New Zealand writers – the celebrated and established, the unknown and deluded, the fair to middling – have five days remaining to apply for a share of $5000 and free accommodation at an extraordinary hotel where they can eat a Sunday roast and work on their masterpiece.

The deadline for the 2023 Surrey Hotel Writers Residency Award in association with Newsroom and Dick Frizzell ends at midnight, Sunday August 20. A longlist of 10 writers will be announced next week and not long after that the velvet throat of Jesse Mulligan will broadcast the winners, as has been his custom these past seven years, live on his radio show on Radio New Zealand. First prize receives about $3000 and a week at the Surrey Hotel in Grey Lynn, Auckland. Second prize receives maybe $1000 and five nights at the Surrey. Third place has often been shared between two writers who each receive $500 and four nights at the Surrey. Each winner is eligible for a Sunday roast if they time their residency right.

Dick Frizzell, a writer who paints for a living, has shown amazing generosity by putting forward $5000.  The Surrey Hotel offers not just ye olde Tudor stylings and a weirdly shaped swimming pool but also privacy, comfort and vibes.

Those wishing to enter can email with the subject line in screaming caps THE SURREY HOTEL WRITERS RESIDENCY AWARD IN ASSOCIATION WITH NEWSROOM AND DICK FRIZZELL. They ought to send in a brief covering letter outlining the project they have in mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to attach a few pages of their work in progress. 

As this story goes to post, 87 entries have been received. Only one was a waste of time. Everyone else is in the running; the standard has been excellent. Last year there were 131 entries. The 2022 winner was J Wiremu Kane, who used his week at the Surrey to work on a historical novel, Whakarongorua. I asked him how it went, and he replied, “I still feel fraudulent calling myself a ‘writer’. It sounds far too romantic and glamorous for the reality, which is living in my parent’s garage, giving myself sciatica from typing with my (old) laptop on my knee or the arm of the couch. But for one glorious week, I got to act out my old world authorial fantasies. The Surrey feels like a throwback in the best way possible. The place you could imagine Hemingway chomping on a cigar, Agatha Christie sipping tea, or Barbara Cartland dictating from a bubble bath. A place to write in longhand, to read from musty smelling tomes, and to add coffee and fully cooked breakfasts to a tab you know you don’t have to pay.

“I had no expectation of winning when I entered. I thought I was too little known, too little published, and up against literary legends. This residency is like no other in the world, so give it a go! Smash out a pitch! (Due to an ADHD related deadline mix up, I threw my entry together in less than two hours!) Surprise yourself and the nation, and enjoy a week (or even a few nights) of pressure free writing in a place reminiscent of a bygone era, one that probably never really existed, and let your words flow.”

Barbara Cartland in a bubble bath! Well you never know. Certainly the Surrey is very romantic; it looks like a castle, as 2022 finalist Amy McDaid emailed: “My three-night residency was a welcome step away from the distractions and tedium of day-to-day life. I finished the first draft of my second novel at the Surrey, and it’s hard not to love the place. Even just writing about it now makes me feel warm with nostalgia. The entire place brings to mind a castle — a castle for writers, with long dim hallways, dark wood panels and richly patterned carpets. My room was comfortable and spacious, with a big old oak desk. There’s a mural-adorned indoor pool, a fab Sunday Roast, and upstairs at the Surrey pub you’ll find the best leather armchairs to sink into at the end of a productive day. If a masterpiece is to be produced anywhere in Auckland, there’s a good chance it will be at The Surrey.”

John Summers worked on a masterpiece when he was named a finalist at the Surrey back in the first year of the residency. He emailed, “I spent three days among the Tudor doodads of the Surrey all the way back in 2017. The memory grows happier every year as time to write is especially scant now. Make the most of these things while you can is my message to my past self, and to present youse. Anyhow, I worked on an essay that attempted to connect the homemade-home of former Prime Minister Norman Kirk with state housing and my own schoolyard memories. I worked and worked, unsuccessfully it seemed at the time, except that once home, it was clear to me that these could be two essays, and both could be important parts of what could be a book, published later as The Commercial Hotel.” I love that book: it’s a masterpiece.

I had a drink with John during his residency and last year I had a drink with 2022 runner-up Catherine Robertson. She walked from the Surrey to meet myself and author Stacy Gregg at a bar in Herne Bay. She emailed, “I was joint runner-up so no extra cash, but four nights and three whole days plus the roast felt like a big win. The room was huge, heaps of space to spread out all my writing research, and it was quiet and comfortable. So quiet and huge and comfortable that I decided to skip the free roast lunch on the Sunday, eat leftover pizza, and press on with writing. The residency was exactly what I needed to get my novel structure sorted and feel like I could actually write the goddamn thing.”

J Wiremu Kane has yet to publish; Amy McDaid is the author of a 2020 novel, Fake Baby; John Summers has written two superb works of nonfiction; and tens of thousands of New Zealanders have bought the so-called commercial fiction novels of Catherine Robertson. The most distinguished of the Surrey winners is Laurence Fearnley. She won the fiction prize at the national book awards in 2011 (then sponsored by NZ Post) for her book The Hut Builder. She emailed, “For the past couple of years I have been writing a series of novels based on the five senses and in 2022 I worked on ‘sound’. My latest book is set in a hotel as I’ve always been attracted to hotel-based novels: as both a setting and for the interactions between staff, guests and evening diners. While at the Surrey I was able to inhabit the role of the solo traveller, and wrote about 15,000 words during the week ( it rained a lot, which made its way into my book). It was such a great experience and very productive, and, as a result my novel At the Grand Glacier Hotel (set on the West Coast, South Island) got completed and will come out next year.” Huzzah! Her publishers are Penguin; they ought to make sure the Acknowledgements includes a mention of the good old Surrey.

I came up with the idea of the residency after putting myself up at the Surrey in 2015 to work on a collection of true-crime stories. I loved the experience and thought other writers would benefit from a stay at the Surrey, too. Like Laurence Fearnley, I wrote about 15,000 words, and completed the two chapters on the Mark Lundy case, later published by HarperCollins in The Scene of the Crime. Three years later they published another collection, Missing Persons, recently shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh crime writing award for nonfiction. I am about to begin to work on the final book in this trilogy of death and disappearance: I wish I was eligible to enter the Surrey! Instead, I will advise a panel of four international judges (there’s a guy in Sydney, a woman in Berlin, and an interesting couple with fluid pronouns in LA) who will decide the winners of the 2023 Surrey Hotel Writers Residency Award in association with Newsroom and Dick Frizzell.

Good luck to all who apply; the clock ticks steadily towards the chimes of midnight, Sunday August 20.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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