As a bookish type, are you happy to have spent so much of your career in television?
Oh, I love telly. It’s instant, and it’s collaborative, and you have an audience that you would kill for as a writer. Books and telly don’t cancel each other out; you can enjoy both. It’s hard to make books work on television, though. I know – I’ve tried many times.
What are you proudest of, in your work?
Very difficult to say. I love everything I do, when I’m doing it, but when I’m done I can’t bear to look at any of it. Simply because I want to do the next thing.
You are the chair of the Orange Prize judges. You’ve said this year’s books have “a lot of grimness” in them.
What’s so surprising, when you get the box of books, is what publishers consider prizeworthy. They confuse serious subject matter with serious writing. It’s much harder to be funny than to be serious. Writers who can write with light and shade are rare – they’re the ones who should be winning the prizes.
So you won’t be voting for anything grim?
I’m not going to choose a book just because its subject matter is right-on. The writing has to be good enough. The Lovely Bones has a lot to answer for. A lot.
Do funny women get particularly overlooked?
Definitely. If you’re a woman and you write charming, comedic books – or even wry, tragicomic books – set in the domestic arena, they instantly put you in a pink cover. You will probably sell loads of books, but nobody will ever take you seriously. My feeling is, who cares, if people are reading you and enjoying you? But if you want prizes it’s not the way forward.
Grimness apart, what other trends struck you?
One thing was that a lot of the women protagonists were spectacularly passive. I read book after book where women just sort of . . . suffered. All these women in all these books, lying back and thinking of England, or Suriname, or wherever. A lot of female writers seem to put their efforts into writing male characters. I think it goes back to wanting to be taken seriously.
Has the Orange Prize achieved what it set out to do – to draw attention to women’s writing?
All prizes are a good thing: they throw up books that might have escaped the narrow marketing agendas. What’s interesting about the Orange is that women read more novels, generally. So a recommendation from a woman is more interesting to me than what a man might tell me to read.
Is a women-only prize odd?
Is it a bad thing to have a Booker Prize, where you don’t include American writers? No prize is perfect. It’s just a snapshot of what six people in a room thought was interesting.
You’re working on your own book right now.
Ha! My book is an entertainment. It’s called My Last Duchess – about an American girl who comes to England at the end of the 19th century. She’s rich and naive and finds herself in a world that she doesn’t understand. Henry James territory – although, obviously, not done nearly as well as Henry James.
You’ve edited several poetry anthologies. Can you see yourself doing that again?
Well, one of the things about reading all these novels is that it has made me appreciate poetry so much. What you get in a poem is resolution, which so many contemporary novels lack.
Is there a plan?
I’m not one of life’s planners. But I’m very bad at saying no – I always say yes if people ask me to do things. So maybe that’s a plan.
What will you end up doing this evening – watching the telly or curling up with a book?
OK, I’ll tell you how my evening’s going to go. I am revising the end of my novel, then at some point I will probably stop and watch Glee, and then I’ll go to bed and reread an Orange book, because we’ve got the shortlist meeting on Thursday. But I’ll be tempted by Ian McEwan’s Solar, which is on my bedside table.
Do you vote?
Michael Gove thinks schoolchildren should be learning poetry by rote. Are you with him?
Learning poetry by heart is like seeing it in 3D. If you do it when you’re a child you never forget it. And kids who aren’t great readers can learn verse perfectly. So I think it’s a fantastic thing to do. It would almost make me vote Tory.
What would you like to forget?
I would like to be grown up enough to forget my birthday. But I’ve never been able to wake up, nonchalantly, and not instantly look around for a present.
Are we all doomed?
My 19-year-old daughter is convinced that we are. But I’m happier and people seem nicer than when I was her age.
1961 Born in London
1983 Graduates from Cambridge, then attends Columbia Film School, New York
1985 Joins the BBC as an arts producer
1997 Edits The Nation’s Favourite Love Poems, first of several poetry anthologies
2005 Founds an independent television production company, Silver River
2007 Publishes a memoir, The Silver River
2009 Appointed chair of the Orange Prize judging panel for the 2010 award