Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Questions anyone? PLEASE!

Weve all been here. In this place.

At the end of most writer’s readings, there is a moment of reverence where a pause hangs in the air and complete silence is heard. It’s right when the moderator opens the floor for questions. It’s right before the author looks around and wants to slide into a book and disappear because there are many eyeballs on the author but NO ONE is raising a hand or asking a question.

As a book festival promoter, moderator, and writer I have stood in the back of the room and watched the silence fall like an old testament plague and land on the shoulders of the audience over hundreds of times and for hundreds of authors. Known and unknown. And some REALLY FAMOUS FOLKS. And some people who were downright delightful and funny and heartwarming and still NO ONE ASKS A QUESTION. And so this writer who has poured out their heart, read till their throat bled, and given their best presentation ever, suddenly has an event that falls flat because there is a pregnant pause, and then a nervous moderator saying, “Well, okay then - if there are no questions, thank you for coming.” And suddenly everyone feels like the kid on Christmas Story that couldn’t think on Santa’s lap to ask for the thing he desired most but it’s TOO LATE because the question box is closed, it's over and the dazed, tired, and deflated writer is heading to the book table hoping people will be more eager to buy books than they were to ask questions.

And because of witnessing this scene over and over, I have learned to stand with questions at the ready to sail forth. I can ask writer questions at the drop of a hat and all day long. Maybe part of that is because I don’t just ask the writer questions. 1) how long did it take you to write your book (all my life) 2) how did you find your agent (through a fortune teller at a strange circus on Route 66 on hot summer night when my car broke down ) When can a person quit their day job (you can’t quit your day job when writing becomes your day job - or you buy a VW van to live in it down by the river - which appeases my gypsy soul just fine)
My questions tend to be 1) What did you parents discover you were a writer? Are they over it yet? 2) How long have you known you were different? 3) If you could only write one book, and it was the only book you would have to read for the rest of your life on a desert Island - what would it be? 4) Are you currently on medication?

And I have dutifully carried out this ministry of being Question Girl across the nation. Let me be at a festival with a friend presenting and BY GOD I’ll be there just for that back of the room moment. Even if I have to ask, Prefer Broccoli or Cauliflower? Do you read Joyce or Twain before retiring in the evening? What’d you have for lunch? Wear Pajamas?

But as much as I take asking these questions seriously, and I do and ask them fervently on BACKSTORY on the Radio every Saturday from 4-6 (shameless plug), it occurs to me that the fact of the matter is = I cannot cover every festival, every friend, and every opportunity to be Question Girl - and after just having watched two years of SMALLVILLE on DVD in two nights, I realize ultimately all super hero's don’t work alone in their best save the world moments. I thought maybe we could band together as writers and readers like the Justice League and come up with a plethora of creative questions for writers and share them. Then we’ll type the list and spread it around. Seriously, we’ll make copies of the questions and carry them with us and rip them into tiny assigned portions to divide up with the audience when we arrive.Not kidding. It makes it so much easier for us, and for the readers. Imagine! When the moderator asks if anyone has any questions, a bevy, a bushel, a literal harvest I tell you of hungry hands will rise quickly to the rescue with some enthusiastic people saying things like, "Me, me - I had my hand up first."

Okay, okay - I know. It’s question planting and in a political year maybe that’s frowned upon just a little teeny, weeny bit. But hey, we are writers and carry the banner for the creation of creative human interaction as one of our obligations.

So I say we do it. We ban together and share the questions. The best ones that we’ve ever been asked. The ones we wished we had been asked. The ones that took our breath away.
Just close your eyes and imagine . . . no more pregnant pauses. No awkward moments. Just brilliant, lighting-quick, authentic author finishes with a flourish. Well, almost.

RIVER JORDAN is a storyteller of the southern variety and has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee.
Ms. Jordan is the author of two highly praised novels of southern mystical fiction, The Gin Girl and The Messenger of Magnolia Street. She teaches and speaks on ‘The Passion of Story’, is a monthly contributor to this wonderful southern collective blog, and produces and hosts the radio program BACKSTORY, on WRFN, 98.9 FM, Nashville Saturday’s 4:00-6:00 CST. She has recently completed a new work of fiction, Souls in Limbo which will be published by Random House/Waterbrook in Spring 2009. Jordan and her husband make their home in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at or email your best questions from the road to


Keetha said...

This is so helpful because I feel for those authors, really I do, but I can't ever think of a question that's not innane or obvious. Thanks for providing a list of interesting questions; I'll put it to good use the next signing I attend.

Eric Wilson said...

River, you truly are Question Girl. I love doing panels with you for that very reason. I can relate to opening the old ribcage, revealing the heart, and ending on the downbeat nonetheless. Keep those questions coming. (And those books...I love your writing!)

River Jordan said...

It is a breathless moment - waiting while no one raises a hand. I always promise to just start asking the audience questions.

This in from a faithful reader but not a blog poster. . .

Great idea!

I always want to know how the author creates the characters in the story. Is the character just like someone you know or do you take certain character traits from several you know and roll them into one character? How do you decide how the characters will respond to each other? Is the locale of the story based on a special place you have been and know well? Or is it only a figment of your imagination?

I hope this helps--cause you deserve lots of immediate questions after you present! Sylvia in Texas

Herman said...

It seems to me that the first few questions often inspire others, so yes, if someone has a few ready to lead off I think it helps.

My question is: what writer(s) would you say influenced your work most.


T. Lynn Ocean said...

You're right, the questions sometimes do tend to be the same from engagement to engagement... and the one that always makes me flinch is, "Where do you get your ideas from?" Just love that one. Uh, Kroger? They were having a two-for-one special.

But I have heard some wonderful questions from book clubs. (Especially those who enjoy wine or cocktails with their discussion.) A few good ones: If your publisher told you that you must completely change genres, what would you switch to? If you wrote erotica, would you do book signings? And, do you write resumes? I need a good one for my son. I'm trying to get him out of the house.

Cheers, T. Lynn

Anonymous said...

How do you name your characters? Including the dogs.

River said...

T. Lynn,

Those are great. Change genres? That is a different one. (We'll talk about that Saturday since you are guesting!)

And I wrote about a writer who got her idea at Kroger - she had been standing in the freezer/pizza section and it was called JENO'S REVENGE.

Dear Anonymous,
Charactor names - dang if I know but considering my Mama talks about people like Beedy and Beatrice (the twins) and Baishy the fish boy - I guess I don't have to go too far. I stole Sonny Boy for the hound dog in Messenger straight from a conversation I heard at a paint and body shop when I heard two brothers talking about their dog Sonny Boy and how they never had another one that could hold a candle to him.
Their was so much love and reverence in their voices I couldn't pass it by!

River Jordan said...

I think the best one (and one I’ve often used) is “What reading material is currently on your bed-side table?”

Charlotte Robertson

River said...


Accidently posted your comment with my name but folks should know it comes from one of the best reader/writer/librarians that I know.
And maybe that you just happen to be married to writer Brewster Robertson. :)
THanks for dropping in on A Good Blog is Hard to Find.

Nik said...

Quick story:
I was asked by a local ghost hunter group to give a seminar on cryptozoology. It's not my forte but, what the heck, it was a challenge. I made a killer powerpoint presentation that documented all sorts of critters from Chupacabras to Yetis. I had a cool song with dancing Chupacabras. I had balloons, candy and a cool door prize at the end. I called it The Cryptid Carnival. Afterwards, it was the kids who had all the questions and suggestions as to where the monsters lived and how to catch them. It was so much fun to seriously discuss the best ways to catch a Bigfoot with the deep earnest sincerity only a 7 year old boy can muster. It was a blast!

So, my suggestion: keep your audience in mind. The last author's signing, Tess Gerritsen, I went to, the author brought a shrunken head in a box! Oh, yeah...she got some questions...

River said...


A head in a box. Now why didn't I think of that. Alright - you can bet I'll take show and tell next time I'm out and about!


Kerry Madden said...

This blog is so great, River. I promise to start being a 'question girl' too and think up some real questions to have on hand when that moment hits. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece.

What gives you hope as a writer? Where do you get your joy?

River said...


What great questions. Were you asked those. Joy for me is when we actually capture a number of family members around a table or out on a porch and we begin to tell the stories. New ones and the ones we've all heard a hundred times.

Hope? When it comes to writing/reading/publishing - its when I see young people of all ages embracing a book or story, loving the library, writing their own tales. It gives me hope that writing and reading and storytelling will continue through the generations.


Vicki Lane said...

Great post! I admit to planting questioners in the audience. Some questions I like are:
How do you feel when your editor wants you to change something in your book? What do you like to read? What's the first bit of creative wring you ever did? Do you have any self-imposed limits -- things you won't write about? Could you kill off one of your ongoing characters? What do you want to write next?