Who really won?! The speech awards for Wednesday night

Tena koutou ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back to the second annual Elizabeth Heritage* New Zealand Post Book Awards Speech Awards. These prestigious awards recognise excellence, wit and verbal strangeness in the speeches given at the NZ Post Book Awards ceremony by authors, judges, publishers, and associated distinguished personages.
 
The first speaker, Nicola Legat, chairperson of the Book Awards Governance Group wins the Most Deft Handling Of One Of The Elephants In The Room Award. As we all know, this is the last year that New Zealand Post are sponsoring the book awards. Possibly in honour of the departing New Zealand Post logo, the whole space at Te Papa was decorated vivid red, including red lighting and red orchids entirely submerged in vases on all the tables (not a metaphor for NZ publishing, we do hope and trust). Legat, one of the first speakers, wasted no time in addressing this issue head on. Have they lost New Zealand Post sponsorship? Yes. Have they found a replacement corporate sponsor? No. On the upside, PANZ, the NZSA and Booksellers NZ will be forming a trust to take the awards forward.
Congratulations to judge Miriama Kamo, who wins the Best Hint Award for warning us early in the evening that the winners were “not in all cases a foregone conclusion” (note precise phrasing) and that the judges were “absolutely confident in their decisions” (see Exciting Shock Revelation later on).
This year’s Most Heartfelt Speech Award goes to Rebecca Macfie, author of Tragedy at Pike River Mine from Awa Press, which won the NZSA E. H. McCormick Best First Book for Non-fiction. Judge Dick Frizzell described her winning book as “passionately dispassionate,” and this was exactly the characteristic she displayed on the podium, speaking with authority, humility and gravitas. Bravo.
Frizzell is also a winner - he gets the coveted Most Blokey Speech Award, for the way he interspersed his excellent prepared remarks with charmingly informal asides (“ya know what I mean? … it’s a winner, obviously, because it won”). I was also very taken with something he said to me afterwards about the judging process: “It felt good to be part of that distribution of worth.”
Poet Vincent O’Sullivan, whose book Us, Then won the Poetry Award, is the recipient of the Vive La Revolution! Award. He quoted Kiwi poet ARD Fairburn, who said “poets of the world, unite! – you have nothing to lose but your daisy chains”, before noting that there are currently more publishing poets in Aotearoa than there are Commisioned Officers in our armed forces. He ended with a battle cry: it’s not too late to take the barricades!
Sir Michael Cullen once again picks up the Most Off-Topic Speech Award, managing to pretend to talk about the book awards while actually delivering several well-placed political barbs: “I have not received an apology [for non-attendance tonight] from Judith Collins, but then why should we be singled out”; he can’t wait for John Key’s autobiography Look, At The End Of The Day and Winston Peters’ My Life And Death As A Stand-Up Comic. This got a good laugh - though not as much as the audio track from the finalists promo video (particularly the sounds accompanying Max Gate).
 
Congratulations to judge Kim Hill, who wins the Most Deft Handling Of The Other Elephant In The Room Award. Naturally we were all expecting the superstar The Luminaries to sweep the board. Our first hint that this may not in fact be the case came when it failed to win the the Neilsen Booksellers’ Choice Award. There was an audible ‘hmm’ noise of taken-abackedness in the room. When it won the People’s Choice Award and the Fiction Award, we were all lulled into a false sense of security. But – Exciting Shock Revelation – it is not the Book of the Year! Instead, that honour goes to Jill Trevelyan’s splendid biography of iconic Wellington art dealer Peter McLeavey, from Te Papa Press.
 
Hill commented that The Luminaries “polarises readers”, drawing some in immediately but not hooking others ‘til the end. It didn’t polarise the judges though - when I asked Frizzell whether the judges’ decision was unanimous, he replied “oh, shit yeah”. So why did McLeavey win? “Jill’s book just cleaved closer to home” (we paused while I acknowledged his excellent pun) “It’s about our cultural evolution as a nation”. Hill agreed: “it’s descriptive of a huge era”.
Finally, I am excited to announce that Eleanor Catton is the first ever recipient of the new Genius Book Angel Award. As an inveterate attender of booky events, I have heard her speak many times now, and she always impresses me with her grace and mana. Tonight was no exception. Graciously, she announced that all her prize money from tonight’s winnings would be put towards a grant for writers to enable them to take time to read. This grant does not yet have a name, although Catton is thinking maybe horoeka (lancewood), since that is a tree that “begins life defensively then becomes more confident”. What an absolutely fantastic idea. I agree wholeheartedly with an overheard comment from the audience: “she just gets it so utterly right every single bloody time.”
 
So that’s it for 2014: congratulations to all the finalists and winners. Sponsorship willing, I’ll see you all again for more strange and marvellous book awards speeches next year. 
 
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Written by Elizabeth Heritage, freelance writer and publisher

* Elizabeth's views are her own, and are not representative of the view of Booksellers NZ, the Book Awards Governance Group, or New Zealand Post.