2 Mar 2017

$230,000 secret prize for Wellington writer

10:17 am on 2 March 2017

The first Wellington writer Ashleigh Young knew of the $230,000 Windham-Campbell prize was the call to say she had won it.

Ms Young, the first New Zealand writer to receive the Yale University award, said she had to clutch her head during the phone call "[because] I felt like my brains were going to spill out onto the floor".

Ashleigh Young

Ashleigh Young Photo: Supplied / Russell Kleyn

The eight annual recipients of the $US165,000 prize are nominated confidentially and judged anonymously.

The process is so secretive that Ms Young initially thought she was the target of a scam.

"I got this email that said,' Greetings from Yale University, it is important that I speak with you right away,' which immediately set off my spam alarm bells."

After conferring with her publicist, she rang the number, to be greeted by "this amazing American accent".

"He said, 'We've all been reading your book over here' ... and that I'd been awarded this marvellously generous, mindboggling, completely incomprehensible prize.

"He put me on speakerphone and all the judges were in the room and they started whooping down the line."

Ms Young is the author of a poetry collection, Magnificent Moon, and a collection of essays, Can You Tolerate This?

Since the prize was announced, she had received emails from US literary agents wanting to promote the book there.

"So it may open up some opportunities there for overseas readers," Ms Young said.

She hoped the prize might allow her to make writing more central to her life - she currently has a day job working for Victoria University Press.

"There's this lovely thought that maybe sometime soon, I'll be able to spread out a little bit more, take some time and just really enjoy writing."

She will fly to the US in September to receive the award in person at the Windham-Campbell festival at Yale.

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