Quill and Quire

Awards

« Back to Omni
Articles

Q&A: Lawrence Hill on his role as Giller Prize jury chair and reading 161 titles for the shortlist

by

Lawrence HillThis morning, the Scotiabank Giller Prize jury revealed the six titles in competition for this year’s award. Authors Samantha Harvey‚ Jeet Heer‚ Alan Warner‚ and Kathleen Winter – led by jury chair Lawrence Hill – read an astonishing 161 titles from 69 publisher imprints.

Q&Q asked Hill for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what it’s like to chair a jury for one of the country’s largest literary prizes.

How does the Giller compare to other juries?
I’ve been on two prize juries before, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Trillium Prize. I know it’s different, but I’ve also been on maybe 10 for grants for writers or publishers, but there’s a similarity in the process.

As for the work, this is more than I’ve ever encountered before. I’ve never been on a jury where we had to read 161 books. With other juries, we’d meet and do it all in one meeting. But in this case, there was so many, we deal with the books at least partially as they come in. Because the books that we are considering had to have been published between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016, the books came to us chronologically, relating to the date they were published. We started reading books in February that had been published in the fall of the previous year.

Obviously we couldn’t make any final decisions until we read them all. We met periodically over that period to discuss what we’d read to date and figure out how to process the books that had already come to our plate.

Is your house stacked full of books?
I was worried that I wouldn’t be organized, so I dedicated an entire bookshelf – I’m looking at it now – it’s about six shelves of books that pretty much reaches up to the ceiling in my office. They’re ordered by when they came to me. I took very careful notes, as I’m sure all the other jurors had to do, too, because how else can you remember what a certain book was when you’ve just read another 70?

How would you describe your role as jury chair?
When I was asked to do it, I worried about the possibility that a really strong voice might outshout a quiet voice on the jury. I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want a person with a big personality to take up more air or have a greater say than a person with a quieter personality. I worked very hard to devise a system where that would be minimized; where each juror would be heard and be able to express their preferences and we’d be required to ingest all that. The main preoccupation was fairness to the writers whose books are being submitted.

How do you ensure fairness?
I had to come up with a system that would allow for this. How are we going to get through all these books? How are we going to share notes, and decide what to carry forward, and what to set aside? Because of confidentiality rules, I can’t say what our process was, but I had to come up with a system of how we would come to our decisions. My voice isn’t any more influential than the other jurors. In fact, it might be a little less influential because I have to be so careful about making sure everyone else is heard.

The system also had to keep us on track, timing wise. It wouldn’t work if we had a panicky last-minute rush in the last two weeks. We met regularly, every six weeks or so, to review what we’ve done, and make some decisions.

What happens when there are disagreements?
If people have disagreements – as they should, that’s the whole idea – it’s my job to steer the conversation to get us through and come up with an acceptable solution. It’s very delicate, diplomatically. You’ve got five writers who naturally have strong opinions and who naturally and hopefully won’t all have the same opinion. We certainly didn’t. I have to keep the peace and help forge agreements that we can all live with.

Is it really true that you don’t decide the winner until Nov. 7?
I know some people don’t believe it, but it is true. We don’t deliberate or decide on the winner until the day of. There’s no way it can be leaked, and it adds to the drama to wait until the morning of the prize day.

This interview has been edited and condensed.