Mail journalist scoops top award

18:58, Aug 26 2015
Naomi trophy
BIG IS BETTER: An emotional feature about her mother has won Nelson Mail reporter Naomi Arnold first place in a US competition and this massive trophy.

A Nelson Mail journalist has earned her spurs, beating top United States journalists to win a prestigious award in the heart of Texas.

Nelson Mail feature writer and columnist Naomi Arnold won first place in a personal essay competition as part of the three-day Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Dallas, Texas at the weekend.

For the win she received what she described as an unwieldy trophy, consisting of "a hunk of Texan wood with a big star and a real working spur on top".

"Everything is bigger in Texas I suppose."

The essay focused on a three-month visit by her mother earlier this year, and was "kind of experimental and really personal", she said.

"I just kind of stabbed myself in the heart and bled all over the page." She had not told her mother about the story, so would need to break that to her soon, as the story will be published in a book at next year's conference.


She had been "shocked" to win, she said. "I was halfway through a glass of wine when they called my name. I didn't know anyone, no-one knew me, and everyone must have gone: ‘Who? Where? What the hell?'

"I think I was just standing up there looking stunned. Afterwards most people then asked me if New Zealand was really like Lord of the Rings and if Kiwis were really like Flight of the Conchords. I said yes to both."

She also won a cheque for US$3000 (NZ$3760).

She did not think anyone outside the United States had won before. Other prize winners have gone on to secure agents and book deals.

The judges were US journalists, literary critics, professors, editors and authors. She also reached the top 50 finalists for a reported narrative about Nelson woman Sarah Allsopp's long struggle with chronic regional pain syndrome, a piece originally reported in the Nelson Mail.

She was attending the conference as part of a University of Canterbury Robert Bell travelling scholarship, travelling the US to research the digital delivery of long-form journalism.

The more than 30 conference keynote speakers included New Yorker, Vogue, Rolling Stone writers and The Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and military historian Rick Atkinson and National Magazine Award winner Skip Hollandsworth.

Everyone was spellbinding, inspiring, and some were very moving, Arnold said. There was also a panel on digital longform writing, useful for her research paper, she said.

It had been simultaneously inspiring, motivating and jealousy-inducing to see that the journalists spent months or years immersed in a single amazing story while being paid for it, with days buried in old archives and travelling to places to check out their history. "That would be my ultimate goal as a reporter."

She is now in Boston, and travels to New York to continue her trip this week.