by SIMON NATHAN
MICHAEL KING is remembered for his writing of New Zealand history as well as for his generous support of other writers. After his tragic death in 2004, a group of friends and associates set up the Michael King Writers’ Centre. During Labour weekend 2009 the Centre organised a three-day residential workshop at Vaughan Park Retreat Centre on the North Shore with the theme, Shifting Sands: changing perceptions in history and biography. I was delighted to be one of twenty writers selected to attend. All of us had some writing experience, and were involved in different aspects of researching and writing New Zealand history and biography.
The workshop was arranged as a series of talks and discussions with established writers, who outlined their experiences in completing and publishing a variety of books. It was an experiment that generally worked well. A glance at the programme shows the high calibre of the speakers, many of whom acknowledged the impact that Michael King had on their work.
Biographical writing was a major strand of the workshop. This includes not just conventional biographies, but also memoirs and collective oral histories. Speakers outlined a variety of projects: Brian Boyd (Vladimir Nabokov), Janet Hunt (Hone Tuwhare), Paul Diamond (Makeriti), Christine Cole Catley (Beatrice Tinsley), Ian Sharp (James Heaphy) and Sandra Coney (Piha forestry workers). Each project had its own difficulties, both in research and writing, but together the speakers gave a fascinating insight into the issues of understanding and documenting the lives of other people. There were many references to Michael King’s Tread softly, for you tread on my life, a seminal account of the problems that beset all biographers, especially his concept of compassionate truth.
Maori history and biography is an essential part of New Zealand writing. In the opening session Anne Salmond talked about her experiences as a young researcher, working closely with Eruera and Amiria Stirling, and leading to the production of three books based on their life and experiences. Monty Soutar followed, with an account of his work on the history of C company of the Maori battalion, including video clips of selected interviews. Both talks dealt with specifically Maori issues, particularly related to oral history, but they also illustrated some of the basic issues of biography – who owns the story? – and how should it be told?
Regional history was another major strand of the workshop. Gavin McLean gave a useful overview (with many references to Oamaru). Paul Monin discussed some of the issues from his own experience of conflicting viewpoints on Waiheke Island and the Hauraki district.
Almost everyone at the workshop shared concerns about getting published, and the practical issues of dealing with a publisher. The publishing panel of Sam Elworthy, Geoff Walker and Bridget Williams led on to an animated discussion which probably could have continued all morning. In retrospect, it was a pity that there was little discussion of non-traditional publishing. In looking through the collection of books published by participants, I realised that perhaps half were published by organisations such as local councils, historical societies or by the authors themselves.
At any meeting there are always unexpected joys. Deborah Challinor gave a fascinating after-dinner talk on writing in different genres, contrasting the styles used to write history and historical fiction, and illustrated with examples from her own work. I went to bed fired up with enthusiasm to start on my first historical novel. Reality sank in overnight, when I realised that I hadn’t a clue about character development or how to write dialogue. But I did absorb her message about looking at the devices used by fiction writers to keep the reader’s attention.
For me the weekend was a battery-charging weekend as well as a chance to discuss research issues with some like-minded people. A big thank you to the members of the Michael King Writers’ Centre Trust who had clearly put a lot of time and effort into organising a stimulating programme. I hope that it will lead on to further workshops, covering different aspects of writing.
SIMON NATHAN is a Wellington-based geologist and writer. Recent work includes editing and contributing to The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, 2008) as well as web articles, blog pieces and book reviews.