The intro read:
She wields more influence on what books we buy and read than anyone at Whitcoulls. More, even, than Quote Unquote. The author reviews and interviews on her popular morning show on National Radio can make or break a book. With an estimated 222,800 people listening every day, she’s New Zealand’s main source of information and opinions on writers and books. And with her strong opinions and readiness to argue the toss with her reviewers, Kim Hill herself seems to have read every book ever published.
How does she do it? “Bluff,” she tells Stephen Stratford. “Bluff, bluff and bluff.”KIM HILL, BOOKSELLER
What is the selection process of books and authors?
We get a whole lot of titles in precis from the publishers and weed our way through them, and put in our own ideas as well. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship – we don’t always do the books they want, and we sometimes do books they don’t want us to do.
Me and my two producers, Maryanne Ahern and Heather Church.
Do you try to get a balance between fiction and nonfiction, New Zealand and overseas?
The balance sorts itself out. We get a broad range offered, but if we ask for an author interview it tends to be nonfiction. That’s because nonfiction tends to be current events that we can have a discussion about. There’s no policy of balance. For reviews we tend to do fiction, I’m not sure why. We’re often offered gardening, art and cooking, but they might fit better into another part of the programme, and they’re pictorial – which is hard to do on radio.
You manage to talk intelligently about two books a day. I couldn’t do two a week. What’s your secret?
Bluff. Bluff, bluff and bluff. I read a lot and read very fast – not necessarily very effectively. They don’t stay with me: it’s like swotting for an exam – when it’s over, they go blip and you shove the next one in. It’s speed reading, or skim reading. I spend two hours a night preparing for the next day’s programme and then I go to bed and read the book.
The girls here say I don’t need to, that we’ve got a reviewer to do the book. I get criticised for interrupting the reviewer, and maybe I do it too often, but I think it makes for a more interesting dialogue on the book. It can be good if we disagree – we don’t as often as I thought would happen.
I do have a little trouble with sporting autobiographies – it’s a foreign language to me.
Your interview with Jeffrey Archer has become legendary. Did you find him intimidating?
He was kind of weird. So weird that it was only afterwards that I thought he was intimidating. At the time I just thought he was going mad. Someone sent me a poster of him and I put it on a seat so everyone could sit on his face.
There’s a certain arrogance sometimes with authors, they may think the point of view I’m expressing in a question is always mine, or think I shouldn’t ask that question. That irritates me rather than intimidates me.
Given the size of your audience, while a good review on your show will obviously lift sales, a bad review could damage sales, and hence the author’s income. I’m thinking particularly of local authors - for example, Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s My History, I Think got a drubbing recently. Do you feel any responsibility in these cases?
If we only reviewed the books we liked, and only said that we liked each book, that would undermine the credibility of the book reviews. And it’s that credibility which is responsible for the positive effect we can have.
Some books should never have been published, they’re so self-indulgent and inept. I’d probably hate it myself [to be on the receiving end] because an author puts so much of themselves into a book.
Has anyone ever said thank you for the exposure and helping boost their sales?
Nobody’s ever said thanks, nobody’s ever said, “Blast your eyes, you’ve ruined my life.”
There must have been authors who were daunting not because they’re awful, like Archer, but because their legions of fans will have read every word and know their work by heart – and you haven’t.
Doris Lessing was the most intimidating, or at least the prospect of interviewing her was. I was enormously fraught beforehand. She was very difficult to interview, she’s quite terse and businesslike. She doesn’t expand – some people are lovely and expansive and give you time to think of the next question.
I really enjoyed talking to Jim Crace, we rambled around in an amiable fashion.
What do you read for pleasure?
I’m trying to get through E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, but I have to keep putting it aside for all the books I read for work so it’s taking me an awfully long time. I did read Postcards when Graham Beattie reviewed it for us and waxed lyrical. She’s my favourite author at the moment. That’s one of the best parts of this job. I would never have read Elmore Leonard if not for this job; now I’ve developed a taste for crime.
You’d never know it as a listener, but there must have been a few disasters. What happens if there’s a no-show?
I just carry on with the interview already underway because I usually want to carry on talking anyway. Or we find something else – there’s always more ideas than we can use. Today, for example, there was no book review because the book reviewer got the day wrong.
I’m sometimes disappointed with authors. I looked forward to Naomi Wolf and we had a terrible time. We didn’t get on, and she started hyperventilating down the line from America. She took great umbrage at me asking some of the standard questions – like how did she reconcile The Beauty Myth and Fire With Fire, and where does she stand on feminism – but no, no, she couldn’t understand how I could ask these questions. And she started hyperventilating.
Authors aren’t always articulate – perhaps they’re writers because they’re better at writing things down than speaking about them.
Surprisingly often they are. I would assume they would never be, but so often they are able to talk.
The troublesome thing with many of the well-known authors is that they’ve answered every question before. You try to surprise them, but then there’s the danger of being too clever, appearing to be smart. But you’re not trying to make them happy, you’re trying to make the listeners happy.
I’d like to interview Robert James Waller, the author of Bridges Of Madison County, because I can’t believe how terrible that book is, and how many people have liked it. I think it’s part of the backlash – a big strong man sweeping the helpless female into his arms. Maybe we don’t get a chance to indulge our more primitive instincts. Now they’re making the movie with Clint Eastwood in the male role, it puts me right off.
What are your likes and dislikes from your own reading?
I hate Janette Winterson. She represents a genre of self-indulgent obscurity masquerading as deep and meaningful literature. It just seems so precious. As for likes... God help me, I still have a soft spot for Ernest Hemingway. And Henry James – Portrait of a Lady is my all-time favourite book. And Jane Austen.
I like Owen Marshall very much, he’s a clever writer, Maurice Gee – though it’s boring to say so, everyone says that. I really liked Shonagh Koea’s latest book, Sing To Me, Dreamer, which I’m happy about because I wanted to like her but couldn’t quite. Now I’ll go back to the earlier ones.
Selected highlights from three days of Kim Hill in November.
Kim Hill: Nancy Tichborne’s Flowers is a record of her watercolours and she joins me now. Good morning.
Nancy Tichborne: Hello.
KH: I’ve just been talking to you about storm damage. There are gardens all over this country weeping into their aspidistras as we speak.
NT: It’s tragic.
KH: How did you go from fashion design to gardening and landscape designing?
NT: Well, it’s all visual. If you’re interested in the visual world you probably could take on a lot of design problems. The whole time you’ve got to be looking, being very very observant and I’m quite sure half the people on the plane didn’t see what I saw looking out of the window – there was ultramarine blue and cerulean blue and then raw umber spilling forth out of the mouths of these rivers I was looking down on.
KH: I feel a painting coming on.
Kim Hill: The book’s called Diana: Her New Life, but it’s not, is it? It’s a sort of a dreadful kind of embattled existence.
Andrew Morton: It’s certainly a lonely existence, an unhappy existence, an existence where she’s trying to make sense of her present life, trying to learn from the mistakes of the past and trying to make some sense of the future... She has, despite all the clouds which have surrounded her over the last years, some vision, some little sunlight of what she aims to do in the future.
KH: She’s an odd mixture, though, isn’t she, Andrew? I mean, kind of a mixture between Mother Theresa and Madonna, I suppose. She does all this charitable work,
she is keenly interested and touched by humanity, but at the same time, as you report in your book, she has an obsession with, shall we say, fringe therapies and she spends megabucks on fringe appearance-enhancers.
AM: Yes she does. This is one of the things that makes Diana such a fascinating character because she is a mixture of contradictions.
KH: You’re probably wary of trying to justify what appears to be a rather prurient interest, not only on your part of course, but on our part, on the whole world’s part, into the personal lives of Charles and Diana and the rest of them. Why should we know all this stuff? Why can’t they just get on with their lives. Why is it our business? AM: [They are] a part of the Western weave of our social and cultural lives, they occupy a mythic place in our imaginations... We will continue to be fascinated by them, and especially by the, you know, dramatic tension in this relationship. At the moment we see the Princess of Wales trying to struggle and carve a new life for herself, and the Prince of Wales trying to re-establish himself. It is an unfolding and fascinating drama.
KH: Is there a difference between writing about it and hiding behind a bush and taking photographs of the royal family bathing topless or whatever?
AM: There’s a huge difference between interviewing people on the record or off the record who are demonstrably close to the Princess of Wales.
Kim Hill: A British television documentary has questioned the worth of Mother Teresa’s charity work in India. The programme apparently accuses her of having a penchant for the rich and powerful no matter how corrupt...
Laurie Margolis: It is the total antithesis of any image that one has ever had of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
KH: Which is sort of standard iconoclastic work, I suppose. It calls her Hell’s Angel, doesn’t it?
LM: There’s one rather extraordinary story which it claims is the way she became known as this almost saintly figure. It says that a well-known British figure called Malcolm Muggeridge who died some years ago, a larger-than-life television personality and a prominent Roman Catholic, went to make a film about her when she was just a nun running an orphan’s home in Calcutta. A lot of the stuff that was shot in rather dark rooms was rather well-lit, almost had a glow to it, and Muggeridge decided almost immediately that this was a divine light, that it was a miracle, and therefore the myth of Mother Teresa started, according to the programme.
They had the cameraman on, and he says far from it being a miracle it was simply that the BBC had just taken delivery of some new stock from Kodak and it was particularly good in low light conditions.
KH (laughing): Laurie, thank you for your time this morning. No doubt the fallout from that programme will continue – and no, Virginia, nothing is sacred.
Kim Hill: Is this a good book?
Grant Nisbett: It’s a very interesting book, it’s a book about the most controversial, talked-about, accident-prone, incident-prone cricketer of all time. What strikes me most, Kim, is the honesty of the guy. Ian Botham of course is a regular Jekyll and Hyde... Early on in the book he describes, or his mates describe him as Bungalow which means, or their, interpretation of that means nothing upstairs and that perhaps is quite apt for Ian Botham.
KH: What, you mean cos he’s thick? Is he being honest, though, when he says that yes, he indulged in the odd beer, and yes, he had the occasional joint but he was really character assassinated by the media who would, you know, jump on a waitress who happened to serve him and say did he ask you for sex, did he ask you for drugs? Was he, you know, an innocent boy caught up in the big time?GN: No, I don’t think so and I think there’s a little bit more to the guy than that. As I say, I think it is an honest book and he does concede that he did certainly take drugs and was involved in some unsavoury incidents off the field, but generally speaking he touches on all these. But the media does cop a fair bit of criticism and he hasn’t got too many mates in the media. In fact, one of the underlying themes in the book is that he hasn’t got too many mates full stop. Those he has he’s very loyal to – fellows like Vivien Richards, Bob Willis. But my word, he’s got a long list of enemies and they’re listed as well.