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Ockham national book awards: The curious case of the strangest ever winner of a book award in New Zealand

As the tension builds towards tomorrow night’s Ockham national book awards, Graeme Lay shudders to recall the time the award for best novel went to a bogan – and Steve Braunias barges his way in at the end of the story, and adds a highly unusual postscript.

Book awards are wonderful. They’re also fraught. Glittering occasions, suitably provisioned with food and drink, they are also invariably upsetting to the majority of writers, the ones who don’t win. Failure, previously considered an impossibility, becomes a bitter and very public reality. The winner include the writer, their publisher and friends; the losers include several writers, their publishers and friends. Marvellous for the few, humiliating for the many. Everyone hails the winner, but no one remembers who the runners-up were. Except the runners-up.

Just as writers make the loyalist of friends and the most implacable of foes, they are humble winners but terrible losers. Convinced that their book is unquestionably the best award contender, a writer’s shock when it is declared otherwise is something hideous to behold. I have seen losing writers cry out in horror, stalk out of the award ceremony in disgust, get shit-faced drunk, and abuse anyone who may be responsible for the misjudgement. One writer’s elation is eclipsed by several others’ despair.

None of this makes a pretty sight. No matter that their book achieved something notable just by making the final, literary justice has just been seen to miscarry, and the result is dreadful to behold.

Yet for the solitary winner – I’m referring to the most prestigious book prize, the one for fiction – the rewards are bounteous. A tidal surge in book sales, blazes of media publicity (well, there used to be), the congratulatory joy of publishers, family and friends. Everyone loves a winner.

The rewards can be long-term, too. Such is the run on sales, the winning novel is reprinted. Movie producers read it, and visualise what they think people might like to see on the screen. The film rights are negotiated, then sold. No matter that the film is never made, sale of the rights alone brings a big cheque to the author and the author’s agent.

This makes all those days and nights of solitary toil worthwhile, and any stupid reviews forgettable. Still warmed by the winner sunlight, the writer applies for a first-class seat on the gravy train – a well-endowed literary fellowship.

If the application is successful this brings with it more mana, plus what really counts, a stipend. This is a quaint, old-fashioned word for money. From the Latin; stips, meaning a contribution, and pendere, to pay out. The novelist can use the stipend to buy what writers value above all else – the time to write another book, free of financial worries and confident in the knowledge that their still-evanescent post-book-award reputation will virtually guarantee the publication of their next book.

None of this has happened to me.

I once won a minor award – Reviewer of the Year – and this came as a happy surprise, and on a few occasions I have been a book awards finalist. But never have I received a gold medal. “Your books aren’t boring enough,” one friend, an experienced literary adjudicator told me, and I think she meant it as a compliment.

But like most professional writers I follow our book awards closely, often amazed at the strange twists and turns they can take. And of our premier award’s vagaries, no result was stranger than the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Fiction.

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VAGUELY HUMILIATING PHOTO OF WRITERS FORCED TO WEAR LAME BOOK AWARDS T-SHIRTS: BACK ROW FROM LEFT, A VISITOR FROM THE HAWKES BAY, LYNLEY HOOD, PETER WELLS, ANOTHER VISITOR FROM THE HAWKES BAY, LLOYD JONES; FRONT ROW, FROM LEFT, ELIZABETH KNOX, LYNNSAY RONGOKEA, CRAIG MARRINER (NOTE “SUNNIES” ON THIGH), YET ANOTHER VISITOR FROM THE HAWKES BAY.

 

In 2002 the award went to a first-time novelist, Craig Marriner, for his book, Stonedogs. His fellow finalists were Lloyd Jones, whose novel Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance was heavily favoured to win, and Elizabeth Knox, with Billie’s Kiss.

At the age of 28, Craig was probably the youngest ever Montana fiction finalist, and before the award ceremony at the Sheraton it was thought the best he could expect was a nice certificate and a bottle of Montana’s sparkling product.

Stonedogs was undeniably a startling piece of work. Set mostly in and around Craig’s hometown, Rotorua, and in style and content obviously inspired by writers like Irvine Welsh, the plot involved an excess of drug-taking, drug-dealing and relentless sexual acts, in a style usually described with the epithet “gritty”. The novel held nothing back. Those who read it, including myself, found it interesting, certainly, and promising definitely. But the winner of our most prestigious writing prize? Few thought so, including I suspect, Craig himself.

How wrong we all were. As well as winning the Hubert Church Best First Book award, he scooped the big prize of the night – the Deutz medal, for best novel. The cheque: $15,000.

It’s worth mentioning the other winners of that Auckland evening in 2002. Lynley Hood won the Montana medal for non-fiction for her courageous book about the Peter Ellis case, A City Possessed, while Hone Tuwhare won the poetry award for Piggy-Back Moon. Other winners included the Peter Wells autobiography Long Loop Home, and Steve Braunias’s Fool’s Paradise, judged the best First Book of Non-Fiction. Maurice Shadbolt received an award for lifetime achievement. Craig was in illustrious company.

All of the aforementioned collateral honours subsequently flowed in Craig’s direction. His agent, the late, canny Michael Gifkins, negotiated the sale of the film rights to Stonedogs, to an Australian company, Mushroom Pictures. Understandably buoyed by this success, Craig had in mind a second novel. Fellowships beckoned, none more prestigious or amenable than the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Literary Fellowship.

Run by the Sargeson Trust, of which I was then secretary, and sponsored by the national law firm Buddle Findlay, the fellowship provided commodious accommodation in a studio apartment in the Sargeson Centre, in central Auckland, and a generous stipend. Previous holders of this literary fellowship had included Sarah Quigley, Shonagh Koea, Tina Shaw, Charlotte Grimshaw, Chad Taylor and Toa Fraser.

The applicants for the 2004 BFS Fellowship included Karyn Hay, who had also won the best first book award, in 2001, for her novel Emerald Budgies. With that award, plus Craig’s Montana victory still fresh in mind, the selection committee decided that the fellowship would be shared in 2004 by both writers. Each would spend five months in the Sargeson Centre, in Albert Park, each would receive $12,000. Buddle Findlay and the Sargeson trustees looked forward to meeting both fellows and hoped that their tenure of the fellowship would prove fruitful.

Buddle Findlay were the most generous of sponsors. They also knew how to throw a good party. Venues for the announcement of the recipients of the fellowship included Government House in Auckland or in Wellington, where the functions were hosted by the current Governors-General. Naturally, a high degree of decorum attached to these events, and the chosen writers always responded wonderfully. Best frocks, suits and ties, and all the rest of it.

For the 2004 ceremony Buddle Findlay decided that the event would be held at the War Memorial Centre, in Buckle Street, Wellington. Craig and Karyn would be accompanied by the then-chair of the Sargeson Trust, Christine Cole Catley (later Dame Christine), myself and other of the trustees, including Kevin Ireland, Gordon McLauchlan, treasurer Martin Bailey and Vincent O’Sullivan.

We flew to Wellington and all met up for drinks before the function at the Buddle Findlay headquarters, in central Wellington. Karyn looked smashing in a fetching frock; Craig had dressed down for the occasion. A woollen beanie covered his hair, which reached down to his shoulders. While the rest of us drank fine wine from crystal goblets, Craig swigged Steinlager straight from the bottle.

It was while watching him swigging, that small but insistent alarm bells began to ring in my subconscious. I told myself not to be so stupid. He might be dressed like a Rotorua pig hunter, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know how to behave. He’s just acting the part of the rebellious young novelist, I told myself. He’s probably very nervous, too. But I also noticed, with more unease, that he kept on swigging from a Steinlager bottle, taking it with him while he went outside the building for a smoke.

Taxis delivered our party to the function centre. No expense had been spared by our wonderful sponsor. The vast room was decorated with banners and photos past fellows and the covers of their books. There was a display featuring the life and works of Janet Frame, who had been the inaugural Sargeson Literary Fellow in 1987, before Buddle Findlay became the sponsor. Waiters handed around dainty canapés and the drink glasses came complete with ice cubes that flashed red when you swilled them.

The Prime Minister and Minister for the Arts, Helen Clark, was in attendance, and every captain of every Wellington industry and corporation appeared to be present too, many wearing black ties and accompanied by wives in cocktail dresses. Craig certainly stood out with his beanie, uncut hair and bogan wardrobe.

The speeches began, given by Buddle Findlay’s principal partner and Christine Cole Catley. They were gracious and articulate. Then the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellows for 2004 were invited to give a reading. They had been instructed to read for no more than ten minutes. Karyn delivered an eloquent , engaging reading which was well received.

Then Craig came to the microphone. A sheaf of notes in his hand, he began to mumble. And mumble, and mumble.

It could have been a reading from a work in progress, or a diary entry, it was impossible to tell. Ten minutes passed, then 15. The audience was frowning, eyes had glazed over. I stared at the floor, willing Craig to stop. Just stop, now.

At last he did, accompanied by applause which was clearly in the nature of intense relief. I was angry at Craig’s thoughtlessness, but also relieved. Thank god that’s over, I thought, it can’t get any worse.

It did.

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A GATHERING OF THE LITERARY ESTABLISHMENT: THE BUDDLE FINLAY SARGESON FELLOWSHIP CEREMONY WHERE CRAIG MARRINER TRANSGRESSED CODES OF CIVILISED BEHAVIOUR, APPARENTLY. FROM LEFT, VINCENT O’SULLIVAN, JACK LASENBY, KEVIN IRELAND, GRAEME LAY, ELIZABETH AITKEN-ROSE, VIVIENNE PLUMB, A VISITOR FROM BUDDLE FINDLAY, CRAIG MARRINER, PRIME MINISTER HELEN CLARK, MARTIN BAILEY, DAME CHRISTINE COLE CATLEY, HELEN WOODHOUSE, KARYN HAY, GORDON MCLAUCHLAN.

When the Sargeson trustees and Buddle Findlay people gathered for a group photo, Karyn and Craig stood in the centre, on either side of the Prime Minister. While the photographer was taking his shots, Craig took a mobile phone out of his trouser pocket and dialled a number. He began to shout into it. “Granny? That you? It’s me. Yeah, Craig.”

He grinned at the Prime Minister. “Me granny on the line. In Rotorua. Say hello to granny, Prime Minister.”

Attempting a smile, Helen Clark took the phone. “Hello granny,” she said in her baritone.

Then, grimacing, she handed the phone back to Craig. He spoke into it again. “That was the Prime Minister, granny, it really was.” He roared with laughter. Oaf, I thought. It was one of those moments when one hoped that one would wake up and find it was all a nightmare. But it wasn’t.

Later that evening, following the function, the trustees all went out to dinner, at Wellington’s inimitable Green Parrot. We were mulling over the regrettable events of the function and wondering if the sponsorship would survive, when who should walk into the restaurant but … the man of the moment, Craig Marriner. He had a young woman with him, a tough-looking young woman. They went over to the bar. Realising that I was bound to say something, I got up and walked over to him.

I said, through gritted teeth, “Craig, your behaviour was very poor tonight. You spoke for longer than we had agreed, and no one could understand what you were on about. Why did you do that?”

He glared down at me. Only then did I realise what a big bugger he was. Big and powerful. He half –closed his eyes and I thought, he’s going to flatten me. I flinched. He kept staring at me for some moments, then he grunted and returned his attention to the young woman.

*

So began the unpromising tenure of the 2004 Buddle Findlay Fellowship. In contrast, Karyn was a model fellowess, working diligently on a novel while balancing her writing with parental duties. And Craig? Well, he filled the flat’s entrance hall with complicated gymnasium equipment and between work-outs presumably wrote for a while inside.

Then he disappeared, without giving notice. He didn’t answer calls or messages. No one knew where he was. While angry about his defection, it was also a relief. I had been fearful of what he might do. When the press heard that he’d absconded, they pursued the matter. I handled their enquiries badly, at one stage blurting down the phone to a Herald reporter, “We should have awarded the whole year to Karyn!” Naturally, this was highlighted in subsequent coverage.

In 2006 another Craig Marriner novel was published, Southern Style. I refused to read it. But when I did pick up a copy at Unity Books, I saw to my astonishment that in a rare note of civility it included a note of thanks “To the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship”. Perhaps he did, after all, appreciate the support. But this novel sank like a stoned dog.

Did the movie of Stonedogs ever get made? Not that I know of. And it’s now 10 years since Craig published a novel. Where is he now and what is he doing? I’ve no idea and I don’t at all care. A friend who likes to follow-up such matters reports that he’s alive and well and living in Rotorua.

Frank Sargeson once told me that he thought the very worst thing that could happen to a young writer was instant success. “After all the praise, things only go one way,” Frank said. “Downhill.”

Postscript and commentary on this story by Steve Braunias, literary editor at the Spinoff Review of Books: Okay so I commissioned it and everything, because the story of Marriner’s rise and vanishing is a worthy, timely morality tale as the clock ticks down to Tuesday night’s national book awards, and also I really like the way it reads, the pacing, the way it’s told – but it made me hate the New Zealand literary establishment, and side with Craig Marriner.

What did he do wrong, exactly? So what that he waltzed up to Prime Minister Helen Clark and asked her to say hello to his granny? So what that he gave a boring speech – Christ almighty, doesn’t just about everyone in New Zealand literature? So what he smoked and drank, and brought some gym equipment to the Sargeson garret in Albert Park? So what, ultimately, that he vamoosed, scrammed, got the fuck out of Dodge?

Poor devil! It’s not easy to write fiction, not easy to keep going; it places so many demands on your time, your nerve, your soul; if you’re not up to it, it finds you out and chases you off the premises. I won the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship in 2007 and foolishly bent my head to the task of writing a humorous novel. I worked hard on it. I wrote into the night and at dawn and all day as a tenant of the Sargeson “Le Petit Chateau”, as nicknamed by Kevin Ireland – it was upstairs, and felt like a treehut. It was a wonderful experience, apart from the writing. Like many novels intended to be humorous, it wasn’t in the slightest bit funny. I ditched the thing.

At least Marriner went on to write a second novel. No one much liked it; there was a good review in Salient. And so the short career of one of the few genuine outsiders in New Zealand writing came to an end. He wasn’t a university student and he didn’t roll off the conveyor belt of Victoria’s creative writing programme, where Bill Manhire instructed: “Write what you don’t know”, inspiring thousands of intolerable novels set in Romania in 1812 or something. Marriner was from that territory known as the streets. Public library plot summary of Stonedogs: “Society spirals towards the abyss of gang warfare, teenage loyalties and betrayals, drug deals and murder.” Garish jacket blurb from Random House: “It’s set in a New Zealand the tourists had better pray they never stumble upon.”

There were three judges at the 2002 book awards, all pretty kooky – Bill Ralston, Lindsay Dawson, and Witi Ihimaera. They were obviously knocked out by Stonedogs. Witi’s judgment: “It’s a terrific, relentless, rock’n’roll roller-coaster of a read. It’s blackly funny, it’s disarming, it has a wink in its eye, and it bleeds all over the place.”

“It bleeds”! And “rock’n’roll” and “relentless” and “funny” – verily, these were all unfamiliar qualities in New Zealand fiction, and it gave the establishment the screaming shits. Margi Thomson wrote a fascinating and revealing story for the Herald about the book awards that year; she quotes a publisher, some gutless scrote who wouldn’t be named, as saying, “There’s a big appetite among publishers and the literary audience for new outsider voices, but this [Stonedogs] is a foolish choice. It’s not good enough. It’s full of outsider posturing. It’s boring.”

And that was before Marriner actually won the award. Thomson’s story was published just after the shortlist was announced at a nice little ceremony at a garden restaurant in Mt Eden. She writes, “Marriner, younger to the point of being a different generation from almost everyone else at that lunch, was resolutely himself at the well-dressed gathering, making some concessions to the dress code but nevertheless keeping his sunnies plastered to his forehead, and being one of the few daring to light up outside in the courtyard. ‘Smoke?’ he asked, handing around his box of Rothmans, meeting with polite resistance from people who had already given it up. For someone his publishers say is ‘our answer to Irvine Welsh and Quentin Tarantino’, he seems a nice guy, declares himself pretty nervous in these surroundings – and there’s no doubting he’s the outsider, in more ways than one.”

God almighty! “Rothmans”, “sunnies” – and now, in Graeme’s story, “bogan wardrobe”, “Oaf.”

I sat next to Marriner at the 2002 awards. Very nice guy. Very shy, quite awkward, pretty overwhelmed. He was really happy to win, also genuinely shocked. He phoned his granny. He wanted to celebrate. But he didn’t really know anyone there. It was his misfortune to be surrounded by a bunch of total fucking snobs.


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