As the final few days before the Green Carnation Prize judges reveal their longlist for 2011, we thought it would be nice to get to know them a little better while we wait with baited breath for the announcement on September 28th. In the third of our series Gavin Pugh managed to have a quick natter with blogger Nick Campbell who was just off for a nice week long holiday before the pandemonium of the final longlisting meetings start.
Gav: You already run quite an active blog how are you finding juggling that, the other things you normally do, and reading for the Prize?
Nick: I did ok…ish! I read quite slowly, and one has to be careful with these submissions – you can’t toss something aside because it’s not to your taste. You never know when you’ll be taken by surprise. And whereas all the other judges are established experts in the field, my blog’s the only way for people to gauge my taste and opinions. Not only followers of the Prize – me too. Writing about books is how I find out what I really think, so I have to keep that up. On top of that, I have my glamorous day job as a University administrator at Oxford Circus to squeeze in. I take the slowest bus to work, come back late from every lunch hour, decline social invitations. But it’s not enough…!
Gav: As a blogger you can choose what to read how are you finding the flow of entries differing from your normal reads?
Nick: I absolutely love not being able to choose – books turning up unexpectedly, with unfamiliar names, things I might have passed by. It’s like being wooed by an eccentric stranger – which is how it feels when we first get into reading, I think. When you go into a library and you’re following clues and recommendations and lists – Prize shortlists, for example. Or earlier than that, when you’re a kid, and genre doesn’t really exist – you open a book and you’ve no guarantee of what’s in it. I’m always worrying that developing personal taste and preference leads me to safe places. I read lots of older books too, so it’s an exciting feeling to think: these are all new, all products of this time this world. The books of 2011. Quite daunting looked at that way. Hopefully the Prize shortlist can be a guide to these very new things, without being too reassuring. One of last year’s Shortlisted novels would have frightened me off with its subject matter – it was intense, frightening, and moving.
Gav: What are you looking for in a GC Prize winning book?
Nick: The really good thing about a book like that is that you don’t have to look for it – it’s almost the reverse. It finds you out, no matter what you expected or hoped for from the book. It stands out from the rest – from other very good reads – as different as someone telling you about something they saw on tv as opposed to someone telling you their secrets. As different as a voice to a memory of a voice: it’s alive, and we respond to that, whether it’s a family drama, space battle or period farce – or all, or none of these. And it will bring something familiar with the new, I hope. More people can write well than not, I think – we all have letters, emails, magazine columnists we love. But why do we read novels, short stories, memoirs? We want originality, but we want something recognisable too, a knowledge of the power and the intimacy of the written word.
Gav: How important do you think seeing positive portrayals of LGBT character is to LGBT people, especially teenagers?
Nick: I think positive’s a tricky word – it makes me think of the gay characters you see in politically correct novels and TV dramas, who always seem impossible to live up to. They don’t make sense in a story – have you heard those Motown re-recordings from the 80s with synths instead of real instruments? It’s like that. We need something real – which may be somebody flawed – it may even be someone completely impossible. We need more impossible role models, to give us as many options as possible. And new histories – queer communities are writing their histories and lives in a way that just wasn’t possible in the past. If you’ll let me change your question a bit, I’d say that teenagers, young people, anyone just now finding out for themselves about their identity and their desires, need to know LGBT writers are out there, renewing and rewriting the old stories – because each of us has to do that in our lives, and it’s quite a task.
Gav: Finally, what books could have won if this years format of the prize was around earlier?
Nick: I like to think Derek Jarman would have been shortlisted for every one of his diaries and memoirs, and perhaps won with At Your Own Risk, which is all of those and a polemic – or Chroma, which is all those, polemic and hymn. And Jackie Kay for her amazing book of short stories, Why Don’t You Stop Talking. Jan Morris might have won for any number of things, but maybe most excitingly for her sci-fi novel, Hav. And I love the work of A.M. Homes: her memoir, The Mistress’ Daughter, could have been a winner. But what I wonder is, who would the surprises have been? What about the names we don’t yet know?