Early trading between Maori and European settlers, and a domestic violence case in which a man throws a stapler at his wife's head, helped two up-and-coming authors win the country's highest accolade for emerging writers.
Wellington PhD student Hamish Clayton won the New Zealand Society of Authors Best First Book Award for Fiction for his debut novel, Wulf.
The book welds together a cryptic 10th-century British poem of the same name with the story of attempts by British trader John Stewart to trade with Maori chief Te Rauparaha.
Clayton said the idea for the book came to him in the middle of the night.
"The poem is fantastically illusive, sad and evocative. It came to me that line by line the atmosphere created by the poem worked with the Te Rauparaha story."
From the initial idea came months of research and writing, using historical events but giving the narrators – sailors aboard Stewart's ship – a kind of "Chinese whispers" way of retelling the stories.
"Regardless of whether the stories are completely accurate, they're based on something historical recorded somewhere. I didn't make much up but I did let the story tellers let their imaginations run wild."
Awards' convener Chris Bourke said the judges described Wulf as one of the most memorable debut novels in recent times.
"Hamish Clayton's first novel is a work of bravura lyricism, a brilliant feat of imagining that transforms historical events which occurred in early 19th century New Zealand into metaphor and myth."
A series of poems and short prose about a fictional domestic violence case won district court and family court judge John Adams the award for poetry.
The 64-year-old Aucklander's debut book, Briefcase, marries law and poetry with a series of related pieces looking at different aspects of a court trial, such as a police summary of facts and a victim impact statement.
"Law is very saturated in language, so it's not so surprising [to combine law and poetry]."
Mr Bourke said the judges considered Briefcase to be a challenging, creative and moving collection.
"His experimentation with form depends upon the heart as much as it does the intellect."
Designer Michael Smythe took the NZSA Best First Book Award for Non-Fiction with his work, New Zealand by Design.
The awards were part of the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Each category winner received $2500.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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