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.
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 ….
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.