Interview with Stephen Stratford

June 2012

This month, we spoke with Stephen Stratford, who works from his home in Cambridge as a writer, book editor and manuscript assessor. Over the last three decades he has been a judge of the Wattie, Montana and NZ Post Book Awards, as well as the Spectrum book design and the Culinary Quill Awards. Authors he has edited include James K Baxter, Lauris Edmond, Vincent O’Sullivan, Kevin Ireland, Ranginui Walker and Lloyd Jones. He has published more than a dozen books under his own name and several anonymously, including a cookbook. He is currently writing a history of Family Group Conferences for Auckland University Press. Most recently, he served as one of the judges of the 2012 National Flash Fiction Day competition. Here Stephen writes about his views on short stories, competition judging, e-books and more.

On short stories and the state of literature in New Zealand

FF: In a 1990 essay in Sport (Is Your Book Really Necessary?), your review of The Penguin Book Of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories included, among other things, a critique of the way it dealt with the idea of “contemporary” and its (mis)representation of the preceding decade. What anthologies exit today which portray the first decade of the 21st century particularly well, and why? Which “contemporary” short stories represent our age best?

SS: Paula Morris’s 2009 Penguin Book of Contemporary Stories is the best recent anthology I know. Sport 40 is a good snapshot. Newish short story writers I like include Jo Randerson, Eleanor Catton, Carl Nixon, Sarah Laing and Anna Taylor, who I think is amazing.

FF: You’re well known for your non-fiction, from articles in the New Zealand Listener to your book The Dirty Decade: New Zealand in the 80s. Clearly you are as interested in the world around you as the word on the page. What do you see when you look around you in today’s literary scene? What has changed?

SS: There’s more genre fiction now – crime, chicklit etc. Literary fiction seems as strong as ever with new writers coming through, not all of them from the IIML. But given the economic climate and the woes for publishers and booksellers there are probably – I’m guessing – fewer new writers being published by the multinationals. Definitely more self-publishing, more e-books. It’s an interesting time, not only in the Chinese sense.

On competitions and literary prizes

FF: You’ve been a judge of several important creative writing competitions, including the Montana NZ Book Awards, the Wattie Book Awards and the NZ Post Book Awards. Do you go into each competition with a set of expectations (for yourself as well as the contestants), and how do those expectations usually stack up against the outcome?

SS: No expectations. There are clear criteria which the judges have to follow; ideally there is a wide range of expertise and enthusiasm among the judges. What’s most enjoyable in the process is having another, more knowledgeable judge explain the merits of a book you have overlooked or under-estimated. You really do change your mind a lot. In the old days in the Montanas with three judges it was too easy for one alpha-male/idiot to skew the results. With the new format in the NZ Post awards – there are now five judges – that isn’t possible, I think

FF: You participated on a panel at the 2012 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival that  discussed “if and how literary prizes can remain relevant and serve writers, booksellers, publishers and the public”. Can you tell our readers some of the outcomes of this panel discussion, and if you and the other panellists reached specific conclusions? 

SS: The panel – me, Jenny Pattrick, Dame Stella Rimington and chair Sam Elworthy of AUP – mostly agreed that prizes were nice to win but that selling books was even nicer. Authors in the audience were very much in favour of prizes and thought that short lists should be as long as possible so that everyone’s a winner, sort of. I upset many when I said that I had talked to booksellers – provincial independents and big-city chains (whisper it: Whitcoulls) – and they regarded short lists as irrelevant, that their customers were interested, when they were interested, only in the winners. It’s completely different in the children’s awards where the short list is seen as a reliable buying guide – and there’s a long story there as to why the adult awards don’t have the same reliability factor.

On blogging and flashing

FF: Besides being a writer, journalist and editor, you’re also a blogger. How has the internet changed the way you read and/or write? And what kinds of things do you like to read mostly these days? And what things do you most enjoy writing?

SS: The internet has shortened our attention span because there is always something else to read, watch, listen to just a click away. When I’m writing or editing I turn it off and only turn it back on when I need to check something. I write better with pen and paper in a café, then type it up later, revising as I go.

I read a lot of manuscripts for work – fiction, non-fiction, sometimes children’s, sometimes poetry. Reading for pleasure – that’s crime fiction. Or music biographies, which sometimes read like crime fiction too.

What I most enjoy writing is anything I am paid to write.

FF: What captivates you about flash fiction, as a reader and a writer?

SS:The immediacy. When it works – a situation, characters, setting, some emotional weight – it’s impressive. You think, how did the writer do that?

Thank you, Stephen Stratford, for the interview this month. 

For the hold my hand JUNE issue, please go here


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