I’m in Michigan. I’ve never been in Michigan before. I can’t think why I would, under normal circumstances spend any time in Michigan, (this judgment is based entirely upon the hundred or so miles of Interstate I saw between Chicago and Grand Rapids, the generic motel I’m staying in and the surrounding strip mall, these being the only parts of the state I’ve had opportunity to see so far). I’m sure it’s a fine place to live and wear plaid shirts and cultivate mid-nineties style facial hair, (also based on my limited experience of Michigan).
I’m here for Calvin College’s every other year, (is this bi-annual or does that mean twice a year, I’m never quite sure?), Festival of Faith and Writing: three jam-packed days of readings, lectures, seminars and workshops on the theme of faith and literature. So far it’s been excellent if a little overwhelming. I saw Zadie Smith. She blew my socks off. I saw Tobias Wolff and his wife, Catherine Wolff; bother were very good. It has been wonderful to be neither a reader nor a literary programmer for a change, to merrily sit back and enjoy watching punters get lost between seminars, enormous registration queues snake round the car park and technology fail as technology invariably does at every arts event i’ve ever been party too. Not my circus, not my monkeys this week and it’s very refreshing.
I have also been delighted to see the stateside literary event attracts the same breed of post-reading question asker as we have in Belfast. These people seem to speak some universal language of weirdness which translates easily on both sides of the Atlantic. Having had to deal with more than my fair share of strange questions at literary events, (both as a reader and a microphone holder), here’s my guide to questions which will invariably be asked after every reading or author talk. I do not, as yet, have a partner guide as to how to deal with these questions and I fear that, “shut up and pass the microphone to a sane person,” is not an appropriate come back.
- The glaringly obvious question : “So do you like writing then?”
- The, not really a question, question : “So, once I went to Vegas on vacation with my wife, who’s not actually my wife any more, long story, I’ll tell you another time. We had the most awesome weekend playing black jack and we saw Elton John perform at that hotel that’s shaped like a pyramid. It was, like super hot, and everything but of course there’s air-conditioning in all the hotels so it didn’t really bother us at all. I’d totally go back to Vegas with my wife -different wife, another long story- it was one of the best vacations I ever had. Anyway, I saw in your book one of your characters was from Vegas.”
- The, what are your influences, question : variations include “what were/are your influences as a child/woman/person writing crime fiction/in Ireland/with a disability/right now?”
- The I wasn’t paying attention to the other question askers/fell asleep and just woke up question : “So, what other writers have influenced your work. Oh, I’m sorry, the lady before me just asked that. Let me say it again in an only slightly different way and hope no one’s noticed I wasn’t paying attention.”
- The, hey I am a writer too, question : “As a fellow writer of science fiction I totally understand where you’re coming from on the alien reference. When I was writing my book, which is about etc etc.”
- The, what are you working on now, question : “Variations include can you write more books about the little kid with no arms in your first novel, I just loved that kid/are you still working on that mad idea you mentioned under duress at a similar Q and A session last time you read here/I hope your next book isn’t going to be historical fiction.”
- The, we’re so glad you’re here but this isn’t really a question either, question : “Hi, John, my name’s Sandy. I just wanted to say that I loved your reading today and I have all your books and they’re all great, even the non-fiction one about the Cholera epidemic, though if I’m honest I prefer it when you do the short stories, but anyway thank you so much for coming here today. That’s all I really wanted to say. I’ll just sit down now.” (Sits down, still holding the microphone).
- The, oh I don’t need a microphone, question : “Incomprehensible muffled noises, impossible to hear if you aren’t sitting right in front of the person asking the question followed by a long anticipatory pause.”
- The, let me tell everyone present how much I know about the topic that you have chosen to write a book about, question : “Long-winded waffle, invariably including the words ‘dichotomy’ ‘aesthetic’ ‘synonymous’ and the name of at least one academic with a foreign-sounding name, mispronounced.”
- The, just plain crazy, question : “So, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s interest in the paranormal was very much like the early 90s movie, Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze wasn’t it? Such a pity that Arthur Conan-Doyle never got to see Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze!”
- The, i’m pretending to be an ordinary audience member but I’m actually the reader’s spouse/publisher/literary agent, question : “So, your book sounds fascinating. I’d sure like to get my hands on a copy. Where can I buy one?
- The no one else is asking questions and either I can’t bear an awkward silence, or I work for the literary organisation hosting this event and therefore feel compelled to ask a question, question : “So, what are your influences?”