The key to asking a successful question to a literary festival panel is preparation. You’ll want to have every detail of the preface to your question prepared, such as your name, age, and entire medical history. Don’t worry about the actual question; you can make that up as you go along.
Once you finally find the microphone after several doomed attempts to follow the clear directions of the host, you’re going to want to cut short your unprompted analysis of how your eczema has influenced your approach to creative nonfiction to ask an important question:
Can the sound guy give you some more foldback, please? You really need some more foldback for when you ask your actual question.
O.K., so the audience is starting to get a bit restless during your back and forth with the sound guy, and a few people are throwing moleskines at your head. Give them some time. Eventually they’ll understand that this event is actually all about you.
Wow, someone just got you pretty good in the kidney with a hardcover Sylvia Plath anthology. But don’t doubt your approach now, you’re really getting into some interesting territory here with this weeping-into-the-microphone-and-explaining-that-you’re-trying-a-lot-harder-to-be-present-at-the-moment schtick. Take time to remind yourself that those aren’t necessarily boos you’re hearing; it’s most likely just your imposter syndrome playing up again.
So, security says one more attempt to guilt-trip the panel into doing a table read of your one-act play and you’re going to be escorted out. I guess you’re going to have to ask a question. Just make sure you don’t fall into the all too common trap of asking about the work of one of the panelists. Writers hate nothing more than reflecting on their work in a way that illuminates both the audience and themselves not just about their own writing, but the very nature of writing itself. Yawn.
No, what the panel really wants to do is give you very specific career advice that’s only applicable to your very specific situation.
You’ve got to be kidding. This panel of Dante Alighieri scholars say they have no words of wisdom about getting a foot in the door of the fiercely competitive erotic thriller e-book market? Well, guess you better ask a question about their work. Just try to make it as protracted and impenetrable as possible. Here’s a fail-safe option if you’re really stuck:
“In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft launched, taking with it phonograph records of sounds and images that could show extraterrestrial lifeforms what life is like on planet Earth. Firstly, why were none of the panelists’ audiobooks on the Voyager? And follow up question, does this demonstrate a failure of the audiobook industry, the Voyager, or the ability of your prose to translate into the audio form? And follow up follow up question, if you could invite three guests, living or dead, to a dinner party, would you invite Carl Sagan? And if not, would that be because he was in charge of compiling the phonograph records that were on the Voyager spacecraft? Because if so, that’s totally understandable, I’d be annoyed too.”
Ouch, does the security guard really have to grab your neck so tight while dragging you out? Does he not care at all about the welfare of your snood? It’s O.K., pain is temporary, but those confused looks you received from the panelists will last forever.
As you stand outside, you might think your interaction with the panel is over. Wrong. Pick up where you left off by live-tweeting your medical history using the literary festival’s hashtag. As this hashtag belongs to a literary festival, you will be the only person using it, and your tweets will automatically appear on the giant screen behind the panel. Don’t be put off tweeting by the piercing screams of audience members. What these people don’t understand is that, through your actions today, you have actually asked them all an important question.
Is it ever worth sticking around to hear the audience Q&A at a literary festival panel?