea; Kevin was nominally the assistant editor but was much more than that. I learned many good lessons from him about writing and editing but chiefly about the importance of a really good long lunch.

The programme said: “They will be talking about writing their books and the books they enjoy reading.” So that’s what we did.

One of us was massively hungover from a stag party the night before. One of us was in the last stages of making a movie from one of his novels. One of us had got back the night before after a long trip to the South Island to fish for trout. One of us had lost his voice a few days before after a long trip to Taiwan. So we were all a bit distracted, but it seemed to go well.

Asked from the floor how we relaxed, one of us said, “I find going to Mass relaxing.” One said, “I have a day job so for me writing is relaxing.” One said, “I drink a lot.”

The session went really well, everyone said afterwards – audience members, organisers, participants. And that’s because of the preparation. I learned quickly when I was a musician that the more work you do in rehearsal, the easier the performance, and vice versa. So when I would do a one-hour session at the Auckland Readers’ and Writers’ Festival with a writer (e.g. John Freeman and Vincent O’Sullivan) I would spend a week prepping. Which made the hourly rate less than $5 but meant that the audience got their money’s worth and the writer was comfortable so gave a good performance.

I have been on panels where the chair does not do this prepping and I get a bit ratty. Chairs too often think they can wing it and get by on charm (or, as happened once at the Auckland Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, drunkenness). Well, I can’t. I have to work for it. Charm, that is.

So four days before this event I emailed the panellists with the potted bios with which I would introduce them, and also a list of questions I thought we could all discuss, ranging from “Why do you write, given that it is so hard?” to “What did you read when you were young that got you started?” (My answer to the first question was “Money” and to the second, “Biggles.”) Thing is, on the day they all knew who the others were, and what they were expected to have an interesting opinion about.

All of our panellists could have got by on charm – I mean, Kevin Ireland! – but the paying audience would have been short-changed had we not prepped and just fallen back on our stock routines, which all performing authors have.

So here are the Smiths with “This Charming Man”, live in Hamburg in 1984:


Danyl said...

I feel that this is blog post is a psychic criticism of my lack of prep - so far - for the panel I'm chairing next week.

Stephen Stratford said...

I was totally thinking of you. Good thing about this kind of homework is that you don't have to show your workings.