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Johnson, Stephanie
Writer's File

Stephanie Johnson

New Zealand
Johnson, Stephanie
In brief

Stephanie Johnson has published collections of poetry and short stories, and her numerous novels have received many significant awards. Her dramatic work for stage and radio is similarly recognised. Johnson’s writing is not restricted to any particular genre, and her subject matter varies between books, her style ‘marked by a dry irony, a sharp-edged humour’. Her writing is recognized locally and internationally, and the awards she has been nominated for reflect her broad appeal.

  • Primary publisher
    Vintage, Random House New Zealand
  • Rights enquiries
    Harriet Allan, Vintage Publisher, Random House New Zealand
  • Publicity enquiries
    As above


Johnson, Stephanie (1961– ), is a versatile writer, moving from poetry to prose to plays for radio and the stage.

Born in Auckland, she has lived in that city as well as Sydney from 1985–90. After university studies in the early 1980s, she began her diverse output with The Bleeding Ballerina (1987), a powerful first collection of poems. This was followed by two collections of short stories, The Glass Whittler (1989) and All the Tenderness Left in the World (1993), and two novels, Crimes of Neglect (1992) and The Heart’s Wild Surf (1996). Her dramatic writing includes two stage plays, Accidental Phantasies (1985) and Folie à Deux (1995, with Stuart Hoar), and the radio dramas Castle In the Harbour (1987), Hard Hitting Documentary (1995), Sparrow’s Pearls (1996) and Trout (1996). She won the Bruce Mason Playwrights’ Award in 1986.

Johnson’s work is marked by a dry irony, a sharp-edged humour that focuses unerringly on the frailties and foolishness of her characters. Pomposity and self-delusion are favourite targets—the creative writing tutor in ‘A One-Page Statement’, the eager New Age clients in ‘The Deep Resounding’, the arrogant Werner in ‘Menschenfresser’, or the vicar’s wife in The Heart’s Wild Surf.

There is compassion, though, and sensitivity in the development of complex situations. The Heart’s Wild Surf, set in Fiji in 1918, is a subtle, delicately drawn, yet passionately intense portrayal of a family under immense strain. Johnson explores the McNabs’ personal and social crises within the wider contexts of late colonialism and the beginnings of new freedoms for women.

A purposeful sense of such larger concerns balances Johnson’s precision with the small details of situation, character and voice that give veracity and colour.



In 1985, Stephanie Johnson received the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award.

The Bleeding Ballerina
was published in 1987. The poems' topics range from love, to children, to politics.

Johnson was the recipient of the Meridian Energy 2000 Katherine Mansfield Menton 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.

Her science fiction / fantasy novel, The Whistler, was shortlisted for the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Award for fiction.

Johnson's next novel was Belief, published in 2000. In 1899, William McQuiggan leaves his young Australian wife and new-born twins in New Zealand and travels to America in search of God. The story follows him to Salt Lake City and Zion City and tells of how love and patience may triumph over violence and despair. Belief was shortlisted in the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

In 2001, Johnson was awarded the Auckland University Literary Fellowship.

The Shag Incident was published in 2002. The novel was awarded the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. The Shag Incident was described by the judging panel as a book 'clearly by a writer at the peak of her powers...she is fully deserving of the recognition of excellence that this award bestows'.

Moody Bitch (2003) is a selection of Stephanie Johnson's poems from the last 20 years.

Music From a Distant Room (2004) is a book about how memory can shape our lives, about story-telling, fate, forgiveness and the search for meaning in loss.

Drowned Sprat and Other Stories (Random House, 2005) is a collection of 23 short stories, written over 16 years.

John Tomb's Head (Random House, 2006) is a return to the biting satire of contemporary New Zealand for Johnson.

Both Music From a Distant Room and John Tomb's Head, were nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

Stephanie Johnson's novel Swimmers' Rope (Vintage NZ) was published in 2008, and was followed by The Open World (Vintage NZ) in 2012.

The Writing Class was published in 2013 by Random House NZ. Christopher Moore reviewed the novel in the Dominion Post Weekend, 'Above all, this is a book fuelled and inspired by the act of writing, as lives and minds engage in a highly choreographed human tango.'