Chairing a session at the Perth Writers’ Festival

Chairing sessions at a writers’ festival can be a lot of fun. You get to meet absorbing and interesting people engaged in the same craft as you, almost all of whom are articulate and erudite which means you have no problems with them engaging the audience’s interest.

The problems, if they do arise, usually come from the audience. There’s always one – sometimes more than one – audience member who wants to take over during question time in order to articulate at length their… point of view, favourite hobby horse, fanatical obsession.  It seems to make no difference that, at the start of questions, you’ve asked everyone to make their questions succinct. The hijackers remain intent on either prefacing an (invariably) lame question with a five minute diatribe, or not bothering with a question at all and merely launching into their own agenda.

On the basis that the audience are there to hear the people on the platform and no one else – including the chairperson – it’s down to the chairperson to cut across such question-time usurpers and to shut them up.  This is never easy, especially as you frequently have to be quite abrupt. Still, the audience comes first.

One rule I always follow now is never to ask anyone in the first couple of rows to put a question.  Of course they may all be perfectly innocent, but I have the jaundiced view, borne of bitter experience, that if someone is in the front row and desperate to ask a question, they probably intend to take over and talk at length.

On one occasion I was chairing a panel of thriller writers which included Dame Stella Rimmington the ex-DG of MI5. At question time (like an idiot) I asked a guy in the front row to put his question. He stood up, took the mike from the steward, turned to the audience and immediately launched into his rant. It was obvious after the first few seconds there was no question there; all he wanted was to complain that he had written lots of thrillers (all rejected) and that being the ex DG of MI5 allowed an unfair advantage.

Twice I asked this character to put his question; twice he ignored me. After about 30 seconds – which I now realise was giving the guy way too much rope – I announced we’d move on to another question, whereupon our hero threw the mike to the floor and stormed out of the theatre screaming that cutting him off was ‘un-Australian’.

At the end of the session I apologised to the audience for what had happened. I was sorry the guy was upset but no-one was there to listen to him. Afterwards, Stella Rimmington was very gracious and expressed her gratitude that I’d shut the guy up. She told me she got quite a lot of people like that turning up at her sessions.

After another couple of occasions of discovering (too late) that hijackers liked the front rows I now overlook them completely when it comes to questions. Which may be hard on the genuine folks there but all I can advise them to do is move further back into the body of the audience.

Some sessions you just know are going to be controversial. At the recent Perth Writers Festival I was asked to chair the session Gaza: Zionism and anti-Zionism. The panellists, Raimond Gaita, and Anthony Lowenstein take pretty much opposing views on this topic, although they are both great guys and, having appeared on a number of public platforms together, are very civilised and quite good friends. But the theatre was full and there was a certain buzz.

Everyone listened to both Raymond and Anthony respectfully but when it came to questions we could see that there were passionate views in the audience –  which is great when the views come out in genuine (and short) questions.  I announced that questions would need to be short and if they weren’t, then the stewards would move on with the mikes to another questioner. One person ignored that and launched into a tirade about who, in his opinion, was responsible for events in Israel. Afte a few seconds of this I was were able to cut him off and move on, though not before I announced that neither Raimond nor Anthony needed to respond to the guy, as no question had been asked.

That seemed to do the trick and the rest of the session was taken up with genuine though loaded questions. But loaded questions are okay; that’s what the people on the platform come to expect.  In fact, the session, though controversial, turned out to be a lot of fun although some folks in the front row (where else?) tried to engage Anthony in debate while Raimond was answering another question.

By contrast the session I chaired on The Death of Print: the impact on the literary landscape of the internet and the rise of eBooks, was a breeze. With novelist James Bradley;writer and book critic Lev Grossman ; literary blogger Angela Meyer and chief literary critic at The Australian, Geordie Williamson weighing into the debate, all I had to do was sit back and listen.  What a privilege.