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Elizabeth Knox and Vincent O'Malley. Photos/Ebony Lamb, left; Hagen Hopkins/Listener, right

What the Ockham NZ Book Awards ballyhoo is all about

High profile books by Vincent O’Malley and Elizabeth Knox are knocked out of the Ockham book awards as expatriate Americans make the cut.

The 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist has many surprises, especially to the fans of Elizabeth Knox’s best-selling fantasy The Absolute Book and admirers of Vincent O’Malley’s landmark history The New Zealand Wars/Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa. Neither work made the cut to the final four from the 10-title longlist in their respective categories in this year’s awards.

“Lots of people have favourites that didn’t make it on,” says Paula Morris of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, the organisation behind what is the country’s biggest literary prize. “That’s the way it goes, year on year, depending on who the judges are.”

The Knox book has now sold some 6000 copies locally with another reprint on the way. It’s heading towards publication in multiple overseas territories and negotiations for screen rights. Meanwhile, O’Malley’s acclaimed work is making its way into classrooms and its writer is philosophical about the snub.

“It can be hard work being a writer in this country at times, so these moments in the limelight are great,” O’Malley told the Listener. “My book has been phenomenally successful in so many ways, and I would like to think its publication was part of the wider movement to get New Zealand history taught in all schools by 2022. So I will take that over an award any day of the week.”

Fergus Barrowman, who, as the head of Victoria University Press (VUP) is Knox’s New Zealand publisher, as well as her husband, said he was surprised and disappointed by the title’s absence as a finalist. He rejected the notion that awards can be the luck of the draw.

“People say that as a way of making you feel better. In my observation of the awards, it’s always a genuine effort by the judges to recognise the best, and mostly I think they do a pretty good job according to their personal tastes and views. And sometimes I think they’ve got it very wrong.”

VUP’s works feature elsewhere in the top fiction prize with Carl Shuker’s medical-themed novel A Mistake among those shortlisted for the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

“There is some sort of small relief that, as the publisher, you can unambiguously back the last child you have in the race,” says Barrowman of the recognition for Shuker.

Among the four novels shortlisted is Halibut on the Moon, by David Vann, which is the Alaskan-born writer’s 10th book and is a fictionalised account of his father’s suicide, which he previously wrote about in his acclaimed 2008 fiction work Legend of a Suicide. Vann is a New Zealand resident and has lived at Taupō Bay in the Far North for 15 years, interspersed with teaching in the UK. Halibut was published on both sides of the Tasman by Australia’s Text Publishing.

Another US-born writer with NZ residency, Steven Toussaint, who is married to Eleanor Catton, features in the poetry shortlist for his VUP-published collection Lay Studies.

David Vann. Photo/Getty Images
The book-award trust’s website states, “Our stories, written for us by our writers”. Morris says just as New Zealanders living overseas are allowed to enter, foreign writers with NZ residency are eligible.

Past expatriate winners have included Australia-based Stephen Daisley for Coming Rain (2016) and Scotland-based Kirsty Gunn for The Big Music (in the previous New Zealand Post Book Awards, 2013).

“This is, I suppose, stretching our understanding of what New Zealand literature is and it’s about the writers, really, not the subject matter or the settings.

“I’m sure if Hilary Mantel moved to New Zealand, became a permanent resident and decided to live here, we wouldn’t mind selling her around the world as a New Zealand writer.”

The shortlists, she says, in the four categories are up to judges, “who are individuals, with their own tastes and prejudices … and they are thinking about excellence. But what one person thinks is excellent will differ quite widely from another person.”

The judges for the fiction category are former Listener Books & Culture editor Mark Broatch, short story and non-fiction writer Nic Low and independent bookseller Chris Baskett.

Says Broatch of the shortlist: “Forced to winnow a great longlist to four, the judges found that these books stood above the others – for their storytelling brio, their exploration of salient ideas and their dedication to language as a salve and seasoning for the mind, the marrow, the spirit.”

As well as the Shuker and the Vann novels, the fiction shortlist includes Auē, the acclaimed debut novel set in a world of gangs and domestic violence by West Coaster Becky Manawatu, and Pearly Gates, the tale of a small-town South Island mayor by veteran Owen Marshall.

Elsewhere, the general non-fiction award pits memoirs by musician Shayne Carter (Dead People I Have Known) and Sarah Myles (Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus) against Paula Green’s epic history of New Zealand women’s poetry, Wild Honey, and Sarah Gaitanos’ scholarly study of the life of a lawyer and social justice advocate, Shirley Smith: An Examined Life.

Setting autobiographical works against historic ones has already generated calls for a separate category for creative non-fiction. But since recent category winners have been creative memoirs, Morris says the debate should perhaps be whether works of history deserve separate consideration.

“I would think the historians should be clamouring for their own category.”

Morris says she was surprised by the absence of O’Malley’s The New Zealand Wars in the shortlist. “With the New Zealand Wars going to be taught in schools, this book is going to be a very important textbook and sourcebook. But not everything can get the awards it deserves.”

The 2020 shortlist

Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press)

Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House)

A Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press)

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Text Publishing)

Mary and Peter Biggs Awards for Poetry

Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press)

How to Live by Helen Rickerby (Auckland University Press)

Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press)

How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press)

Illustrated Non-Fiction Award

Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, Damian Skinner (Te Papa Press)

Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance edited by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns (Te Papa Press)

We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee (Massey University Press)

McCahon Country by Justin Paton (Penguin Random House)

General Non-Fiction Award

Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press)

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press)

Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press)

Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin)

The awards are announced on May 12 during the 2020 Auckland Writers Festival.

This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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