The longlist for maybe the coolest and likely the strangest writers residency award in New Zealand letters has been announced.

Ten (actually there’s 12) writers have made the cut from 127 entries received for the 2023 Surrey Hotel Writers Residency Award in association with Newsroom and Dick Frizzell. They will compete for Frizzell’s generously offered prize money of $5000 and up to a week’s free accommodation at the Surrey Hotel in Grey Lynn, Auckland, to work on their masterpiece.

Jesse Mulligan and his golden throat will announce the winners next week in a live broadcast on his Afternoons show at Radio New Zealand.

As per tradition, I will be in the studio, and pass him scraps of paper with the names of the winners.

Good luck to the longlisted elite; and many thanks to all who entered. There wasn’t a dud among them other than some guy who sent in a demented sample of writing IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Everyone else had good ideas, good language, good intentions. Judges have decreed that the following writers were gooder.

Cadence Chung of Wellington is the author of poetry collection anomalia (We Are Babies,$25), as well as a composer, and classical singer. She is working on a collection of short fiction “partly inspired by my experiences as a young artist in Aotearoa’s current society, and all the ethical questions that come with the highly confessional art form of poetry.”

Miro Bilbrough, a New Zealand writer living in Sydney, is the author of In The Time of the Manaroans (Victoria University Press, $40), named in ReadingRoom as the best book of nonfiction in New Zealand in 2020. She has previously been awarded writing series at the Michael King Writer’s Centre and Godfrey Cheathem Arts Residency, and is now close to the final stage of the manuscript for her novel Spring Ephemeral, “the story of impossible love between Thomas, a young man who wishes to be older, and Nina, an older woman who wishes to be younger.”

Stef Harris is a frontline cop stationed in Motueka, and the author of a crime novel, Double Jeopardy (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $37.50). He is working on The Girl from Sarajevo, a love story.

Tracy Wheeler of Auckland has nominated her 20-year-old son Lex Lawler, a Dungeon Master and tutor, who has written 16 chapters of AUDREY 366: “A near-future dystopian tale set in an America where one citizen every week is randomly chosen to become the nation’s scapegoat with a loss of privacy, autonomy, and identity, becoming known only as ‘Audrey’.”

James Pasley of Auckland is one of the very best short story writers I have ever published at ReadingRoom. He is working on a collection that includes a story titled “John Campbell.” Marvellous!

Emma Ling Sidnam is another of those very best short story writers to raise the standard at ReadingRoom these past few years. The Wellington-based writer won the 2022 Michael Gifkins Prize for her manuscript Backwaters; Text will publish her debut novel next month. She wants to work on a short collection called Ghosts. Subjects: “Sex with strangers, humans becoming animals, friends eating friends, racial fetishisation, and sexuality crises.”

Isabelle McNeur of Wellington is working on a short story collection, Strange Gaze:”Sex robots run away together. Cakes are poisoned. Dancers glow in the dark. Uni dropouts hunt for moose that may or may not exist.”

Saige England –  shout-out to her seaside village, New Brighton – is the author of The Seasonwife (David Bateman, $37.99), a historical novel based on the terrible 19th century trade in Māori heads, a subject she addresses tomorrow (Wednesday) in ReadingRoom. She is writing her second novel, No Graves For Ghosts, “a fictional dramatisation about the dark heart of colonisation in New Zealand with characters including both the puppeteers and their puppets, the mesmerisers and those who were mesmerised”.

JJ Harper of Auckland is an enfant terrible whose nonfiction provocations I like very much. He writes, “I’ve been working on putting together a collection of essays, in the vein of Camille Paglia, Jia Tolentino, Natalie Beach, Chris Kraus, etc. I see this collection as being tied together as an investigation of various hot-button topics related to generation Z’s burgeoning experience of the world.”

Craig Cliff of Dunedin sent in a still photo from The Silence of the Lambs with his application. He wrote, “I need a week (but will take four or five days) to unstick my current manuscript. I tried to ‘butterfly’ the classic crime novel: rather than start with a dead body, have the death occur in the centre of the book, after building up a fully-rounded (unsuspecting) victim. Said victim happens to work in the Births, Deaths and Marriages team in the D.I.A. at the time of the 2022 anti-mandate protests on the lawn of Parliament. His ex-wife is getting remarried and he has a one-way rivalry with the Chief Censor.” He is the author of two novels, Down the Saint and The Mannequin Makers, and the story collection A Man Melting.

Rachel Lees of Tauranga wrote, “I am working on a memoir of the year I spent as the secretary to the cult leader, a man recently featured in the hit Amazon Prime documentary Shiny, Happy People. My memoir The Grooming, documents the predatory grooming process and brainwashing and how I went in the space of a year, from a budding copywriter at a New Zealand radio station to the potential wife of a 60 year old cult leader.”

 Nat Baker of Auckland wrote the most quoteworthy entry. “Every Sunday this year, I’ve found a desk in the study space that is the hallway outside the lifts and the bathrooms at Te Manawa (Westgate) Library. I plug in my noise-cancelling earbuds and play binaural beats on a long loop via YouTube (it’s a myth, not science that listening increases creativity, but it blocks out the church group and property investment seminars that run in the adjacent meeting rooms). I sit there for five hours with my laptop and a plastic container of nuts, crackers and cheese, and write as much as I can. On my best days I can get 5000 words down. Sometimes, it feels like flying. Other times, it feels like madness…” She has written 147,500 words of a novel called Revenge. Its premise: “In the early days of the soon to be global coronavirus pandemic, Becky, a former production assistant, must return home to Auckland from London, having escaped there after failed attempts to avenge her only friend and bring down a bad boss. As Becky makes her way home, she remembers and re-imagines the previous year, she recounts what happened in an effort to repent for what she did and did not do, and most of all for the pivotal moment in which she chose to walk away – the moment which is at the heart of all their troubles. If she had stayed, if she had opened that door, might she have prevented it all from unravelling?”

The Surrey Hotel award is now in its seventh year. Previous winners and finalists include Ashleigh Young, Colleen Maria Lenihan, Talia Marshall, Nick Ascroft, John Summers, Amy McDaid and Becky Manawatu. The hotel, with its very mocking Tudor stylings, is a fantastic place to sit down and work on a manuscript: it has comfort, it has silence, it has serious vibes.

Writing is a cruel game. You get knocked back by publishers who don’t want your book, review editors who don’t want to review your book, and prize judges who don’t want to give you prizes. I have come to hate the Surrey Hotel award because in my role as advisor to a panel of four international judges, I  continually advised, “Not that one…Not this one…No…No…No.”  But 12 writers got a yes. And next week, it will be a winner, a second place, and a third place; the countdown starts here, until next week’s moment of truth, as announced by Jesse Mulligan and his golden throat.

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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