Author and Canvas book reviewer David Hill on pride, wrath and envy
When you google "David Hill", one of the suggested searches that comes up is, "How many awards has David Hill won?"
Yeah, and how many awards has David Hill felt very bad for not making the short list for? That's the other side of it. Every time a book or an article goes out, you are on tenterhooks to see if it will be accepted and if it is published you are proud. If it is a finalist for a journalism award or a book award, you feel even prouder. The downside of that, of course, is that illogically you feel a failure if you don't make the list. Pride for me is one of the most precarious of the sins. It doesn't go so much before a fall; it goes before an abject collapse in many cases.
But you have been so successful. Do you not get to a point where you think, "It doesn't matter if I win any more awards?"
Maurice Gee says you sit down for a couple of hours and write and make something that never existed in the world before and it's yours and that feels great. As for the second part of it, I am always willing to win more prizes and more prize money, I really am! I had a novel come out two years ago and the publishers were excited by it and I was pleased with it and I was even deep inside my head preparing the final sentences of my prize winner's speech. But it never made any shortlists at all, which served me absolutely right.
Which of your books are you most proud of?
See ya, Simon, the first one I ever wrote for teenagers remains special, partly because it has remained in print for 30 years, which slightly amazes me but also because my dear daughter is in it. It is the story of one of her friends, who died in Year 10. And also because it contained the most glorious mistranslation I have ever had in a book. There is a scene where the 14-year-old male protagonist goes on holiday with his father and buys presents for his mum and irritating little sister while he's away. For his sister he buys a rubber in the shape of a dog. I wouldn't use the word "rubber" now because I am aware of its connotations but I used it then and it was perfectly innocent. It was translated into Dutch and I was thumbing through the pages and the only words I recognised were the character's names. Then suddenly out leaped the word "condom". So people in the Netherlands think that 14-year-old New Zealanders buy their little sisters condoms shaped like dogs.
You taught high school for a long time. Did that ever make you wrathful?
There were times, especially in my first couple of years, when I was struggling to learn how to control classes and I would get angry at the kids but I realised it wasn't appropriate and didn't have long-term results. What I was thinking of when I chose "wrath" was grumpy old men, who are a subspecies. Why is it men? One theory I've got is that many men at this stage are lacking significance and definition. They are retired, their health is dwindling. By contrast, many women always have a role of significance in the household, more than men do.
You're not a grumpy old man, though.
I am much closer to 80 than I am to 70 and I am struck by the envy that a lot of older people feel and even express towards young people. I think resentful old men are an unhappy feature of our society. In New Plymouth, we have a library-museum complex called Puke Ariki and a lot of kids, aged between 13 and 19, congregate outside. They talk loudly, they play their music, they yell to each other, they smoke occasionally and I have noticed the facial expressions of people my age going into the library are resentful and suspicious. I try to grin at them or make eye contact, which makes them extremely nonplussed. "Who is this weird old fart smirking at me as he goes past?"
You have a crack quiz team, with a foreign currency specialist, an astronomer, a classics nerd - do you always win?
Well, we have until recently and dammit, there are now teams of young people appearing at the pub quiz. Can you hear the envy in my voice? They know far too much. So we are not having a very good spell at the moment and we are handling it very maturely, by kicking the furniture on our way out of the pub.
David Hill is the 2019-2020 President of Honour for the New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa and [Ed's note] the antithesis of a grumpy old man.