The 2011 Judges Interviews #5 – Simon Savidge

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 in just under 48 hours on September the 28th. In our fifth, and final of the series Gavin Pugh managed to catch up with this year’s chair of judges, journalist and blogger Simon Savidge, the day before the long-listing meetings.

Gav: Instead of letting the prize settle in you’ve made it bigger and better. How does this year differ from last year?

Simon: In terms of how the prize developed and changed, and I admit it sounds really clichéd to say this, but it actually happened really organically. As the judges had their first ‘hello’ chats earlier in the year it became clear the prize needed to become, and should be, an award for all LGBT authors, not just the lads. We then had this avalanche of submissions so we needed to change the dates to give books the attention they deserved. Last year was a huge learning curve, cliché alert again, and we got a lot of feedback, the constructive stuff we listened to and here we are.

Gav: Why did you come back for year two, wasn’t once enough?

Simon: I never felt there was a question of not coming back, if I am honest… well maybe at one point last year – let’s not go there. I actually felt that this could become a bit of an annual event from the start. Who knows what the future holds though.

People who read my blog, or who know me in the ‘real’ world will know it’s been a tough year for me for several reasons and the prize has been a focus I have been very grateful for… though my passion about it can sometimes make me over think/evaluate. The judges have adapted to that, ha. I like the idea of there being a continuation of some judges each year in a prize, I am not sure how practical that is but it would be nice if it could continue to happen.

Gav: As you said, unlike some other book awards you have had some of the same judges in the first two years, will this continue and if so will you be back for year three?

Simon: A friend of mine who has judged a prize, in fact I want them on next years jury (you know who you are), in the last twelve months said a book prize that makes it to its third year will most likely stay a prize for good. It’s not a definite but it’s more likely. We’ve been taken a lot more seriously this year, publishers are less nervous about it in general, and I want that to continue. That’s not quite relevant to your question yet… I think the Green Carnation has legs and is an award the industry could do with so I am up for it next year, yes, though back to being just a normal judge I think.

Gav: What exactly does the Chair of judges do? Is there some special ritual or anything?

Simon: I would have asked that very same question even six months ago. I imagine in every prize the role is rather different. There’s no special rituals, I guess if two parties don’t agree on a book I become a deciding/bargaining factor in a way or try and get both perspectives. That doesn’t mean I sway the prize or the thoughts of the other judges, I think that’s what people imagine, in fact some people said I did that last year, which I find interesting as it’s not true and no one but the judges know what was said. I can be pushy but I can’t change peoples minds.

Gav: Now that you’ve opened the floodgates are you surprised that no one has created a prize before to showcase for all the wonderful works by LGBT authors?

Simon: Not surprised sadly, no. This year we still had one publisher, and one that’s earning lots and lots of money despite being independent, that wouldn’t touch us with a barge pole. Some simply don’t know/care about their authors sexuality, not that I’m suggesting they have to, so they didn’t know if they had any submittable novelists. Some gay authors didn’t want including, fair enough, a shame but their decision.

It’s nice to see that other awards have popped up with an LGBT drive behind them too. There’s room for us all, its all publicising what are hopefully great reads and that’s a great situation.

Gav: Now as a judge you don’t get to pick and choose what to read next. How are you finding having a fixed reading list? Are you coming across books you wouldn’t have read otherwise?

Simon: Definitely, in fact some of my favourites… I do have favourites, I think that’s allowed isn’t it? Anyway some of the books I have read and loved I would quite possibly never have read without the prize. What has been great about having so many books this year is actually you can pick and choose in a strange way, you have just over eight months to read the submissions the first time and with so many and so diverse a selection you can read at whim, or by mood, which I think helps.

Gav: What do you look for in a prize winning book?

Simon: I bet each of us judges would have similar responses to that i.e readability, wonderful prose, great characters etc… but we all have very differing subjective views on what qualifies in terms of each of those categories. Reading is a very personal experience, I find it fascinating how I can adore a book one of the other judges does and then think ‘what?’ at another they love. I can reveal that’s happened, internally, this year three times.

Gav: What is has been the best (and if you want) the worse reaction you’ve received so far when talking about the Green Carnation Prize?

Simon: There are a few best’s moments rather than reactions; the camaraderie between judges both years has been brilliant.

The reaction to the prize from publishers this year has been really lovely, they are much more into it, but then it’s also been sad when a few, erm, haven’t.

The saddest thing for me was the negative reaction to the longlist last year. I mean this year the Booker has had it for its choices, any list will its subjective, but last year I felt it got quite nasty and I found that quite difficult from a personal perspective, but we learnt from it, we got tighter as a team and now we are thrilled with year two. It seemed a shame we were doing something for free no one else had done and yet a, to be fair very small, percentage of that community attacked us, and then me. I wasn’t even chair then, ha, so I wonder what’s going to happen this year?

Gav: Are you excited about this year’s longlist or are you worried any of your favourites are possibly going to get culled?

Simon: Two of my favs got culled before the longlist last year and that might happen again this year. I just have to get my battle station ready and really fight those books corners. If they don’t get through they don’t. I am pretty certain there are a fair few titles that as judges we are all on a wave length with. I worry more about the books I like a lot that might not make it because they are just liked a lot by one or two judges Them’s the breaks though. I think there will be a lot of surprises on the longlist this year. As long as it’s a list or ten, or possibly more, cracking reads everyone should run out and by then I am happy.

Gav: Finally, what books could have won if this year’s format of the prize was around earlier?

Simon: Ooh that’s a tricky one. You see I have a list of books that have meant a lot to me in the past, but I wouldn’t know what else was out that year too. Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, Armistead Maupins ‘Tales of the City’, Pickles ‘Queens‘, Ali Smith’s ‘Girl Meets Boy’, Sarah Waters ‘Fingersmith’, Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’, Jamie O’Neill’s ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ which I have only just read, Paul Burston’s ‘Shameless’. Edmund White’s ‘A Boy’s Own Story’, … I could go on and on, I cant mention fellow judges can I? The titles I mentioned all have a special place in my LGBT past, even though a couple might have dated by now or simply not be for everyone, but that’s why prizes are so subjective. I can think of a few authors from last years long and short lists that you might well want to watch out for as future winners, thats not a hint for this year by the way.

Gavin Pugh blogs at Gav Reads, you can find more out about Simon by visiting his blog here.

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