A collection of “unhappy love stories”, 10 years in the making is in contention for New Zealand’s top fiction prize – though its author says she has already had her happy ever after.
Bug Week & Other Stories, the debut short-story collection by writer and poet Airini Beautrais, is one of four works shortlisted in the fiction category at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Beautrais told the Guardian that she was pleased to have made the shortlist, having been longlisted in the poetry category in the past. “When you’ve worked in one genre and then you try something new, it’s good to have that affirmation.”
Bug Week has been praised as “direct, hard-hitting, satirical and sometimes accusing … [with] a wry, somewhat cynical manner that provides both recognition and humour”.
Beautrais describes it as an “eclectic mix” of stories with feminist themes. “When I set out to write it, I was thinking I want to write love stories that go badly: unhappy love stories … That was just my experience of life.”
Over time her inspiration evolved into “the female experience, from girlhood through to middle age and end of life,” Beautrais says. “I was writing from that interest in stories of women, and all the good and bad that comes with that.”
The book becomes increasingly dark as the stories progress – though hopefully not ever without humour, she adds.
“I’ve always enjoyed black comedy and found it helpful to be able to laugh at stuff that’s unpleasant. If I’m working with dark or difficult material, I don’t want to be completely unhappy.”
Now, she says, she is “very, very happily single”, living in Whanganui with her two sons and their two cats: “It’s definitely a happy-ever-after.”
Beautrais supports her writing with full-time work as a science teacher; at the moment, she teaches nursing students. “There have been times in my life where I have worked part-time … and I’ve been able to write – and times when I haven’t.”
As a single parent, she says, “it’s always been a bit of a juggle.”
Short stories had been her “back-burner project” for the best part of a decade while she worked on poetry and at other jobs. “It took a lot of procrastinating” – and government support from Creative New Zealand – before she completed a collection, and more before she sent them to a publisher.
Bug Week was selected for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction from a long list of 10 books, chosen by four judges convened by writer Kiran Dass. It is nominated alongside two previous winners of the award – Catherine Chidgey (Remote Sympathy) and Pip Adam (Nothing to See) – as well as a past nominee, Brannavan Gnanalingam (Sprigs).
Beautrauis says it is “tough competition”, but that New Zealand’s literary community tends to come together over the event. “In the past, people are there almost as friends rather than competitors – it’s not daunting in that sense.”
Established in 1968, the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are the country’s top literary honours, recognising achievement by New Zealanders in fiction, poetry, illustrated nonfiction and general nonfiction.
There are also four awards for debut authors and, at the judges’ discretion, those writing in te reo Māori.
Only the fiction prize comes with a large cash prize of $57,000. Beautrais says she has not given serious thought as to how she would spend the money, if she were to win – but home renovations come to mind. “We can all fantasise, eh?”
The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony on 12 May during the Auckland Writers Festival – though whether there will be an event is contingent on the pandemic alert level.
Should it end up being “award by Zoom,” Beautrais’ plan is to “wear a nice dress and have a nice bottle of wine on hand,” she says. “Even if you don’t win – it’s nice to have something to celebrate.”
The 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist
Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction
Bug Week & Other Stories by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University Press)
Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press)
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press)
Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson)
Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry
Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles (Seraph Press)
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)
The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press)
Booksellers Aotearoa New Zealand Award for Illustrated Nonfiction
An Exquisite Legacy: The Life and Work of New Zealand Naturalist G V Hudson by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton)
Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine by Monique Fiso (Godwit, Penguin Random House)
Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists by Leonard Bell (Auckland University Press)
Nature – Stilled by Jane Ussher (Te Papa Press)
General Nonfiction Award
Specimen: Personal Essays by Madison Hamill (Victoria University Press)
Te Hāhi Mihinare |The Māori Anglican Church by Hirini Kaa (Bridget Williams Books)
The Dark is Light Enough: Ralph Hotere A Biographical Portrait by Vincent O’Sullivan (Penguin, Penguin Random House)
This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir by Alison Jones (Bridget Williams Books)