Shayne Carter wins major book award, buys cauliflower

Shayne Carter won the prize for best book of non-fiction at last night's Ockham New Zealand book awards. When he wrote this story on Sunday, he was only aware that he'd won best first book of non-fiction.

It's a bit anti-climactic winning an award in the middle of a plague, like being given a lolly before you get run over. When the Ockham award people told me last week about the best first book prize I was buying vegetables online while nursing a stye in my eye obviously caused by stress. Yippee I said to absolutely no one, before marvelling at the price of a cauliflower.

Bored by that, I returned to staring out my window at Brighton beach and the small human clusters (sic) scuttling over the sand and rocks, like insects waiting to be squashed by a giant jackboot, and for the first time in seven weeks, I felt just - sad; about our prospects, our fragility, and how little people looked beside the water.

Of course I’d rather have been preparing to fly to Auckland to reunite with my new literary buddies, carefully folding my blue blazer into a case, and rehearsing a victory speech which would consist of two minutes of slagging off the New Zealand Herald, telling so-and-so to take a jump and how thingamajig could stick it up their arse. Then I’d grab my orange juice and have a chat with Fergus Barrowman. There would probably be an opportunity to discuss a hurtful point on Goodreads.

But no, I’ve been denied all that, so I made plans to hang with my sister and nephews in Port Chalmers on awards night,  to watch myself and the other finalists on a computer. Tash said she'd make some lasagne.

Awards have always seemed a bit frivolous to me, unless I’m the one who’s won. “Art isn’t a competition,” I’ll sniff, before dipping into the analogy I always dip into about how I like blue and you like yellow and, you know, neither of us of is wrong. I have accepted some medallions and metallic Tuis in the past. A Top Vocalist award made of perspex and wood came broken in the post. My much cherished Male Fox award from 2005 lies, symbolically, in three different pieces in a suitcase under my bed. I once got a certificate for best junior handler at a dog show but I don’t know what I did with that.

Anyone who completes a book or an album probably deserves a medal. The conditions of lockdown: Isolation, destitution, dodgy mental health and a scary empty future - that’s often the artist’s lot. A few of the dead people I have known in my book lived lives like that and didn’t make it through. A little validation, or feeling valued, only helps.

Putting out the book had its own minor stresses. In a village there’s no place to hide, especially when you’ve released a frank autobiography. Sometimes I felt like I’d walked down George Street with no pants on then bent over in the Octagon. I’d put myself in the kitchen and the kitchen was hot. I considered a shift to Australia. There were lawyer calls to the publisher, and aggrieved former partners, and a couple of friends that I haven’t heard much from since. Some cheap shots in the press made me paranoid about walking through airports for a couple of weeks.

But I’m happy with what I wrote even if I could have written it better. I see the flaws in my book the same way I hear the mistakes in my music, and I’m still mentally correcting some sentences the way I hear an old song through a wall and think of a choicer chord. At least I gave it a crack, and it wasn’t too bad for a novice. It’s nice to get some props for work you’ll never properly finish. 

Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $38) is available in all good bookstores; handily, ReadingRoom has a complete list of all good bookstores throughout New Zealand.


General Non-Fiction Award, and $10,000: Shayne Carter for Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press)

The E.H. McCormick Prize for a best first work of General Non-Fiction, and $2,500: Shayne Carter for Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press)

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, and $55,000: Becky Manawatu for Auē (Makaro Press)

The Hubert Church Prize for best first book of fiction, and $2,500: Becky Manawatu for Auē (Makaro Press)

Illustrated Non-Fiction Award, and $10,000: Stephanie Gibson, Matariki WIlliams (Tūhoe, Te Atiawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Hauiti) and Puawai Cairns (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāiterangi) for Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance (Te Papa)

The Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry, and $10,000: Helen Rickerby for How to Live (Auckland University Press)

The Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of Poetry, and $2,500: Jane Arthur for Craven (Victoria University Press)

The Judith Binney Prize for best first work of Illustrated Non-Fiction, and $2,500: Tim Denee and Chris McDowall for We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa (Massey University Press)


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