Conversations

Patrick Lloyd Hatcher and Elisa Miller, judges for the 2004

WaterBridge Review: What do you like best about being a judge?

Elisa Miller: Opening up the boxes of books, it’s like a birthday every time. Although I feel sorry for the mailman. And all the new words I learn! Books everywhere. The covers alone take your mind across the Pacific. Around Asia, Latin America, and Oceania.

Patrick Lloyd Hatcher: I agree. A smorgasbord of cultures. This fare enriches you, opens new venues. Judging other writers’ work tests your own capacity for empathy. You walk away a little wiser, a little less judgmental.

WBR: I’m sure it’s not all a birthday party, Elisa! What do you like the least?

EM: The final slog through. There were 203 nonfiction titles this year. I make my own list of top titles, but others have their favorites. I must look at those again. And by that time I’m tired.

PLH: For me the pain comes earlier. In accepting this assignment — 200 fiction titles this year — you have to clear your own calendar way into the future. Being a judge can also mean turning down attractive offers that pop up during the judging season.

EM: A few tricks and rituals can help you get through tough patches. A pad of paper for writing down new words and reactions to the books I’m reading. A dictionary, an atlas. A cup of tea. My favorite spot on the sofa in the living room. What does it for you, Pat?

PLH: I keep at least five books in bed with me. The moment my eyes open I see books. Reading in the early morning gets me going. My home is hidden in the woods of the East Bay hills away from the bustle of San Francisco. Peace and quiet with a book outranks a good cup of morning coffee.

EM: And down time is essential. Physical exercise is a must for me. A walk, a swim. I would lay a bet that Pat turns to music for his down time.

PLH: That’s true. I allow my mind to wander inside a symphony, ballet, or opera. Then, like Elisa, I exercise: I hike the nearby hills. That done, I return home and prepare a French dinner from scratch. The only hard choice becomes whether I will serve a merlot or a cabernet.

WBR: Judging is a sifting process. What makes the “best” book?

EM: Meaning, literary value, impact.

PLH: First, the test of writing. Does it stand out as a piece of fine prose, a good read? Then I look to see if the author succeeds in reaching across ethnic and national borders to questions that touch all humanity. This year we had wonderful stories that made the reader see into the human need for companionship. Friends, family, lovers. The connection of hearts.

WBR: You both chaired your panels of judges. How do you handle disagreement among the judges?

PLH: I try to see it coming. I consult with each judge as we e-mail our reviews back and forth. We have to reach a shortlist of five titles. I stress that tastes differ, and try not to push a favorite book. If one is thick-skinned about such things, one should not serve.

EM: When there are disagreements, we take time to go around the table again. This is so that each of us has the opportunity to change his or her mind or to add something that may change someone else’s mind. With enough rounds, we might come to consensus.

WBR: A brief word about the winners?

PLH: The Girl Who Played Go beautifully captures an embittered Japanese-Chinese clash of civilizations at the very point when two lost souls start a journey of hope across their two countries’ enmity.

EM: Dancing with Strangers, this year’s nonfiction winner, is an original attempt to show it is difficult, yet still possible, to know “the other side” (even when that side may be voiceless) through careful observations of the observers. The author handles us, gracefully and gently.

WBR: Surprises?

EM: To discover marvelous books by writers I’d never read before. A happy surprise, and a pleasure to read them. Then too, new viewpoints, fresh insights. For the judges, as for other readers, these books bridge distances and open the mind. They invite us to see things from the other person’s point of view, to try to stand in their shoes. And that inevitably brings surprises. Out of God’s Oven and White Mughals are outstanding examples of this from among our nonfiction finalists.

PLH: Surprises? Yes! That Peter Carey could construct such a brilliant edifice as My Life as a Fake. That Shirley Hazzard, at this stage in her career, could write The Great Fire, an old-fashioned love story that broke my heart. That Monica Ali’s Brick Lane could tell me so much about the poor, lost souls inside the Asian diaspora in Britain. And that a simple, heart-felt novel about Nepal, The Guru of Love, made you see that mountain kingdom as it really is, and not just as tourist-haunted temples aglow with sweet smells and tinkling bells.

WBR: What’s next on your reading list?

PLH: Francois Bizot’s The Gate, set in the jewel of Cambodia’s Khmer ruins. It is one of this year’s nonfiction notables, and reckoned to be an outstanding book by many. I often lead tours to Southeast Asia and this book will take me back there.

EM: I want to revisit some of the books that other judges recommended as notables.

WBR: What, for you, is the significance of the Kiriyama Prize?

EM: We’ve talked about this. Go ahead, Pat.

PLH: Okay, this is for both of us. We think it spotlights this region in a way that has never happened before. Given that over half the world’s population lives near or around this large lake, and books make a bridge over which many individuals can travel to meet their neighbors, understanding the “other” might just result!