The anonymous benefactor behind the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards' annual fiction prize is ready to be known
Five years ago, retired radiologist Dr Jann Medlicott got angry about the cost to our writers – and books scene – of dwindling corporate sponsorship and general malaise about local fiction.
She started to chew over sponsoring an award. Fearing it might sound a little far-fetched, she kept it to herself but the niggling voice in the back of her mind got too loud to ignore so she discussed it with a friend, who actively encouraged her to donate.
A world traveller, Medlicott decided she'd rather give money to a literary fund than spend it on travel. Since 2016 when the Acorn Prize for Fiction was first unveiled, Medlicott has been the quiet philanthropist behind one of the world's richest book prizes. It started at $50,000 but, being inflation-adjusted, is now worth $55,000 to a New Zealand writer and is now to be known as the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.
Until now, Medlicott, 77, has remained anonymous, avoiding some of the pressures that come from being known as a major philanthropic donor – not to mention people talking to her differently about books.
But late last year, she was diagnosed with pelvic cancer and has now completed radiation therapy for the unexpected recurrence of a tumour that first showed itself and was surgically treated 14 years ago.
"Trust me to be the .0001 where it reoccurs …"
Other than saying the cancer was a wake-up call, Medlicott does not want to talk about her diagnosis or prognosis: "I am a very private person and this is not easy for me but I now want to make myself known to encourage others to step up and donate in any way possible."
Quietly but determinedly, getting on with things seems to be a hallmark of Medlicott's rich and varied life. The middle child of five children, she recalls a day at primary school in the late 1940s when her headmaster asked what she wanted to do when she grew up.
"And when I said I wanted to be a doctor, he laughed! I started to lose a lot of respect for him," she recalls, adding that at home, in the small Taranaki farming community of Kohi, she was encouraged to pursue whatever interested her.
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And that was books and words. She loved the Oxford Dictionary and would try out new words at the dinner table – "I soon learned what was inappropriate" – and by intermediate school, Medlicott had devoured most of her mother's 19th century novels and was moving on to Katherine Mansfield – The Doll's House was a favourite – and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.
"The beauty of the prose became just an important as the narrative."
She went to the University of Otago to do medical training and carried on voraciously reading between shifts as a barmaid and nurse aide at Porirua Psychiatric Hospital. Along the way, she read Janet Frame and Sylvia Ashton-Warner and, when she moved to England for further radiology training, had a1000-strong book collection that included first editions of Frame's books.
Clearly, what Medlicott relishes discussing are New Zealand books and writers and the importance of ensuring we have a well-supported literary scene.
"Our novelists have a deep understanding of the human condition and can convey it in all its messiness. We need them. Everything I've read in my life has made me who I am. I believe we are products of what we read, not what we eat."
And, as someone who favours an "evidence-based approach", the former globe trotter unequivocally believes from experience that our writers foot it with the world's most acclaimed – but they need more support and that doesn't necessarily mean handouts from the Government.
"We have to value them and they have to know that we do value them. That's what I hope coming forward does," she says. "It [sponsoring an award] is a vote of confidence in our writers because the best of them are every bit as comparable as any on international book award lists."
Already sponsoring the Bay of Plenty's annual Jann Medlicott Creative Arts Award through the Acorn Foundation, she talked to the community foundation about sponsoring the fiction prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Community foundations, like Acorn, are the fastest-growing form of philanthropy worldwide - there are now 17 throughout New Zealand – and enable people to leave a gift in their wills and/or during their lifetimes to support local causes. Donations are pooled and invested; and the investment income used to make donations to local charities or in accordance with the donors' wishes.
Medlicott is well aware not everyone can afford to do what she has, setting up an in perpetuity gift but says every little bit can count.
She ponders why an online platform, like New Zealand's Boosted or Givealittle, can't be set up specifically for literary arts and, whether the thousands who attend events such as the Auckland Writers Festival every year could make regular, small donations. She's interested in philanthropic models where some large companies match, dollar for dollar, contributions their employees make to charitable organisations.
"There are a lot of good things happening but somehow we have to get some funding behind it. I don't think necessarily we can expect that there will be handouts; we have to get a bit clever about how we do it."
And she'd also like to see us getting over the cultural cringe about reading local fiction. In the 1980s, Medlicott stopped reading - fiction, at least. For someone who had such a keen reader, it was a marked change but as a full-time radiologist in the Bay of Plenty, Medlicott had stacks of medical journals and case notes to read when she wasn't working and teaching.
Keeping up-to-date with the developments in a specialty she says now "bears no resemblance" to the one she trained for in the 1960s and 70s, occupied any time she might have put aside for a novel indulgence.
"But it was my great joy to re-discover reading when I retired [in 2011] but I was so bewildered [by what to read] that I simply didn't know where to start. I went and downloaded the Booker longlist and went and got them all," says Medlicott.
"I'm in the bookstore every week; I can't keep out of it and I'm always looking for something new. If you stay away for two weeks, then there really are new things."
Testament to this is, in her contemporary Mt Maunganui home, a room lined with books – mostly contemporary fiction but a spattering of reference and art books – and the four books on the kitchen bench, all new purchases, to keep her occupied for the next fortnight or so.
Medlicott aims to read two books a week and, with a comfortable chair and matching footstool in the reading room or a veranda with sea views, she has a choice of perfect reading nooks. She's in a good position to observe the changes in New Zealand fiction writing.
"Finally New Zealand is finding its own voice instead of echoing the sentiments of what, in my day and that of many older writers, would be known as home. It always seemed to me to be the most bizarre way of describing things … I just love these young authors who are speaking of here and now; I read their books and they couldn't be sited anywhere else in the world. They are great books, quintessentially New Zealand."
And we need to see our books, prominently displayed in book stores, too.
"You go anywhere else in the world - and it doesn't matter whether it's in Iceland or Cuba or wherever – and their books, written by their authors, are in the front of the whole shop. You have to fight to get past them. Why are we so ashamed of our own culture? I think it's to do with the fact that we are a young country and we are only just starting to develop a culture of our own."
Medlicott shakes her head, a mixture of frustration and despair, when she talks about going into the local branches of big chains and asking where the New Zealand fiction is; she's glad of the local independent bookseller, Books of Plenty.
"If I do nothing else, hopefully this a vote of confidence in the value of our writers and I would like to think that would have some impact on readers."
•The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are on Tuesday, May 12 and are part of the annual Auckland Writers Festival.