#AWF 2015 A Letter to Poetry Shelf: Laurence Fearnley on being a Festival Chair

This is a terrific letter — open, honest, generous, thoughtful and it is the mark of the kind of writer Laurence is, the kind of woman she is. I was at her session, and yes, I felt uncomfortable at the point she got heckled. For the audience, for the other panelists and for Laurence herself. To be honest, I was sitting in the front row, and because I could almost reach out and touch the speakers, at times I almost started joining in! Truely, I had to stop myself and say, no I am NOT on this panel! That is a measure of the vitality of the conversation. Yes, there might be ways to improve as chair (I always feel this no matter what I do!) but this session sparked all kinds of thoughts in my head. All credit to the chair. I was also utterly impressed with Laurence’s level of engagement with the work. When someone takes time out to read your books and to think about your books it is incredibly moving (not all chairs do this!).

I think there are many ways to be a chair. We are all different as this glorious festival demonstrated. You had the nerves and infectious enthusiasm, that utter passion for poetry from John Campbell, and the ensuing poetry conversation with Carol Ann Duffy. A special occasion indeed. You had the measured way of Jim Mora that welcomed the general reader as much as the writer when he spoke with Tim Winton. Equally special. You had the sparkling reach of Noelle McCarthy in conversation with Helen Macdonald. Gold! All different, all producing different kinds of vital conversations. These are all professional talkers so does it make a difference when the chair is a writer?

I like the fact Laurence asks for help here. Perhaps the festivals could build a short list of experienced chairs willing to briefly mentor (answer the questions of) fledgling chairs. In a reply to my festival post Laurence poses some of the questions she might ask.

What about the heckler? I agree with the points below wholeheartedly,  but I have been guilty of this to the point I ended up on the front page of the Sunday Star Times and was hounded by reporters. At the now infamous session that Kim Hill chaired where she was rude to the international panelists, and talked at length without allowing them to speak, I yelled at her from the back “We have come here to hear three fabulous writers speak, not three fabulous writers under attack.’  Etched in brain. The audience stood and clapped in unison. I felt like I was going to faint. You had to be in the room to understand what happened. Perhaps I am responsible for this new species of festival hecklers. I am the hugest fan of Kim’s radio show, her interviews are the best but I felt a line was being crossed. I guess Kim has never forgiven me. I was rude. Alice Sebold hugged me. There is always a price when you speak out publicly, even as a heckler.

It all comes back to that word that Eleanor Catton floats: kindness. We need kindness. We need critical debate. But we don’t need to knock the stuffing out of people. Read the article  I posted before this one on reviewing books.

If I could, I would reach and give Laurence a hug. Thanks heavens someone did. I admire your courage enormously.

Paula Green



Hi Paula

You raised the issue of chairing in your blog and I’d like to reply. At the weekend I chaired a session ‘Art of the Novel’. Despite having been a writer on upwards of 50 panels, it was my first time as a chair for a group of novelists and the combination of my inexperience, nerves, and over-enthusiasm (and probably over-thinking) proved to be a a disaster. Twenty minutes into the session an audience member started heckling me. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but it was soon communicated that I was talking too much and interrupting.

As the Auckland festival becomes larger I can see problems concerning chairing increasing. Audience members clearly have little tolerance for poor chairs so dissatisfaction will increase.

There are some fantastic, skilled chairs out there (Fiona Farrell, Paula Green, Kate de Goldi, Jolisa Gracewood, Emily Perkins to name a few I have had the pleasure of meeting) and I was wondering if there might be value in including a back-stage, 40 minute chairing session at the start or end of each festival day for people like me who have not chaired a panel, or for people who feel a little rusty. I know we are sent notes on chairing (which I re-read, believe me) but it would have been fantastic for my nerves if I had been able to ask an experienced chair a couple of questions concerning problems I had. For example: reading the panelists works raised some complex ideas that I wished to discuss. How could I have communicated those questions, maintaining the complexity of the idea without the question becoming confused, and needing additional clarification or follow-up questions that interrupted the writer? I am sure, that with your experience, you would have ideas on how to tackle those problems.

So, would any of you be prepared to offer help in this way?

I don’t think heckling is the answer to shaking up a poor session. I think it creates a flee or fight response in the chair, makes the audience apprehensive (is it a one-off heckle, is the audience member nuts and will continue heckling, what impression is this making on the panelists), and the panelists uncomfortable (because they are usually nice, sympathetic people).

After my panel – when I had already got the message – a woman came up to me, grabbed my arm and snapped, “learn to button your lips.” It was a shit remark, coming at the end of a bad session, and surplus to requirements. Thank God for the kindness of Stephanie Johnson, Jill Rawnsley and Charlotte Henry.

Laurence Fearnley


11 thoughts on “#AWF 2015 A Letter to Poetry Shelf: Laurence Fearnley on being a Festival Chair

  1. Catherine Robertson

    Laurence, I feel for you! If it’s any consolation, I heard nothing but good feedback about your session. As a first-timer, I would have loved a session to help me prep. All I had to learn from were my experiences of watching good and bad chairs in previous festivals, and hoping I could be the former and not the latter! I did OK, but a lot of that was thanks to David Mitchell being kind, generous, erudite and funny, and the audience responding to him as such. However, I did have one man come up to me afterwards and tell me how disappointed he was and how I’d asked all the wrong type of questions, etc – you got your critic in the session, I got mine afterwards, which was less public but it still hurt like billy-o and I dwelt on it for far too long! But then – the universe provides – that evening I got talking with a woman on the ferry to Waiheke about a totally unrelated subject: young people serving in her restaurant feeling bad if their customers didn’t seem happy, This woman, the restaurant owner, tells them that it’s not their job to make the customer happy, they can never know what’s going on in someone’s life, and that they should not rely on external validations but should look to their own internal standards: did they do the best job possible, did they treat the customer with kindness and respect, etc? Wise words, methinks. Take care, and I think it’s a smart and excellent idea to gather chairs together before the Festival to compare notes – if the organisers won’t do it, we should. Next time! Best, Catherine


    1. Paula Green Post author

      Thanks for this Catherine. I think your challenge was jet lag! And you navigated that beautifully. You raise an important point that I raised in my festival blog. Audiences are full of different expectations and experiences and we will never hit the mark with all of them in terms of where the conversation shifts to.


  2. Rachael King (@rachaelking70)

    Chairing was very much on my mind at the festival as I was about to fly back to Christchurch and chair a session with David Mitchell on Sunday night. I came away with ‘don’t talk too much’ as I listened to my own instincts, heard about audience complaints, and listened to feedback from other writers & audience members. So I tried to keep my questions short and clear and allow the author to talk and not try and fill in any pauses. BUT I still talked too much I’m sure! That is because we are human. And when we are on stage we are a bit nervous, or the author responds to your question with a question of his own. David M was so generous and put me at ease and so any ‘rules’ I had come up with for myself went out the window as I just enjoyed a good chinwag. I only got through about three of my questions, and the introduction took a long time because we had some fun with it – and my ‘get in and get out’ strategy for preparing my introduction was useless in the end. It was the best chairing experience of my life; yet I still came away feeling anxious that I had talked too much, and hadn’t taken my own advice. I guess I’ll never know because the whole thing is a rather pleasant blur. I didn’t see Laurence’s session, by the way, but I felt terribly sympathetic when I heard what had happened. Catherine in regards to your critic – chances are you had the questions that person wanted to hear but you just ran out of time to ask them! I’d be very curious to hear which ones you ‘should’ have asked. We had half an hour of audience questions but still only got through four of them!


    1. Catherine Robertson

      He accused me of asking closed questions, which apparently resulted in me receiving only “Yes” answers “and some thoughts”. I mentally reviewed my questions (as you do) and had asked only two – one that was meant to be a bit silly (“Do you have an attic mind a la Sherlock Holmes?”, which DM answered brilliantly and amusingly) and one when I was on the hop, responding to something DM had said! And I’m bemused by the “some thoughts” – how else are answers formed??


      1. Catherine Robertson

        Ditto. Your previous comment about kindness is spot on, Paula. It’s perfectly possible to express dissatisfaction in a generous manner. There’s no excuse to be unkind, ever.


  3. E K Cole (@EKColeNZ)

    I think most audience members are understanding of the challenges of facilitating discussion, especially with larger panels. I was in the audience of the ‘Art of the Novel’ that Laurence Fearnley chaired and I really enjoyed it. I was baffled and embarrassed by the heckler. I didn’t catch the first thing he said but then heard “Answer the question” to David Mitchell and then “Don’t interrupt him” to Laurence as she offered another prompt after the heckler’s interruption. I just thought it odd (and another audience member said “how rude!”) and decided that, for whatever reason, he just really urgently wanted to know if David Mitchell identified as a British author. I was also at ‘Bone Clocks’, chaired by Catherine Robertson, and was really impressed by the tone and fluidity of it; it was a lot of fun to watch.


  4. annabestlight


    A training session would be helpful. My first experience of being a chair was for a talk by photographer Deb Smith at the Auckland Art Gallery. I hadn’t done as much research as I needed and some of my probing questions were met with stony silence. The audience was forgiving, but the whole experience was terrifying.



  5. teresafromnz

    Hi Laurence,

    I was at the Art of the Novel event. I was impressed by the way you had obviously prepared for the session. You were so enthusiastic about all of the authors and it showed.

    I think this ‘festival forum’ was quite different to other events and the audience wasn’t very clear about the format it would be in. It wasn’t like the one-to-one sessions or the readings or the workshops, so maybe a clearer introduction of the format at the start, or in the programme may have been useful.

    In the free readings, such as Asian Histories on Friday, each author got a set time, they all spoke, the audience applauded and left. Maybe this is what some of the audience were expecting, rather than than the conversation on Sunday morning. It’s a hugely difficult format to work with, especially when many people are coming to see one of the participants in particular. If you think of panel shows, sometimes the host can leave the panelists to talk to each other, but most of the time they have to facilitate the conversation. It’s a very difficult task, and considering who was on the panel, a much harder one than the Art of the Play.

    I’ve been overseas so haven’t been to the festival for about four years. The scale is vastly different to what it once was and I think it may have outgrown its venue. On Sunday morning there were people queuing out the Aotea Centre door for The Art of the Novel. Maybe they need to think about ticketing for the free events. People were stressed that they weren’t going to get in and I know some who walked away after seeing the queue.

    Personally I think audience questions at an event like this don’t work. It’s different in the big sessions, though not when you’ve only got an hour, as people are there to see one author in particular. The people who are asking the questions are nervous too, and the questions often get lost in statements – the question in the Tim Winton session springs to mind. Maybe the questions could be collated before the event and then asked by the chair if there is time. This would reduce some of the tension in the room (which New Zealanders seem completely unable to cope with). You’d still get Murakami’s “They are just cats,” but less “Where do you get your inspiration?”

    Far be it from me to cast aspersions on any members of the audience, but I think it takes a certain sense of one’s own entitlement to be so rude during a free event. Laurence, please don’t blame yourself for their lack of common courtesy.




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