Cox, Nigel

Cox, Nigel


Primary publisher
Te Herenga Waka University Press

In Brief

Novelist and essayist Nigel Cox was born in Pahiatua and grew up in the Wairarapa and Lower Hutt. His early working life was varied: advertising account executive, assembly line worker at Ford, deck hand, coalman, door-to-door turkey salesman, driver. Eventually, in the UK, he found his way into the book world, working for many years as a bookseller and a freelance writer. The author of six novels, Cox was awarded the Buckland Literary Award in 1988 and the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in 1991. Cox was senior writer for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, before moving to Berlin as Head of Communication and Interpretation at the Jewish Museum. Nigel Cox passed away in 2006 after a long illness.


Cox, Nigel (1951–2006), novelist, was born in Pahiatua and grew up in the Wairarapa and Lower Hutt.

His two novels, Waiting for Einstein (1984) and Dirty Work (1987), were written during the period in which he worked as a bookseller in Auckland and Wellington (1977–93). Both Cox’s novels are set in and around Wellington. Waiting for Einstein chronicles the attempts of Ralph, who lives in the Wellington fringe community of Pukerua Bay, to succeed as a painter and writer. Ralph the writer takes an active part in Cox’s narrative by contributing a story which is serialised through the novel. Ralph’s intention may be to ‘pull off this solitary artist thing’, but, as Lawrence Jones notes, Cox surrounds his protagonist with a small group of ‘clearly delineated characters’ whose intense interactions are like ‘a kind of dance of relationship, as in a D.H. Lawrence novel’ (Journal of New Zealand Literature 3, 1985, p. 26).

Dirty Work also focuses on a small group of characters, the inmates (‘management’ and ‘guests’) of a Wellington doss house called the Happy World Hotel. Gina, an aspiring trapeze artist and assistant to the manager, gets drawn into the lives of the Happy World’s long-stay residents: those broken-winged citizens who conduct life in the hotel’s cheerless rooms and dark hallways. Inevitably, as Gina’s allegiance swings towards the guests, she comes into conflict with Hendy, the Happy World’s controlling, intolerant owner. Jan Chilwell notes that Cox brings to both his novels ‘a strong moral sense’ and a ‘conviction that the individual has a responsibility to work towards a better world’ (NZ Listener, 28 Nov. 1987).

Cox was awarded the Buckland Literary Award in 1988 and the 1991 Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. In 1993 he left bookselling to become a freelance writer and, two years later, took up a position as senior writer for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.


Nigel Cox was the 1991 recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France.

Nigel Cox's third novel Skylark Lounge (2000) broke a thirteen-year literary silence. Its hero, Jack Grout, is abducted by aliens. As if that wasn't enough for one middle-aged man to cope with, Jack's wife leaves him, he undergoes treatment for cancer, and his teenage son punches him in the head. Tough times for a man who just wants enjoy a new life in his newly acquired pool hall, the Skylark Lounge.

Cox has published articles including one on his time as a Menton fellow in From a Room of Their Own (1994) and one on the Kiwi holiday institution, 'At the Bach', in The Best of New Zealand Geographic (1995). He contributed an introductory essay to The Art of the New Zealand Tattoo (1994).

In early 2000, Cox left New Zealand to take up a position as Head of Communication and Interpretation at the Jewish Museum, Berlin.

His fourth novel is Tarzan Presley, published by Victoria University Press in 2004. Raised by gorillas in the wild jungles of New Zealand, scarred in battles with vicious giant wetas, seduced by a beautiful young scientist, discovered by Memphis record producer Sam Phillips and adored by millions - the dirt-to-dreams life story of Tarzan Presley is as legendary as his 30 number one hits. That story came to a dramatic end in 1977 when Tarzan took his own life. Through its hypnotic fusing of two mythic lives, Tarzan and Elvis, this novel takes on some of the founding fables of our culture. In the guise of a joyous adventure story, it slyly poses questions about genius, fame, failure and love.

From its boldly funny opening page, the novel re-imagines the facts, and from then on the reader surrenders to one of the most extraordinary narrators in our literature: speculative, sexy, outlandish and tender. In a pulpy world, Tarzan Presley rewrites the lyrics of the familiar, giving us a wondrous new song.
It received some glowing reviews, such as this by Sean Monaghan from The Press: 'This is a passionate, powerful work by a writer in command of his narrative, an experienced, assured voice. Cox has created a vivid, lively story that lingers, that makes you think, but above all, a story that entertains.'

Tarzan Presley was a fiction category runner-up at the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Responsibility is Cox's fifth novel (Victoria University Press, 2005), a darkly comic thriller set in contemporary Berlin. It is written with ironic awareness of the hardboiled detective fiction cliches which lie behind every twist and turn. The novel was a fiction category runner-up at the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Dirty Work was reprinted by Victoria University Press in 2006.

Sadly, Nigel Cox passed away on 28 July 2006 after a long illness. His sixth novel, The Cowboy Dog, was published posthumously by Victoria University Press in November of the same year.

The Cowboy Dog was a runner-up in the fiction category at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Phone Home Berlin (Victoria University Press, 2008) is a collection of Cox's non-fiction writings, published by friend and publisher Fergus Barrowman in collaboration with his widow, Susanna Andrew. Lloyd Jones says of it: 'Cox is a terrific diarist. Nothing seems to escape his eye. Such is the level of confidentiality that the reader is totally trusting.' (Listener, 26 January 2008, Vol 212)


Updated February 2022.