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Writer in line for a ‘Grand’ prize

A finalist’s spot in the country’s most prestigious literary awards, a residence at a renowned creative institution, and an upcoming podcast series – it’s fair to say life is “grand” for Noelle McCarthy.

The Featherston local is one of just 20 writers shortlisted for the 2023 Ockhams New Zealand Book Awards – with her memoir Grand: Becoming My Mother’s Daughter in contention for the top prize in the General Non-Fiction category.

Sixteen works across four categories have been named as finalists, whittled down from the original 44 on the long list, released last month.

McCarthy’s Grand is the only memoir to have made the shortlist – up against an exploration of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and its English text, a collection of stories from Te Tai Tokerau iwi, and a biography of notorious Whanganui Mayor Charles Mackay.

Grand [Penguin, 2022], the first full-length book for journalist and podcaster McCarthy, explores her upbringing in 1990s Ireland, successful broadcasting career, and overcoming generational trauma.

At the heart of the memoir is her tumultuous relationship with her late mother Carol, whose own religious upbringing had a lasting impact on her family.

McCarthy, also in the running for a special Ockhams award for first-time authors, said she was delighted “to be in the company of such brilliant writers” on both the short and long list. Among these were decorated Kiwi wordsmiths Kate Camp and Dame Fiona Kidman, whose memoirs Grand beat for a spot in finals.

“I didn’t want to expect anything. I’ve been through the process several times before with media awards – it’s always subjective, and you can’t predict what they’re looking for,” McCarthy said.

“You have to be realistic, but you always hope you’ll do well!

“I feel so lucky and honoured. All the feedback I’ve received for Grand has been wonderful – and overwhelming. I wrote it at home in Featherston, starting on an A4 refill pad from Whitcoulls. It was my story, and now it’s almost got nothing to do with me – the story belongs to everyone who has read it.”

McCarthy was born and raised in Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city, and relocated to Auckland in her twenties.

There, she began her career in broadcasting: Hosting overnight talkback segments on Newstalk ZB, then spending eight years as a producer and presenter for RNZ.

In 2017, she and husband John Daniell founded their podcast creation company, Bird of Paradise Productions, which has produced content for national media platforms – including the Voyager Media Award-winning “Getting Better”, produced by McCarthy and then trainee doctor Emma Espiner.

McCarthy is currently the 2023 Writer in Residence at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters – a creative writing programme known for producing some of the country’s leading contemporary writers.

While at Victoria University, she will deliver presentations to post-graduate students and help to mentor aspiring writers – as well as having mostly uninterrupted space to work on her second book.

“I’ve never had the space just to write. While writing Grand, I was working full-time and looking after my daughter – so I’d take notes wherever I could around the house.

“At Victoria, I’ve actually got my own desk! Virginia Woolf was right: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.’”

McCarthy’s newest work is inspired by her love of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and delves into the enduring pop cultural impact of the vampire character.

“I picked up Dracula when I was 14, and I couldn’t put it down – it sucks you in and doesn’t let go. It’s shaped my life ever since,” she said.

“I feel like Count Dracula still walks alongside me. There’s so much to unpack about the force vampires exert in literature. What makes them so compelling, dangerous and seductive?”

As if life wasn’t busy enough – McCarthy will shortly start work on a new long-form podcast, to feature on The Spinoff later this year.

In June, she will return to Ireland to celebrate the release of Grand in her home country.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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