3 Apr 2024

Ockham Book Awards: Literary life outside the main centres

7:10 am on 3 April 2024
Owen Marshall

South Island author Owen Marshall says it is important that people in the regions had a voice in literature. Photo: supplied

All of this year's 16 Ockham Book Awards finalists are based in the main centres and overseas, even though almost half of the country's registered authors live in the regions.

The Ockham Book Awards shortlist for this year features 16 finalists across fiction, non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction, and poetry.

And all this year's finalist live in the cities of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin; along with three finalists who are based overseas.

The New Zealand Society of Authors has 1772 members, and 47 percent of them live outside of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin.

Owen Marshall is one of them. He has spent his whole career in smaller South Island towns, at a distance from the big festivals and publishers.

He said one of the disadvantages of living in regional New Zealand was that you did not become one of the easy 'go-to' people for editors, publishers, or festival organisers.

"For you it means time and money, or for them it means time and money," he said.

But he had seen changes which have removed a lot of barriers, including modern communications and the rise of podcasts.

"I think it's far less of a difficulty than it used to be."

He said it was not where writers live that was important, but that people in the regions had a voice in literature.

"Every variety of life needs to be out there, needs to be expressed," said Marshall.

Nicola Legat is the chair of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust and publisher at Massey University Press. She acknowledged that this year's Ockham list did not contain any regional writers - on the surface at least.

"That doesn't mean that none of our finalists didn't grow up in a smaller centre or spend some time there in their childhood or youth," she said.

A writer's location was not part of what the judges were asked to consider but Legat said she could name a number of regional authors who have won categories in the past, including Airini Beautrais who won the major fiction prize in 2021 for her short story collection Bug Week.

"There's usually a pretty good representation. We don't run a quota obviously," Legat said.

Cristina Sanders from Hawke's Bay was shortlisted in the book awards last year for her novel Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant.

She said she did not think of herself as a regional writer, as she wrote historic fiction.

"In the colonial period, things were happening all over so it wasn't that the cities had all the action and it was very dull and quiet in the country," she said.

In fact, it was the opposite - there was action in the likes of the goldfields and breaking in of the railways.

"Rural [areas] and regions were as exciting really as what was going on in the cities."

But she sometimes felt a bit 'out of sight, out of mind' when it came to being included in literary events.

So did author Tina Shaw, who lives in a small community outside of Taupo.

"You're not as connected as you are in the centres. So all of those Ockham writers shortlisted at the moment, they probably have a much higher level of connection within the literary community than I would have currently," said Shaw.

However, before aspiring writers think they have to speed their way to the city to be recognised, Tina did say her region was lovely, and living somewhere beautiful was very conducive to creative work.

The home cities of the winners of the 2024 Ockham Book Awards will be revealed on 15 May.

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