This week, at the Ockham New Zealand Books Awards, in their 51st year and part of the Auckland Writers Festival, Dame Fiona Kidman received the $53,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for her novel This Mortal Boy.
Dame Fiona Kidman's This Mortal Boy recreates the events leading to the hanging of Albert "Paddy" Black in 1955. Black, a 20-year-old labourer from Northern Ireland, was found guilty of murder after the stabbing of 19-year-old English seaman Alan Jacques at a Queen St milk bar.
Black was the second to last person in New Zealand sentenced to death by hanging. The punishment was carried out on December 5, 1955 at Mount Eden Prison.
Kidman became interested in Black's life and death after happening across a newspaper clipping. It occurred to her that Black had been just five years older than she was in 1955.
The 79-year-old says she knew she was hooked; she knew she would write a novel. The Ockham fiction judges described This Mortal Boy as moving, memorable, authentic and "urgently relevant to our times".
She spoke to Weekend about her win.
The judges said This Mortal Boy was "urgently relevant" but the story is about something that happened in 1955. Why do you think they felt it was "urgently relevant" and do you feel the same way?
Until the judges said it, I hadn't thought about it like that but I understand what they're saying. Young people are vulnerable; some of the most splendid young people can think they are invincible and make one terrible mistake.
That's what happened, I believe, to Albert Black. Although he was running with a bit of a wild crowd for a bit, he was, to all intents and purposes, a decent, articulate and literate young man with a very kind heart but he made a dreadful mistake, because he was frightened - and he paid with his life.
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In that sense, I guess it is relevant today because there are still kids who think they are invincible and make terrible mistakes. You know, the kid who gets into a car when they're drunk or gets into fight or loses their temper and everything changes in a second. It has a ripple throughout society with the victims' families and their own families.
If you could meet Albert, what would you like to talk to him about?
I would like to talk to him about the possibility of having a future after he had paid a price because I don't believe that what he did should have gone without notice. Manslaughter, if that's what it was and I believe it was, is still a crime. I would like to talk with him about the future and tell him that he had done good things in his life; that he was loved by his family and to try to make a fresh start.
As I said before, young people – both boys and girls – are still making mistakes and I think there needs to a humane approach; supporting them in the idea of a positive future is more helpful than long incarceration.
In your acceptance speech, you said the book is dedicated to two people. The first is your late husband, Ian, and the second is Albert's daughter, who was born three months after his death and is known only as E.H. How did you find her?
She had made herself known to Peter Larsen, who wrote a play about Albert Black [Albert Black Jukebox Killer, staged at the Basement Theatre in 2014]. She and some family members, who been interested and gone along to see it, made themselves known. So, it came about through a series of connections and as you start to unpick something … I was once a journalist, so I know how to ask questions and track people down a bit.
I told her that I wanted nothing from her but I did have quite a lot of information about her birth father because I had been to Belfast to research his back story and if it would be useful to her, I would like her to have it. Through that, we set up a mutual trust in each other.
What was her verdict on the book?
She's a very lovely and modest person. My impression is that she feels positive about it but – and I am not going to tell you who she is – you only have my impression of her. I would like her to be able to tell you herself.
When you received the award, you seemed genuinely shocked and surprised.
I really was! I just sat there and said, "O my God, this isn't true." I am an older writer, with quite a long career behind me and it's very special to be acknowledged by my peers. I had such tremendous respect for the works of the other writers on the short list – Kate Dunigan, Lloyd Jones and Vincent O'Sullivan - and there were some wonderful people on the long list who didn't make it. I am an immense fan of Tina Makereti's book [The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke] and I was very surprised it wasn't on the short list because it seemed to me that it's a real winner.
What are you going to do with the $53,000?
Well, I may have had a long and quite successful career in many respects but being a novelist in New Zealand is not hugely financially rewarding, although I do have international sales now. It is like having a little bit of superannuation, so I am going to look after it carefully and have maybe one or two treats. I live in an old Wellington house that soaks up extras so it's like a little pension, really, and makes for a safer retirement.