Learning the art of public speaking (the hard way)

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When Bram Stoker's Dracula came out three years ago I was invited to chair a debate about vampires at the ICA in London. On the bill were Christopher Frayling, a woman whose speciality topic was vampire lesbians in the movies, and genial gore hound and film fan Kim Newman, promoting his novel Anno Dracula.

The latter hissed a warning to us all as we sat round the table in the bar: "Don't get out of the boat!" There were some very rum types queuing up to get into the seminar room, and Kim, a veteran of horror film fests and sci-fi symposia, was cautioning us against personal contact with any of them. Which was just as well, since the room was packed with black- clad goths who looked as though they'd like nothing better than to snack on our jugulars, and the first, creepiest and most persistent questioner wanted to know whether any of the panel had ever met a real vampire.

I was reminded of this by a quintessential "getting out of the boat" moment after a debate at the Dartington Literature Festival brought to you by Ways With Words and, this year, the Independent on Sunday in a blaze of media sponsorship which basically means they get hacks like me down to Devon to chair literary events. There is something the WWW team don't know about me, something best summed up by a casually cruel comment from a friend when I recanted my modest triumph at the ICA. "Yeah, but they've never asked you back, though, have they?" Looking back, most of my public speaking engagements have been one-offs. This time, however, I have been booked for three events - will I get shoved back on to the Paddington Express if the first one bombs?

But I'm feeling pretty confident. There's no time for second thoughts now anyway. I meet my three novelists backstage. We are whisked through a door into a bright light. Applause, sit down, fumble with water glasses, introduce, remember names, burble helplessly, shut up, they speak, I burble again, the audience asks questions, more applause and out. Not too bad, surely? At the quick post-mortem on the lawn, there is a shower of effusive praise, though a few people say, rather too casually, that I might possibly cut down the length of my questions. Just a tad. Not that they're too long, or anything, no, no, nooo. Any minute now someone's going to come up and say: "Oh well, you did your best." Then someone does.

My next event, a debate on the Orange Prize, goes by in even more of a blur. I am supposed to be devil's advocate, but frankly the 1996 winner, Helen Dunmore, and the founder, Kate Mosse, are so sweetly reasonable (and so good at this sort of thing) that it's very difficult to disagree with them. Yes! Of course! Lovely big literary prize for women only. Why on earth not? "Judging by the press coverage," coos Kate, sweetly, "You'd have thought I'd said that men shouldn't be allowed to write novels." This time the laughter and applause befuddles me and I lead them out proudly through the hall. Don't get out of the boat! Helen and Kate are swallowed up and I'm immediately assailed by a large woman who hisses: "You didn't mention misogyny!" I creep out like the whipped cur of patriarchy I am, but she follows, cackling menacingly: "Misogyny, the hate that dare not speak its name!"

Despite this, I am still maintaining a lunatic cheerfulness, even though now the organisers are coming up and saying in clipped tones: Remember. Short. Questions. This last session is called Women Behaving Badly, with novelists Julie Myerson, Clare Boylan and Dunmore again. A terror deeper than I've ever known grips me before we go on stage. Into that white light once more, then: "Sex. In your novels. A lot of. Why?" The room is packed. Boylan is a star, effortlessly tripping off one-liners. There is only one awful moment, and that's when she's just come to the end of another shrewdly funny bit of analysis and purrs: "But I don't think I've answered your question. What was it again?"

What was the bloody question! There's an agonised pause. For the first time I see a hint of anxiety in her eyes as she peers over the top of her specs at me. "Fantasy, Clare," I say very firmly. "Er, wish-fulfilment. Fantasy." This is not much of a lifeline, but Clare catches it nimbly and swims off again. And it's all over; I emerge, trembling, on to the lawn for the verdict, which seems to be: terrific. Really short questions.