Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Judges Q&A: Cathy Newman
How have you found the experience of reading women’s fiction back to back for the past few months?
It's been intense, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. I've loved getting stuck into so many brilliant books by women from a vast array of different countries, cultures and backgrounds. The standard is incredibly high, so women's fiction is clearly thriving.
What’s it been like having to read so many books in such a short space of time?
My day job presenting Channel 4 News is pretty hectic, and I'm also quite a hands-on mum to my two young daughters, so I've really had to use every spare moment to do each book justice. I've always been a real bookworm, though, so it's been great to have an excuse to read more books in a couple of months than I'd usually read in a couple of years.
Have there been any surprises in the books that you’ve read? OR Have there been any surprises along the way?
I don't want to give too much away, but I've surprised myself in liking certain genres I didn't expect to.
Have you noticed any particular themes coming through in the books that you’ve read?
There are definitely some recurrent themes: cults, dementia, mental illness, for example. And you find certain words recurring in some of the titles : girl, daughter etc But there are also some very unusual perspectives. The story of life inside a beehive has made the long list, for instance, and a comic novel about some mediocre knights, too.
Have you always loved reading?
I've always loved reading. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss was a childhood favourite, along with classics like Winnie-the-Pooh. Then I distinctly remember reading Tarka the Otter long after I should have turned my light out, and, in floods of tears, waking my parents up when I got to the end. As a teenager I adored Jane Austen (Emma's my personal favourite) and Charles Dickens (don't ask me to choose between Great Expectations and Hard Times) before moving on to more contemporary authors as a 20-something - I'd have to single out Toni Morrison's Beloved and Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries for special mention. In the last few years I haven't had as much time to read as I'd like to, but I have to devour every Hilary Mantel novel the minute it's published if not before. And I love autobiographies too - Alan Johnson's This Boy was the best thing I read last year. I've just finished Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade, The Buried Giant, which is a work of genius.
Was there one particular book that gave you the reading bug?
I learnt to read with the Peter and Jane Ladybird books, which were great for getting started. Now I look back at them, though, and realise how much everyday sexism there was in the 1970s. Jane was brought up to expect a life of shopping and baking. Fortunately it didn't pan out that way for me. But I think the book which really changed my life was The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. I read it when I was in bed ill for weeks on end. I remember I started having such vivid dreams of strange creatures prowling in the darkness that my mum thought I had such a high temperature I was hallucinating. I maintain the intensity of Tolkien's imaginative universe was to blame.
What’s the best book you’ve ever been given, and who gave it to you?
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. My husband John bought it for me when we were about to go on holiday and I hadn't had time to pop to the bookshop. I loved it.
Do you have a favourite book by a female author that you’ve given to friends and family as a gift?
I love giving people Mean Time by Carol Ann Duffy. It contains the utterly brilliant sonnet, Prayer - a slightly forlorn though ultimately consoling poem, which I recommend for anyone who needs a bit of mental peace during times of stress.