Following the recent announcement that Shehan Karunatilaka has become the second Sri Lankan author to win the Booker Prize, we caught up with Helen Castor, Sidney History Bye-Fellow, historian and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, about her experiences as one of the judging panel who made the announcement at the Roundhouse, London on 17 October.
Commenting on the winning entry Helen says:
‘We loved every one of the six novels on our shortlist, which made our final discussions agonising as well as fascinating - but in the end our winner was The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which tackles the darkest of subjects with the deftest of touches. It’s a book to read and re-read: riotously energetic, mordantly funny and profoundly humane.’
Each prize year, a new cohort of five individuals is selected to judge the prize. Gaby Wood, Director of the Booker Prize Foundation told us what makes a Booker Prize judge: ‘Essentially what you’re looking for is people that are going to read on behalf of the general public, but not second guess them’. ‘It’s less to do with individual judges than it is to do with the combination of judges, and that’s where the alchemy comes in,’ she added.
Throughout the process, the judges meet once a month, from January to July, discussing around 30 books at a time. And while the judging room is often serious and contemplative, a place of debates –occasionally heated – it is also a place where the judges connect with each other, reader to reader. ‘Right from day one, we immediately found a way to laugh with each other,’ said Helen.
The longlisting and shortlisting of the Booker Prize means that unlike any other prize, the winning entry has been read three times in nine months by five people. This often means picking a winner can be an emotionally-charged decision. Helen says, ‘Through laughter and sometimes tears, there have been really emotional moments in response to these books’.
If you would like to hear more from the judges, have a listen to the programme on Radio 4 presented by Neil MacGregor, the chair of this year's Booker prize jury, which features all five of the panel talking about the shortlisted books:
Helen’s book, She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, was made into a BBC TV series and selected as a book of the year in the Times, the Sunday Times, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Guardian and BBC History Magazine.
She has also presented a range of programmes for BBC TV and radio and Channel 4, and was part of Channel 4’s live coverage of the reburial of Richard III in Leicester in 2015.
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