Moderating a discussion at a high-profile book launch can be a nerve-wracking experience, as I discovered when Penguin Books recently asked me to conduct a Q&A with Manil Suri at the India Habitat Centre. Having greatly enjoyed Suri’s The Age of Shiva, and knowing I would have to meet him for a profile at some point during the week anyway, I agreed, but as the day drew nearer the goose bumps swelled, quivered, popped and crackled – often all at once.
“Just think of it as a regular author interview – you’ve done loads of those before,” a friend said. It was a well-meant suggestion, but no explanation was forthcoming about how I was supposed to think of this as “just another Q&A" when dozens of people would be sitting in a brightly lit hall, gazing intently at the two of us perched on chairs atop a stage like zoo animals up for exhibit. As a journalist, I feel uncomfortable when even a single PR person is present during an interview. Needless to say, a public book discussion is a hundred times more daunting: it amounts to turning a “one-on-one conversation” into a spectator sport.
There’s another problem. High-profile book launches tend to include the generous dispensation of alcohol and tasty snacks once the formalities are over. Attendance is known to swell when the invitation card says “The launch will be followed by cocktails”. (“The launch will be preceded by high tea” is not as effective, though it serves as a magnet for samosa-lovers.) This makes the discussion side of things rather tricky. Sustaining a lengthy talk about a book – picking on specific passages, asking the author meaningful questions about this or that character – becomes much more awkward when all the while you know that most people in the audience haven’t read the book and never intend to. And that most of them are thinking: “When will these two idiots shut up so we can get to the drinks?”
It can be even worse when some people in the audience are interested enough to raise their own questions after the discussion. These are usually earnest types who are genuinely pleased about this opportunity to ask a well-known writer about his work, but it can get irritating when a nuanced discussion that has covered most aspects of the author’s writing career is followed by audience questions like “Why do you write fiction?” and “How autobiographical is this book?” At such times, sitting up there on the podium like Exhibit B, I’m thinking: “When will these idiots shut up so I can get to the drinks?”
Anyway, book launches aside, winter is the time when even the most unsocial amongst us (read: me) find ourselves trapped into going to dinner parties and other ghastly celebratory events. Theoretically it’s possible to have a good time at some of these, especially if the food is good and no one bothers you. But in practice, one encounters various types of boring people. (I wouldn’t mind so much if they were boring in the same way that I am, but they always turn out to be boring in all sorts of other ways.) At recent parties I have been assailed on more than one occasion by the prototype of the Loquacious Marketing Man, usually the husband of the sister of a friend’s friend. This person insists on reciting the unabridged history of his Internet marketing company - growth, decline and triumphant resurgence - between those eventful years 1998 and 2003. Words like “boom”, “bust”, “strategy” and “retrieval” are thrown about. He is unmindful of Scott Adams' pearl of wisdom “When you are the only one talking, it is a clue that no conversation is occurring and it is time to leave.” Worst of all, he looks carefully at me from time to time to make sure I’m paying attention.
Over time, I’ve discovered there are certain phrases you can cleverly use in such situations. My current method is to wait for a brief pause in the soliloquy and then cut in with the sentence, “Yes, but would you say that’s a lucrative revenue model?” It ALWAYS works. Glint in eye, the marketing man embarks on another long exposition and I don’t have to worry about what he’s saying for the next 10 minutes.
(And no, I wouldn’t recognise a revenue model if one slithered up to me and puked gold coins all over my feet.)
Then there’s the host who won’t let you leave before 1 AM. Never mind that he knows you have 30 km to travel to get home on a foggy night with homicidal drivers careening all over Delhi’s streets. Never mind that the party is brimming over with people and your absence won’t even register (in fact, by the next morning he’ll happily have forgotten he had invited you at all). But a misplaced sense of hospitality combined with general drunkenness will make him cling to your sleeves, insisting that your early departure will void his life of all meaning.
One solution is to offer to tend the bar for a while. Then break as many bottles as you can, especially the ones that contain expensive wines. After this, he will smilingly see you to the door.
If this doesn’t work, it’s okay to slip away without telling anyone. Remember, etiquette is a grossly overrated quality at winter parties.