Author Chris Stuart with his award-winning book For Reasons Of Their Own.
A Nelson woman has won a major literary award for her first crime story, but where she gets the award is still a mystery.
Author Chris Stuart won the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for best first novel – an annual award for crime and thriller books by debut authors.
She is now excited to see how her own story as a writer develops.
Stuart herself has had an interesting life, where she spent many years as an international humanitarian worker, during which a bomb attack in Sudan caused her to turn her hand to write a novel.
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Her self-published book, For their own reasons, takes place in Melbourne, while the city is on the brink of wildfires, burning heat waves and the potential threat of terrorism. The novel revolves around a flawed detective, a former refugee and a government desperate to abuse a dead body to reshape Australia’s security policy.
As a 10-year-old at the Addington Convent School in Christchurch, Stuart had been commissioned by nuns to write to a famous person. She chose to write to Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh and had never imagined that after 55 years she would win an award named after the successful New Zealand crime writer.
She went on to become a nurse, but later completed a master’s degree in international and community development, where she spent almost 20 years working around the world in the humanitarian sector for organizations such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, the UN and AusAID. She has worked in outback Australia with Aboriginal communities, war zones, disasters, amidst disease outbreaks and famine, mainly in developmental roles.
For their own reasons, she says, started as an autobiography and ended as a novel based on truth with a twist of fiction.
“If you take the body out of it, it’s about the work I did and the people I worked with as a humanitarian worker,” she said.
“It challenges the reader to define what it means to be safe. It’s about power and being powerless. It’s about the ambiguity of murder.”
Stuart said she had no idea where it would lead her to win the Ngaio Marsh Award, and it was exciting.
“My bonfire has been lit and I just want to get better and better.”
The desire to write a book was triggered many years ago while Stuart was working in Sudan and was caught in a bomb attack on a city.
“I woke up early one morning and I thought men were delivering concrete,” she said. “The city was bombed by southern rebel forces.”
After eventually being picked up by the UN and led to their territory, someone gave her a John Irving book to read as a distraction. She found it absorbing.
“It was great to be in another world when the world you were in was pretty full.”
Ten years ago, she decided to start writing her novel. After spending two years writing it, she thought it was not very good, so took some writing courses in Australia, where she lived, and eventually she learned that all the time she thought she had wasted on writing his book, in fact, was a valuable experience.
“You have to go through it. You have to know what you do not know, no one else can teach you.”
Stuart, who has lived in Nelson for five years, completed his novel last June and is now writing a sequel, which will be completed next year. Writing, she says, consumes her.
“I live in a parallel universe,” she laughed.
Although she never expected to win the Ngaio Marsh Prize, she knew her novel “could hold its own”.
“More than anything else, it confirms that I can write, that I can tell a story, and I can write a good story.”
For their own reasons is available through the Chris Stuart website, at Page and Blackmore or Paper Plus bookstores in Nelson.