Flash Frontier

Interview with Graham Beattie

Interviews and Features

APRIL 2012

This month, we spoke with former bookseller and Managing Director/Publisher of Penguin Books NZ Ltd. and Scholastic NZ Ltd., and present book reviewer, book blogger and judge of book awards, Graham Beattie, also known as Bookman Beattie. Art and inspiration, books online and in print, and the virtue and difficulties of short fiction — Beattie covers it all in this short interview.


On Ponsonby-Franklin, Auckland. Photo by Harvey Benge

FF: You are lover not just of the written word but of the arts in general. What art have you recently experienced that has moved you, and why has it done so?

GB: Last week I visited the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. This annual prize has been going since 1921 and is easily Australia’s most iconic and anticipated award. I have seen many of the exhibitions since 1990 and always enjoy them. The award is for portraiture and every year the 40 or so finalists are varied and impressive. One of the aims of this award is to foster the memory of great Australians so resident Australian artists are invited to submit portraits painted from life of men or women “distinguished in arts, letters, science or politics”. Usually there are a number of authors included although there were none this year. However, I did like the portrait of Melbourne-based NZ singer-singwriter Kimbra, painted by Vincent Fatauzzo.

FF: Would you care to tell our readers where you grew up, and what kinds of early influences in your life led you down the path of art and book lover?

GB: I was born in Gisborne and went to school there. The greatest influence on me in terms of love of reading and books were my grandmother, Nana Beattie, and my form one teacher, Miss Fisher.

On competitions and flash

With Lee Child

FF: You’ve been in the book scene for many years, and you are still actively judging competitions and awards. Tell us why you still choose to do this work, specifically? Are you a firm believer that competition brings out the best?

GB: One is invited to be a judge and over the years I have had the privilege of being a judge of many awards, perhaps the most interesting and challenging being the Commonwealth Writers’ Awards. I believe in awards because of the recognition it gives to authors and the publicity it attracts for books.

FF: You judged the BNZ Short Story Award in 2011. Tell us, what do you like about the short story as a genre, and what in particular do you find interesting about flash fiction?

GB: Short stories are a favourite of mine because you can read them even when time is limited – while on the link bus in to the city, having a cup of coffee or for a few minutes when you get into bed even if you are dog-tired. Generally speaking I think the shorter a work of fiction is the more difficult it is to write. You still need a beginning, a middle and an end, you still have to tell a complete story and the less space you have in which to tell it the more skill is required. I think I have most New Zealand short story collections published over the past twenty years or so. I especially admire and enjoy Own Marshall so, unsurprisingly, among my favourites are Own Marshall, selected stories edited by Vincent O’Sullivan, The Best NZ Fiction Vol. 5 edited by Owen Marshall, The Book of the Beach Vols. 1 and 2, selected and introduced by Graeme Lay and then of course there is Katherine Mansfield.

On reviews, the blogosphere and the corner bookshop

In Paris

FF: In a recent article in The Author, David Eggleton wrote about Landfall Online Review, and there were several discussions, also in that same issue of The Author, about the difficulty of writing reviews in today’s oversaturated electronic world. What’s your take on this? Is writing a review different in different media – radio, print or online? How has Beattie’s Book Blog, running for six years now with an international following, changed the way you view the review?

GB: Personally I don’t think the review format has changed at all. The difference is I guess that now anyone can become a reviewer because anyone can create a blog and thus publish their own reviews whereas prior to the digital revolution one had to be invited by a newspaper, magazine or radio in order to present a review.

FF: In your blog in early April, there appeared a story about Google scaling back its affiliation with independent and small e-booksellers.  You also posted an article originally from The Boston Globe about 10.5 ways local bookstores beat Amazon. Tell us, do you fret over the state of the local corner bookshop?  And while e-books are changing the publishing landscape dramatically by the day, what does all this really mean for someone who is, at heart, simply a great big booklover? 

GB: Yes, I do fret over the future of the local indie bookseller and personally never buy online from Amazon or the like unless I absolutely have to. I know people who go into their local indie bookseller to check on books and then go home and order the book/s online. Well of course if they keep doing that the bookseller will soon be no more. I like to talk about the books I am buying with a knowledgeable bookseller, I like to browse at the book and its design, I like to smell the book – none of these pleasures are available online. I have read probably twenty or so books in e-format and I do not especially enjoy the experience. Give me the real book any day.

On inspiration and icons… and cookbooks

In Barnes & Noble, Union Square, January 2012

FF: Children’s books are clearly still dear to you. New Zealand seems to enjoy an international reputation for producing high quality children’s literature. Why do you think New Zealand inspires such imaginative writing in this genre? 

GB: The leadership and inspiration of Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley has much to do with it.

FF: Earlier this month, you were called a cultural icon by Graeme Lay. Who do you consider to be New Zealand cultural icons, people to whom we may look for inspiration or example?

GB: There are many but a few off the top of my head would include Margaret Mahy, Marti Friedlander, Lloyd Jones, Maurice Gee, Owen Marshall, Brian Turner and Bill Manhire.

FF: What are you reading this autumn?

GB: The best international crime fiction as it comes along – Ian Rankin, Peter James, Jo Nesbo – there is an almost unlimited supply, plus any NZ crime fiction as it appears, especially looking forward to Vanda Symon’s new book. And of course I am totally and hopelessly addicted to beautiful cookbooks!

Thank you, Graham Beattie, for the interview this month. 

For the after the party April issue, please go here

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