When Audience Questions Come From Left Field, Get Ready To Catch! By Juliann Wetz

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Public speaking – book talks – author readings. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to showcase your writing in a public forum. What a thrill and boost to the ego it is to stand in front of a group of people who are hanging on your every word; people who spend their free time immersing themselves in your thoughts, ideas and expressions.

Now they’re sitting in front of you, asking you about your work. This is your 15 minutes of fame. You’re fielding their questions and batting a thousand – until suddenly someone lobs a question at you that could cost you the game. The way you handle this zinger may determine the overall impression of your entire presentation.

As a children’s book author, I often give book talks at schools. I invite and encourage the children to participate, and ask them as many questions as they ask me. It keeps things fresh.

My Robbie and Marshall adventures are about two boys who hope to grow up to be Marines. They build forts by the creek, play green army men and plan to become soldiers someday themselves. Naturally, this topic means that dozens of wiggly little arms shoot into the air during each Author Visit. A third-grade boy will tell me that his dad was in the Army. The boy next to him waves his arm frantically to tell me that his grandfather was in the Marines. Everyone who has any connection to the military begins waving their arms, hoping to grab my attention so they can share their stories.

I let a few children tell me about their military families, and then I switch topics and ask the group a question that will move us into another area. It’s absolutely necessary to keep control of the author visit. With children, it could so easily switch from a discussion of my books and writing to a conversation about … anything.

Undoubtedly at some point I will call on the freckly redhead in the back of the room who has been waving her arms throughout my talk. She squirms in her seat, reaching for sky as she waves down my attention.

“Yes?”

“I have a cat named Midnight.”

A question straight out of left field. No one was talking about pets and there are no animals in my books, so I don’t know what in the world prompted her comment. But here it is, inciting a hundred eager hands to pop into the air. I will hear the names of a hundred cats and dogs if I don’t manage this “question” quickly and steer the group back to the topic at hand. I expect this at my author visits. After all, I’m talking to children.

But recently I attended an author session by Carol Higgins Clark and was dumbfounded by the left fielders she had to catch.

Carol gave a funny, entertaining and witty presentation. She said her introduction to writing began when she helped her mother, Mary Higgins Clark, type her mystery thrillers. She talked about her upbringing and her mother’s advice to take life’s challenges and adversities and “put them in her novels.” In fact, Mary told her daughter that if she ever encounters someone who makes her life difficult, that she should kill him off in her books. That’s the luxury of being a mystery writer.

Carol went on to tell us about the inspiration for some of her settings and characters and then a hand popped up toward the front of the room. A fifty-ish woman with a bag full of knitting raised her hand.

“Why don’t you write romance? I really like romance, like Barbara Delinksy’s or Nora Roberts’. They really get into their characters.”

I don’t think Carol saw that coming.

My mouth dropped open. A question out of nowhere that was an interruption and an insult of sorts just as Carol was really getting into her discussion. I shook my head, amazed that Carol had to manage as many odd questions from adults as I do with children. I expected things to stay focused. And they did. Carol handled this question beautifully and agreed with the woman that the romance novelists she mentioned certainly delved into their characters. She also added that she admired them.

Carol was right back on track. She continued recounting her experiences while doing research in Ireland for Twanged, and of visiting a Butler’s Training school to gather material for another novel. She answered some questions from the audience about organizing her research notes and questions about her writing habits. Then a hand shot up in the back of the room.

“Which do you like to write better? Mysteries or fiction?”

Poor Carol.

She handled that question gracefully and then the romance reader asked her which was harder to write – romance or mysteries? Carol patiently explained again that she only writes mysteries and so could not compare them.

It went on and on. For the most part, the questions asked were intelligent ones by people who had read or were interested in reading Carol’s work. But like me, Carol was thrown curveball questions that seemed to come straight from left field. I guess it’s bound to happen.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation? Smile. Answer the question to the best of your ability. Remember that the person asking the question or making the comment considers his/her question a legitimate one. The way you handle these questions speaks more loudly than the words that brought you to the podium in the first place.

My mother always said that there’s no such thing as a dumb question. I’m not so sure anymore. I think maybe Carol Higgins Clark’s mother has a better philosophy. Regain control of your author talk by moving on with a new topic before taking any more questions from the audience. And if you have to, kill off the romance reader asking questions in your next book.

Juliann Wetz is the author of two Robbie & Marshall adventures: Boot Camp and Genuine Swiss Army. Her work has appeared in Highlights for Children, German Life, Daughters Newsletter, Boys Life, Capper’s, Good Old Days, Personal Journaling, and Child Life. In addition, she currently writes for the Pulse Journal and Fairfield Echo of southwestern Ohio.