The post-Diwali turn in the weather has tipped us – as it does every year – full-scale into litfest season. That is not all. Whether at Sahitya Akademi or the India International Centre (in Delhi), Kitaabkhana (in Bombay), Starmark (in Calcutta) or Atta Galatta (in Bangalore), book events are on every other evening. There are samosas, cynicism and, occasionally, wine; and the heady conversation is sometimes punctuated by odd pauses.
It is to avoid that awkward moment – the floor is thrown open for questions and a sudden pregnant silence drops – that we decided to compile for you a handy list of questions to ask authors. And while we were at it, we also assembled questions to steer clear of. Unless, of course, you are one of those people who like annoying authors at book events.
(Note: Except for the most glamorous and talk-shoppy of them all – arguably, the ones who come corporate savvy, courtesy of B schools or successful careers involving “client presentations” and “pitches” – most writers are reduced to a bundle of nerves before events. Yes, even famous ones who have done it a hundred times before. They are jittery, uncertain, jumpy, nervy, sometimes drunk. And almost entirely disbelieving that their books – those jittery, uncertain things they birthed and nurtured in misery masquerading as joy – have led to other humans gathering to listen to them. So, when I say questions writers luuuurve answering, I actually mean questions they hate the least.)
Four subjects writers luuuurve answering questions on
Any writer worth her salt is a reader. (A writer who is not a voracious reader ought to be avoided, I tell you.) And so a lot of writers find it far easier to talk about other people’s books – books they loved as children, books that changed their whole approach to writing or reading, books they fervently hated – now, that’s a fun twist – and books they are reading at the moment.
One of the things, however, that invariably happens to writers when they are asked this question is that they suddenly draw a blank. They can’t remember anything they’ve read, ever. So just give them a moment – or three – to respond. For a bit they’ll freeze, looking supremely panicked. After that, they’ll catch one kindly member of the audience in the eye, another’s peculiar orange sari will startle their memory, and they’ll start jabbering away about other people’s books. You’ll get some excellent suggestions on what to read from that monologue.
On the Process of writing
Most writers are a little in love with the idea of failure. The final book they’ve written is always a failed version of the final book that was gloriously alive in their head. They are also a little superstitious, unwilling to dig around the soft, crumbly earth, at that spot where ideas drop their roots.
But what they are always ready to talk about, in a slightly elliptical fashion, is the writing process. The Process, capital P, is mystical. It can only be communicated through metaphors. (Ann Patchett says writing a novel is like “squinting in the dark”. Annie Dillard writes it’s like “hacking a path through a forest”.)
The story is always in the details: do you know what the end is going to be when you start writing or do you find out along with the characters? Now, that is a question any writer will love answering. It is about the Process. But it is akin to looking for the universe in a grain of sand. Do you have notebooks detailing the past of each character before you start writing – or do you meet a character, mid-action, at a moment, and you know that’s it? Good question, the writer will squint at you happily. And she’ll tell you the truth afterwards.
On the story behind the first book they ever published
We don’t mean the literal story (no writer wants to parse the autobiographical elements down for you, like gossip). But between the first manuscript and the first published book, there are always interesting anecdotes: rejection letters, great advice, minuscule – or major – advances, cheap digs and uncertain gigs, nervous breakdowns and epiphanies.
There are also random encounters that provided inspiration in this period. Because it is all in the past, writers can afford to be humorous and entirely honest about this period in their lives. It’s probably their favourite time, anyway, in retrospect. So it’ll provide a rich crop of anecdotes – and most useful life lessons.
Most writers fancy they have unique quirks. This table lamp they must write under, that old threadbare dressing gown they must wear. Some unhealthy types (like me) need to eat dark chocolate digestives with tea, others must go run at the crack of dawn. Then, there are those who disavow quirks as religiously as others pursue them: they write anywhere, everywhere, any time, any day. They yammer on about this until you realize that the zealous pursuit of a quirk-less existence is also a quirk!
Five questions authors hate answering
If you don’t want to be that member of the audience who is snubbed by the writer or the moderator or other people in the audience, then you’d do well to steer clear of these questions.
Why should I read this book?
Of all the questions that writers are asked, this, however innocently intended, is by far the most annoying.
Why you might read a particular book – or for that matter, why you should try a particular dish or watch a particular film or marry a particular girl – is a question that you must ask yourself, not others.
Just because the writer of a book happens to be sitting in front of you, and is ostensibly (however much she loathes herself and her publishers for it) trying to “sell” the idea of her latest book to you, does not mean that it is not, however vaguely, a conversation about art. If you think the writer has stooped so low that now individually tailored pitches are par for the course, then you are wrong.
The writer does not know you – and cannot hazard an opinion as to why you should or should not read a book. Any book. Even her book. You do. Pick up a copy of the book that must be lying around at the launch and read the first two or three paragraphs. If you feel like reading it, read it. If not, don’t. Just don’t expect the writer to convince you it is worth your while. The writer spent most of her energy, every single day, for a year or three, shaping that book. The writer’s job is done.
How did this book do?
You don’t have to ask the author that. You can find out if it was a bestseller, if it won any awards or if it made the author rich and famous by a simple Google search.
But the author’s relation to the book has nothing to do with the book’s relation to the marketplace. Respect that. If you don’t read books that sold a certain number of copies, or won awards or made the author rich and famous, don’t read the book. But there really is no reason to rub the author’s nose in your unseemly curiosity that has nothing to do with the writerly conversation.
When will you write a book about _____ / ________ or __________?
The bald truth is the writer does not know. However, self-importantly a writer might strut about or talk about craft and control, writers often do not choose their subjects. The subjects choose them. There is naturally an element of common interest somewhere, or knowledge, or at least the hope of acquiring a certain kind of knowledge on the author’s part. But the whole thing, to cross-reference Po the Panda, is “all mystical and kung-fooey”. Therefore, the author does not have any answer to this question.
Why did X choose Y at the end? (Or similar.)
Please do not give away the ending. The author might even be backhandedly pleased that you’ve read the book, but there are people in the audience who have not and they might want to egg you.
The only time this is permissible is if it is a matter of life and death. Almost.
And having attended a gazillion events, I witnessed only one of these.
One lovely afternoon during the Kolkata Literary Meet, in January 2015, Vikram Seth spoke to a packed hall. At the end, a young girl began asking him about the ending of A Suitable Boy. He interrupted her, told her not to give it away. But she had his attention instantly when she said that as things went she was Lata, and her father was forcing her to choose, let’s say, said suitable boy, when she was in fact in love with one of the unsuitable boys. What should she do? Would he please write her father a letter?
Vikram Seth agreed. The next day, the brief letter was published in The Telegraph:
“Dear sir,” wrote Seth in his beautiful penmanship, “give the girl a chance.”
Can I get a photo with you?
No author is churlish enough to say no to this. But you must know that what the author really wants is that you buy a copy of the book which is being sold in heaps. There is something deeply hurtful in the act of taking a photo – without getting a copy of the book signed. (That is, unless you are a young student. Authors don’t expect students to buy their books. They remember the poverty of student-life vividly. In their case, it continued far longer. But that’s a different story.)
What you are saying by getting a photo but not buying a book is that you have no interest in the author’s art – which was the subject of invigorating discussion for the last hour – but you do want a photo to keep around on the off chance the author wins an award one of these days.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, a PhD dissertation on the Natyashastra and most recently, The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat, co-written with husband Saurav Jha.
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