It wasn’t your ordinary Wednesday, at least not for UCOL lecturer Airini Beautrais. At the New Zealand Ockham Book Awards it was announced that Beautrais has won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction – the country’s most prestigious literary fiction award, coming with a $57,000 prize.
Beautrais won for her collection of short stories ‘Bug Week’, which judges described as “a tightly-wound and remarkably assured collection”.
The win has been viewed as something of an industry upset, especially given that Beautrais was a first time nominee, and is only the second person in 53 years to win for a collection of short stories.
“I was very surprised!” says Beautrais, who was expecting to have a nice evening out and head home without the prize. “It was a bit surreal, but lovely. I had quite a long evening to be honest, as it was hard to get to sleep with all the adrenaline pumping through me.”
There’s no rest for award-winning writers though, and Beautrais was back in class as normal on Thursday. Beautrais is a lecturer on UCOL’s Whanganui campus, teaching the NZ Certificate Study & Career Prep (Nursing Pathway) and as well as a first year Science paper. Admittedly, her inbox was much fuller than normal, as messages from friends and colleagues poured in.
Bug Week was launched last September at Whanganui Regional Museum, and has earned rave reviews from some of New Zealand’s literary critics. This included New Zealand's foremost short story writer Owen Marshall, who highlighted it as his Book of the Week on Newsroom.
While it’s Beautrais’ first published collection of short stories, it’s not the first time her work has attracted award attention. She has published four poetry collections, with her first, Secret Heart, winning the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2007 NZ Book Awards. She also won the Landfall Essay Prize in 2016.
“I had been working on short stories all along but it took me until last year to publish a collection that I was happy with. A lot of these stories are inspired by female experiences. Some of them are pretty heavy in terms of subject matter but it was a cathartic experience writing them. I have mostly gotten good feedback, so I guess it’s not too horrific!”
So what comes next, after such a big win? “I’ve got a few projects I’m working on – some poems and essays – but I really have to think about what I do next. Like all creative people, the biggest dilemma is time. I’ve got my work and I enjoy it, so will be juggling everything.
“I’m always keen to write stories when the inspiration strikes.”