It's the kind of news we all dream of receiving, but New Zealand author and poet Ashleigh Young thought it was a hoax when told she'd receive more than $200,000 from one of the world's richest and most secretive literature prizes.

Young, 33, arrived at work last Thursday to find a "suspicious looking email" from Yale University about the Donald Windham-Sandy M Campbell Literature Prize.

Unsure if it was a scam, and she strongly suspected it was, she forwarded it to her Victoria University Press boss, Fergus Barrowman, who told her to open it.

"I nearly sent it straight to my spam folder," admits Young, who didn't know she was in the running for such a prize. "I was completely gobsmacked. It's not an amount of money or the type of thing I've ever thought I would have to think about in my life. It still seems entirely abstract."


She is the first New Zealander to receive a Windham-Campbell Literature Prize and, like previous recipients in its five-year history, knew nothing about it until the email notification arrived.

Established by US writer Donald Windham in memory of his actor-partner of 40 years, Sandy M Campbell, the Windham-Campbell Prizes are given to English language writers of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama anywhere in the world.

Previous winners include the UK's Tom McCarthy, Australia's Helen Garner and artist-turned-author Edmund de Waal. Potential recipients are nominated confidentially and those nominations are then considered and judged anonymously by a nine-member jury.

Administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the prize aims "to call attention to literary achievement and provide writers the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns".

Up to nine prizes are awarded annually with winners receiving a citation and an unrestricted remuneration of $US165,000 ($230,000).

Young was only permitted to tell a handful of people, including her workmates, who heard the cheers from her office, and immediate family.

"I've been cycling round all week chuckling to myself."

Aware it could also change her working life, Young says she loves her jobs and has no intention of quitting to write full-time. The author of a 2012 critically acclaimed book of poetry, Magnificent Moon, in 2012 and last year's essay collection Can You Tolerate This?, she works as a creative writing tutor at Victoria University and editor at Victoria University Press.


She is working on a new poetry collection and thinking about writing further essays after the positive response to Can You Tolerate This? The essays told the story of a girl growing up in small-town New Zealand (Young was born and raised in Te Kuiti) who's making her way as an adult in the wider world.

An extract was published in the Herald's Canvas magazine late last year. Canvas editor Michelle Hurley says Young is at the forefront of New Zealand's younger writers and her collection of non-fiction essays, including Breathe which the magazine published last year, shows a writer of unusual promise and one whose personal reflections reflect universal concerns.

Young is scheduled to appear at the Auckland Writers Festival in May and, in September, will travel to Yale University in Connecticut where the award will be conferred. Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard will give the keynote address on "Why I write".

So why does Young write?

"I write because I feel as though I can better understand the world and myself through the process of doing it. Usually, my writing begins from a place of confusion, rather than conviction, and I figure out how I feel or what I think through the writing itself.

"So, in a stilted sort of way, writing enacts thinking. Maybe more importantly, I write because I want very much to connect with people. I sometimes struggle a bit to do that in person and writing is a momentary refuge from that struggle."

The full list of this year's Windham-Campbell Prize recipients is: fiction, André Alexis and Erna Brodber; non-fiction, Maya Jasanoff and Ashleigh Young; poetry, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Carolyn Forche; drama, Marina Carr and Ike Holter.