Airini Beautrais' short story collection, Bug Week, beat tough competition to take home the top prize at this year's most prestigious literary awards, The Ockhams. An eclectic mix of unhappy love stories, with a twist of black comedy, Bug Week is hot property in every bookshop around the country and THE bestselling title to get your hands on this year.
After scooping the country's top literary honour in May - the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction - we caught up with Airini this week to find out about life since the Ockhams, last minute wardrobe decisions and her writing journey from My Little Pony fan fiction to a $57,000 book award.
What is your day job?
What is your connection to Vic Books?
Vic Books stock my books.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working in paid work, most of the time teaching health science. I also teach exercise classes a couple of nights a week. I have a few writing projects on the go, including a poetry collection that is close to a first draft.
Congratulations on winning the Ockham Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for fiction for your short story collection, Bug Week! How does it feel to win the top literary prize in New Zealand? Tell us about the Awards night!
It was a fun night. I got off the plane and went straight to the venue and then realised I had forgotten to pack my outfit that I had carefully planned. So I just decided to kick back and have a good time and enjoy myself with no expectations. I didn't expect to go back on stage and I ended up walking the wrong way. I caught up with lots of good people, made some new connections, and was very tired the next day!
You have previously written poetry - how does it feel to have received such recognition for your short stories?
I wasn't expecting to do so well with my first book of prose fiction. I am glad the short story is enjoying a resurgence. It's a challenging but ultimately satisfying form to work with.
You have a PhD from the IIML here at Te Herenga Waka and teach Biology at UCOL Whanganui - did you always set out to have a career as a writer? How will the prize win change your writing path?
My undergraduate degree is in ecology (also from Victoria). I always loved biology and I think the connection is words - it's a very terminology-heavy subject. I did always want to be a writer, essentially since I learned to write. When I was six my best friend and I were working on My Little Pony fan fiction with the aim of completing novels during story writing time at school.
Winning a prize is always affirmative for one's creative work. In the past I've had a lot of conversations with people who were pretty bemused about why someone would study creative writing. In a capitalist society if you spend time working on something that doesn't directly generate a profit or income you can end up feeling like you have to constantly justify your decisions. I hope this prize will help me let go of some of those hang-ups.
Bug Week has been 10 years in the making. What inspired you to write a short story collection and which is your favourite story (if you had to choose!)?
I've wanted to write a short story collection for longer than that, and there is a big B pile to show for it. The original idea was to write a collection of 13 unlucky stories of failed love affairs. There is definitely an element of that idea that stayed around for the finished collection.
I don't have a favourite story but the character I identify the most with is Esme in The Teashop. Although the story is set in the 1960s, I think there are still a lot of similar obstacles for women. Esme is the archetypal 'ageing whore' which is one of the futures young women are conditioned to fear the most - but I think it's a character worth paying respect to.
International judge, Tommy Orange has raved about Bug Week: “If the book were a bug, it would be a big one, with teeth and venom, with wings and a surprising heart, possibly several, beating on every page with life.” What's it like to have such recognition of your work from the international literary world and be nominated against fellow writers Pip Adam, Brannavan Gnanalingam and Catherine Chidgey?
It feels like an honour to be recognised in that way. I don't see it as being pitted against other writers. On the whole I think we have a supportive literary community in New Zealand. I have a lot of respect for Pip, Catherine and Brannavan and hope everyone will read their work.
What future writing projects do you have planned? Will you be returning to poetry?
I am working on a poetry collection. I also have some essays I would like to flesh out. And I would love to write more short stories.
Some quick fire book recommendations please!
Read the Ockhams shortlist! I have recently been blown away by Charlotte Grimshaw's The Mirror Book. I think it is going to be one of the most talked-about books of 2021. I am looking forward to Sue Orr's new book Loop Tracks, and Tayi Tibble's new poetry collection Rangikura. Also I recently read Alison Glenny's new poetry book Bird Collector. It's an historical sequence that plays around with narrative and anti-narrative - essentially the kind of thing I wrote about in my PhD. I think it will appeal to people who get bored with linear and predictable plots.
What is your favourite previous Ockham winning title?
It feels a bit too hard to pick a favourite. But when I looked back through the list of winners of the various incarnations of the NZ fiction prize, the one that leaped out at me was Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins. That book still haunts me!
What are you reading at the moment?
I am part way through a novel called The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, written in the early 90s. I am also planning to read the whole of Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women's Poetry by Paula Green, as I have only skim read it when it came out.
What do you like about it?
In Susan Sontag's book I love all her descriptions of the actual volcano.
Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?
Dorothea in Middlemarch.
She's a myopic idealist and the stuff she does reminds me a lot of me as a young woman.
Hardback or paperback?