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Children’s book awards: another interview with the likely winner (maybe)

Sarah Forster interviews the awesome David Hill, a finalist at next week’s childrens book awards, when he goes head to head with veteran author Kate De Goldi, horsist writer Stacy Gregg, and Luncheon Sausage Books star Jane Bloomfield.

David Hill is one of New Zealand’s best-known authors of young adult fiction. He takes on serious thermes, and develops sometimes dramatic, sometimes witty stories. His junior fiction title Enemy Camp potrays life in Featherston during WWII. There is a Japanese POW camp on the edge of town, and tensions between the guards and prisoners are running high. It’s powerfully told drama, and could win the big award on the night…

Your book Enemy Camp is up against Kate De Goldi’s From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle. Any thoughts on how judges can choose between such different books?

Kate’s is a splendid book – a genuine tour de force. I was delighted to review it and to acclaim it. It’s actually made the awards ceremony very easy for me; I can go along just for the pizza. And I have no trouble admitting that when I saw I was up against her in the Junior Fiction, a brusque monosyllable escaped my lips.

I feel for the judges; they’re so often abused. People sometimes say “How can you compare oranges with apples?” Well, of course you can: they’re both fruit; they have certain features in common. The same with books: you can find criteria to legitimately compare mine with Kate’s, or those by the other finalists, Jane Bloomfield and Stacy Gregg, though I do feel there should be a separate category for elderly male provincial writers of historical fiction…

Your novel See Ya, Simon is your most successful book, having been translated into Estonian, French, and Chinese, among other languages. What was the genesis of Simon?

It started soon after one of our daughter Helen’s friends died from Duchenne muscular dystrophy in Year 10. Suddenly the world wasn’t safe for her any longer; if a friend could die, if her universe could be wounded like that, what assurance was there? I could see this in her, and I could also see the courage with which she was facing it, and that did contribute to the book. It’s full of people and events and places from Inglewood and its high school, which is where we lived and where I’d not long finished teaching at the time.

Was that book the beginning of a new kind of journey for you as a writer?

After See Ya, Simon, I realised there were other stories I could try and write for that age group. I have to stress that I write an equal amount for adults and kids, but the latter brings in most of my income.

I’ve also been invited on literal trips, to China / Japan / Egypt / Slovenia / US / Taumarunui to attend book festivals, and so on, which is a delightful bonus. But I guess the most delightful journey is in that making of a narrative shape. To have done so always feels worthwhile, healing almost. I tell people I’m in a very privileged profession, and I believe that.

You are one of the lucky writers in New Zealand who manages to eke out enough from various streams of writing – reviews, columns, TV scripts, etc. Was there a turning point in your previous career as a teacher that made you go right, that’s it, I can make a living from writing now?

I’ve always tended to write across a range of outlets. Guess I’m a gadfly. I enjoy the different challenges that each brings, and I very much believe in cross-fertilization; a topic in one field may lead to an idea in another, and the skills learned can also be transferred. When I was still a high school teacher, I had to write in odd evenings or half-days, so short pieces were easiest to do.

The turning point? Three, I guess: 1. Moving from Auckland to Inglewood meant we could clear both our mortgages; I’d never have had the courage to go fulltime if I had a mortgage to pay; I admire those who do. 2. Then I was awarded the ICI Writer’s Bursary (long-defunct) in 1981. $3000: it seemed a lot. I took a year off teaching – Dear God, I was naïve and feckless. I used that year to write three plays for high schools – which still get performed occasionally, and bring me in $35….$28….$42….. I enjoyed the year hugely; felt I wanted to try another year. Beth supported me, as she always had, and one year led to another – led to 33 of them, actually.

How difficult is the climate for a freelance book reviewer these days, and what do you think of the current reviewing environment? What did you make of Iain Sharp’s piece at the Spinoff?

Reviewing is getting thinner. Outlets are fewer; PAID outlets – and it’s work, I refuse to do it if I’m told “the book is your payment”, that’s crap – are fewer still. Reviews are such an important part of the cultural discourse of any country or society, and it’s sad to see the dwindling of outlets. (I’m aware there’s quite a healthy online scene.)

Yes, I saw Iain’s very useful – and clever – piece, and I know that I personally have an inclination towards being gentle on the author (except for Jeffrey Archer…). But I’m so aware of the effort and capital that goes into even a bad book, and how crushing a bad review can be that I try not to damn unless it’s really deserved. I DON’T believe that harsh reviews are automatically meritorious or useful; they crush authors, rather than stimulate them.

 The David Hill I know wouldn’t hurt a fly, but you have been a book reviewer for too many years to not have upset anybody. Is there a writer who no longer speaks to you?

Ah, the mild-mannered David H. My reviews have brought me some letters / emails calling me jealous, ignorant, “a louse on the locks of literature” (great phrase, eh?) I’ve been threatened with emasculation… One author demanded I take out a full-page ad in the paper which had published my review of her book, apologising. Nobody who doesn’t speak to me: that (self-published) author was panned by everyone else, too.

I’ve had friends say that as NZ writers, we shouldn’t be reviewing other NZ authors, but I believe we’re ideally placed to do so. We’re more likely to understand the author’s viewpoint, the nuances of setting, etc. And as writers, we can comprehend what goes into writing a book. I try to summarise, commend, suggest; that’s my reviewer’s triumvirate. And to entertain.

The winners of the 2016 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults will be announced on the evening of Monday, August 8 at Circa Theatre in Wellington.


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