The qualities which saw writer Janet Frame labelled strange and sent to a psychiatric hospital were the same which saw her celebrated in later years, her biographer says.

Frame -- one of New Zealand's most celebrated writers and an author often touted as a possible Nobel Prize winner -- died this morning in Dunedin Hospital. She was 79.

"Because of the experience she had, particularly the 10 years in psychiatric hospitals, she identified much more closely with people on the margins of society, people who were strange or eccentric or different in some sort of way, because she had been there and had been treated that way," Michael King told National Radio today.


"She came out of a New Zealand that used to be terribly conformist and terribly mistrustful of plurality of behaviour, of people who were different. I think in the latter part of her life she had found herself celebrated in her own country for those very qualities."

Frame had been suffering from the terminal illness acute myeloid leukaemia (a cancer of the blood and bone marrow), an ailment diagnosed on August 28 -- her birthday.

"She was so well for about the last 3-1/2 months that we even began to be able to suspect (she would be able) to beat this one too, like she had beaten other diseases like cancer in the 1990s," King said.

"But it remorselessly caught up with her, particularly in the last week. Thank goodness the period in which she could have been in some distress was actually very short and we're all grateful for that."

Writer Witi Ihimaera told NZPA he felt like a grandchild who had lost his grandmother.

"She had been so much a part of all our lives. She's been an icon. She's been the person at the top of New Zealand literature ever since I was a boy."

Ihimaera said his own writing career had been inspired by Frame's first collection of short stories, The Lagoon.

"Nobody knows this, but I actually modelled Pounamu Pounamu after that collection. I tried to replicate the same honesty, the same truth, the same clarity, the same natural gift for utterance, that she did, but not with her great success."

Frame had always been at the top of the mountain and a writer other New Zealand authors aspired to, Ihimaera said. She had also been gracious to those young writers, he added.

"She wrote a wonderful, warm, lovely letter in 1974 when I had just finished my first novel... my thoughts go to her family.

"It's absolutely shattering news."

Prime Minister Helen Clark said she was saddened by Frame's death and described her as "without doubt the finest ever writer produced by New Zealand with the largest international recognition.

"Most New Zealanders know of her through her autobiography An Angel at My Table, which was an extraordinary story of triumph of the human spirit."

Miss Clark said she had been lucky enough to meet Frame several times, the last occasion being in December.

"I went to the opening of the John Money wing in Gore and she came up for the occasion."

Money, Frame's psychologist and mentor who donated his extensive art collection to the Eastland Southland Gallery, had also attended and miss Clark described the evening as a "trip down memory lane".

While she had been ill for some time, Frame's death would still come as a shock to people, the Prime Minister said.

One of her important legacies was the way she wrote of her mental hospital experiences that would stick in people's minds.

"She was a very fine writer about New Zealand people and New Zealand experiences."

National Party leader Don Brash said she was a New Zealand literary icon who helped break down the misconceptions about mental illness.

"She overcame enormous odds to become one of New Zealand's most distinguished writers -- her death will be met with great sadness," Dr Brash said.

"Her work undoubtedly helped open doors to those who were suffering from mental illness, at a time when patients were often locked away and forgotten.

"It's clear she'll leave behind a legacy that will live on in the hearts and minds of all New Zealanders."

Society Of Authors chief executive Liz Allen told NZPA Frame had been an icon of New Zealand literature.

"She was one of our founding authors in a lot of ways, in the way she brought to life the ordinary New Zealander, the people she wrote about, and also writing about her own life and exposing the things that had happened to her."

Ms Allen said the society had been proposing Frame for the Nobel Prize for years. While she was saddened Frame's passing meant she could not receive a much-deserved honour, she was pleased Frame had received the Prime Minister's Award For Literary Achievement.

"We hope there will be some fitting memorial for her, to mark her career and her contribution to New Zealand literature, which has been substantial."

Frame left New Zealand and the rest of the world a rich literary legacy, Creative New Zealand's chief executive Elizabeth Kerr said.

"Janet Frame has made an extraordinary contribution to both New Zealand and the world's literary canon," Ms Kerr said in a statement.

"Reading Janet Frame's novels and poetry is to take a journey into what it means to be human. Her death is a sad loss for writers and readers throughout the world, and for New Zealanders."