The judges admitted they needed to have an “argument” to settle the hotly-contested Once upon a Deadline competition in front of several hundred people at the Wellington Town Hall on Monday night.
Six writers ended up making the starting line, and wrote the locations that they visited during the day and the experiences they had into the story. They wrote in a cage at the airport, a classroom at Wellington College, next to the cheese fridge, a coffee roastery / cafe and had A Day in Pompeii – the current exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa.
The results? Stunning, relentless quality writing, inspired in scope and authentic in voice – and that’s what won Dianna Fuemana top prize. Her story, The Necklace, centred on the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Samoan couple and their son (who had a thing for melons). It was captivating tale, delivered with great timing and humour. Subtly-crafted, this was a real pearl of a story, made under the intense pressure of a competition.
David Geary thanked the minders and his editors, saying the writers got to behave “abominably” for a day. He got the lion’s share of the laughs and a fair snort of sympathy with Daddy’s going Potty, a story about a father unravelling under the day to day stress of parenthood. It resonated well with the audience who shared his pain when he said “I’d confess to any crime for some sleep”. If that wasn’t enough suffering, he also described the agony of trying to read Andre Agassi’s Open – nine times.
In The Inspiration, Neil Cross, scriptwriter for UK TV series Spooks, described how the stories “swerved to avoid” him all day. The nail-biting desperation driving him to consider bumping all the other writers off was like fireworks – peppered with sparky energy and wit. It was also delivered at such pace that it just about left you out of breath – like a writing marathon should. I look forward to seeing more of him at this festival.
Pip Hall delivered an incredibly structured and clever piece. A slow burner called Title, it ran through the elements of a short story, paid homage to Owen Marshall and gradually built up a brilliant conclusion where the title of the story was revealed. All of her side-story explorations compounded to add to the piece – the possibilities and permutations showed just how many ideas she had – the end form was rock solid and entertaining.
Impressive too were the two younger writers who stepped up to the challenge. Lucy O’Brien confidently delivered Shitzu on fire – a moody and intense piece about a young school leaver’s relationship with his mum – and it ended with a real slap. Some great imagery such as “her chicken throat moves up and down”, and some eager support from the audience set the scene for the rest of the night.
Eli Kent – one of David Geary’s students – warned the audience his story was dark, and he didn’t disappoint with his energetic and pacy delivery of The boy with the f*****-up face, about an ex-con now working in the fish department of the supermarket. He had a great turn of phrase and enjoyed delivering his characters’ words. His shirt could have been straight out of a Pompeii lava flow – a scorchingly hot orange.
So if this is what Wellington has in store, we’re off to a pretty fine start. All of these stories would last on a page. Look out for these writers around the place – you won’t be disappointed. I hope Robert Mac, who developed the Once upon a Deadline concept, achieves his dream of taking this global – it’s a great format which strips away some of the mystery and the hoodoo about writing, and allows the writers to shine.