My Prime Minister’s Award Speech

For about ten years between when their daughters left home and Dad lost his licence and confidence after a couple of accidents while reversing in the supermarket car park, he and Mum would go on long late summer, exploratory driving holidays. Dad with his two Canons, photographing landscape – the sun-blistered jarrah waterwheel at Mount White Station where Mum’s father had spent the first twenty-one years of his life; or terns on the glistening sand of the estuary at Pakawau.

Mum would collect stones. Not the geologists’ pink quartz, or olivines, or Separation Point granite, but stones for which she had her own names – honeycomb or ice cream. One year in Jackson’s Bay Mum left her whole holiday’s stash on the porch of their motel – and it vanished overnight.

There had been a friendly weka that evening eyeing up their plates of boxed chicken chow mein. The weka was Mum’s prime suspect. “Blow me down, my stones were all gone,” Mum wrote me on a postcard. “Bother him, the jolly nuisance” and “I’m miffed.”

When I’m writing. I often think of Mum’s words – the way her time sits inside them, as time sits inside all words. And I think of her weka.

There are things I summon to mind whenever I sit down to write something difficult – either painful and knotty, or some scene on which a whole novel depends – and there are a lot of those. Some days I’m loading a revolver, thumbing the brass cases of bullets into the chamber of a gun. More often I’m Mum’s thieving weka, patiently and illicitly moving valuables from one place to another, porch to page in my case. But even though I’m alone and any writing room is the dark depths of night, unlike the weka I’m shifting things from hidden to visible.

The writing life is like that – it isn’t the movie montage of a writer peering at a screen and biting their thumbnail, a wastepaper basket overflowing with balled up pages beside them. It isn’t the other gigs, though they’re part of it – being the teacher who motivates and illuminates, or the speaker who moves people with sermons or showmanship. The writing life is quiet and wild, and covert, and I’m very grateful to all the people who, over the years, have enabled me. For the confidence and goodwill of Creative New Zealand and the Arts Foundation of New Zealand; for the ongoing energy of the International Institute of Modern Letters, of bookshops and libraries and writers festivals; for the kind support of friends; for the valiant support of publishers, particularly Victoria University Press; and for the brave and sustained support of my family, my sister Sara, my son Jack, and always, always Fergus. And, in the end, my readers who, whenever they climb into bed and crack the spine of any of my books are the same as me – quiet and wild and private. Their attention and interest is the life of books, and the afterlife of writers.

Elizabeth Knox and PM Jacinda Ardern

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