This year's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are breaking records in many ways: more entries than ever before, more surprises on — and off — the longlists, and a record 13 debut writers singled out across four categories.
In fact, half of the fiction longlist are debut authors, jostling their more established peers, including two past winners, for the prestigious $57,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction. Amy McDaid, author of dark comedy Fake Baby, was camping at Cooks Beach on the Coromandel with her 5-year-old daughter when she got the good-news email.
Book awards, McDaid says, "are not only an important source of acknowledgement for our writers, they are an important platform to introduce the public to new works and new writers".
The debut fiction on this year's longlist takes us to Northland and the Desert Road, to Leeds in the 1970s and a WiNZ office, to cemeteries, cafes and cliff edges. Joining McDaid are Rachel Kerr's Victory Park – the first novel published by Mākaro since last year's big winner, Auē, by Becky Manawatu – as well as Chloe Lane's The Swimmers, Toto Among the Murderers, by Sally J. Morgan, and 2000ft Above Worry Level, by Eamonn Marra.
"It's a vibrant, intelligent longlist covering diverse topics that directly engage with our times," says McDaid. "And it's great to see so many debuts — writers at the beginning of their careers, who are bound to be producing some of our best fiction in the decades to come."
Contenders for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry include young debut poets Natalie Morrison and Jackson Nieuwland alongside big names like Bill Manhire, Tusiata Avia and Karlo Mila. Morrison's first collection, Pins, creates a fragmented family narrative through a letter to a missing sister, while Nieuwland's witty and sharp I am a human being, explores hidden truths and multiple selves.
Mohamed Hassan isn't an official debut (there's a self-published chapbook in his past), but National Anthem is his first published collection – personal, political and moving. "Being longlisted for a national book award is one of those honours you don't imagine would ever happen to you as an immigrant," he says.
"It is still all a bit surreal, but has reinforced my commitment to my story and my voice, to the responsibility I often feel as a writer to tell the perspective I hold for myself and others who've travelled the roads I have."
For the Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction, three of the 10 longlisted books are debuts. Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine is Monique Fiso's landmark collection of recipes, history and Māori food knowledge. Dave Shaw's Off the Beaten Track: Hunting Tales from the New Zealand Back Country is a collection of wilderness adventures from TV's The Red Stag Timber Hunters Club.
Sara McIntyre — daughter of artist Peter — is longlisted for her first book, Observations of a Rural Nurse. Like her father, she's embedded in the King Country, and her photography of the people and places on her round build a unique and often surprising portrait. The day after the longlist was announced, McIntyre's publisher ordered a reprint of her book.
McDaid describes longlisting as validation. "When you're writing, you're alone with yourself and the words for long stretches of time, possibly over several years, without ever being 100 per cent certain your travails will make it to a publisher, let alone be in the running for an award."
McIntyre agrees. "To have such recognition amongst such good books has got me enthused. That 'I can do it' feeling".
The general nonfiction category is always diverse and competitive, with entries including history, memoir, nature and science writing, economics and religion. It "seems like an impossible, almost unwise, effort to pitch them against one another," says Madison Hamill, author of the buoyant, deadpan essay collection Specimen, one of the two debuts on the longlist.
So small is our literary world that Hamill worked as proof-reader on the other debut in this category, Catharina van Bohemen's lyrical Towards Compostela: Walking the Camino de Santiago.
Hamill, like many other writers, sees a prize in concrete terms — less about glory, and more about selling books and sustaining her own career. (She "was on a break at my current day job in an orchard" when she got the news.) Most "writers aren't valued economically in this country," says Hamill. "All we have is cultural capital, so we really depend on awards like these."
Recognition from the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards "means my book reaches more people, especially if it gets on the shortlist. It would be really good if that does happen because I don't think the book has done as well in sales as it has in reviews. If I win, of course, 10 grand is a big deal for me. It could allow me to focus purely on writing for half a year, which would mean I could actually write my next book."
She's not the only one dreaming of prize money. "Most, if not all, of the writers on the list have probably made a financial sacrifice to be able to write," says McDaid. "It's a very hard profession to make a living. That money is going to make a massive difference to someone."
Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai) is a fiction writer and essayist, and the founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature.