Chairing events is a delightful part of my job as a journalist. Interviewing people ‘live’ on stage is similar to presenting on TV or radio, and if you like that public aspect of journalism – which I do – then it’s great fun. I love the energy and unpredictability of the live event. It’s also unpredictable what I get asked to chair. (Is it ‘chair’ or ‘moderate’? I’m never sure!). Subjects can range from panels on World War 1 (for the Goethe-Institut London this month) or ‘Wine and Literature’ (my favourite topic at ELIT2013 in Wachau!) to Margaret Atwood’s latest novel (which I discussed with her recently for ‘Commonwealth Writers’). It helps to have a presenter with skill and personality but the main role of any chair is to sit back and listen, to ask intelligent questions, put the interviewees at ease and help them get their ideas out as painlessly as possible.
Chairing events on European Literature in the UK though has a few additional challenges. To the extent where I often ask, ‘Why do I do it?’
The main challenges? Too little is known in the UK about contemporary writers from Europe, although most of those writers want to visit the UK and be published in English. But they may not speak English; their (often small, independent) publisher has no budget to pay for a decent venue, let alone a fee for the chair.
Again this week I asked, ‘Why do I do it?’ After reading and preparing my event for 2 days; taking a long bus-and-tube journey to a distant venue (‘no money for taxis!’); arriving to find no food (‘no money for hospitality!’) and almost no audience except for the staff and the authors’ sponsors. Considering how famous the authors on stage are in their own countries I feel ashamed.
But then something happens. The event starts. The magic begins. The authors light up. With such fire they talk about their countries, their work, their lives. They are thrilled (if nervous) to be here, to be published in English. They want to be heard, they should be heard, and it’s my job to light that match. It’s the ‘classroom teacher technique’: if we reach just one pupil and make them interested in the subject we may change a life.
It’s not only the small, outlying events that pose problems; it can be the big central-London venues too. In 2013, I organised an event over several months with one of Europe’s most famous authors at a major arts centre. The publicity machines went into overdrive; I got sponsors for his flight, fee and overnight stay; the EU debate was at its height in the UK so the timing was perfect. But when it came to the actual event there were only about 100 people in the hall and we made just enough money to cover dinner for the team. There were 3 other ‘major events’ in London that evening and we couldn’t compete. And, sadly, the word ‘Europe’ has so many negative overtones in our Eurosceptic country that writers too are often tarred with the same brush and audiences mistake the publicity as promoting a rant from some EU bureaucrat.
But there are magnificent exceptions. The annual ‘European Literature Night’ at the British Library in London is one, as are events at Southbank Centre, Freeword Centre, Writers Centre Norwich, Birmingham Library and various big festivals………It is a long list and growing longer.
Why do some European Literature events work but some don’t? After a few years of chairing panels with more writers than audience members, I believe it’s thanks to a volatile mixture of elements: building up trust and loyality for unfamiliar literatures and ideas takes time; starting a creative buzz round the names; making events part of a series; choosing user-friendly writers who like ‘performing’; making the events into ‘performances’ (I call them my ‘Gesamtkunstwerks’!); planning carefully; choosing accessible locations; finding partners and sponsors early on; being patient (foreign authors inevitably need more time, money and effort – they need transport and translation!) and tirelessly reading, brainstorming and networking.
These events work thanks to the diligence, ideas and downright bloody-minded determination of some brilliant authors and colleagues.
They are why I do it.