Frank and me: The judge of a new literary prize on Sargeson’s life-changing largesse

The generosity of the Frank Sargeson Trust was my stepping stone into literary life, writes Catherine Chidgey, the driving force – and judge – of a rich new short story prize that bears the writer’s name.

I wrote one of my earliest short stories when I held the Sargeson Fellowship in Auckland. It was 1998, and I had left my parents’ Lower Hutt house to live and work in the Sargeson Centre flat in Albert Park (this was when flats were still flats, and not yet apartments). Up there on the second floor, looking out over the oaks and sycamores and kauri and the massive Moreton Bay figs, I imagined I was living in a treehouse: my own private space away from the distractions of my real life, no trespassing allowed. The shelves were full of books that had belonged to Sargeson; silverfish were quietly eating their way through the collection, making lace of the pages. I found a nibbled notebook, too, in which former fellows had listed items they’d donated to the flat, and I realised with a deep thrill that I was using the Janet Frame Bath Towels.

I remember how warmly members of the Sargeson Trust – Kevin Ireland, Graeme Lay, Bernard Brown, Christine Cole Catley – welcomed me into their fawn-cardiganed bosom. They had all been on the receiving end of Frank’s legendary generosity, and Christine Cole Catley had formed the Trust after his death in 1982 in order to establish the fellowship with funds from his estate. They took me to lunch at the ivied Northern Club which had only just allowed women to join (the Vegetarian Option was a bread roll), and they showed me Frank’s bach on Esmonde Road, where Kevin poured me a glass of the fabled Lemora wine – nail polish remover with a dash of citrus.

At that time the fellowship was sponsored by law firm Buddle Findlay, who invited me to Friday-night drinks now and then; I’d try to explain to pissed lawyers what literary fiction meant when I wasn’t entirely sure myself. One of the partners’ wives took me clothes shopping at a glossy High Street boutique that had skinny mirrors and nothing bigger than a size 10. I still remember trying to disappear into a rack of asymmetrical knitwear while she shrilled at the salesperson that the clothes were too expensive and she required a discount.

I ended one relationship in the Sargeson flat and began another – he had his pilot’s licence, and on our second or third date we flew to Whitianga. At one point he said, ‘Take the controls,’ and then I was flying the plane, actually flying it, and the sky was clear and wide and I could see everything.

I remember, too, that I travelled down to Cambridge for my sister’s wedding. She and her husband had their first dance to ‘2 Become 1’ by the Spice Girls, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and around 1am I attempted to play a set of bagpipes belonging to a forensic pathologist. My mother and I were staying with a family friend on his nearby farm, and as he drove us up the dark unsealed road I saw a rabbit dart in front of the car. “Ohhhh, look!” I said, and Mr Bouwman grunted and swerved to hit it. “He missed, darling, he missed!” said my frantic mother, no doubt recalling the note she’d had to write to my Standard 3 teacher: Catherine will not be accompanying her class to see Watership Down as she will find it too upsetting. But I had heard the soft collision; I had felt the thud beneath the wheels.

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The thing I remember most clearly about my time in the Sargeson flat, though, is producing that early short story. It gave me my first taste of being a real writer: I knew I had to come up with 2500 acceptable words by a particular date, and that knowledge fired me. Something mysterious and magical can happen when faced with writing a story under such constraints – something I have never experienced when writing a novel. The whole outline of the thing comes at once; the rudimentary map of it; and you see it as if from high above. It’s a deliciously powerful, vertiginous feeling – closely followed by the realisation that you then need to sink back down to Earth to fill in the details: the valleys and the cliffs, the patches of thick vegetation, the clearings, the borders, the brightnesses and shadows, and the creatures moving through them. “How a story ever gets written I’m sure I don’t know,” Sargeson wrote in a letter. “It’s a sort of minor miracle.” When I look at that piece now, I don’t remember the hard graft of filling in the details – I remember hovering above it, searching in its sketchy cartography for the possibility of something luminous and complete; a three-dimensional miracle.

I have been a literary advisor to the Sargeson Trust since 2000; what is now the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship is in its 33rd year, and New Zealand writers continue to benefit from Frank’s largesse. I am also a creative writing lecturer at the University of Waikato, where every year a high-profile New Zealand writer delivers the Sargeson Memorial Lecture. When I decided to approach the university, then, to see if it would sponsor a new short story prize, it seemed natural to name it for Sargeson, who was born and raised in Hamilton, and to plan to announce the winners at the Sargeson Memorial lecture in October. I am delighted that the University of Waikato is so generously supporting New Zealand writers – and the New Zealand short story – in Frank’s name, and I invite you all to make the most of the motivation a word count and a deadline can offer. Bring on the miracles.

(Just don’t mangle any animals. I can’t be doing with mangled animals.)

For more information about the prize, for which applications open today, go here.


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