50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Fiona Farrell
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.
Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.
The Skinny Louie Book by Fiona Farrell (Penguin)
New Zealand Book Award 1993
Fiona Farrell writes:
It began as a short story ‘A Story about Skinny Louie’. I’d begun writing poems and plays and short stories in the 80s. It was something to do while I fretted and fumed after being made redundant from a lecturing job and plunged into midlife crisis. The poems got published, the plays were performed, one of my stories won a competition in the Evening Standard. I rediscovered a childhood pleasure in making things up.
Skinny Louie began with the Queen’s visit to Oamaru in 1954, a major event in my childhood. We were given gold medals to pin to our jerseys and Union Jacks to wave, while my father muttered darkly about the Famine and the Black and Tans. The story won another competition, funded by American Express. At the award dinner – they were lavish affairs in those days – the judge, Melvyn Bragg, said ‘Why are you wasting your time on short stories? You should be concentrating on novels.’ He was very certain, in that British, tv personality fashion. I liked short stories – I still do – but he seemed to know what he was talking about so I decided to follow his advice.
I had finished another story, also set partly in Oamaru, but in the future not the past. New Zealand has withered after some unspecified environmental calamity to a sunbaked desert where a few survivors huddle about fiercely defended water sources. I had made up a woman: an ancient crone, reverted to primate state and covered in fur, who survives in a miraculously lush little island Eden off the West Coast. I put the two stories together – one at the start, one at the conclusion – and set out to write my way from one to the other, working in a weird associative state, escaping from marriage collapse, a new and stressful job, rampant agoraphobia and an excrutiatingly painful back for which I had to take painkillers, for the first and last time in my life. It became a book about two sisters – which I have noticed is quite a common framing in women’s fiction, especially in first novels. In my book, one sister is extrovert, the other mute and introvert, though she possesses a strange power to make those about her blurt out the truth, with unpredictable results.
Writing that book I felt out of conscious control, but when it was finished and the sisters were reunited at last in the ruins of the Oamaru Post Office, something in my own psyche had resolved. I felt whole, as if I had grown up and was able to begin living my real adult life.
The Skinny Louie Book won the New Zealand Book Award and on that year’s IRD return I gave my occupation as ‘Writer’. It felt perilous. I was now separated, living alone for the first time ever, in a new city, a few hours’ work in the university library for income, but writing made me feel so happy. On the page I didn’t have to engage with anyone else. I could simply follow an idea, see where it might take me, make things up unobserved, in a calm and solitary fashion.
I was 45 and with Skinny Louie, I became myself.
Extract from The Skinny Louie Book (Penguin, 1992)
Imagine a small town.
……..Along its edges, chaos.
……..To the east, clinking shelves of shingle and a tearing sea, surging in from South America across thousands of gull-studded white-capped heaving miles.
……..To the south, the worn hump of a volcano crewcut with pines dark and silent, but dimpled still on the crest where melted rock and fire have spilled to the sea to hiss and set as solid bubbles, black threaded with red.
……..To the west, a border of hilly terraces, built up from layer upon layer of shells which rose once, dripping, from the sea and could as easily shudder like the fish it is in legend, and dive.
……..To the north, flat paddocks, pockmarked with stone and the river which made them shifting restlessly from channel to channel in its broad braided bed.
……..Nothing is sure.
……..The town pretends of course, settled rump-down on the coastal plain with its back to the sea, which creeps up yearly a nibble here a bite there, until a whole football field has gone at the boys’ high school and the cliff walkway crumbles and the sea demands propitiation, truckloads of rubble and concrete blocks. And the town inches away in neat rectangular steps up the flanks of the volcano which the council named after an early mayor, a lardy mutton-chop of a man, hoping to tame it as the Greeks though they’d fool the Furies by calling them the Kindly Ones; inches away across shingle bar and flax swamp to the shell terraces and over where order frays at last into unpaved roads, creeks flowing like black oil beneath willows tangled in convolvulus, and old villa houses, gaptoothed, teetering on saggy piles, with an infestation of hens in the yard and a yellow-toothed dog chained to the water tank.
……..At the centre, things seem under control. The post office is a white wedding cake, scalloped and frilled, and across the road are the banks putting on a responsible Greek front (though ramshackle corrugated iron behind). At each end of the main street the town mourns its glorious dead with a grieving soldier in puttees to the north and a defiant lion to the south, and in between a cohort of memorial elms was drawn up respectfully until 1952 when it was discovered that down in the dark the trees had broken ranks were rootling around under the road tearing crevices in the tarmac, and the council was forced to be stern: tore out the lot and replaced them with plots of more compliant African marigolds. There are shops and petrol stations and churches and flowering cherries for beautification and a little harbour with a tea kiosk in the lee of the volcano. It’s as sweet as a nut, as neat as a pie, as a pin.
……..Imagine it at night, a print composed of shapes and shadows. Early morning, 24 January 1954. The frilly hands on the post office clock show 3.30 so it’s 3.25 a.m., as everyone knows. (Time is no more thoroughly dependable here than the earth beneath one’s feet.) It’s unseasonably cold. A breeze noses in over the breakwater in the harbour and in amongst the pottles and wrappers by the tea kiosk, tickling the horses on the merry-go-round in the playground so they tittup tittup and squeak, fingering the bristles on the Cape pines and sighing down their branches into a dark pit of silence. Flower boxes have been hung along the main street and as the wind passes they swing and spill petals, fuchsias and carnations. There are coloured lights and bunting which, if it were only daylight, could be seen to be red white and blue because tomorrow, the Queen is coming. At 3.05 p.m. the Royal Express, a Ja class locomotive (No. 1276) drawing half a dozen refurbished carriages, will arrive at the railway crossing on the main street. Here, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip will step into a limousine which will carry them up the main street past the post office, the banks and the shops which have all had their fronts painted for the occasion (their backs remain as ever, patchy and rusted). By the grieving solider the royal couple will turn left towards the park where they will be formally welcomed at 3.20 p.m. by the mayor and mayoress and shake hands with forty-five prominent citizens. They will be presented with some token of the town’s affection. At 3.25 p.m. they will commence south. The moves are all set out in the Royal Tour Handbook, the stage is set, the lines rehearsed, and the citizens, prominent and otherwise, are tucked under blanket and eiderdown, secure in the knowledge that everything has been properly organised. If they stir a little it is because the wind tugs at curtains, or because through the fog of dreaming they hear some foreign noise outside the windows where their cats and dogs have sloughed off their daytime selves and stalk, predatory, the jungles of rhubarb and blackcurrant. The sea breathes, Whooshaaah. Whooshaaah.
© Fiona Farrell, 1992, published in The Skinny Louie Book, Penguin.