The final word on the 2009 Edinburgh Book Festival is reserved for someone who makes Lizzy’s excesses appear modest. The dedication of Paul Johnston, award-winning crime author, who chairs events covering a broad spectrum of publishing (crime, literary fiction, international fiction, non-fiction) is admirable. He says “living in Greece, I have to make to make a trip to Edinburgh worthwhile”. Let’s see what other stories he has to tell. This is the Edinburgh book festival from the view point of one whose job it is to keep things moving, to ensure that the audience gets its money’s worth.
Paul Johnston (courtesy of www.paul-johnston.co.uk)
Paul Johnston (courtesy of http://www.paul-johnston.co.uk)
LS: From author to chairman at the EIBF – how does that happen?

PJ: I became a chair by starting off doing the odd event about ten years ago and gradually being recognised as a safe pair of hands. The Edinburgh Book Festival is very good about giving chairs advice and developing their profile.

LS: 31 (!) events. How does that happen? Is it a record of some kind?

PJ: I chaired 30 events and had one event promoting my own work.  I don’t know if 30 events was a record this year. I chaired 34 a few years back… I like to do as many as possible to make it worth my while being there. 34 only works out at 2 a day, so it’s not as bad as it sounds…

LS: How do you prepare? How many books did you have to read to cover your  events? Any 5-star reads that you’d like to recommend?

PJ: Preparation is in two parts. First, reading the books (for 30 events, that worked out at over 40 books due to some events having 2 authors), then writing notes – they consist of author biogs and quotes, questions and other relevant info. I also take notes while authors are speaking, to make my questions flow as naturally as possible from what they’ve said. I was lucky enough to do a lot of great writers this year (eg Iain Banks, David Peace, William Boyd, Douglas Coupland). I’d also highly recommend Andrey Kurkov’s books – people were in stitches at his event.

Douglas Coupland and Paul Johnston
Douglas Coupland and Paul Johnston

LS: Were the connections between the books paired at the EIBF always obvious?

PJ: The festival is good at pairing authors who have something in common, although it’s usually possible to find points of contact even if they’re quite different.

LS: Do authors prep answers to the questions you’re going to ask?

PJ: I don’t tell them the questions in advance, to make sure there’s some adrenaline rushing and because I react to what they say during their presentations (the only exception would be non-native speakers of English, who are sometimes not too confident about their comprehension).

LS: Are some events more difficult than others?

PJ: Single-author events are usually more taxing because you have to know more about the book/ writer, although some pairings can be testing. I’ve sometimes done events when the authors speak no English and need interpreters – those can be tricky, but audiences are very tolerant.

LS: Do your events always go to plan?

PJ: Events certainly don’t always go to plan, not least because you never know how authors are going to perform on the day. I had one author this year who said he didn’t want me to chair him as the event was about to start in front of 650 people. Just as well – having seen him in the run-up to the event, I’d decided I didn’t want to chair him anyway… If authors read too long, I sometimes step in and remind them of the time, particularly if another author is showing signs of irritation. I had one author this year who read too much, but I decided to let him go on as the other author didn’t seem concerned and because he’d been longlisted for the Booker Prize. Predictably, a member of the audience complained afterwards…

LS: What gives  you the biggest buzz?

PJ: The biggest buzz is when an author reacts well to questions and the audience show their appreciation – laughter is always a good sign. Some authors are very good at charming crowds (eg Ian Rankin), while others need gentle pushing in the right direction. And then there are the carefully prepared show-offs. I tend to avoid them.

LS: You also appeared as an author this year. Which is less stressful – appearing as an author or as a chairman?

PJ: It probably is less stressful doing one’s own event, although I often feel I don’t prepare enough for it.

LS: How did your own author event go?

PJ: This year, my own event, with my friend and fellow crime writer Robert Wilson, was a bit of a tester – the power failed after two minutes, and we had to get by with tiny torches and loud voice projection. The crowd showed great Blitz spirit, but frankly I could have lived without the hassle.

LS: To compensate, why not tell us about your latest novel right here, right now.

PJ: The novel I’ve been working on this year is Maps of Hell, the third in my series featuring crime novelist/ investigator Matt Wells. It’s a complete change of direction, being set in the US and involving a new set of very sinister villains. It’ll be out in May 2010. This year saw the republication of my Alex Mavros series, set in Greece.

LS: Thanks, Paul. All the best for the new novel and thanks for your dedication to the cause! What’s next for you as a chairman?

PJ: I’d like to chair at other festivals, such as Hay-on-Wye. Other than that, it’ll be back to Edinburgh next summer…

LS: Indeed.  Only 11 months to go ….

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And that’s it for this year.   I particularly want to thank all the author interviewees who made EIBF 2009 such a special event on Lizzy’s Literary Life this year.   I had an absolute blast … I hope you did too.

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