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Five questions with Jane Skudder

This week we’re talking to Jane Skudder, bookseller extraordinaire. Essex-born. Yorkshire-based. Once described by a colleague as having been bookselling since the dawn of time, Jane works for Waterstones based in the enviable Wool Exchange building in Bradford. Here she talks about women and awards in the world of books.

Which female writers are selling well in the genres of science-fiction, fantasy and horror these days?

Apart from J.K. Rowling? (I know, only tenuously genre fiction…) Becky Chambers is doing really well (totally deserved in my view) and Christina Henry (with her own take on the stories of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland). Margaret Atwood continues to sell and there are some interesting titles which are not classed as genre fiction, strictly speaking, but have some good horror/gothic undertones by Laura Purcell (The Silent Companions) and Natasha Pulley (The Bedlam Stacks) or a distinctly speculative angle by Maja Lunde (The History of Bees) and Naomi Alderman (The Power). On the horror side, Michelle Paver and Sarah Pinborough are holding their own alongside classics by Susan Hill and Shirley Jackson.

In the writing community, awards like the Hugos and the Arthur C Clarke awards hold huge meanings for writers. How does that translate to visibility and sales within a bookshop, and how do they compare with other awards?

Because we are a smallish, general bookstore we don’t make as much of a thing of the Hugos or Arthur C Clarke awards as we do of stuff like the Booker or the British Book Awards. Some of the larger stores (with half a floor of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror) will do more, of course. It has always seemed odd to me, however, that more genre fiction doesn’t make the cut for these awards – a good book is a good book whatever its genre. It has been good to see a graphic novel making the Booker longlist this year (Sabrina by Nick Drnaso) but the British Book Awards, which are much more based in popular writing, doesn’t really make much of sci-fi (although Neil Gaiman has won in the past).

Waterstones runs their own award: how often does a sci-fi, fantasy or horror title win the award? 

Waterstones has two Book of the Year awards. The general one has only been running for 6 years and has been won by a cookery book, a children’s illustrated book and three ‘literary’ novels. The nearest it has come to genre fiction is the 2017 winner, Phillip Pullman’s Book of Dust. The children’s book award does much better – of its 13 winners at least 6 could be described as children’s fantasy books (and three of those were by women) – and our children’s Books of the Month are often fantasy based. But then children don’t really worry about whether genre fiction is as good as general fiction – they just want a really good read!

Who are some of the female writers you most admire? 

I admire J.K. Rowling – for what she has achieved in terms of publishing, for her general principles and for her Twitter-Fu – and I have loved everything I’ve read so far by Rachel Joyce and Becky Chambers. The latter, in particular, reminds me of my introduction to Sci-fi – which was through Anne McCaffrey and Julian May – and how I overcame my resistance to ‘books about rockets and robots’ when I realised they could be about the people who lived in those books. In terms of their outspokenness on all kinds of issues (again, mostly on Twitter and/or Facebook) I would have to add Joanne Harris, Janine Ashbless, Marian Keyes, Kit de Waal and Janina Ramirez.

Can you give us the names of some female writers you feel deserve more exposure? 

I think everybody should read Becky Chambers. Everybody! And more people should try Kit de Waal too. In terms of sci-fi, fantasy and horror than I tend to steer people looking for recommendations towards Michelle Paver’s excellently chilling ghost stories, fantasy fans to Trudi Canavan and, for general otherworldly undercurrents in almost everything, Sarah Pinborough. Of course, some readers don’t want to read these genres but I’ve always got a favourite female author or two up my sleeve to suggest.

Who is Jane Skudder?

Jane SkudderI’ve been told (by younger and cheekier colleagues) that I have been bookselling since the dawn of time. It has certainly been over 30 years. I also don’t remember not being able to read – so that has been going for about 50 years. Originally from Essex, I have been living in the North for more than half my life and in Yorkshire for nearly 18 years. In the small amount of time I am not reading, bookselling or volunteering in my local library I like cooking (and eating), enjoy walking and treat running as a sort of masochistic pleasure.

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