A little goes a long way
Winners of the Sunday Star-Times short story awards revealed
Romance – including young lust and broken relationships – were the key themes behind two powerful tales that have taken out the winning titles of the esteemed 2019 Sunday StarTimes Short Story Awards. Auckland writer Jill Varani won the open category while St Cuthbert’s College year 13 student Joy Tong won the secondary school category. Both writers captured sensory details that drew the reader in, the judges said.
The title of Varani’s entry – Nudes in the Twenty-First Century – and its opening paragraph drew the reader into a concise and tightly controlled story about romance, an unwanted pregnancy, and Grey Lynn real estate, judge Craig Cliff said. ‘‘With every page we are exposed to new depth in the protagonist. (The story) will leave its mark on you.’’ She wins $3000, thanks to sponsor Penguin Random House. Varani, 32, who works in advertising in Auckland, was blown away by the win. ‘‘I feel really honoured and amazed.’’ The inspiration for the story came from her personal experience on both sides of the easel, having studied at the Elam School of Fine Arts and been a life model. ‘‘I was really interested in the idea of being somebody versus looking at somebody, so that’s what was driving the story.’’
Previous winners of the awards include Eleanor Catton and Carl Nixon.
First runner-up was Gay Buckingham’s A Far Cry, about a son who returns to his parents’ Southland farm after the Great War. Cliff described it as a Kiwi story with colour, told in experimental form.
Second runner-up was Susanna Elliffe’s When I see Fragile Things, described as a strongly evocative story about a Kiwi summer, riddled with anxiety about climate change, and debt, while also ‘‘brimming with affection’’.
Joy Tong’s The Last Story took out the secondary schools’ title. Judge Eileen Merriman recalls a ‘‘beautifully crafted, sensual and poignant coming of age love story’’.
‘‘I will be interested to see how this talented writer develops over the next few years.’’
First runner-up in that category was Wellington Girls’ College year 13 pupil Kate Twomey’s Other Lilia, described as ‘‘delightfully dark and quirky’’.
Second runner-up Oscar Martel, a year 11 pupil from Epsom Girls Grammar, was lauded for Boys, Girls, and Others, a ‘‘heartfelt and humorous tale about a guy secretly in love with his best friend’’ which had Merriman laughing out loud.
The competition drew hundreds of entries in the open category, and the judges – acclaimed writers Cliff and Merriman – said this year’s stories displayed a high level of technical competence.
The short story form pushes writers to extremes, particularly towards the darker side of life, they noted.
‘‘This year there were very few writers who fought against this undertow,’’ Cliff said. ‘‘It’s a fine line between being deep and being maudlin. Humour, irony, joy – these things will take you far in life and elevate your stories, too. Your readers will thank you for it!’’
Merriman said the schools category was a pleasure to read, with ‘‘delightfully imaginative’’ entries.
Penguin Random House fiction publisher Harriet Allan said the competition had drawn another exciting year of entries.
‘‘The stories from the winners and runners-up all reward re-reading, being multi-layered and rich with telling detail and subtle touches,’’ she said.
Part of the award is a personal critique of the two winning entries by Allan.
She described this year’s top entries as exhibiting ‘‘an honesty in the emotions explored and expressed’’.
‘‘While some of the elements and situations may seem typical tropes, these writers brought freshness and new insights.
‘‘There are many elements to enjoy in these stories, and it is easy to see why the judges singled them out.’’
The Sunday Star-Times and Stuff will publish the winning entries over summer, and they will be illustrated by artist Ruby Jones, whose drawings following the Christchurch mosque attacks drew critical acclaim.