Fiona Farrell

ANZL Fellow

Photo credit: Christchurch Press



Paul Little on Fiona Farrell:

For over a decade, I’ve reviewed 70 to 90 local publications each year in North & South magazine. It’s not an unalloyed pleasure. I don’t open every package bearing a publisher’s return address in a state of high excitement. But if that package contains a new book by Fiona Farrell, my feeling of anticipation has never been disappointed.

Reviews go into a void, seldom eliciting any response. Reviewers don’t often get reviewed. But once, to my delight, I got a message from Fiona Farrell, with whom I had no previous acquaintance. She was thanking me for ‘getting’ The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One hundred ways to read a city. How nice of her, was my first response. How could I not have? was the second. The book is a triumph of clarity and ambition fulfilled. Like all her work.

Farrell’s 1992 debut, The Skinny Louie Book, arrived without a hint of authorial trepidation and brim-full of confidence. The title gave no hint as to what sort of book it would be. If anything, it suggested another story told by a child in rural New Zealand, their narration suffused with naïve dramatic irony.

Instead, we got an insanely ambitious book, built around great polarities: hopes and disappointments, birth and death, comedy and tragedy, war and peace. It was a pageant set against a social history of the twentieth centre and beyond. A boisterous novel, bursting at the seams with invention. It could have been called the book of everything.

A reader might have wondered what there was left to write about.  In retrospect, it was like a literary clearing of the decks so she could work without tradition looking over her shoulder.

How dare she? I don’t know, but I’m so glad she did. Daring has been a hallmark ever since. There’s courage in the refusal to repeat herself, to turn out consistent product in a way that would make for an easier sell. She has amassed a following drawn by her exuberant originality.

Farrell has never written the same book twice.  Except for the one she wrote three times. Her books inspired by the Canterbury earthquakes and their aftermath is as clear a case as you could find of a subject finding the writer it needed. The Broken Book (2011) was a collection of short prose pieces and poems in immediate response to the event. It was followed by The Villa at the Edge of the Empire (2015). I wrote on publication that it had ‘something wonderful in every chapter; and as often, something terrible’. It was so many things: a polemic, a history, a eulogy, a satire, a consolation, a howl of rage, a tribute. What more could one ask for?

Why, a companion novel of course, conceived in tandem with the work of non-fiction. Two years later, through the lens of the eponymous villa and the people who lived in it, Decline & Fall on Savage Street—in 100 chapters, like its predecessoranalysed the events in excruciating and forensic detail.

Across the years of Fiona Farrell’s work, I’ve found an almost perfect fit between what I hope to find in any writingsurprise, excitement, daring, perspective, splendourand what she produces reliably time after time.

Not only that, she is kind to reviewers.


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Fiona Farrell publishes fiction, poetry, plays and non-fiction. She has received numerous accolades, including the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (1995), the Rathcoola Residency in Donoughmore, Ireland (2007), and the University of Otago Burns Fellowship (2011). In 2007, Fiona received the prestigious New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and in 2012, awarded the Order of New Zealand Merit for Services to Literature.

Fiona’s first novel, The Skinny Louie Book (Penguin, 1992) won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction (1993). Later novels The Hopeful Traveller (Random House, 2002) and Book Book (Random House, 2004) were shortlisted for the award in 2003 and 2005, and also longlisted for the International Dublin IMPAC Award in 2003 and 2005. Her novel, Mr Allbone’s Ferrets (Random, 2007) has been published in America (St Martins Press, 2009) and translated into French (Fayard, 2014). Fiona’s most recent novel, Decline and Fall on Savage Street (Penguin Random House, 2017), is a fictional companion to The Villa at the Edge of the Empire. It won the 2017 New Zealand Heritage Novel Award. Her short fiction awards include the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award and the American Express Award. Fiona’s short stories have also been widely anthologised, appearing in the company of Alice Munro a \nd Hanif Kureishi in Heinemann UK’s annual Best Short Stories (1990 and 1994).

Fiona has published five collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in multiple major anthologies including The Oxford Book of New Zealand Poetry and Bloodaxe’s best-selling Being Alive. Her plays, which have been produced nationally and abroad, include Chook Chook, one of Playmarket New Zealand’s most frequently requested scripts.

Recently Fiona has turned to non-fiction, producing three books connected with the earthquakes which struck her hometown, Christchurch, in 2010 and 2011. These were written with the assistance of a subtstantial Creative New Zealand grant awarded to The Broken Book (Auckland UP, 2011), was shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Award (2012). The Quake Year (Canterbury UP, 2012), is a collection of interviews. Fiona wrote The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City (Penguin Random House, 2015) following her Creative New Zealand’s premier award, the $100,000 Michael King Fellowship. This book was shortlisted for the 2016 Ockham Book Awards.

Fiona’s latest book Nouns, verbs, etc. (selected poems) (Otago UP, 2020) collects the best work from her previous poetry books, and intersperses them with other poems thus far ‘uncollected’. The themes are wide ranging: political and personal, regional and global, including love and birth and death, war and emigration, history and landscape. The poems are well crafted but unpretentious, jokey yet illuminating, self-deprecating but wise, sad and funny and deeply human.




Fiona Farrell’s website

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura writer page

Otago University Press author page

Random House Books author page

Podcast: 2020 Christchurch WORD ‘Letter to Katherine Mansfield‘ [Fiona 3rd speaker] (Nov, 2020)

NZ Poetry Shelf review of Nouns, verbs, etc. (Jan, 2021)

Fiona’s University of Auckland lecture ‘Fiction and Factions: the Political Novel in New Zealand’, Auckland Writers Festival (2018)

Stuff review of Decline and Fall on Savage Street (2017)



New releases by Fiona Farrell

Nouns, verbs, etc. (selected poems) (poetry)

Published by Otago University Press on October 20, 2020

Bibliography: Fiona Farrell



Nouns, verbs, etc. (selected poems) (Otago UP, 2020)

The Broken Book  (Poetry/essays: Auckland UP, 2011)

The Pop-Up Book of Invasions  (Auckland UP, 2007)

The Inhabited Initial  (Auckland UP, 1999)

Cutting Out  (Auckland UP, 1987)



Decline & Fall on Savage Street (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Limestone  (Random House, 2009)

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets  (Random House, 2007; St Martins Press, USA, 2009)

Book Book (Random House, 2004)

The Hopeful Traveller  (Random, 2002)

Light Readings  (Short stories: Random, 2001)

Six Clever Girls Who Became Famous Women (Penguin, 1996)

The Skinny Louie Book  (Penguin, 1992)

The Rock Garden  (Short stories: Auckland UP, 1989)


Creative Nonfiction

The Villa at the Edge of the Empire (Penguin Random House, 2015)

The Quake Year (Interviews, in collaboration with photographer Juliet Nicholas: Canterbury UP, 2012)



The Best New Zealand Fiction (Random House, 2007)

“How she walked to the cave” in The Best New Zealand Short Fiction, Vol. 2  (ed. Fiona Kidman: Vintage, 2005)

Poem in Spirit Abroad (ed. Morris: Ricketts & Grimshaw; Godwit, 2004)

“Credo” (poem) in Being Alive (ed. Neil Astley: Bloodaxe Press, 2004)

“The Strange Mystery of the Disappearing Body” in The Best New Zealand Short Fiction, Vol. 1 (ed. Fiona Kidman: Vintage, 2004)

“Charlotte O’Neil’s Song in Wicked Poems (ed. Roger McGough: Bloomsbury, 2002)

Poetry in Spirit in a Strange Land (ed. Morris: Ricketts & Grimshaw; Godwit, 2002)

“Heads or Tails” in Author’s Choice (ed. Owen Marshall: Penguin, 2001)

“Charlotte O’Neil’s Song” selected for UK GCSE Syllabus, 1998-2000 (NEAB Anthology: Heinemann/BBC Video, 1998)

“Once” in New 100 New Zealand Short Stories  (ed. Graeme Lay: Tandem Press, 1997)

“The Pale Pink Ford Cortina” & “Breakout in Shed 111” for Heinemann Blasters Series (Heinemann Australia, 1997)

An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (ed. Bornholdt, O’Brien & Williams: Oxford UP, 1997)

“Sure to Rise” in Best Short Stories 1994  (ed. Gordon & Hughes: Heinemann, 1995)

“Market Pointers” in Crossing (ed. Tessa Duder: Reed, 1995)

100 New Zealand Poems (Godwit Press, 1993)

“O.E.” in The Good Tourist and the Laughing Cadaver (ed. Michael Gifkin: Vintage, 1992)

“Rag Bag” in Storia Antipodes (Allen & Unwin, 1992)

“Rag Bag” in Vital Writing II (ed. Andrew Mason: Godwit Press, 1992)

“The Gift” in The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories (ed. Vincent O’Sullivan: Otago UP, 1992)

“Rag Bag” in Speaking with the Sun (ed. Stephanie Dowrick & Jane Parkin: Allen & Unwin, 1991)

“A Story about Skinny Louie” in Vital Writing (ed. Andrew Mason: Godwit Press, 1990)

“A Story about Skinny Louie” in Best Short Stories 1990 (ed. Giles Gordon & David Hughes: Heinemann London, 1990)

“A Story about Skinny Louie” in Closing the File (Godwit Press, 1990)

The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry/Nga Kupu Titohu o Aotearoa (ed. Evans, McQueen & Wedde: Penguin, 1989)

“Footnote” in The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories (ed. Davis & Haley: Penguin, 1989)

“Footnote” in Goodbye to Romance: Stories by New Zealand and Australian Women Writers 1930-1988 (ed. Webby & Wevers: Allen & Unwin, 1989)

Selected poetry in Yellow Pencils (ed. Lydia Wevers: Oxford UP, 1988)

“Airmen” in Women’s Work (ed. Wevers & McLeod: Otago UP, 1987)



NZ Listener (Poetry & short stories)

 Sport (Poetry & short stories)

Southerly (Short stories)

School Journal (Poetry & short stories)

Landfall (Poetry & short stories)

Metro (Poetry & short stories)

Chelsea Magasin (Short story)

Takahe (Poetry)




'I felt energised by the freedom of 'making things up’' - Maxine Alterio

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