Making the short list for the country's best books – at least, as judged by those deciding on the Ockham New Zealand Book Award winners – is a spur to keep on writing, say those in the running for top prizes at tonight's ceremony.

The awards presentation, which usually heralds the start of the Auckland Writers Festival, is online this year as Covid-19 and restrictions on public gatherings means it cannot take place live.

Chris McDowall, nominated with Tim Denee for the Illustrated Non-Fiction award for We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa New Zealand, says it was often the "classic labour of love" putting their book together. Many hours were spent after work and on weekends pulling together the maps and graphics that offer fresh insights into Aotearoa.

Chris McDowall. Photo / Supplied
Chris McDowall. Photo / Supplied

Despite that, McDowall says he'd like to continue the project in some way especially given the far-reaching social, cultural, political and economic changes Covid-19 coronavirus is likely to have.

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"I would love to be able to continue and to keep it going in some way because the world and the country that we were living in last year is very different from the one we find ourselves in approaching the middle of 2020."

He says he and Denee had the privilege of being able to reflect on the data they used as a basis for their story-telling but the figures around Covid-19 are coming thick and fast which means there is little time at present to consider what it all means for the country.

Tim Denee. Photo / Supplied
Tim Denee. Photo / Supplied

"…this book [We Are Here], is – for better or worse – a pre-Covid snapshot from a group of people about Aotearoa and I would love to be able to have another go at that after. I don't know whether there is an after; it is whatever we become, whatever we transition into."

However, McDowell says data can only provide a small snapshot and it is vital to have people who can interpret it and tell the deeper stories of what it all means.

"It's not the story in itself; data is important, it's really important… it's playing a crucial role but it seems to have been put on this kind of, like a pedestal, as this radical, amazing thing - and it is important - but the things that are really important are child poverty or the way that the government is approaching its budget or the history of song and music in the country. I worry we sometimes lose sight of that for this fascination with data. The data is just a way into it that."

West Coast writer Becky Manawatu is considering ideas for a second novel. Her first book, Auē, has been on the best seller lists for months and is in contention for the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for fiction along with Owen Marshall's Pearly Gates, Carl Shuker's A Mistake and David Vann's Halibut on the Moon.

Auē is dedicated to her cousin Glen Bo Duggan who was beaten to death when he was 10 years old. It tells the story of Ārama, an 8 year old whose parents have died while his elder brother, Taukiri, has abandoned him, so he lives with his aunty and her abusive partner on their farm.

Manawatu says writing a second book means having the courage to start something with all the knowledge she gained the first time round – and from having it published and hearing public feedback about it.

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Becky Manawatu.
Becky Manawatu.

"I was just writing, I was caught up in the story so I didn't think perhaps as much as I might have which is why I talk about having the courage to start again," she says. "I had no idea of how I might feel when it was finished or how it might be received."

Meanwhile, Shayne Carter whose memoir Dead People I Have Known is a finalist for the General Non-fiction award, says he would like to do more writing. In an RNZ interview with Kim Hill last year, Carter said he realized he needed to write pretty much the way he talked – "kind of terse with some swearing".

"Some of it was really hard to write, some of it was really painful to write. Some of it was also incredibly funny to write, as well. I guess if you're trawling through a life you're going to find all those things in there," he told Hill. "Things that seem really serious and matters of life and death at the time, when you look back at them they're just kind of absurd and really funny."

Shayne Carter's book Dead People I Have Known is in the general non fiction category of the Ockham NZ Book Awards.
Shayne Carter's book Dead People I Have Known is in the general non fiction category of the Ockham NZ Book Awards.