The Truth About Q&As
It’s always surprised me that the first question I get asked when someone mets me is; ‘Do you write under your own name?’ It seems a peculiar choice over ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ or ‘What do you most like writing about?’ (which I never get asked). I attend a lot of media events for filmmakers and writers that have Q&As attached to them, and some are fascinating.
So, in the interests of providing you with ammunition if you ever have to do one, here are some of there things I’ve learned about Q&As.
You don’t have to be worried, because the audience is nearly always on your side, and will be predisposed to helping you along with your answer. Often they’ll start with a compliment and move on to an intelligent question.
When the deranged Christian censorship-obsessive Mary Whitehouse held her Festival of Light Q&As all the questions were submitted in advance and the dissenters were thrown out, like Trump press conferences and Nazi rallies. Questions are rarely submitted ahead of time (unless the event concerns a tiny handful of controlling US writers I could name).
Occasionally you’ll get what I call a ‘thorn’ – someone who wants to make a bit of a splash by saying something controversial. A woman in the audience for publisher Jon Oliver (the coolest Christian I’ve ever come across) asked how dare he publish stories with sex and violence in, and what his reaction be if God found out, to which he replied, ‘God already knows, doesn’t he?’
Sometimes audience questions try too hard. In a Q&A with Jack Clayton, director of ‘The Innocents’, which was being rereleased on the big screen, someone commented that they admired the way he had blurred the edges of the film to intensify the experience of the viewer and place him/her in the character’s head, to which Clayton explained; ‘That wasn’t why I did it. We decided to shoot widescreen and when I got to the set I found it didn’t go all the way to the sides, so I had to smear Vaseline on the edges of the lens.’
Similarly, a rather angry young woman told veteran scriptwriting legends Galton & Simpson that they would have been more popular if they’d written happier endings. To which Ray Galton replied; ‘Tragedy is funny. Happiness isn’t.’
Occasionally you get a rambler, who loses the plot and starts to tell everyone in the room at great length about the project s/he is working on, and you can only head them of politely with a ‘I think what you’re trying to ask is…’
The worst Q&A I ever attended was for the director of a film called ‘Sideways’, Alexander Payne, who so insulted the interviewer and the questioners that his film (which was quite good) garnered no votes at awards time.
Some writers have personas they adopt onstage. Famously Brett Easton Ellis used to adopt a sulky bad-boy image at question time, but was perfectly charming behind the scenes. I would not recommend anyone doing this.
The nicest reaction I ever had was from the librarians at Sutton Library, who discovered their funding had been slashed and blew the entire remaining budget on publicising my gig. I was smiling for days after!