Industry Insight: Q&A with Matt Bates (A LoveReading Very Short Story Award Judge)

Our LoveReading Industry Insight pieces are going to be slightly different for the next three months, as we will be focusing in turn, on each of the other judges for our LoveReading Very Short Story Award 2020.  I am hugely thrilled to be able to introduce you to Rachel Edwards, Matt Bates, Joanne Owen, Maxim Jakubowski, (and I will be the fifth member of the team). We have asked our judges a number of booky questions, and they have answered beautifully. Their knowledge really shines through and I’m sure you will be able to appreciate that each will bring their own unique talents, as well as a love of writing and books to the table. 

Our second judge to be introduced is Matt Bates, I first met Matt when we were both on the judging panel for the Romantic Novelists' Association Goldsboro Romantic Novel of the Year 2018. He so impressed me, with not only his judging know-how and understanding of the shortlisted novels we had read, but also his deep abiding love for all things books. I feel ever so slightly smug that he has agreed to be one of our judges (but should I actually admit that?!). 

Matt Bates has worked in the book industry for over 30 years, and until June 2018 was the Fiction Buyer for WH Smith Travel. He is currently Editor-at-Large for Muswell Press and studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. He has previously been rated as one of the Top 1000 most influential Londoners in the Evening Standard, and in 2017 was named as one of The Bookseller 100 list.

In 2016 he was a judge for both the Costa Book Prize (Novel) and chair for The Booksellers Association Debut Fiction Category Prize. He is an Associate Vice President of the Romantic Novelists Association, has been involved in numerous book industry panels and contributed to book-related articles in The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Bookseller and Writers Forum magazine. 

We are thrilled that you have agreed to be one of our judges for the LoveReading Very Short Story Award, what in particular do you love about short stories?

Thank you. I’m delighted to be joining LoveReading as one of the judges this year. I think the short-story form is in a really exciting place and the breadth and creativity of the stories that I have been reading recently (Eley Williams, Bryan Washington, Julia Armfield, to name a few) are really inspiring.

With short stories, I love the immediacy of the proposition on the page, and the connectivity that the writer has to bring to the reader, in a relatively short exchange. This can make the short story a very intimate and satisfying experience between writer and reader. 

Do you have a favourite anthology of short stories, or type of short story that you like to read?

I don’t have a default ‘type’ of short story that I defer to as I try to read as widely as I can. The anthology that I’ve read most recently is The Granta Book of the American Short Story (Volume II), which has been very rewarding. There are some exceptional writers featured – Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Z Z Packer. I especially admired A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri

If reading a short story anthology, do you start with the first story, look for a favourite author, or open at a random spot?

At random, and very much dependant on mood. Sometimes you want a quick, satisfying ‘fix’ from a story, at other times you’re prepared to work harder for it.

Where do you like to read?

In bed, before I go to sleep. It’s my most productive reading time and space. The flat is ‘closed up’ for the night so I won’t get side-tracked into emptying the washing-machine, making cups of tea, raiding the biscuit tin, etc.

What (and why) are your top three favourite books of all time (sorry, mean question, and I’m sure your answers could change from one day to the next!)?

My favourite novel is The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. I first read it when I was seventeen and it had a profound effect on me. I have read it some five times since. It is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace although it was written a good ten years prior to that novel. The lead protagonist, Agnes Dempster, is an extraordinary character and one with whom I strongly identified with at the time.

Other favourites include Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett, a jewel of a novel depicting gay life in London in the 1990s. It manages to be both recognizably real and illusory. I also love Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, a masterpiece of sexual tension, paranoia and the power of guilt and I'll read anything written by Deborah Levy. I love how she sees the world – it’s always gloriously tilted! 

What was your favourite book to read as a child, do you still have that book, and have you read it since?

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. I still have my copy of the old Puffin paperback with its menacing jacket. I re-read it last Christmas and it was just as good as I remembered.

Do you have one particular booky moment that still stands out for you and makes you smile?

Around the age of twelve, I started to read the historical novels by Jean Plaidy. I was a bit of a history buff and I learnt so much from them. I used to write to her telling how much I enjoyed them and she always wrote back on blue Basildon Bond notepaper. I suspect my letters got on her nerves but I look back now and think how very kind and generous it was of her to respond considering how prolific and famous she was. I still have the letters.

Have you ever been star-struck by an author, who was it and what happened when you met them? 

I was fortunate to meet Jackie Collins on a few occasions when I was buying for WH Smith Travel. She was such a star and I was terribly nervous the first time I met her. I needn’t have been - she was utterly charming, incredibly warm and always remembered the tiniest details about you at subsequent meetings.

Which author, no longer with us, would you loved to have met, and what is it about their work that calls to you?

Virginia Woolf. I’m sure I’d have been terrified of her, but her vision, her way of reading and writing the world around her is just extraordinary. And having just finished Middlemarch I’d also loved to have asked George Eliot how she managed to exact such astonishing psychological insight into her characters' behaviours and psyches.

Is there anything in particular that you will be looking for when you read the LoveReading submissions?

Atmosphere. At times, I think, an overlooked component of fiction but one that ensures a piece of writing will remain in the mind long after reading it. It’s the thing that will draw you back to the story, the taste of it. Also: a story that asks as many questions in the reader's mind as it answers.

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