Sargeson Prize winner praises prestigious award ahead of 2023 entries opening

28 March 2023

2022 Sargeson Prize winner Leeanne O'Brien

Winning New Zealand’s richest short story competition, the Sargeson Prize, “stitched an egg of possibility” into Leeanne O'Brien that she might make it as a writer.

The Piha resident and legislative drafter won $10,000 in the 2022 Open Division with her story ‘Crawl Space’.

“The Sargeson Prize has mana and, even now, after all the flurry and publicity has died down, that gift remains - to encourage me to keep going,” Leeanne says.

Entries in the 2023 competition open on April 1, and Leeanne urges other writers to enter.

“There are only a handful of literary prizes like the Sargeson Prize available in New Zealand. If you don’t enter, you will never be in the running to be plucked from the basket, bewildered, astonished, and thrilled.”

Leeanne says the benefit of winning is not only the prize money but the recognition - something she hopes may open doors when trying to have work published.

Leeanne, who broke her back in a car accident in 2021 and is awaiting spinal surgery, says she is looking forward to sharing her work when she is feeling better.

“I have been hampered by my health and do not have enough material to present to anybody yet, but this prize will definitely help me when I do.”

The Sargeson Prize was established in 2019 by Waikato University Creative Writing senior lecturer and award-winning author Catherine Chidgey and has grown year on year - from 728 entries in 2019 to 1125 in 2022.

Vincent O'Sullivan is this year's Sargeson Prize judge
Judge Vincent O’Sullivan says there's a particular pleasure in judging this year's Sargeson Prize. Photo credit: Grant Maiden

This year’s judge is Vincent O’Sullivan, an acclaimed poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor and librettist.

He says there are no rules to a short story.

“All it has to do is convince completely in the limited space it has. The challenge is to make your people convincing as they move through time, so that at the end the reader thinks, ‘Yes, how complete that feels. It needs nothing more.’”

It's also, first and foremost, through the quality of the writing that a story lives, Vincent adds. Whatever else a story is about, it is always about the way it is written.

Vincent remembers that when he began writing short stories in his twenties, just how much it meant that Frank Sargeson was warmly encouraging. In a sense, he came full circle when invited to give the Frank Sargeson lecture at Waikato University in 2015. He taught in the English Department at the University between 1968-78.

“I feel it an honour to engage with Sargeson again on a campus I warmly remember.”

Catherine Chidgey
The Sargeson Prize was established in 2019 by Waikato University Creative Writing senior lecturer Catherine Chidgey

A goal of the Sargeson Prize is to celebrate and promote New Zealand short story writers - both new and established, says Catherine.

While not everyone can win, she loves reading the wide-ranging work from across Aotearoa and watching the entries pour in - especially on the last day.

“My favourite task of all is ringing the winners to deliver the good news.”

Leeanne admits she had a hard time believing that she had won, telling Catherine on the telephone that there must be a mistake and she needed to re-check.

“It took some persistence on her part for me to accept that the judge at the time, Dame Fiona Kidman, a writer I enormously respect, had chosen my story,” recalls Leeanne.

As the country’s richest short story competition, the grand prize in the Open Division is $10,000.

The Secondary Schools Division first prize has increased this year from $500 to $2,000, and the winner will also receive a one-week summer writing residency at the University, including accommodation and meals at one of the Halls of Residence, writing space in the School of Arts, and mentoring - a taste of the feedback the Creative Writing papers at Waikato offer new writers.

Winning stories will be published online on ReadingRoom.

“We need big, national short-story competitions of this nature to foster our writers in this exciting genre,” says Catherine. “I’m so proud the University - in addition to being a centre of excellence in the teaching of Creative Writing - makes it all possible.”

Entries for the Sargeson Prize open on April 1 and close on June 30.

About Vincent O’Sullivan

Vincent O'Sullivan has received a number of prizes and residencies, including the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, the Michael King Writers Fellowship, the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, and New Zealand Poet Laureate 2013-2015. He has several times won the Ockham awards or their earlier equivalents. He now lives in Port Chalmers.

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