Dark horses and wild cards
In July I attended the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, held in Auckland at the Hilton. It’s the night we in the book trade celebrate writers, poets, books, reviewers, first books, sponsors, even publishers. There isn’t a sensible shoe in sight, although I did spot a few tweedy jackets. It’s almost a glamorous event.
Kim Hill as mc added an edge to proceedings. The Prime Minister graciously showed up. The eloquent Peter Biggs, chair of Creative New Zealand, spoke passionately about writing and read from Margaret Atwood, and Brian Johnston, the new Montana CEO, was funny and charming. Most people behaved themselves.
If you are in the know, there is plenty of onstage and offstage drama. TV cameras hover leading us to believe, well, it’s got to be that book. But then it isn’t. Writers mount the stage, shake hands, stand to the side, wait for the “and the winner is …” and either accept their award (and cheque) graciously – or in shock – while the others slink back to their tables trying hard to be brave.
We learn that the late Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand is the People’s Choice. An astonishing 100,000 copies sold thus far: a new benchmark for a serious publication. It’s heartening to know that it can be done. Michael is also named Reviewer of the Year and his son Jonathan and daughter Rachael appear impressively, yet again, in public and accept on his behalf.
First-time writers are applauded – we all want to read Cliff Fell’s poetry collection The Adulterer’s Bible after hearing him speak, and Kelly Ana Morey and Deidre Brown win respectively Best First Book Award for fiction and non-fiction.
The AW Reed Award for Contribution to New Zealand Literature is warmly accepted by Joy Cowley. Again we’re treated to an articulate and engaging address – and the fleeting thought – why did it take us so long to honour her?
Others cross the stage – luminaries like Anne Salmond, Vincent O’Sullivan and Maurice Gee, along with relative youngsters Peter Batson, Rachel Barrowman and Annamarie Jagose. The gorgeous young Welshman charms as does Anne Kennedy via video from Hawaii. Her husband Robert Sullivan then accepts the Reference and Anthology Award for Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English. We’re continually surprised, elated, and seduced.
The judges peer over their specs, deliver respectful opinion with license, and we’re all glad we’re not them.
Then Anne Salmond is awarded the Montana Medal for Non Fiction for her book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. It is a surprise; she is surprised. And we watch as she struggles momentarily to find grace. And she does, beautifully.
The Deutz Medal for Fiction goes to Annamarie Jagose for Slow Water. Another surprise, to some. And the handsome young woman refers to being labelled “a dark horse and a wild card”. She retaliates with “darkness and wildness have a lot to recommend them”. We sit up straight. Here’s another must-read.
It’s exciting stuff for those of us in the audience. But pretty tough on the young novelist, or the old novelist for that matter, or the middle-aged publisher, juggling a table with four shortlisters. It’s a strange affair in some ways – here is the best as the judges see fit. Yeah, OK there may be a better way to celebrate writers and books (as has been said in this publication) but this time I think we got it right. Sure a certificate went missing, and Kim made a “boggy” joke and we can all argue over who should have won this award or that. But it felt right; it was our event, these were our awards. It was theatre.
The next day the eight category winners were interviewed by Kim Hill doing what she does best in front of 150 guests. Yes, she’d read all the books, somehow managed to link all the disparate titles and authors together and was brilliant. So were her interviewees. It was broadcast on National Radio that evening. These books are now out in the world creating a life of their own.
Barbara Larson is the publisher at Longacre Press.