In 2013 Deborah Shepard was awarded an autumn residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre to write a book on memoir. While at work on the project she found herself responding in her daily journal to the very beautiful environment - the Centre is housed in a 19th century heritage building, the former signalman’s cottage, and is tucked into the side of a volcanic cone Takarunga/Mt Victoria above the village of Devonport and the busy Waitemata harbour. She had not set out to write her book as a journal but very rapidly the ideal conditions of the residency - the support implicit in the award and the pleasure of having a room of one’s own in a special setting - had set her on a roll with a new approach. What to do?
She decided to ride the surge of creativity and see what happened. She would be receptive to her little colonial writing studio and the echoes in the room, to the fall of light and shadow on the walls and on her page as she wrote. She wondered whether the space which was a reminder of her childhood play house on a farm in Canterbury might trigger memories from her early life and was interested in the chance element. She wanted to respond with flashes of observational writing to the garden and the steep hillside, to the activity on the harbour and the changing weather, the fluttering sunlight and the rain that sweeps over the hill in a rush suddenly and then just as abruptly gallops away again and the seasonal changes. She wanted to write about the stories and ghosts that swirl around the historic centre. She also found herself reflecting on her biography projects and as she taught a series of masterclasses in memoir thinking in more depth about the writing life. She began offering ideas and inspiration to life writers.
Slowly a meditation on memoir was emerging. In the Centre library Deborah was delving into the New Zealand non-fiction collection and allowing the literary histories, the autobiographies and biographies, to fall into her journal entries. She was studying the portraits of New Zealand literary giants in the hallway and thinking about them too: Katherine Mansfield with her blunt cut fringe and dark, soulful eyes, Frank Sargeson, handsome in a white shirt with the collar open, sitting on his deck amongst and a part of his grape vine, his hands strikingly large and bony, Janet Frame laughing in her photo, James K Baxter, hair shaggy, old coat, a post bag slung over his shoulder on a Wellington hillside looking down at his photographer and smiling.
Above all she was responding to the benign and encouraging presence of author and historian Michael King whose portrait, based on a photograph by Marti Friedlander, taken in the 1970s and painted by Annette Isbey in 2010, hangs in the sitting room. It is a compelling portrait. The artist has painted him larger than life, like his personality, and arranged the composition like a Renaissance portrait with Michael placed centrally in the picture frame, monumental and solid before a view, through a window, of an idealised seascape, calm rollers washing towards the shoreline. On his right are the outlines of books on shelves and Michael is leaning forward welcoming the viewer in.
It was to his books and his work as an historian and biographer that Deborah was now drawn. Michael King published thirty books in his short lifetime, all of them scholarly and thoroughly researched but perhaps more importantly they were widely accessible. Working as a Pakeha researcher alongside the cultural Mãori Renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s, Michael King had helped to make Te Ao Mãori explicable, in the television series Tangata Whenua (1974) with Barry Barclay and in the biographies of two powerful Mãori leaders Te Puea (1977) and Whina (1983) and his magnum opus The Penguin History of New Zealand (2003) which has sold over 250,000 copies. Later when Mãori writers and thinkers issued a challenge to Pakeha writers and historians, saying ‘Stop. Let us do the storytelling and write our own histories,’ Michael contributed to the discourse by writing Being Pakeha: an encounter with New Zealand and the Mãori Renaissance (1985) and again in Being Pakeha Now: Reflections and recollections of a white native (1999.)
In Annette Isbey’s portrait some shelves are empty leaving the viewer wondering where his creative, penetrating mind might have reached next and also what he might have written if there had been time to write a full memoir, although as Deborah discovered there are passages of life writing in Tread Softly for you Tread on My Life, (2001), Hidden Places: A memoir in journalism (1992) At the edge of Memory: a Family Story (2002) and in Being Pakeha that allow glimpses of his life and personality. Hopefully sometime soon a plucky biographer will begin work on the biography. That person, she thinks, will need an impressive workout regime to maintain the body while reading through the millions of words he wrote and to ensure the interview programme mirrors Michael King’s exhaustive and thorough approach.
The Michael King Writers’ Centre – background and history
Michael King never lived at the centre but he is remembered here in the place that was established in 2005 in response to his sudden, tragic death a year earlier, aged only 59. Michael had often talked to his friend the author and publisher Dame Christine Cole-Catley about his dream of establishing a retreat for writers. Following his death, Christine organised a public memorial service in the Bruce Mason Theatre on the North Shore. Over 600 mourners attended the event and a resolution was formed to find a way to realise Michael’s dream in honour of his memory.
When a project begins with a good intention, things often fall into place in a serendipitous fashion. Christine was a phenomenally driven and enthusiastic woman, a catalyst and a driving force behind the action. She gathered her supporters – Wensley Willcox, Dinah Holman, Helen Woodhouse, journalist and broadcaster Gordon McLauchlan and in June 2004 they formed The Michael King Writers’ Studio Trust. Initially Christine had hoped to buy the adjoining section at Frank Sargeson’s home on Esmonde Road in Takapuna. She was his literary executor and heir and with the Sargeson Trust had ensured the preservation of his home as a museum and memorial. When that plan proved unworkable Christine enlisted more trust members: author Witi Ihimaera, publisher Geoff Walker, architect Peter Bartlett, lawyer James Mason and they continued fund raising and talking to the mayor of the North Shore City Council who passed them on to Lisa Tocker. Luckily for everyone involved, Lisa was a former librarian and entirely receptive to the project. The story goes that Lisa phoned Wensley Willcox and said ‘We could take a look at the old signalman’s cottage on Mt Victoria. You might be able to lease it from the council.’ Wensley, pouncing on the opportunity responded, ‘Just let me hop in my car and I will collect you.’ On the way she scooped up Christine as well.
The moment they saw the house they knew this was it. Wensley says it was a brilliant feeling. They stood on the verandah and looked out at the sweeping views down the hill, over the canopy of pohutukawa and the terracotta tile rooftops of Devonport, to the beautiful blue Waitemata harbour where yachts float by, big container ships slide in and busy commuter ferries ply the water. They wondered, ‘Can we do it?’ The signalman’s cottage was built in 1898 and the last signalman’s family left in 1968. After that time the house had been rented out to students and ‘bohemians’ and was in pretty bad shape. Could they make it habitable? Could they afford a restoration?
It took a year to secure financial backing from the Auckland Council and support from Creative New Zealand to fund the writing stipends. Even then the house wasn’t really habitable but nevertheless in 2005 two intrepid writers moved in. Apparently Geoff Chapple, working on his stage play Hatch, had to paint his room first. Diane Brown arrived next and completed the final draft of her novel Here Comes Another Vital Moment (Random, 2006.) The following year the Trust secured further funding for a sympathetic restoration under the direction of Salmond Reed Conservation Architects and interior designer John Hughes. The entire house was refurbished, the kitchen was increased in size, two ensuites were added to the bedrooms, one for the writer in residence and one to the front room creating another space for visiting authors.
Meanwhile a writer’s studio was being created in a separate building on the property. The outhouse had functioned, originally, as a laundry for the signalman’s family. It had a concrete floor and one small, multi-paned sash window. A wooden, carpeted floor was built over the concrete and a new tongue and groove sloping ceiling was installed. They painted it soft gold and the walls the colour of clotted cream. Two replica mullioned windows were added to the original allowing three views; south across the garden to the harbour, west over the slope to the Harbour Bridge and the Waitakeres on the horizon and north over a rock wall and grouping of hydrangeas to the forest on the steep hill above.
Since 2006 there have been a further 22 residencies covering all aspects of the writing spectrum. Plays have been written at the centre by Michelanne Forster and Whiti Hereaka who wrote a play about making rewana bread exploring the ways in which Mãori had embraced Pakeha bread-making in the colonial period. Many important biographies have been nurtured here - Dick Corballis worked on a biography of playwright Bruce Mason in 2008, Vincent O’Sullivan on painter Ralph Hotere in 2009, Rachel Barrowman on writer Maurice Gee in 2010, and Nelson Wattie on a biography of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell in 2011. There have been social histories – a book on leadership and New Zealand Prime Ministers and fiction - Eleanor Catton worked on her latest novel The Luminaries. Ian Wedde wrote an essay about the meaning of home when he was here, and songwriter - Don McGlashan worked on the lyrics for a new collection of songs, which he calls oral histories of New Zealand, in the summer of 2013.
The other critical factor in the success of the Michael King Writers’ Centre is the management of an ambitious programme. In 2006 the staff appointed new director Karren Beanland, a journalist by training but also a former press secretary to Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer and a communications manager for two major New Zealand companies. In seven years Karren and her assistant Tania Stewart, working collaboratively with the Trust and the various chairs Gordon McLauchlan, Bob Ross and publisher Sam Elworthy, have helped turn the centre into a world-class facility for writers and a buzzing literary centre for the entire community. There are now four annual residencies – summer and autumn residencies, a Mãori writer’s residency and in the second half of the year a six-month fellowship, in conjunction with the University of Auckland. Throughout the year the literary centre runs a busy calendar of author readings and events, book clubs, a series of master classes taught by leading New Zealand writers and a popular annual residential workshop series on topics like: history, biography, writing the Mãori world, writing science. In 2013 the theme is writing the arts. There are publications too. In collaboration with Peter Simpson and The Holloway Press a series entitled ‘The Signalman’s Cottage Series’ for the university fellows has been started and more recently the first young writers’ programme instigated by Karren Beanland has produced a literary journalSignals, featuring the work of the teenage writers. And the literary community outreach continues. In May the Centre has hosted the two-month stay of the inaugural Rewi Alley Writing Fellow, Ms Huo Yan, a 25 year-old Chinese short story writer and PhD student.
It really is an impressive achievement.
Journal excerpt - Writing Your Heart Out: A Life Writer’s Journal”
I have been hard at work all day adding to the hundreds of words that have been emerging since the residency began just under a month ago. It doesn’t feel like work in this studio, more like play. The ideas flow out like a stream of coloured silk scarves on the breeze – pink, blue, orange, green - and I reach for them and smooth them down into the pages of my journal.
Still the weather is hot, hot, hot and the light at 6.30 in the evening is Australian, pink and gold, making the dried grasses on the slope, through the mullioned window, a colour like clover honey. The tree canopies against the soft marshmallow sky shimmer and just now a piwakawaka has landed lightly on a branch and is balancing on a tilt, the same as the slope. Its silhouette has a fan for a tail.
I swear there is a kind of magic at work here at the Writers' Centre on the volcanic cone above the harbour. I find it in the quiet times when I attend to the moment, to the light dimming as the sun sinks and to the plants in the garden, red hot pokers and an upright Rosemary standing tall like people, their shadows falling on the walls of the colonial cottage…
Again I feel grateful for this opportunity and for this moment.
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)