Meet the judges of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

It’s a nail-biting business being an author (or publisher for that matter) in the months leading up to the announcement of New Zealand’s most prestigious book awards. But spare a thought for the judges who must work their way through that mountain of fabulous local books in a relatively short space of time.

When the convenor of next year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards was announced as John Campbell, the news was received with great delight. John has always been an enthusiastic champion of our publishing industry and the only potential issue might well be how he will fit in reading upwards of 200 books with all his other high profile activities.  

The news that Bernard Beckett will convene the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards was received with equal delight given his reputation as an author of outstanding children’s and young adult fiction, now firmly cemented by his large fan base.

But what of the other judges in the two categories? This week The Read talks to each of them and finds out how they plan to deal with the daunting task of reading anywhere between 180 and 230 great New Zealand books over summer and beyond.

>>Jump down to meet the judges of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

Meet the judges of the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards
When The Read spoke to Bernard Beckett, convenor of the children’s books judging panel, the first box of children’s books had arrived the day before, containing around 100 books with more due before the end of the year. ‘It looks like a mountain to climb at some level, but the schoolteacher in me sees it as a pile of marking as well.’

Bernard is currently Victoria University’s Writer in Residence (the residency finishes at the end of January 2013), which involves him travelling to the university from his home in Plimmerton on a regular basis. But after January it’s back to school for him (Bernard teaches drama at Hutt Valley High School.)  

He believes that after he and his fellow judges have had their shortlist meeting in January ‘the consideration after that is in a way a lot more focused. You’re taking five books in each category and they are books you’ve already read and so you’re just lining them up again.’

Travelling between Plimmerton and Wellington on the train offers the perfect opportunity to get quite a lot of reading done. And as a significant number of the books submitted are picture books Bernard reads them to his nearly three-year-old twin boys.

‘For a large subset of the picture books they [the twins] are the perfect audience, both because you see reaction and because as an “out loud” reader you engage with the book in a really different way.

However, one of the biggest challenges he anticipates is making sure that the books don’t ‘wander off’. The twins are at a stage where anything is fair game to be picked up and then deposited in the most unlikely place, e.g. in the garden. ‘It’s a matter of coming up with a system whereby the books stay pretty much in the same place.’

Working with a spreadsheet avoids the possibility of overlooking any of the books. ‘A nightmare scenario in which you think you’ve read one but you haven’t,’ Bernard explains.

Respected children’s book author Eirlys Hunter is relishing the challenge of working her way through the two boxes of children’s books that have just arrived on her doorstep at home. She’s currently revelling in solitary splendor as her husband is working overseas for a month. ‘It’s very convenient because while he’s away I’ve got the books all over the living room. It means I can keep my study corner clear for my own writing.’

So how does she feel about all the reading that lies ahead? ‘It’s daunting, obviously, but it’s also very exciting because there are some really great-looking titles. There’s a lot from previous prize-winning authors, which is going to make it very hard to come up with a shortlist. But it’s extremely good for me personally because I teach writing and to have the chance to read nearly everything that’s been published in the past year – to get a snapshot of what publishers are interested in – will be so helpful for my teaching next year.’

As for how she’s going to allocate enough time to get through all the books, she’s happy to read late into the night – and has already started doing so, albeit the first time it happened it wasn’t planned – the happy result of a particularly ‘un-put-downable’ children’s book.

She’s looking forward to catching up with her fellow judges. ‘I’m interested to hear what they’ve got to say; having two other perspectives on the process will be challenging in that we might not agree. But I hope we do, I hope that what we’re looking for is the same kind of things.’

One of the things she personally hopes to gain from the process is the opportunity to find and reward books that have some ‘staying power’. She describes these as books that could become classics, ‘not necessarily always the most popular titles’. Having said that, she wants to make it clear that there are lots more elements involved in being one of the judges. ‘I would also hope to find books that nourish readers, books that don’t just occupy them for the time it takes to read it.’

For Lynn Freeman (from Radio New Zealand’s The Arts on Sunday), the third judge on the children’s books panel, it’s not going to be too much of a huge shock when the books start arriving (they were due later that day when The Read chatted with her). ‘I know what’s involved because I went through the process a few years ago when I was the convenor of a panel of three [for the awards when they still carried the Montana brand].

It’s exciting because you end up reading a whole lot of books that you normally wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy. I read a lot in the course of my work [New Zealand fiction and New Zealand non-fiction related to the arts] but my main reading of children’s books is when I read to my 15 great nieces and nephews, as I did to their parents.’

So will establishing a disciplined reading routine be a problem for her? ‘No, because I’m very organised.’ Given Lynn is also a theatre critic, which takes her out a lot in the evening, and that she does a lot of volunteer work, it’s important that she’s in control of such spare time as she has. ‘When I read I like to be able to concentrate, especially when I’m comparing books. You have to be in that space where you can have your pile of “this is a definite”; “this is a possible” and so on. It’s my feeling that you’ve got to have a continuity while you’re doing it or you couldn’t do it otherwise – it’s about structuring your time.’

At the time The Read spoke to Lynn, she wasn’t sure just how many books might arrive over the coming months, ‘but I’m expecting a lot because we’re blessed with so many writers’.

Lynn believes that the dynamics of how a panel works together is a crucial element of the whole judging process and she’s quick to acknowledge the importance of the convenor’s role. ‘We’ll all bring to the table our own very strong reactions to books – that’s why we read. And when you love a book it’s very hard to understand why other people don’t love it as much as you do. To me, the really interesting thing is to hear people argue their point for a book and often I’ll go back and reread [the book in question] because there may be something I’ve missed. I enjoy the judging process because I learn such a lot and I have to justify what I believe in and I think that’s a healthy, really enriching thing to do.’

She already knows convenor Bernard Beckett through interviewing him on her radio programme and happily admits to being a great fan. ‘He’s got a really strong and individual voice.’

Meet the judges of the New Zealand Post Book Awards
While this is Guy Somerset’s first New Zealand Book Awards experience, he’s no stranger to judging literature through his previous involvement with the biennial Prize in Modern Letters (established by Glenn Schaeffer, founding patron of the International Institute of Modern Letters), that was, in its day, notes Guy, ‘the wealthiest prize in New Zealand’.

As the boxes of books to be judged arrive, Guy unpacks them in his office, which he shares with Sasha, the cat, and Ruby, the dog. ‘They have a kind of confrontational relationship, mainly on the part of the cat, the result of which is that it can be a bit combustible in here at times. The combination of that plus lots and lots of piles of books can be a bit precarious for me – and also for them.’

Guy notes that because so many of the decisions he makes about books in the normal course of his work have to be made on his own, he’s particularly looking forward to working with the others on the judging panel. ‘It’ll be nice to do it [the judging] in conjunction and in consultation with other people.’

And because the awards range over a number of categories, and of course it’s just not feasible to be equally knowledgeable in all subjects, he’s also looking forward to receiving some guidance in his self-professed Achilles heel, the poetry section: ‘Certainly from someone who’s as expert as Bernadette Hall. And overall it will be interesting to see how much we all share the same opinion on the various books.’

Guy is already clear that the judging process is quite different to writing a review, ‘when you have to put a case for whatever argument you’re putting forward, often in 400 words or less with no prize money at the end of it. So when you’re judging, and you find yourself two against three or one against four, then the case that you have to make within the judging room will have to be incredibly well honed if it’s going to convince other people to change their mind.’

Guy’s family is already well aware of how much time he is going to have to put into reading over the next few months. ‘There’ll be a lot of reading late into the night,’ he concludes.

When The Read speaks to crime writer Vanda Symon, another of the five on the panel, she’s feeling a mild case of cabin fever due to a recent Achilles tendon injury. She’s been in a cast for a month now but is about to graduate to a moon boot, which will be an improvement but is still pretty restrictive. Fortunately, she’s managed to train her local courier driver to carry in the boxes of books as they arrive to save her unnecessary movement.

Her family, comprising a husband and two sons, 10 and 13 years old respectively, are also avid readers so they’re all looking forward to the arrival of the books.

Her appointment as a judge came as a ‘very pleasant surprise’ making her feel ‘excited and daunted all at once’. Much of the excitement stems from the opportunity to read ‘all that fabulous New Zealand work and being part of a group deciding on what we perceive to be the best. The daunting bit comes from the sheer volume of reading that I’ll have to do. It’s a big responsibility.’

Right now she’s taking a bit of a break from her own writing, not least because of the discomfort she’s been in. ‘Being in pain isn’t very conducive to writing.’ Fortunately stretching out on the couch – with a book, of course – is relatively comfortable but sitting at the computer remains a no go for a while yet.

Being appointed a judge for the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards is a first for Vanda, but she considers her reviewing experience to be good background. ‘But with reviewing, even though you try very hard to be objective you do still come to [it] with your own likes so that you put a little bit of yourself into the review. But with judging you do have to be very objective because you’re actually comparing books that may be vastly dissimilar. It’s going to be quite a challenge.’

Like the others, Vanda is looking forward to working with her fellow judges and sees it as an exciting opportunity to work with different people in the book community, especially as she hasn’t met any of them – with the exception of Guy Somerset – before. When asked to sum up her feelings about what lies ahead, she’s quick to respond: ‘It’s just such a fabulous opportunity to completely wallow in New Zealand writing. I read a lot of New Zealand writing anyway through the radio show I produce and host (the Write On Radio Show, which airs on Otago Access Radio) and also the National Radio book reviews that I do. I try to review local writing as much as possible because I think we need as much exposure as we can get.’

Author of a impressive number of poetry collections, and described as ‘one of New Zealand’s most distinctive poetic voices’, Bernadette Hall felt ‘quite honoured’ when invited to join the panel. It’s also her first time as a New Zealand Book Awards judge, although she’s done a fair amount of judging elsewhere. ‘Being a judge of the Best New Zealand Poems last year gave me the confidence to say “yes” to this one.’

Along with writing, editing, teaching and assessing – especially the latter – are among the skills she particularly enjoys, possibly, she feels, because she’s been a teacher and in assessing work she ‘quite likes that feeling of engagement with other people and I never feel it’s punitive or judgemental in any way’. All excellent grist to the judging mill.

In particular she’s hoping that when she works with the other judges the experience will be a little like being involved in workshopping. ‘You don’t sit there as a god and guru, you sit there as a person who’s involved in a group who are all deeply listening. That’s what I hope the judging [of the Awards] will be like; that we will all be deeply listening to what the books are saying. And then I think there should be quite interesting conversations among all of us.’

As for what the other judges might expect from her, she’s quietly confident. ‘Ten years ago even I would have felt a bit overwhelmed but now they know what I write, they know what I like, so they know what to expect – sort of.’

She’s particularly pleased with the number of meetings scheduled and is very much looking forward to meeting everyone in the group. ‘I’ve always enjoyed that [part of it] when I’ve done assessing for Creative New Zealand, that sitting around and talking.’  
Because Bernadette’s home is out of the city (55 km north of Christchurch), post and parcels come via rural mail and on the day The Read catches up with her, nothing in the way of books has arrived yet. However, as one might expect, there are already a goodly number of books in the house (husband John is also an avid reader), quite a few of which now reside in her own writing room, which she recently created by annexing a sizeable chunk of the external garage. Shaded by a couple of native trees (a kowhai and a ngaio), and completely phone and Internet-free, her writing room sounds like a magical retreat indeed.

Paora Tibble’s reaction to the news that he had been appointed as one of the judges for the 2013 awards was very succinct ‘Crikey,’ he thought. ‘I’ve got a lot of reading to do.’

Last year he was te reo adviser for the awards so he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s involved, but this time around he will of course be reading across all the categories, not just te reo.

He’s really looking forward to all the reading involved and is excited about what’s going on in New Zealand publishing these days. ‘There are so many books to choose from now.’ He’s pretty enthusiastic about e-books, too but feels strongly that ‘Kiwis, we still love to have a book in our hands. It’s tangible and we love it!’

His understanding of the role of the judging panel is that it’s a process of negotiation, but he sums it up thus: ‘We’re looking for excellence, aren’t we? We’ll all have our different points of view – I like what I like and the other judges will like what they like.’
Although he doesn’t claim any expertise in the field of poetry, he’s not daunted by it. ‘I’ll read what speaks to me, what I can feel and hear. One thing about poetry is you’ve got to read it out aloud to read it properly; I’m looking forward to that kind of stuff, the way people play with words, work with words and what books do for you.’

Like Bernard Beckett, Paora travels in to the city by train every day, which provides a wonderful opportunity for a half hour of interruption-free reading each way. And he’s relishing the excuse to go to bed earlier in order to read. ‘But then again maybe reading in bed won’t be the best place. I guess I’ll work that out in time. It’s a lot of brain work, isn’t it?’ He likens all the reading that lies ahead to a film festival, a kind of enjoyable overload situation.

‘I like covers,’ he adds. ‘Covers of books do a lot for me.’ And because he knows that many of the books will be about subjects previously unknown to him, he s really looking forward to discovering how, apart from their covers, those particular books will draw him in, whether fiction or non-fiction just in terms of the words they use, the design – all those factors come into it.’

Paora intends to do as much reading as possible over summer, especially during his planned camping holiday on the East Cape. ‘I’ll just have to make sure I have enough batteries for my lamp.’

Article written by Renee Lang for The Read.