The Questions Authors Hate to Answer

Likely StoriesI had a great time moderating two panels, “Ask the Publishers” and “Writing for the Younger Crowd,” last weekend at the Chicago Writers Conference. Preparing for the latter, I asked authors Allan Woodrow and Erica O’Rourke which questions they hate answering. Between them, they offered three—in a moment of perversity, I considered then asking them THOSE VERY QUESTIONS.

Allan Woodrow

Allan Woodrow

But then I had an even better idea: why not ask members of the audience? After all, they’re aspiring authors, and they might as well get some practice now, before their books are published. It could also serve as a cautionary exercise, letting people know how to avoid annoying their favorite authors. After a very informative discussion in which tips, tricks, and useful resources were shared, I kicked off the Q&A by sharing my premise and asking for volunteers.

Of course, no one volunteered—at first. But, with some cajoling, I managed to get one hand to rise.

But then I had an even better idea:
why not ask members of the audience?

“Where do you get your ideas?” I asked the brave young woman.

Erica O'RourkeHer somewhat rambling answer was no better and no worse than that of many seasoned authors I’ve heard. (Short version: she has no idea.) “Now imagine answering that a hundred times,” I suggested.

With a little more coaxing, I got another volunteer. “If your book was made into a movie, who would play the characters?”

The respondent stated that, even though her book was about her dog, she thought Denzel Washington’s versatility would allow him to handle the part. But it would still be better played by an actual dog, not her own. (I guess her dog can’t act.)

No one wanted to answer the final question—but a woman in the front row had the misfortune to be looking at me while I was looking at her. “All right, I’ll do it,” she said, quavering a little.

I fixed her with a steady gaze and asked, “How much money do you make?”

Relief abounds as audience members realize they won't have to reveal how much money they make. (photo: Elliot Mandel)

Relief abounds as audience members realize they won’t have to reveal how much money they make. (photo: Elliot Mandel)

The room fell silent. She looked shocked. I told her that, of course, she didn’t have to answer that one—but that, believe it or not, readers sometimes feel they have the right to ask that of authors. And when they’re not asking that question in those exact words, they’re asking it another way, by asking how many books the author has sold. Even “how are sales” has an uncomfortable element of nosiness. If they’re not going well, who wants to admit that?

“And aren’t there other ways of measuring a book’s success than by how much money it’s made?” I asked the audience.

“That would be my answer,” said the woman in the front row.

AUTHORS! What are your least-favorite or most-hated questions? Are they the same as these? Or are there other queries that make you squirm in the spotlight?

 

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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