Non-fiction and the fact of the matter

by The Kermadecs on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 

Speech by Greg O'Brien (right), given at 2012 Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement.

I wish I could say that my origins as a non-fiction writer lay in a childhood devoted to telling only the truth. However, my earlier self is remembered more for making things up, doodling, for an imaginative excess. I fell into non-fiction, headlong and unintentionally—and this, briefly, is how it happened. I began as a poet and book-illustrator. Among my first published illustrations, mid-1980s, was a suite of charcoal drawings to accompany an excerpt from a soon-to-published book called BEING PAKEHA, written by Michael King, with whom I discussed the assignment in the offices of New Outlook magazine, Auckland.

Some time later the publishers Heinemann / Reed came upon a crackerjack bundle of photo-portraits of New Zealand writers by Robert Cross and they needed some non-fiction to haul alongside. They asked Michael if he would do it and, lucky for me, he was too busy; he then came up with the dubious suggestion that they bring on board this youthful poet/illustrator he had met. A young man with time on his hands. The resultant book, Moments of Invention, was my grand excuse to trawl the country interviewing poets, novelists and short story writers. Hence began my serious education. I had cups of tea with Janet Frame in Albert Park; ate Welsh rarebit with Hone Tuwhare in Dundas St, Dunedin. Recalling those and other long conversations—with Mahy, Curnow, Shadbolt—it is as if I am in the presence of my ancestors. Here in this tumultuous, percolating library the exact size and shape of New Zealand.

I spun my advance of $1500 out for nearly a year, living on nothing but the goodness of the writing tribe. Let's forget about the economics of what we do. If you hold with the fiscal model—as we're so often told to in the modern world—then the last 25 years of my life have been an abject and dismal failure. (That said, these last few weeks have been a dramatic and gratefully received glitch.)

Upon publication, Moments of Invention was reviewed approvingly by Michael King. Although he did have one major reservation, and a fair one it was: amidst all the poets and novelists I had interviewed, there were no Non-Fiction writers. They were, he said, creative souls too! It is poetic justice that I am standing here today receiving the non-fiction award. I think Michael would have enjoyed this.

Full address here.