Damien Wilkins writes fiction, and he has published short stories, novels, and poetry. His writing has been described as ‘exuberant and evocative, subtle and exact, aware of its own artifice yet relishing the idiosyncrasies and possibilities of language’. Wilkins has had books published in New Zealand, the USA and the UK, and he has won and been nominated for a range of prizes and awards. He also edited the award-winning anthology, Great Sporting Moments: The best of Sport magazine 1988-2004 published in 2005.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Wilkins, Damien (1963– ), one of the most distinctive fiction writers to emerge in the 1980s, was born in Lower Hutt and educated there and at Victoria University (BA Hons, 1984). After university teaching and travelling overseas, he became assistant editor at Victoria University Press in 1988, leaving in 1990 to do an MFA in creative writing at Washington University, St Louis. Since 1992 he has been a full-time writer and occasional writing tutor in Wellington.
Wilkins’s short stories first appeared in Sport and other periodicals in the late 1980s. His accomplished and varied story collection, The Veteran Perils (1990), was joint winner of the inaugural Heinemann Reed Fiction Award.
He has since published an unexpected book of poems, The Idles (1993), and two novels: The Miserables (1993), a multi-layered portrait of a young man’s developing literary sensibility, which won the 1994 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction; and Little Masters (1996), a comedy of manners deriving from intersecting relationships and geographical dislocations. Wilkins is also known for his astute literary reviews and critical essays.
Central to his fiction is the close observation of character, especially the disjunction between the perceptions of self and of others, between desire and outcome, revealed as much in quirky incidents as at times of crisis, and engendering pathos as well as comedy. His writing is exuberant and evocative, subtle and exact, aware of its own artifice yet relishing the idiosyncrasies and possibilities of language; control now seems more sure. Looking to European and American models (his work is published also in the UK and USA), Wilkins is potentially the finest New Zealand fiction writer of his generation.
Damien Wilkins's The Miserables won the 1994 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction, now known as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Wilkins was the 2000 Victoria University Writers' Fellow. That year he released Nineteen Windows Under Ash (VUP), a novel set in America's Pacific Northwest under the shadow of a newly-active volcano. It was a runner up in the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, now known as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Wilkins's novel Chemistry (2002), is a story about bad choices and those who suffer the consequences. In Paul Whittaker’s review in The Guardian, he says, ‘the writing is full of verve. Wilkins has an eye for telling detail, a great ear for dialogue and a dark sense of humour. It is easy to understand the acclaim he has already won in his native New Zealand.’
When Famous People Come to Town (2002) is one of twelve titles in the Montana Estates essay series published by Four Winds Press. The press was established by Lloyd Jones to encourage and develop the essay genre.
Damien Wilkins edited Great Sporting Moments: The Best of Sport Magazine 1988-2004, published by Victoria University Press in 2005. The work received the Montana Award for Reference and Anthology at the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, now known as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
The Fainter (Victoria University Press, 2006), is the story of Luke, a young diplomat on his first overseas posting. He’s in New York, preparing for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Named as 'Book of the Week', Nelson Wattie in the Dominion Post said, 'Nobody interested in local literature should fail to read this book. Neither should anyone who simply enjoys a beautifully crafted work of fiction.'
The Fainter appeared on the 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Shortlist as one of the Best Books in the South East Asia and South Pacific region.
The novel was also the fiction category runner-up at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, now known as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
In 2008, Wilkins was awarded the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize, now the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the prize is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France, where the iconic writer Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote.
In Somebody Loves Us All (Victoria University Press, 2009), speech therapist Paddy knows better than most how our speech marks us and shapes our destiny, but even he is totally unprepared when his mother Teresa wakes up one morning speaking in a heavy French accent. Amy Brown reviewed the book and said ‘Somebody Loves Us All, like Wilkins’ previous novels, is a work of literary and emotional subtlety. It communicates a complex situation as comprehensibly as possible. The novel’s final, serendipitous line provides a note of sentimentality. Sentimentality, often descriptive of triteness, is, in this case, right. It is a clear expression of a subtle mood, which perhaps reveals a deep understanding of what it means to be human' (Scoop, 2009).
Damien Wilkins was interviewed by Lynn Freeman in the anthology, Words Chosen Carefully, edited by Siobhan Harvey (Cape Catley Ltd, 2010).
Wilkins is Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, Wellington. He was also a 2013 Arts Foundation Laureate Award recipient.
Wilkins' novel Max Gate was published by Victoria University Press in 2013. It is a finalist in the Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014. Max Byrd of the New York Times said in his review: ‘Damien Wilkins, a New Zealand novelist, has made the inspired decision in “Max Gate” to imagine the last week of Hardy’s life and to tell the story in the voice of Hardy’s real-life housemaid, ¬Nellie Titterington, whose vitality practically vaults off the page while her master’s strength ebbs away upstairs. The result is a wonderful and truthful portrait of Hardy (though he never leaves his sickroom) and an extraordinary descent into the loveless prison of his marriage.’
In 2015 he was a guest writer at the Adelaide Writers' Week, at WorldFest in Calgary, and at the Vancouver Writers festival.
He launched his eighth novel Dad Art (Victoria University Press, 2016) during Writers Week in Wellington. It has been longlisted for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. John Sinclair has reviewed it, calling Dad Art 'a short novel, slight even, but deft, and it adds to the list of likeable, though not quite admirable characters with which Wilkins has charmed readers for two decades: competent, scrupulous about their social and familial duties, but knocked off their perch into the uneasy condition of emotional outsiders' (New Zealand Metro, 2016).
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Damien Wilkins' staff profile on International Institute of Modern Letters
- Damien Wilkins' profile on The Arts Foundation site
- Damien Wilkins' profile on Playmarket site
- New Zealand Books interview with Damien Wilkins
- New Zealand Herald article on Damien Wilkins and writing Somebody Loves Us All
- Radio New Zealand review of Somebody Loves Us All
- Scoop article on Damien Wilkins and writing Somebody Loves Us All
- Booksellers New Zealand review of Max Gate
- New Zealand Herald review of Max Gate
- New Zealand Listener review of Max Gate
- 2020 Auckland Writers Festival teaching resource
Updated December 2016.