Sue Wilkinson, former CEO of The Reading Agency, is one of the judges for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize 2019. We sat down with her for an exclusive chat about adventure writing, judging the prize, and her love of reading and travel.
1. What do you think of when you hear ‘adventure writing?
I think first of reading the Willard Price books. I loved these and borrowed all of them from the library. They are about the adventures of 2 brothers – Hal and Roger – who for some reason never quite explained, don’t seem to have to go to school, and instead spend their time roving round the world collecting animals for their family zoo. Then I think about being given my first Wilbur Smith book when I was about 12. It was When the Lion Feeds and my Dad bought it for me. I really wanted to read another book first but he said that I had to read this one. I opened it grumbling a little and was quickly enthralled; I remember asking to be left in the car in Sheffield whilst the family went shopping so I could finish it and, when I had, going to the library to get The Sound of Thunder.
2. Do you often read adventure writing?
One of the most interesting things about the shortlist for the prize is its diversity. “Adventure writing” as exemplified by these books is a broad and wide ranging genre covering every aspect of life as well as creating new and imaginary worlds. So if you had asked me before I was a judge for the prize I might have said no but now I would say that I have been reading it forever!
3. Can you give us any insight into what you’re looking for when reading the shortlisted books?
There are of course some clear criteria which all the judges are using to make decisions and which we report back on. In addition, of course for me there is what I look for in every book I read. Is it almost impossible to put down? Do I carry on thinking about it after I have read it? Do I want to talk to friends about it and give it to them? Am I going to re-read it?
4. Who would you recommend adventure writing to?
It is very hard to recommend a genre to people given the wide range of themes and ideas it will encompass. However one of the great things about a prize like this one is that by the time books get on the shortlist they have been read and discussed by loads of people which so you can almost guarantee that a friend will like at least one book on the list and ideally of course all of them. At The Reading Agency, we will be recommending these exciting and gripping stories to all the readers we work with but particularly to young people and adults taking part in Reading Ahead, our adult reading programme which runs in work places and colleges.
5. What role does reading play in your life?
I read everywhere and every day. One of the great joys of being on holiday is having a whole day to read and I am currently trying to whittle down the great pile of books I have accumulated for my summer holiday into something more reasonable to carry. Reading is, for me, a source of comfort, solace, enjoyment, and new ideas. I love reading history as much as I love reading fiction and I also read a lot of poetry, biography and auto-biography. Reading is something I do in the morning when commuting, on the journey home, in the evening, at the weekend… I can’t imagine a life without it. However I had encephalitis 6 years ago and for a year after that I found myself struggling to concentrate. I kept picking up books and putting them down again. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt like that and it was scary. What I found then was the comfort of re-reading much loved books that you know well and love. I was very fortunate because I did get back into reading again but it gave me a very small insight into what it is like to struggle with reading and why stories which grip you and pull you in, like the ones on the shortlist, are so important.
6. Can you tell us about an adventure you’ve been on?
I went to New Zealand on my own in January 1993. I spent most of my time on the South Island and the best thing I did was go for 3 days of walking in the Abel Tasman national park. I hadn’t intended to do this. I got on the boat and then discovered that there were 3 options: stay on the boat and go round the coast, , be dropped on the beach and spend the day sunbathing or be dropped on the beach and then walk on the coastal path and be picked up later. I can still remember hesitating at the idea of walking on my own and then pulling myself together and choosing that option. I walked all day and saw only a couple of other people coming in the opposite direction. It was amazing and magical. When I got to the beach where I was being collected I found a motel. I went in and said: “I was on the boat trip and I am due to be picked up but I wondered if I could stay here overnight and walk on tomorrow and then be picked up later?" “Yes” they said. “And would you be able to radio the boat and tell them this?” “Yes" they said. “And could you give me dinner and sell me a toothbrush?” “Yes” they said. “And do you have a book I could borrow because I have read mine and will need another one?” “Hmm” they said, “we will need to look into that.” But they did and I walked on and it was wonderful. I can still close my eyes and see the sea and the cliffs and the sun and I can still remember sitting on the terrace of the hotels looking at the beach and reading.
What do you think of the shortlisted titles? Which have you read and do you think there are any books missing? Add your comments below, or click any title above to leave a review, find it in your local library, or buy it from Hive to support The Reading Agency and your local independent bookshop.
Did you see the longlisted books, announced on 2 May? Take a look for more reading inspiration.
Share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #adventurewriting and @Wilbur_Niso_Fdn.
Keep up with all the latest news, and find out about the 2019 partners, on the Wilbur & Niso Smith Foundation website.
Find out more about books by Wilbur Smith.
Want to make sure you never miss the latest reading group news? Sign up for our free monthly newsletter.