Gail Jones wins Prime Minister’s Literary Award

Three of Australia's leading female writers have won overdue recognition in this year's Prime Minister's Literary Awards.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize four times, Gail Jones took out the national fiction prize for her seventh book, The Death of Noah Glass, a story of grief, art, and the Mafia.

Gail Jones wins fiction category for The Death of Noah GlassCredit:Janie Barrett

Poet and academic Judith Beveridge was acknowledged for Sun Music: New and Selected Poems, featuring a selection of poems from four earlier volumes and including 33 new poems.

Jennifer Rowe, who publishes children's fiction under the name Emily Rodda, won for her children's fantasy book His Name Was Walter in the same year she was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia for services to Literature.

The Death of Noah Glass. By Gail Jones.

The awards, presented for a second year by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison at Parliament House are worth $80,000 to the winner of each of the six categories – children's literature, young adult literature, fiction, poetry, non-fiction, Australian history – and $5000 to the shortlisted authors.

Jones practices detachment from the world of prizes. "To work otherwise would be paralysing," she said. "When I write it is for the one solitary reader out there for whom my words may meaningfully resonate. So my sense of readership is a very modest one, and rather enclosed, even private. And I certainly don’t write with an eye to the prize culture."

Jones's book was mostly written in Palermo, in a small Airbnb flat with "dodgy wi-fi which perhaps helped speed the writing". She had been teaching a postgraduate course on the concept of time when she took the break in Sicily.

"I was captivated by its antiquity, oddity and narrative appeal," she said from Gatwick Airport, on her way to Ireland to fact check her next novel.

"The story of the theft of Caravaggio’s nativity by the Mafia, from St Lawrence in Palermo, held a deep attraction to me and also contributed to the ideas in the novel – how the world of violence and money intersects with that of faith, popular culture and art history. I think grief shapes all my work; it’s one of the big issues we all, regardless of age, class, and race."

Author Emily Rodda.

In other awards, Half the Perfect World, by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell, won the non-fiction category. It tells of the year's Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston spent on the Greek Island of Hydra.

For Australian history, Meredith Lake's account of the defining but contested role the Bible has played in Australian life, The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, was recognised. Michael Gerard Bauer won the children's category for The Things That Will Not Stand.

Arts minister Paul Fletcher said literature was vital in a civilised society.

"There is something very special about a book as the fruit of sustained and disciplined artistic and intellectual effort," he said.

"With these awards, the Prime Minister on behalf of the nation is recognising outstanding works by Australian authors – as well as acknowledging the importance of literature in the life of our nation, and expressing the Government's gratitude to every author.”

First introduced by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007, in 2014, then prime minister, Tony Abbott, sparked controversy after stepping in to add Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North as a winner. Judges had nominated Steven Carroll for A World of Other People.

While the awards give the Prime Minister final discretion, this year there were no so-called "captain's picks".

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