The 48 hour winners: Queenstown Writers Festival 2023

Dec 02, 2023

From the Queenstown Writers Festival:

"From Rakiura to Ōamaru, Bannockburn to Limehills, we received entries from all over Otago and Southland – and were amazed by the quality and crafting of the writing submitted.

Open category judge Steve Braunias enjoyed stories about murderers, about hunting, about unhappy childhoods, and vivid settings that ranged from backcountry huts to the Beehive to Lake Wakatipu.

"The best writing showed evidence of really good reading. The sheer joy of language and the fun of making something up are things that give readers huge pleasure and make them want to become writers, to see what fun and what joy they can have on the page," he said.

First place went to Jane Coombs of Queenstown, and her story Elsie’s Dream, about an 85-year-old widow who likes to sleep outside on the veranda, and tells her two sons where she'd like to be buried.

"Elsie is such a great character. You can hear her voice, feel her strength and resolve. The sentences are sharp. Every word counts and no more so than the words of the closing sentences: "Elsie stopped in the orchard and picked a ripe cherry. The blood red juice stained her lips and she savoured each of the flavours it offered, one by one." This is such good writing and what separates it from the rest is the depth of feeling.”

Jane wins $500 and her story will be published in the summer edition of 1964, as well as on our website.

In second place was Bushbash "an expert piece of storytelling" by Trevor Lloyd, a rural hospital doctor who lives near Bannockburn. The judge’s comment was, “There were times when I was reading it that I wondered if the author was that grand master of short fiction, Owen Marshall. It's that good, that compelling. The author keeps you guessing what's going on at the Lodge in Tuatapere. I think it's something bad. The author writes, "There was a single shot, but still no sign of the men." Someone should film this story: it's made for the screen.” Well done, Trevor!

Two stories shared third place, with Steve saying “I didn't have the heart to choose one over the other; they were both so good, and so different to each other. Carrion tells the mysterious story of hikers who book Meadow Hut only to find a stranger is already there, a girl who "stared down at us with possum eyes". It's strange and creepy. The House on Jeden Street is stranger, and creepier. It's about the murder of a family. It's based on…Well, I think you can figure it out. The street number of their house is 65.”

Carrion was written by Camille Khouri, a fiction writer, journalist and copywriter living in Queenstown, and The House on Jeden Street is by Mosgiel-born, Wanaka-based mechanical engineer Wayne Martin.

Judge Michael Bennett was thrilled with the quality of entries from Year 9 - 13 entrants who were no doubt juggling school exams and a busy time of year.

He was especially blown away by Southland Boys High School student Oshadha Perera's story Three Stars.

"This is beautiful writing." Michael said. "Your writing creates a deeply emotional experience for the reader that is even more evocative because your writing style is so sparse and understated. The central metaphor of looking for Orion in the skies, which was such an act of love and togetherness for the narrator and her family when mum was here, is very powerful – and the writer demonstrates they have absolutely terrific writing instincts by using this uniting metaphor as a deeply moving echo in the first and last sentences of this story. This whole piece is very strong, and some moments are just stunning. "Sometimes, I watched you stare into the fridge" is just outstanding writing that paints a complete picture of grief in one sentence.”

Jane Bloomfield declared all 67 entrants in the tamariki (year 1 to 8) competition writers, and winners. She also gave some excellent advice for future entrants:

“The big drawcard for me when judging short stories (especially when there are set prompts) is discovering original and inventive approaches to the task at hand, settings that come alive on the page, strong characters, inventions I haven’t thought of, and playful language. Don’t be afraid to take risks with your stories. With something like a natural disaster prompt, for example, you really need to make your story stand out in the crowd shouting and waving a protest banner.”

There could only be one winner of the $100 prize money, though, and that was Halfmoon Bay School student Sayla Ware, who wrote The Desk. Jane comments:

"In just three paragraphs, 403 words, we learn a whole life. The prose is rich, poetic and imaginative with keen observations of every tiny detail. “On the sides of the desk are patterns, carved lovingly by hand. The patterns are far-off places, no one has visited, and no one will.” We discover early in the piece that the desk is ancient and has lived a full creative life of story-telling along with its elderly female owner."

Book vouchers for five highly commended writers. The winners are: Remarkables Primary School student Sophie Devlin, Queenstown Primary School (Queenstown) student Jasmin Obermoser, Shotover Primary School student Nia Madden, Te Kura Whakatipu o Kawarau student Kate Lim and St Mary's Mosgiel student Alyssa Hughes."

For more details visit the Queenstown Writers Festival website.

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