Last week, I won the 2014 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award for my story ‘Once had me’. The story was published in the Sunday Star-Times over the weekend. The SS-T Short Story Award, now in its 30th year, has been won by some of New Zealand’s best (and my favourite) writers — including Sarah Quigley, Eleanor Catton, Sarah Laing, Barbara Anderson — and is a great annual showcase for New Zealand short fiction.
The award’s open category was judged this year by Sarah Quigley, a writer I’ve long admired. It was a strange and wonderful experience at the award event on Tuesday night to listen to Sarah and (Random House publisher) Harriet Allan discussing my story, talking about details and technique and favourite passages. I could have listened to them forever.
Here’s what Sarah Quigley said about ‘Once had me’:
each time I read it I was struck again by the confidence of the narrative voice, deceptively casual and colloquial, yet displaying an unfaltering authorial control.
It’s the story of a teenager coming to terms with her father’s new life, and the tone is perfectly pitched between confidence (at times bordering on affectionate scorn for adults) and pure naivety…with a heightened reality which at times borders on almost foreboding, raising this coming-of-age story above the ordinary.
I started out writing short stories, and the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award has long been a fixed point in my writing calendar. My story ‘Lucky’ was longlisted in 2010. Over the last few years though I’ve been so focussed on my first novel — writing it, working with Georgia Richter and everyone at Fremantle Press through the editorial process, then promoting it once it was published in 2013 — that I haven’t written many new short stories. ‘Once had me’ came out of the process of writing the next novel, but didn’t quite belong in it; it seemed to stand on its own two feet as a short story.
The story will be published online soon, and I’ll link to it then (update: here it is – read ‘Once had me’ online).
Genesis of a story: ‘Once had me’
I was nearing the end of a three-week writing residency in April this year, the RAK Mason Writers Fellowship at New Zealand Pacific Studio, working on my second novel. On Easter Monday — the first sunny day after weeks of rain and drizzle — four of us (a poet, a calligrapher-writer-publisher, a visual artist, and me) packed into the car and drove out to see the historic Norwegian Church in Mauriceville. I almost didn’t go; I had so much writing I felt I needed to do — but I’d been at my desk for weeks, and I thought I should leave the house for my sanity.
When we got there, it was magical, a fairytale building on a hill, complete with fairy toadstools in the grass. But this fairytale, like all the best fairytales, had a strange, dark side: every surface in the church was, as it is in the story, covered with dead or dying cluster flies, and there were notes in a cramped, old hand, apologising for the flies, and warning of rat poison. Denise — photographer, video artist — set up her camera and mic to capture the flies on a windowsill; writers Madeleine and Mary swept up the flies; and I prowled around, taking photos and mental notes.
The next day, back in the Mason Room at NZPS, I wrote the first draft of this story in 11 pages of dense longhand as a writing exercise. I put the characters from the novel I was (am) working on into the car, and drove them out to the church, to see how they’d react. It took a lot of editing — and a few false finishes — some months later to craft a story that had a life of its own beyond the first draft of my new novel, and that became ‘Once had me’.
Thanks, congratulations, acknowledgements
The SS-T Award is sponsored by PaperPlus, Kobo, Random House (Penguin Random House NZ) and the Sunday Star-Times (Fairfax Media), and I thank them for their support of the award, and for my prize package.
Thanks to Sarah Quigley, to student fiction category judge Emily Perkins, and to Michelle Hurley, Jonathan Milne, Alecia Sanderson and all at Sunday Star-Times. Thanks for flying me up to Auckland for the award event, for the chance to meet people and celebrate the award. Thanks to MC Wallace Chapman (especially for reading 8-year-old-Wallace’s diary).
Congratulations to Alice Miller and Eileen Merriman (first and second runner-up open category), Suzanne Takiwa (winner, non-fiction category), Amelia Kendall (winner, student fiction category) and Lucy Bennett and Shoshanna Faaita (first and second runner-up student category).
Huge thanks to the NZ Pacific Studio crew (particularly Jodie Dalgleish and Mason Fellowship sponsors Christine Hunt Daniell and Derek Daniell) for the RAK Mason Fellowship during which I wrote the first draft of this story. Biggest thanks of all go to Madeleine Slavick, Mary Chan and Denise Batchelor, my partners in creativity on that car trip in April.