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The Dreaded Q&A Session

When you give/attend a reading, what questions do you want to ask the writer? What questions do you actually ask the writer? What are the questions that make you wince?

A few years ago, I went with a friend to see Michael Chabon read in Cambridge. (My friend’s suggestions, not mine, and he’d gone through the trouble of getting us tickets.) After Chabon’s reading, people lined up to ask questions. One woman, who’d been standing in line for a solid 15 minutes or more, got up to the mic, cleared her throat, and asked, “You wrote a book that took place in Pittsburgh. Are you ever going to set a book in Pittsburgh again?”

The question was innocent enough. Sure, let’s give her credit, maybe she’s from Pittsburgh. Whatever. But to stand in line to ask that kind of question, well, yeah. Whatever. I don’t remember exactly how Chabon responded, but I’d say he handled it well enough. I guess the boy’s got practice dealing with questions like that.

I gave a reading in Houston last year. I’d read an excerpt from Changing, then a portion of my Choose Your Own Adventure manuscript. (The part I read from focused heavily on cats performing surgeries, then crawling into a woman’s body to function as organs.) This very nice professor guy raised his hand and asked if I considered myself a “sentimentalist.” Unlike Chabon, I didn’t answer the question well. In fact, I was totally confused. I think I said something along the lines of: I appreciate sentiment, though I wouldn’t call myself sentimental or a sentimentalist, whatever that means. (He proceeded to continue asking questions about “sentimentality” & fiction today!)

In light of these two examples, what kind of questions do you like or dislike, dread or desire?

9 thoughts on “The Dreaded Q&A Session

  1. That story about a woman asking Chabon if he was going to set another story in Pittsburgh is hilarious.

    I’ve winced so many times during Q&A sessions. Although, I can’t think of anything in particular now.

    I do remember hitting Salman Rushdie with a few, layered questions that he graciously answered. Jokingly, he said I couldn’t ask any more questions, then turned to the audience and said, “Would someone please ask me my favorite color now?”

  2. The funniest thing I ever saw was Denis Johnson at a Q and A in Syracuse. It was for the students mainly. Three mikes were set up. Three lines of students. One of the first questions was, What made you write this book? (Tree of Smoke) One of the next questions was, How long did it take you to write this book? About 20 minutes later a student asked, What made you write this book? Johnson laughed. A few minutes later another student asked, How long did it take you to write this book? Johnson asked him if he was joshing him.

    Is recall totally slipping away?

    Another funny: Doctorow was being question by Plimpton and they took questions from the audience. An older woman asked Doctorow how he was able to write about the Dresden bombing so well.

  3. when i was an undergrad i went to a writing conference in utah, and one of the guest speakers was Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil, and Sunnyside), at the time he was already late on delivering Sunnyside to the publisher. Like a year late, if I remember correctly. The book, at the time, had a release date that was only six months away. someone got up and asked him when the book would be out, right after he said when the release date was. that was pretty priceless.

    there were a lot of hilariously bad questions in that q & a but Gold handled them quite nicely.

    interestingly, Sunnyside would end up having three more release dates, each getting pushed back because he’d yet to deliver the manuscript. and then it had no release date scheduled at all for about two years. it finally came out back in the spring of this year. something like five years after it’s original slated release.

    1. Greg — I remember those readings. Not that particular one, but I saw Johnson read at SU back in the early 00s. The questions could be really bad because each student was required to ask an author at least 1 question during the course of the semester. Still, it was a great idea for a course.

  4. A few years ago, I saw Aimee Bender read her story “End of the Line” at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. The reading was open to the general public.

    In case you haven’t read it, the story is about a regular-sized man who buys a little man as a pet. He then goes on to torture the little man.

    After her reading, members of the audience were allowed to step forward, wait in line, and ask questions.

    A homeless man shuffled to the front of the line. He then proceeded to tell her that he thought her story was sadistic. He wanted to know if she wrote it to be sadistic.

    To her credit, Aimee laughed it off and said that she didn’t believe the story to be sadistic at all–but the character in the story certainly was.

    I couldn’t really take any of hte other questions seriously after that.

    1. that’s awesome. that one’s probably my favorite story of hers. I got a chance to meet her back in June and I tried to explain how I was describing that story to my wife through text messages.

  5. For what it’s worth: I have never been asked a question at a reading that I did not find interesting and worthy of careful consideration in answering….maybe I’ve just been lucky, but the readers I’ve met have without exception restored my faith in American literature. (Which perhaps gets too easily depleted, but there it is.)

  6. Everyone above has apparently had better experiences with Q&As that I. Too often, especially at conferences or university readings, the questions seem to be more about the questioner than the author or the author’s work. Most of them sound as if they are phrased to impress–either to catch the attention of the mousy brunette a few seats down or in hopes that there is a hidden literary scout in the audience, waiting for some precocious student to ask a question so verbose and cerebral that it deserves a book deal. For me, these self-indulgent questions are worse than those like “What software do you write on, and how do you think it influences your process” (real-life example), because they absorb less of the author’s time and patience.

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