Saturday, March 5, 2011

An embargo, a flying visit and a mystery barge: my Commonwealth Writers Prize experience

Newsflash: A Man Melting has won the Best First Book award for the South East Asia and Pacific region of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Actually, this isn’t that much of a newsflash. It was announced in Sydney on Wednesday night (I was there, more on this later) and the results were published in Australian newspapers (like this from the Syndey Morning Herald) on Thursday morning. It took a bit longer to break the news here in NZ, but by Thursday afternoon it was doing the rounds on Twitter. I got a phone call from a Dom Post reporter yesterday (Friday) and today a tiny piece appeared in my local paper.

But the news is even older than that for me.

I found out (by reading Beatties Book Blog rather than any direct correspondence) that I was short-listed for best first book on Friday 11 February.

For the next few days I was over the moon with making that far. I circled March 3 in my moleskine as the day the regional winners would be announced and began tempering my expectations.

As I blogged here on 16 February, the press release from the Commonwealth Writers Prize on the short-list mentioned that the first book nominees included "a comic treatment of the Rapture in the US, a story of Aborigines, a detective thriller involving an historical right-wing militia culminating in the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, an obsessive cartographer and her twin sister living down trauma from the collapse of Yugoslavia, and the laconic lives of casual grape pickers in rural Australia."

No mention of anything from A Man Melting = no chance of winning. Or so I thought.

When I blogged on the 16th, I was actually being a bit disengenous. This was what I'd thought in those first few days of being short-listed, but by the time I posted it, I knew I’d won!


Musical interlude:


Don’t feel bad, general public to whom I lied. I also lied to my mum, my brother (who lives in the same house as me), my in-laws-to-be, my boss and workmates, my friends, the Wellington Branch of the NZ Society of Authors, Creative New Zealand (I applied for a residency, but could only put that I’d been short-listed), the Auckland Writers Festival and probably a couple more trusting souls. It’s called an embargo, and I certainly wasn’t going to break the first one that applied to me! It was a test, and I passed.

I think.

When I was invited to the announcement of this region’s winners on 3 March in Sydney, I asked the Sydney based administrator if I got any travel assistance, since, y’know, I’d won and all? It seems only the 3 SE Asia and Pacific judges and the UK based administrator who was organising the week of activities for all the regional winners in May knew the results... But if I hadn’t have spilt the beans, I may not have made it to Sydney for 23 fun-filled hours to collect my prize and take a whole heap of selfies.


Example of a selfie from Sydney:


Sidenote: Not telling someone you’ve won something when the information is strictly embargoed probably isn’t lie. Proper lies do damage to the receiver, whereas in this case, most of the time I was damaging my own chances of getting a residency or attracting people to my session at the Auckland Writers Festival or getting my friends to buy me beer.



I caught the 6am flight from Wellington (which entailed getting up before 4am), arrived in Sydney around 9am, but couldn’t check into my hotel room until later because there were no rooms ready yet.

I walked around town, basically doing a circuit down George Street (checking out camera shops: I plan to spend the prize money on a digital SLR camera) to Circular Quay and back up Pitt Street, then hanging out in Hyde Park.

It was 2pm when I finally got to check in and have a shower, shave, iron my shirt and compose myself for my first ever acceptance speech.

I didn’t write anything beforehand and just winged it. People said it was good but afterwards I realised I totally missed a trick. If I had the chance again, I would begin thusly:
Thank you Elizabeth [the person who handed me the award]. I’m not used to giving acceptance speeches. The only other time I’ve won anything to do with writing was the novice award at the BNZ Katherine Mansfield short story competition in 2007, which just so happened to coincide with the time I was in Europe. So I sent my mum along to receive my award. Unfortunately my mum couldn’t be here this evening, so I’ll just muddle through...

I actually have video of my mum’s speech (I wrote the speech at a friend’s place in Hamburg; she read it, with one small extemporaneous addition) on a DVD somewhere. I’m not sure where though.


Hand Me Down WorldGiftedAt the awards ceremony there were some of the other short-listed writers and their publishers, from both the first book and big boy categories – but not all of the short-listed writers. I was the only representative from New Zealand, so I guessed early on that Lloyd Jones and Patrick Evans hadn’t won the non-first book prize. No one from Random House NZ came over to cheer me on, which some of the people there thought was a bit off – me: I understand money’s tight at the mo with the whole RED Group thing, and I think they trusted me to equip myself well at such a shindig. I hope I don’t become one of those authors who expects to be coddled... I’m not sure publishers will have the luxury of coddling authors in the brave new world of books anyway.

Also in attendance were people involved with the Commonwealth Writers Prize, such as  current and past judges (most of whom were Australian academics), sponsors (the event was at Macquarie’s offices), publicists, literary agents, the odd reporter and other Aussie writers.

I had a surreal conversation with the two publicists who had worked on the regional prize. One clearly knew I’d won, and kind of asked if I knew I’d won, but I was still so used to demurring in such situations that I kind of shrugged and grabbed a mini Yorkshire pudding and beef canapé and shoved it in my mouth. I can;t remember the other publicist saying a single word.

The speeches started with the obligatory thanks to the backers, then Dr Paul Sharrad, the chair of the judging panel, said a bit about each of the six short-listed books in the two categories.

Speaking about A Man Melting, he mentioned three specific stories, though not by name: ‘Unnatural Selection’ (“the story of a woman returning home after living in the United States...”) ‘Manawatu’ (“a story that tackles suicide...”), and “my favourite, the trials of a woman cooking for a tribe of London school kids on a barge in bad weather.”

Thing is, that story is not in my book, nor is it one I’ve written. When he was giving his speech I thought maybe he’d mixed up the elements of ‘Fat Camp’ (a man moves to Scotland with his partner to run weight-loss camp for teens and ends up running the black market in chocolate bars), but it's also mentioned in a press release... he’s clearly talking about another story.

Reading Madame BovaryPerhaps it’s a story in Amanda Lohrey’s collection of short stories, Reading Madame Bovary, which was short-listed for the non-first book award. We were the only short fictioneers amongt the twelve short-listees, and I can see how books may blend into one another..

So I’m just writing that down as weird, and will not freak out that the chair of the judging panel’s favourite story in my book is not in my book.


Fact-checked excerpt from the press release post-announcement
“A Man Melting marks the appearance of a lively new voice in New Zealand writing, wry, punchy, filled with fresh images [this sounds like me], and providing an engaging mix of fantasy and gritty realism [uh-huh]. It handles both male and female characters convincingly [why thank you] and tackles serious social concerns such as suicide [tick] with a combination of delicacy and dramatic directness [if you say so]. The stories cover a range of situations [definitely] from the emotional process of returning home from overseas [see ‘Unnatural Selection’], to cooking for a tribe of London school kids on a barge in bad weather [um...]. These are extraordinary stories [I couldn’t possibly comment] about ordinary people [tick], and they are told with a great deal of affection [I am a big softy]. It is a consistently powerful and entertaining collection [*blushes*] and is awarded the prize accordingly.”


After the prizes were announced and the acceptance speeches had been delivered (Kim Scott said: “I’d just like to echo everything that Craig said,” which made me feel good, and means Kim Scott also thanked the New Zealand Ministry of Education for being a flexible and supportive employer), it was time for a few photos. They had a small number of all the short-listed books for sale and they all sold out. I signed about five. My Australian sales figures increased exponentially in one night. Then we finished the free booze and canapés and I went to dinner with some of the Commonwealth Writers Prize people, including Dr Paul Sharrad (I didn’t mention the barge story), the administrator for whom I spoiled the surprise of my victory (we discussed this at length), and a bunch of other good people to know in Australian letters. Much wine was consumed.


I flew back to Wellington on the 8.45am flight the next day.

I know the burning question you all have: What movies did I watch on the plane?

Going there: The Social Network. Verdict: A very good movie, well put together.

Coming home: 127 Hours (aka the one where James Franco is trapped in a canyon and has to cut his hand off). I was interested in how the movie would handle a story which is ultimately like Titanic (we know it’ll sink) but with less characters and less movement. I thought it did a good job. Only problem was I mistimed things and got served my breakfast right when he starts hacking off his arm. I can’t watch surgery shows on TV, so this wasn’t a good thing. Even averting my eyes from the screen, I still got the electric screech through my earphones every time he snipped a nerve or tendon. When I tried to open the little capsule of milk for my cup of tea, the ends of my fingers were all numb and the capsule when flying under the feet of the person seated next me.


So, that’s my Sydney story.

Work on Friday was a real struggle. Back to earth with a thud – even though there was carrot cake for morning tea and people congratulated me throughout the day, it was still work.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
Now that the other region’s winners have been announced, I’m even more excited about the week of activities in Sydney in May. Amongst the winners are Emma Donaghue (Canada) whose novel Room was my favourite to winner the Booker Prize last year (I was wrong), and one of my favourite writers, David Mitchell (UK). Eep. I’ll have to work on how not to sound like a fanboy now that I’ve got this whole embargo thing mastered.


Mary McCallum said...

Great post - esp. the barge story....

gnute said...

Congratulations, Craig - well deserved :)

Looking forward to seeing you at the Writers Fest in May.

Craig Cliff said...

Thanks Mary and gnute.

Anonymous said...

That press release was riddled with errors. Did you see the plot outline for fellow Kiwi Stephen Daisley's Traitor? Apparently it's about Australian grape pickers, not a NZ soldier in WWI.

But it made for a great story in your case. Congratulations on the win!