Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 30 May 2018

Margaret Atwood at The Hay Festival, 29th May 2018

When you’re booking events at literary festivals there is a natural tendency to focus almost exclusively on the author and give very little thought to the person doing the interviewing. As seasoned veterans of book festival world we’ve discovered that this can be a significant oversight. I’ve seen far too many authors who have not been served well by interviewers who either want to be the centre of attention themselves or are just not very good at interview technique. There are occasions when you have to suspect that the interviewer just hasn’t put enough thought into what they want to ask and you get the feeling that they’re just winging it and, as a result, the interview lacks direction or penetration.

Sadly, I thought that Gaby Wood, who was interviewing Margaret Atwood, found herself in this latter category and, in my view, an interview I’d been really looking forward to fell rather flat.

Atwood was, I think, booked to do two or three events over the course of the Festival and this one was slated to be the session that looked back over her career. Wood is a journalist and literary director of the Booker Prize and so you might have thought that she was perfectly suited to be interviewing Atwood but she struck an oddly informal and largely unstructured approach to the conversation and I couldn’t escape the feeling that Atwood was also a bit puzzled by a number of the lines of enquiry Wood chose to explore.

It may well be that Atwood was in a mischievous mood as well - her answers to quite a number of questions seemed deliberately oblique and she appeared to be keen on developing a series of sardonic (and sometimes amusing) one-liners or semi-surreal narratives.

What was particularly frustrating was the way in which the possibilities of real substance kept peeping over the parapet only to disappear again as the ends were never picked up or fully explored.

The Tata tent at Hay is a huge venue and it was packed to bursting – on a stuffy evening it was boiling hot and pretty uncomfortable. I saw several people leaving early and clearly feeling distinctly limp. It’s hard to escape the feeling that this event was designed to pack in another audience and then process a book signing at the end in order to shift the maximum amount of units. Atwood agreed to stay an hour after the talk to do signings, sign one book without dedication and with no photographs. As we shuffled past her and she signed her name without even looking up I couldn’t help but think that this shouldn’t be what it’s like to meet an author – however, famous they are.

Terry Potter

May 2018