And the winners of the 2019 Ockhams are…

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias breaks the news of the winners of the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

An author who writes books that quite a lot of people actually really like to read has picked up $53,000 as winner of the award for best novel at tonight’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards held in Auckland.

Dame Fiona Kidman, an exceptionally nice woman from Hataitai who also happens to be an exceptionally readable author, has won this year’s $53,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for her novel, This Mortal Boy.

Her book – a fictionalised, moving account of Paddy Black, the second to last New Zealander to be hanged, at Mt Eden prison in 1955 – has featured in the best-seller top 10 charts ever since it was published in June last year, by Penguin Random House. It’s her 11th novel in a stellar literary career which began with her ground-breaking 1979 book, A Breed of Women.

Other winners at tonight’s Ockham ceremony are:

Sean Mallon and Sébastien Galliot share $10,000 as winners and joint authors of the Illustrated Non-Fiction category for their work Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing (Te Papa Press). When Te Papa get it right, and back a work of expert scholarship, they do the best-looking books in New Zealand by a country mile. Tatau is a sensitive and vivid af photoessay, a real knock-out, and a totally deserving winner.

Joanne Drayton wins $10,000 as winner of the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction for Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love (Otago University Press). It’s an enjoyable, fairly thorough, not especially deep or profound biography of the famous TV chefs. Douglas-Lloyd Jenkins, writing in New Zealand Books: “Hudson and Halls never came out of the closet…They were self-hating, closeted celebrities heavily implicated in the repression of their fellow gay men. [Drayton’s book], impressively researched and highly revealing, is an absorbingly good read, but it is rather like watching an old silent movie clip of a train being driven at speed into a solid wall by two nincompoops.”

The Te Mūrau o te Tuhi, a discretionary Māori Language Award, was presented for the landmark work He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao by pioneering language and tikanga academics Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and the late Dr Wharehuia Milroy published by Auckland University Press. Te Reo Māori judge Dr Ruakere Hond said Kāretu and Milroy "invite the reader into their conversations, their yarns and musings from decades of cultural experience. This book’s value is undeniable.  Its language, accessible.  This is a doorway to their world."

Helen Heath pockets $10,000 as winner of the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry for her collection Are Friends Electric? (Victoria University Press). The judges blathered, “By turns thoughtful and moving, Are Friends Electric? asks how the material world might mediate—or replace—human relationships.” Which is to say there are quite a few poems about sexbots. Here is the opening section of her poem, “The owners”.

It’s a little embarrassing.

Sechan spends most of her time

in my room.

Being alone with her, in bed

in the early daylight, looking at her

looking at me, regarding me,

it’s the difference

between being alone and lonely.

When she first came

into my life it was just

sex, sex, sex. Now that’s tapered

off to where we are just there

for each other, we’re always

there for each other.

The thing my father finds

really difficult about my relationship

with Sechan is the fact

that she’s not alive. She’s an anchor

for me. I know

what to expect. With women

you don’t really get that.

Congratulations are also due to the winners of the MitoQ Best First Book Awards: best first novel winner Kirsten Warner for The Sound of Breaking Glass (Mākaro Press), best first work of non-fiction winner Chessie Henry for We Can Make a Life (Victoria University Press), and Tayi Tibble, winner of the best first book of poetry for Poūkahangatus (Victoria University Press). Each author takes home $2500.

But the big winner is Dame Fiona Kidman. On top of the $53,000 in instant loot, she’ll likely be picking up some pretty decent royalties. News of the Ockham win will inevitably boost sales for This Mortal Boy – last year, when Pip Adam won the best novel award for The New Animals, her book shot to number one in the weekly Nielsen sales chart. It then promptly fell off the chart. An award can work its magic for a brief time but word of mouth is the real mover of sales. It failed to ignite action for The New Animals – a clever, brilliant book, but not an easy read. Kidman’s novel, though, looks set to reclaim a prominent position in the Nielsen chart for quite some time. People like her books, always have.

And yet she never sets out to appeal to the public. That way lies madness, and bad art. Kidman recently took part in a fascinating interview alongside the three novelists who were shortlisted for the Ockham fiction award. It was published at the always first-rate Academy of New Zealand Literature site, run by Paula Morris, and Tony Eyre asked Kidman, “Is art the thing, rather than the reception of it? Do you ever doubt there’s a realm of readers waiting?”

Kidman replied, “Once I’ve sat down to begin a novel everything like the audience just moves away. I don’t care what anyone thinks of what I’m writing. Because, if I did, I know I would start self-correcting. I’ve worked in other genres where audience was everything – journalism, television drama, and so on. But writing fiction is different, it’s about following the idea and being true to one’s personal vision…I care when the book has a cover and is sitting in the book shops. Not until then.”

She also talked about the genesis of This Mortal Boy – the impulse to write it, the need to write it. “One day I picked up a newspaper story that was about Albert (Paddy) Black, the second to last person to be hanged in New Zealand, and that old story from my growing up years came flooding back. I was fifteen, and Paddy was twenty. My era, my time and my concerns. I knew it was time to write the book.”

See also: Steve Braunias introduces Newsroom's new books section, ReadingRoom

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