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Authors Chime In: How to Ask Good Questions for Q & A

Jennifer Paull

Staff Writer

Jennifer Paull walks quickly.

Now that I’ve nudged you to step up and reclaim the Q&A portion of author events, let’s hear from the other side of the microphone. Seven writers generously relived their own readings to suggest audience questions that make for a juicy discussion.

From this highly unsystematic cross-section of authors, one rule of thumb stands out: They’re happy to answer specific questions about their writing process / decisions, but the best queries pull the whole audience into the discussion. As Ben Greenman noted, “The goal is to generate an interesting conversation near an interesting book, not necessarily about it.”

Bookstore owners / staff: Have you ever tried one of the methods raised by a commenter last week, e.g. having people submit questions in advance? If so, how did that work out? Let us know!

(Note: Authors are presented in an order determined by euphony. Asterisks indicate an author currently touring. If you go to one of their events, bring it.)



Latest book: Celebrity Chekov, with The Slippage coming in spring 2013

“The questions I’ve liked the best are the playful ones, the ones that display the kind of curiosity that leads to literature rather than the kind of posturing that kills it. . . . I’ve had people ask me which period of my life I find myself writing about most often; which part of my book I wrote last; which phrase in the book I’m most proud of; which authors I stole from over the course of the book. Or people can ask about topics other than the book: politics, sports, personal history.”



Latest book: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

“Anything specific is better—whether it’s about the new book or about the author, a specific question trumps a vague one any day of the week. I would rather answer a genuine question about my nail polish than a cloudy, general question about my ‘process.’ Questions about the book are the best of all, but of course it’s crazy to assume that people in the audience have already read your book. My favorite questions thus far have been about the story itself, about some of the choices I made—the voice, the plot, real nuts and bolts stuff.”




Latest book: Luminous Airplanes

“The best questions are the ones that have something to do with my work in particular . . . questions you might ask having read a brief description of the book or project—questions that the brief description leaves unanswered. When I get asked Qs like that I feel strongly motivated to reply thoughtfully because the Q&A becomes a kind of introduction to the work, which is what it seems to me it should be.”




Latest book: Beautiful Ruins

“I like it when I’m asked about other authors or other books, not just what are you reading or what do you like, but Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction? or Are there trends you’re noticing in short stories these days? Another good question is, What did you edit OUT of this book?”



Latest book: Arcadia

“I often find the most interesting questions to be the ones that begin with a very specific comment about the book at hand, opening into a far more general, thought-provoking question that the audience and I can bat back and forth between us. For instance, last week, someone made a smart point about a story I’d written and then asked how I would define wealth in America. I found that an excellently impossible question to answer, and the audience was really involved in adding their voices to the conversation. In the end, most writers [are] somewhat narcissistic, but even the most narcissistic of us have a hard time hearing only our own voices for the length of a reading, and a question that has broad, ambitious scope and the potential for many ways of answering it is far preferable to the ‘What are you working on now’ / ‘Who would you cast in a movie adaptation of this book?’ kind of question.”



Latest book: The Odditorium

The most engaging questions I received from audience members after a reading concerned the ethics of creating fictions around historically based characters. People were genuinely curious about the license I gave myself, after doing research, to write imaginatively, to make things up about historical persons and events. One person asked if I would get into legal trouble, another if I suffered pangs of conscience about possibly misrepresenting people. I enjoyed answering these questions since they were the same challenges I had wrestled with while writing each of the eight stories, and because such questions prompted audience discussion, a spontaneous conversation about the ambiguous territories between fiction and history, what I think of as assumed truths.”



Latest book: The Family Fang

“The best question is one where someone has read the book and asks something about the construction of it or decisions that you made. That, however, requires someone to have read the book in advance.

The more general questions that I like are ones that I can answer and then direct back to the group. I like when people ask about a possibly unknown book that I wish everyone would read, which can lead to a larger discussion. I like talking about a particular story or novel that helped me write my own book. I like talking about process, and one time a person asked about the first story I ever published and what it was like and how I think of it now.

In short, I think the best questions are ones that lead to a larger conversation. I like it when the group starts to talk to each other and we feel more of a sense of a collective instead of a more formal Q&A where people might be too shy to ask a question.”



Latest book: In Between Days

“I think the questions I enjoy most are the ones that force me to think on my feet, something unexpected that either relates to the craft of writing in general or else specifically to the passage I just read. I’ve always seen Q&As as an opportunity for me to discover something new about my work or about my opinions on writing in general, and my favorite questions are those that force me to reflect deeply about these things, even if my answer at that moment is still a little inconclusive.”