Going posh at a writers festival

On Saturday, May 14, I appeared on stage for the first time at a literary festival. I could fill an entire column with the great time I had at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival (the posh-as Langham hotel, meeting big names at the writers' party), but after less than 48 hours I was off to Sydney for a lifetime of literary highlights packed into seven days.

Along with my fellow regional winners of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book - Katrina Best (Canada) and Cynthia Jele (South Africa) - I visited schools and a juvenile justice centre to run workshops and spread the word about literacy. We participated in readings and panels in the Blue Mountains, Parramatta and Walsh Bay, the heart of Sydney's festival precinct.

Sometimes we were joined by the heavy hitters, Kim Scott (author of That Deadman Dance), Aminatta Forna (The Memory of Love) and David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) who were all regional winners of Best Book. Aminatta and Kim are great writers and fun people to be around, but David was the only writer I had read for whom I harboured a man- crush.

Over breakfast one morning he held up a piece of fruit and said suddenly, "If I was made of very hard stone, I would be a granite Pommie holding a pomegranate." To which I said: "That's a passionfruit."

I befriended American publishers in the hotel lobby and we worked our way through the wine list.

On the Wednesday I wrote in my notebook: "I feel as if I have entered a sort of dissociative fugue where I'm walking around, acting like a mildly charming, erudite, self- assured young writer who belongs in this sort of company."

On Friday, as if to refute myself, I met the governor- general of Australia, thought she was mocking my accent (she wasn't) and got defensive.

Saturday: I featured in a panel on the Australian sense of humour with a radio personality/20-year columnist and a standup comedian/ author. At the signing table I sold books to my fellow panellists and no-one else. After a bite to eat I appeared on another panel, this time about bromance (I admitted my thing for Mitchell, knowing he was somewhere else at the time).

That evening, Cynthia, Katrina, Aminatta, Kim, David and I read from our books and stage-chatted with Australian TV host Jennifer Byrne before the overall winners of Best First Book and Best Book were announced. A large lady from the Macquarie Foundation opened the first envelope and read out my name. Stunned, I stood, walked over to Ms Macquarie and the governor- general, shook her hand for a second time, and muddled my way through a speech I thought so unlikely I'd not bothered to organise my thoughts (I forgot to thank my fiancee who was there).

But even if Cynthia's or Katrina's or the absent Mischa Hiller's name had been read out, it would still have been the best week an unknown short-story writer (and policy analyst) from New Zealand could have hoped for.

Craig Cliff is a journalist and a prize-winning author. He writes a fortnightly column.

The Dominion Post